5 Key Lessons From Contest Prep

TAGS: Alex Mullan, lean body, show prep, dieting, cardio, bodybuilding, fat loss, strength training

I recently wrapped up my competitive bodybuilding “rookie season.” Over the course of the past five months, I dieted down for a local show where I placed first in lightweight bodybuilding and second in classic physique. My placings at that show secured my qualification for the Provincial show three weeks later. Naturally, I chose to carry my prep onward and compete in the Provincial show as well. There, I placed third in lightweight bodybuilding, and second again in classic physique. In the process, I secured qualification for Nationals in both classes.

While I’ve decided to sit out this year’s Nationals—since I can carry my qualification over until next year—in favor of bringing some life back to my body and mind, I learned many an important lesson during this marathon of a prep that I believe brings value to lifters of any experience, goal, or background.

Competing is all but reserved for a special breed of lifter, but the lessons learned from going through contest prep transcend training goal and experience.

Here are five key lessons I learned from stepping on stage:

1. Getting truly lean, regardless of stepping on stage or not, is tougher than many think (myself included).

I’m not talking about the actual science of creating fat loss, as that’s really quite simple. In plain English, you gradually reduce calories, assess progress and biofeedback, and adjust calories or activity to keep things going. Things get a little more complex the closer you get to the stage, but the core of it remains the same.

I’m talking about the mental and physical effort you must put forth to get truly lean.


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Brain fog, permanently inhibited energy levels, muscle soreness, loss of mental acuity, legs that feel as if they weigh 1000 pounds — these “side effects” are all too real. I will admit, while I had some expectations of what was going to happen as the weeks went on, there’s little I could have done to prepare for these effects.

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It may not be a ravenous appetite, or insatiable craving for cake that plagues you. But rather the side effects of chasing unsustainably low levels of body fat that challenge you most.

2. If you don’t learn to manage your expectations in terms of training, energy and productivity, you’re in for a rude awakening.

Learning to manage your expectations is something I’ve always preached, and tried my best to practice on a daily basis. If you consistently set your bar so high that you never quite reach it, eventually it becomes demoralizing and leaves you downtrodden and defeated.

I quickly learned that this becomes all the more important during contest prep.

For example: Early on in prep, my plan for each day would usually consist of a couple hours of writing, a couple hours spent on client programs and emails, training, cardio, eating, a few hours on business development, and ensuring I spent some time with my girlfriend.

By prep’s end, I was only pushing through my training and cardio, taking care of clients and trying to get in 60 minutes or so of writing.

Had I not come to manage my expectations of what I’d be capable of as the weeks went by, I would have been infuriated at myself with the lack of productivity. Learning to accept that prep—and prep alone—was the focus was a major key in keeping momentum going, and coming to love the process.

3. A little dose of stubbornness goes a long way in keeping you on track.

I can distinctly recall a day during the three weeks between shows where I realized that it was no longer about being obscenely disciplined, strikingly dedicated, or blinded by a determination to qualify for Nationals, although that was certainly a factor. It came down to pure stubbornness. Which, thankfully, I have plenty of.

Stubbornness came through on the days were I was tempted to have “just a few extra grams of carbs,” or bail on one of my two cardio sessions. I began framing things as “I’d come so far already, why the hell would I falter now?”

And that innate, unrelenting stubbornness played a key role in carrying me through the final weeks. While I don’t believe stubbornness is necessary to a successful contest prep, man, does it ever help.

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4. When all is said and done, it’s tough to shake the feeling that you could have done more.

More reps, more weight, more intensity, tighter food intake. Human nature all but dictates that we be dissatisfied with our efforts, regardless of how well we do. At the end of the day, your body can only give so much in a depleted state. In hindsight, it’s easy to look back and think that you could have pushed harder. Unless you were blatantly not in shape come stage day, I doubt there’s more you could have done. The beauty of this sport lies in that if you’re consistent over the years, each time you step on stage you’ll be presenting a better physique than the time before.

5. If you can’t learn to love the process, you’re either going to step on stage and never do it again or back out when you’re just weeks away.

There’s a strong amount of mental “fuckery” that comes from spending five months training, hours of cardio, dieting hard and pushing your body’s limits for what amounts to be five minutes under the spotlight. In essence, stepping on stage is a short and sweet culmination of months of unseen, unrewarded effort. As harsh as that may sound, the enjoyment for this unique, crazy sport comes from the process of getting to stage day.

Five months. Five keys. Five lessons.

I fell in love with the process time and time again. While I learned countless lessons this season, these are the five that stand out as the most impactful, and important when it comes to long-term success in the bodybuilding world.

If you’ve ever had an inkling of desire to compete, I urge you to do so. But only do so for the right reasons and with the right mindset.


Alex is a self-proclaimed anti-meathead and part-time nerd. When he's not working towards Greek God status in the gym or learning how to better serve his clients, he can be found exploring how to further crush life, perfect his flair in the kitchen, or pulling the perfect shot of espresso. You can learn what he's all about at MASSthetics

Photos courtesy of Jeffrey Sygo at www.symiphotography.com

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