Whether you are a competitor or want to become one, you will be forced to face your demons. We all have them—veteran competitors and newbies alike. Awareness is the first step, and the second step is learning how to deal with them.
If you have never prepped, don’t try to pretend that you know what’s coming. Getting lean for the beach or a vacation, no matter how hardcore you think you are, is tropospheric shit. I'm talking about mesospheric shit, the kind of conditioning that makes people point with one hand and cover their mouths with the other. It should be noted that very few will achieve this type of condition.
Even if you have done several shows, if you have yet to achieve truly insane condition, you still do not understand the depths of the psyche that have to be tapped to get there. People talk about how shredded they were for a show, but you and I both know that too many people think they were shredded and they were not. I could write five pages about how delusional some people can be when they see someone else looking back at them in the mirror. However, I need to stay on point, and I will save the topic of delusion for another article.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, the limiting factor to insane conditioning is the psyche. The other one percent is hereditary; some people just cannot get inside-out shredded no matter what they do. If you come up short, don’t lie to yourself; the odds are heavily in favor of the limiting factor being your psyche. After doing contest prep for thousands of clients over the last twenty years (real years, not rounding up ten years like a lot of online prep guys), here are some of the more common demons that competitors face:
One of the first things you will hear someone say, either before, during, or after having a cheat meal, is they were “going flat.” Though you should never do a cheat meal, refeed, or a Skipload when you aren’t depleted of glycogen, you also need to understand that being flat is a prerequisite for getting absurdly conditioned.
The body will burn fat as a fuel source more efficiently when glycogen stores are depleted. When glycogen stores deplete, your muscles will not be as full, hence the term “flat.” There is a huge difference between beginning to go flat, training and dealing with being flat as hell, and refueling with carbs and calories when necessary and optimal. The timing is different for everyone, but most people will be convinced that they need carbs and calories long before they actually need them.
How do you kill this demon?
Look at the area on your body where you carry the most body fat and remind yourself that you have plenty of stored energy to keep you from dying. Train your brain to understand that being hungry is the means to an end.
Most understand that losing strength is also an expectation at some point during prep. It is not likely (though not impossible) to maintain strength levels 100 percent during a prep phase if your ultimate goal is to be the most conditioned person in the show. Even if you COULD hold all of your strength, it is dangerous to do so as it increases your vulnerability for injury. To be very clear, though, I am not advocating that anyone train light while prepping. I am saying that at some point, strength will begin to fall, and this should be expected and anticipated.
Strength can be a micro-gauge to measure progress, but it is not the last word when there are so many other variables at play during a prep phase. It should be understood that if you are increasing strength within bodybuilding rep ranges, you are almost certainly achieving hypertrophy. If you are losing strength, the opposite COULD be true but with other factors at play, namely fatigue due to higher caloric output and lower caloric input. The loss of strength can be misleading. A considerable loss of strength could certainly be indicative of over-dieting. At the same time, losing a rep or two here or there over weeks of dieting, or losing ten to twenty pounds on your bench, is not something to stress over.
How do you kill this demon?
Watch your strength climb almost immediately after a cheat meal, refeed, or Skipload. This should tell you, matter-of-factly, that strength loss is only temporary. It will return quickly when calories are increased. Again, this is a means to an end.
Most people will struggle to notice this demon but rest assured, the people around you will point it out at some point during your prep. It is easy to dismiss what someone tells you. If they support you and they love you, they likely are telling you the truth; listen to them.
Being in a shitty mood is not something that people should have to deal with simply because you feel it is “part of the game.” You don't get a free pass to be a dick because your dream is to stand on stage in your underwear, covered with oil, flexing your machismo. Even if you don't care about your spouse/partner or your kids and how they feel when you are around, you still have a boss and co-workers that you have to deal with and a job you don't want to lose.
Most people blame gear, but there are many other factors. Gear is undoubtedly one of those factors, but there is also dieting/hunger, feeling run down as the show gets closer, having resentment that the people around you “just don’t understand” because you feel superior to them. I have trained for thirty-six years, and I have competed for twenty-five of those years. There is nothing more off-putting to me than to witness a bodybuilder act as if what he (or we) do is somehow superior to a person who sits on their couch and drinks a couple of beers after work while eating Cheetos. We do what we do because we claim that we are passionate about it. Not everyone has our passion, and that doesn't make them less of a person. It just makes us look arrogant.
How do you kill this demon?
Remind yourself that you are doing what you do because you love it, and nobody is making you do it. If you don't enjoy the process, look inward. Don’t project your issues onto other people by trying to make yourself feel superior.
Fear of Failure
Most people don't truly understand that this demon exists within them. Typically, the more seasoned competitor will not deal with this demon often. They tend to have a very good idea of where they will stack up against the field, and they know what to expect from their efforts. Still, veterans deal with this more than you might think when they are stepping to the next level, or if they have a lot of people putting them under the microscope. On social media, everyone’s a critic. There can be intense pressure on veteran competitors to nail it at every contest they enter.
The fear of failing is usually more of an issue for newer competitors. They don't know what to expect, and they don't know how they will stack up against the competition. It doesn't matter how good someone is, either. I have seen insane physiques within days of blowing everyone away, and they are not sure that they even belong on stage.
When you do something as all-consuming as a prep—money, time, sacrifices, dieting, etc.—it is natural to ask yourself whether it is all worth it. I have always said that the vast majority of us who compete are masochistic; we almost thrive on the pain and torture of seeing how much we can tolerate before reaching our breaking point.
How do you kill this demon?
There are two ways:
- Accept that the worst that can happen is that you don’t win. If this is a failure for you, understand that as cliche’ as it sounds, failure is far more of a motivator than success.
- Plain and simple, work your ass off. Do your homework and do it 100 percent; leave no stone unturned. Very few people who pour themselves into something will end up genuinely failing. You will feel much more comfortable on stage if you did everything you could possibly do to prepare for the show. If you do something half-assed, you SHOULD fear failure.
I left the most obvious demon for last.
Hunger can be tricky, but it is something that can become easily understood. At its core, hunger is telling you that your body needs food for energy. However, when it comes to stripping as much body fat as possible while retaining muscle, hunger can be very misleading. Hunger is also a relative term that has different levels or different degrees. You might find yourself hungry if you miss a meal or two. On the other end of the spectrum, there is hunger at a level that distracts you from your life, your relationships, your personality, and it can consume you. These are all tolerable forms of hunger, though. The hunger that will kill you is the type that makes you feel like you are standing in the middle of a desert, waiting for a plane to drop a bag of rice, while flies land on your eyes. Until you find yourself in that position, trust me, your problem is first-world, and you are merely craving Dairy Queen or a forty-dollar burger with foie gras.
Hunger can typically cause all of the other demons listed above, as well. Hunger is connected to almost every aspect of the psychology of prepping. It can make you irritable, go flat, lose strength, feel small, make you feel like you aren't good enough, help to cause you to be a dick to the people closest to you, road rage (reread it, I said "road" you F-ing meathead), etc. It can make you look at your adorable kids and hate them because they are eating a Happy Meal.
How do you kill this demon?
You don't. You learn to accept it, and over time you will come to understand that it isn't going to eat up muscle tissue like Pac Man eats dots. It is also a necessary evil if your goal is to get to a level of conditioning where the people in the audience point at you while nudging their bro, saying, "DAYUM, look at this motherfucker,” when you walk on stage.
Hunger isn't going to be killed. Compartmentalize it. Approach hunger on a meal-by-meal basis, instead of "I don't get a cheat meal for another two weeks." You will only be hungry for the next couple of hours until you eat again. Yes, that next meal may not keep you satiated long, but it will satiate, and it will get you to your next meal, then another meal, and another, another day, and another week or month. If this sounds like something that you can’t do, don’t think for one second that you will achieve the level of conditioning that makes you stand out from everyone else in the lineup.
No matter how long you will compete or have competed, we all deal with demons. Most of us have insecurities whether we admit it or not, or we would be fine sitting on a couch after work, drinking Mountain Dew or PBR, eating Doritos. What we do is not normal; standing on stage looking like you have no skin is not normal. Getting into insane condition is even less normal and takes a level of commitment that is not always attainable for most people. However, think about this for a minute: If you were not born with the genetic structure to whip everyone's ass, or you aren't big enough and balanced enough to whip everyone's ass on stage, you can always outwork the vast majority even if you don't have a physical predisposition for great genetics. In the absence of physical superiority, you can psychologically outwork everyone on stage. Then, they will be pointing at you whether you win or not. Just Sayin’.
Photo credit: Kyle Wurzel Creative