With the advent of social media and a generally higher level of social acceptance of muscularity, there is a growing number of first-time competitors. As a result, there are also more people adding “prep coach” to their business card (and Facebook page, and Instagram profile). But unfortunately, many of those first-time competitors will end up as only-time competitors, because they neglect to take the right precautions before beginning their prep.

Give yourself enough time. 

It’s a pretty simple rule, actually. You just need time. At some point, it became the standard that contest prep (and the subsequent contest prep packages sold by a thousand new Instagram prep coaches) must be either 12 or 16 weeks. Maybe the occasional renegade coach will sell a 20-week package for slow responders.

But contrary to what your Instagram feed tells you, many first-timers are going to need much longer than a few months to get stage-ready and look like they should be there.

This is especially true if you’ve never been lean before. And I’m not talking, “If I find the right lighting I can see my six-pack" lean; I mean, “Your grandmother pelts you with sandwiches because you look like you’re dying” lean. Not everybody gets lean like that just to compete — maybe you’ve done a photo shoot or a challenge at your gym, or just did it to see if you could, but if you’ve already been there then you already know more about yourself than most first-timers will.

RELATED: 5 Things to Know for Your First Show

But especially if you’ve never gotten into that type of shape before, give yourself more time than you think you need. If you think (or your coach does, if you have one) that you need 12 weeks, give yourself 20. If you think you need 20, give yourself 40. Have the cushion of extra time. It’s much easier to coast into the last few weeks feeling like you could step on stage right then, than it is to try shopping Craigslist for a DeLorean at four weeks out.

Cutting things too close usually leads to some extreme, and potentially dangerous, measures (drug use, extremely low calories, hours and hours of training and cardio every day), all of which result in you putting less than your best possible package onstage.

How much time is enough?

A reasonable timetable for a first-time competitor to get into contest shape is to allow yourself around one week of prep per pound of bodyweight you need to lose. The first few pounds will usually come pretty easily, but the final bits of body fat do not come off without a fight.

I tend to have a pretty generous metabolism and don’t gain a lot of body fat, but I allow around 16-18 weeks to drop anywhere from 15-20 pounds of bodyweight. I have to be particularly cautious because it’s easy for me to drop muscle while dieting if things have to get too extreme.

Athletic man and woman

If you have to lose more than, say 30 pounds for your first show, you may want to consider just trying to get that number down a bit more before committing to a particular contest. For females, I might say that number should be closer to 20 pounds or less.

Do it without fancy tricks.

Save the complicated prep protocols for after you’ve done it once the old fashioned way. Diet, training, cardio, and posing (and yes, you should be posing for your entire prep, and well before it even starts) should make up 99% of the variables in your prep. Some simple supplements can work, but nothing that’s intended to be the magic bullet.

And don’t introduce things you haven’t used before, four weeks out from your show when you have no idea how your body is going to respond to it. If you aren’t looking great four weeks out and you’re getting worried about whether you’ll be stage-ready in time, rolling the dice and bombing Google, Facebook, and every bodybuilding forum you can find with questions about what special tricks there are is not going to end well. Experimenting is for the off-season or, at the very least, with plenty of time to spare, not at the last minute.

Stay with the basics the first time around, so you (and/or your coach) can understand how your body is going to respond to the big variables, and when it would make sense to introduce some of the “last two-percent” tools that advanced competitors might use. There’s no replacement for dieting and training hard for long enough. To paraphrase Scott Abel, “Fat loss can be coaxed, but it can’t be forced.”

MORE: How Bodybuilding Changed My Life

Peak week, in particular, tends to be the place where people go overboard on what they manipulate: water and salt manipulation, extreme depletion and reloading protocols, and anything from high doses of herbal diuretics to Lasix and high doses of laxatives. They all have a risk of jeopardizing your look, as well as your health.

Know when to back out.

There will be times when, despite the best plans, you aren’t going to be ready in time. Even if you followed everything to the letter, it just might not happen. And there is nothing more disheartening for a first-time competitor than one of the following results:

  1. You step onstage out of shape, with too much body fat, and just look like somebody who didn’t prep correctly. You end up with pictures that you don’t even want to show anybody because it’s obvious you stand out in a bad way. This is not how a first show should go.
  2. You pull out so many stops at the end (tons of extra cardio, training, extreme dieting, fat burners, drugs, whatever you can) that you end up like a shredded string bean. You lose so much muscle that you still end up placing low, and suffering in a way that doesn’t improve your outcome.

A good coach should be willing to be honest with you up front if you shouldn’t compete, whether it’s at the beginning of your prep or at the end. And you should be willing to walk away and try again once you (and your coach) figure out what wasn’t working. If you don’t have a coach, there is a lot of value in making friends with somebody who is in a position to give you some honest feedback: a training partner, another local competitor, or even a competitor or coach that you’re connected to on social media. There are a lot of coaches and competitors you can find online who received similar help when they first started and would be more than happy to pay it forward.

show ready

Here are some of the things that could be a sign you need to re-evaluate your competitive plans:

Completely Stagnant Progress for Long Periods of Time

Going two to three weeks at a time with no visible changes, especially once you get inside the 10-12 week mark, is an early sign of trouble. It’s not a lost cause at this point, but it should at least be on your radar.

Having to Suffer Too Early

The worst part of a contest prep is usually inside the three to four weeks out mark, and this is where most people will start bringing in extra fat burners, long sessions of cardio (60 minutes every morning, for example), and low-calorie diet approaches, including low fat/low carb diets. If you have to use those things when you’re still three months out, it is going to be a very difficult road ahead.

Not Wanting to Show off Your Progress

I’ve seen some posts on social media from some competitors over the last few months who are asking for help with their prep, and inevitably somebody will ask for them to post pictures. The response is usually something like, “I would but I don’t have any pictures handy.” I know there are some exceptions, but most competitors (including myself) could max out their phone’s hard drive with all of the pictures they’ve taken of themselves as they get deeper and deeper into their prep and they start to look stage ready. I don’t know that I ever met a mirror that my abs didn’t like once I got inside the six-week mark. If you’re embarrassed to show people who want to help you how you look, it should be a big red flag.

A Loss of Enthusiasm for Your Show

I know some may disagree with me on this one, but especially for a first-time competitor, you should be excited (and most likely a little nervous) to step on stage. It’s too early for it to feel like a job because it isn’t. You’ll have highs and lows, and the preparation isn’t going to be a breeze (the last two to four weeks are likely going to be especially challenging), but you also shouldn’t regret your decision for weeks on end.

One Final Note: If you have a coach, listen to them.

One of the more frustrating aspects of coaching is finding out that you have a client who has been taking advice from somebody else (another coach, an internet forum, Google, their girlfriend’s really swole uncle) and not following your plan. There are lots of successful methods to prep somebody for a show, but you can’t mix and match methods and expect to get the same result. I love skirt steak. I love salted caramel ice cream. I love guacamole. But if I mix them all together, the result is something that looks like total shit. Prep methods work the same way.

If you don’t trust your coach enough to listen solely to them, and you have reservations about taking their advice, quit. Even if you already paid for it. Save you and them the time and don’t be half-in, half-out, only to blame them in the end when you didn’t look the way you expected.