How and Why I Dieted to 7-Percent Body Fat: Show Day

TAGS: bodybuilding competition, competition preparation, bodybuilding, fat loss, diet, muscle, athlete, powerlifting, training, Nutrition

In part one and part two of this article series, I outlined the process of getting into contest shape for my first natural bodybuilding show. It would be useful to read those installments before this one if you haven’t done so already. In this third and final installment, I'll document the show itself, how I fared and my thoughts on the peculiar spectacle that is bodybuilding.

Final Preparations

The week of the show was now suddenly upon me, and it was time to closely consider my approach for fine tuning my physique to maximize my strengths and minimize my weaknesses. This also brought about the most bizarre and comical time of the prep:

  • Bought ‘Dream Tan’ and latex gloves—tanner for the day of the show and gloves to apply it
  • Got a spray tan—three coats for priming the skin to reflect symmetry, conditioning and mass
  • Bought bodybuilding trunks
  • Had to shave the entire body because the entire body needs to be bare for competition (weird)
  • Burned some CDs—my posing music (around 90 seconds) had to be on CD; I used the following track from Hans Zimmer (starting at three minutes and then onward for 90 seconds)

After all that, I was questioning what I was getting myself into. Anyway, it was now on to the carb loading and drying out procedure, or water and sodium loading followed by "halting."

This was a complex process for me. As usual, reading around these subjects presented much confusion as I tried to work out an optimal approach. Because I was coming in fast each day of the final week (i.e. still losing fat daily and noticing visible changes in my body), I didn’t do a ‘true’ carb load. I continually woke up to changes such as increased vascularity (highly visible and prominent veins), more striations (when the subcutaneous fat is so thin you can see the lines or ‘striations’ in the muscle) and marked definition.

I was also starting to get some ‘cross-feathering’ in my quads (which can be seen in figure 1) and definite distinctions in my glutes, too (one of the last muscles to ‘come in’). This is the reason why when cutting body fat, it is so critical to not just pay attention to scale weight but also to how you're looking both in-person and in the mirror.

Part 3 - Figure 1

Figure 1: Pre-show posing. Hitting a ‘vacuum’ pose (that’s me on the left).

Moreover, it was pertinent that I lost as much fat as possible. Even though I was a first timer, I wanted to come in as diced as I could, and I thought that this may serve to rectify my lack of muscle mass when show day came around. The general rule of thumb is that if you aren't the leanest you can possibly be by around Thursday or Friday of show week, carbing up is just spittin’ in the wind.

With all that taken into account, I consulted with my friend Chris and we decided to stick to the diet outlined previously until the morning of the show when I would break two and a half weeks of ketosis and have some carbs to fill up the muscle with glycogen. In theory...

The sodium that I was consuming was raised the week of the show to permit me to hold more water in preparation for water loading/halting and consequent drying out the day before the show:

  • Saturday, 9:00 a.m. (before the show the next day): I started the unpleasant protocol of loading up on water. Believe me, when you're starving for food and on 900 calories, the last thing you want to do is be full of water! Ugh.
  • Saturday, 11:00 a.m.: I cut out all extra salt completely and ate only foods very low in sodium.
  • Saturday, 4:00 p.m.: I continued drinking copious amounts of water until 4:00 p.m. that day when I abruptly ceased my water intake. I wasn’t to have any water until the next day after pre-judging.
  • I also increased my caffeine and vitamin C intake to act as diuretics.

This protocol is very similar to the one that many athletes will use to make weight for weight-class sports such as boxing or powerlifting, and an exact approach for that day was forwarded over to me by Chris, so I have him to thank on how it set me up nicely. I woke up in the morning looking the leanest I had ever looked and I was dry, too (a body weight of 62.3 kg).

It was then time to start consuming carbs conservatively on the morning of the show, a couple of rice cakes every hour or so and a cookie or two with some dark chocolate shortly before stepping on stage.

Chris and I both knew that I would probably look pretty damn ‘flat’ (where your muscles will look less dense or smaller because of a lack of glycogen in the muscle) regardless of my carb intake that day. But this was the gamble I was willing to take rather than spill over on carbs to look ‘full’ after being in ketosis for as long as I had. Ideally, for a show, you want to look dry and full.

Show Day

I entered in the first-timers category (any body weight) in the IBFA Silver City Classic held in Aberdeen, Scotland. It was a local show and provided an ideal opportunity for me to compete in my first show without having to travel hundreds of miles. Ideally, being a natural powerlifter/bodybuilder, I would have liked to compete in the British Natural Bodybuilding Federation (BNBF) or the United Kingdom Drug-Free Bodybuilding Association (UKDFBA). However, neither had any shows until 2015, so I opted for this show, which was governed by the International Bodybuilding and Fitness Association (IBFA) and was untested.

Part 3 - Figure 2

Figure 2: The ‘Silver City Classic’ 2014, Aberdeen, Scotland.

There were four competitors in my category, and once my tan was applied, I watched some of the earlier stages and ‘pumped up’ only 5–10 minutes before I was set to step onstage. This allowed me not to overexert the specific muscles and flood them with blood, which could serve to reduce my definition. This was just some band rows, curls, pull-aparts and push-ups with some body weight calf raises and squats thrown in. In bodybuilding, judging is generally fourfold:

  • Mass/muscularity: This is the amount of well-developed, shapely muscle that you carry on your frame. Personally, because I had never trained for muscular size and always focused on strength rep ranges as a powerlifter (with no desire to move up a weight class), this was certainly where I would have been marked down in regards to others. This lack of mass was evident at the low weight that I came in at (62.3 kg). I also had what I like to call certain ‘powerlifter weaknesses’ (things I had never been required to train very frequently) like calves and biceps.
  • Symmetry: This refers to the balance you have on your frame in regards to the left- and right-hand sides of your body and your upper and lower body (i.e. are your legs too big in proportion to your upper body or is your silhouette not pleasing enough?). Personally, I'm no bodybuilding judge, of course, but I feel that my symmetry and shape in this show wasn’t too bad from side to side and top to bottom. I guess I could have had a much better ‘V’ taper though.
  • Conditioning/definition: This is a thin skin appearance stripped of fat that shows muscle detail such as striations or fine lines. Judges must be able to see clear distinctions between the muscle groups. This is where I knew that I may fare better than others because even though I didn’t compete as diced as many top naturals, I was still defined with good conditioning. I had made this the focus from the start because of my lack of mass and muscularity.
  • Posing/presentation: This is how you present yourself onstage. Are you confident in showing off your physique? This was something that I may have been marked down for as well. Although not too bad, my posing and showmanship could have been sharper and more confident. Most importantly, I could have smiled more.

Part 3 - Figure 3

Figure 3: Morning of the show shots!

Results and Reflection

I walked on stage, and the blinding lights hit my face. There was strangely nothing going through my head at all. I absorbed only the poses that the MC was calling out and some of the muted shouts from friends who had come to watch.

It was then time for the individual posing round in which you take the stage by yourself. I was presumably evidently nervous as I performed Frank Zane-influenced poses for 60–90 seconds. Walking off stage, I could then feel the surging adrenaline that I had carried onstage. Waiting for the final placing was tense, but in the end, I ended up scooping second place with a qualification for the British finals!

What a peculiar spectacle a bodybuilding show is. As my friend Robbie said best, "Any sport that involves removing body hair, wearing fake tanner and posing in a very small pair of pants is not to be taken too seriously.”

He is right, particularly for someone who does not body build as his chief pursuit. There isn't any doubt that it was a very different experience from powerlifting, but in retrospect, it was a very fulfilling experience, particularly the hard dieting and waking up witnessing a metamorphosis of my body occurring day after day. You obviously can't control external factors such as the shape your competitors attain in bodybuilding, but I just wanted to look the best that I could. I finished what I started. That’s probably what meant the most to me from this experience.

Part 3 - Figure 4

Figure 4: A ‘most muscular’ pose lacking muscle!

Ultimately, I still hold that aesthetics aren't a leading passion of mine, but I just can't deny respect to the people who do it and what they have to endure to look as good as they do. You have to love it. Perhaps more realistically, after five and a half years of training and being natural, I know that my potential muscle gain will be slow and insignificant from now on. Therefore, for me, there’s no real ‘elite’ future in bodybuilding even if I did want it.

In conclusion, with such an about face, knowing that I could tolerate such discipline and self-control in a very different way from what I’m used to in powerlifting is a very fruitful and edifying reflection. I’m genuinely not sure what was worse though—the dieting or the Domino's pizza coma that started the night of the show and from which I suffered for many days following. If anyone is thinking of doing a show, take satisfaction in the fact that it won’t be very hard to be bigger than me. Good luck!

From powerlifter to bodybuilder and back again!

Michael Ferguson is a national and international powerlifter and multiple national record holder in the 74-kg class, competing for Scotland and Great Britain in the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF). He competed at the IPF World Classic 2014, achieving eighth place while nursing a bad hip injury. He is the founder of Ambition Athletics (www.ambition-athletics.com) and is currently working toward his masters degree in sport and exercise science at Glasgow University in Scotland. Michael can be contacted on Facebook at Ambition Athletics (https://www.facebook.com/ambitionathleticsltd) or by email at info@ambitionathleticsltd.com.

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