The lack of large scale long-term studies on competitive natural bodybuilders.
Over 200 amateur natural bodybuilding contests occurred in the United States in 2013 and that number is expected to increase in the following years. Getting ready for these contests is no easy feat and standard protocol involves decreasing one’s caloric intake while at the same time increasing strength and cardiovascular training. This is done to reduce body fat while simultaneously holding on to as much lean body mass as possible. To aid in this process, competitors can follow nutrition and supplementation strategies to further enhance their appearance. Despite the popularity of some of these strategies, they are not all scientifically proven to work and can even be dangerous.
This summary will be divided in to 3 parts. The first covering the nutritional findings of the review, the second covering the supplementation findings, and the third covering the psychosocial issues of the competing bodybuilder along with how to prepare for peak week.
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Part 1) Nutrition
In order to come in as lean as possible for a contest, competitive bodybuilders traditionally follow a 2 – 4 month diet where a calorie deficit is created to lose excess fat. While the goal is to lose fat, getting too lean too quick can also have negative consequences. The leaner one becomes, the higher the risk that the calorie deficit will burn muscle instead of fat. One of the studies used in this review found that competitive bodybuilders lost the greatest amount of lean body mass in the final three weeks of competition. To minimize muscle loss, the authors recommend allowing ample time to lose the necessary body fat and avoid cutting calories too aggressively.
Protein consumption is a pretty large part of bodybuilding, so it’s no surprise the authors explored the literature on the subject. The evidence from several of the studies used supports that athletes as well as leaner individuals, require higher protein intakes than average. This is to support increased activity and growth of lean body mass. The authors agree that a protein intake of 1.2 – 2.2 grams of protein per kg of body weight is typically an optimal amount. However during contest preparation when calories are limited, the optimal protein intake may be significantly higher.
Carbohydrates typically play a large role in the competing bodybuilders diet, until competition time. This is supported by a studies results that found that satiety and fat loss generally improve with lower carbohydrate and higher protein diets. Going too low in your carb intake can not only impair strength training, but provide diminishing returns on fat loss. The authors found that a carbohydrate threshold appears to exist where further reductions negatively impact performance and put one at risk for lean body mass loss. To avoid this situation it’s recommended that once a competitor is close to, or at the desired level of leanness, to reduce the caloric deficit by increasing carbohydrate intake.
Despite the majority of bodybuilding diets focusing more on protein and carbohydrates, there is evidence that dietary fat influences anabolic hormone concentrations. Evidence was found that significant reductions in testosterone levels occurred when dietary fat levels were decreased by as little as 20%. And while increasing the ratio of saturated fats may help to attenuate the drop in testosterone, the collective data suggests it is more likely that body composition and caloric restriction play greater roles in influencing testosterone levels, than fat intake. A drop in testosterone doesn’t do us any good for holding onto muscle during a calorie deficit, however going low in carbohydrates can lead to a decrease in the hormones insulin and insulin-like growth factor 1 which appear to be more closely correlated to lean body mass preservation.
Multiple studies that were examined in this review found dieting bodybuilders to have deficiencies in many micronurients such as Vitamin D, calcium, zinc, magnesium and iron. It’s hard to take the evidence too seriously thought, because the studies used to generate these observations were published 2 decades ago. The authors agree that future studies are required to see if these observations are still relevant in today’s dieting bodybuilders. Based on the evidence they did find, a micronutrient supplement may be beneficial for bodybuilders during contest preparation.
A ketogenic diet is a very low carb diet that is used by bodybuilders for contest preparation. The goal of the ketogenic diet is for the bodybuilder to enter a state of ketosis, which can enhance fat loss. Exactly how low in carbohydrates one must go to reach the state of ketosis will vary, however a maximum range of 30 – 50 grams of carbs a day will be satisfactory for most people to enter ketosis.
During a ketogenic diet phases, fat becomes an increasingly feasible fuel source due to the great reduction in dietary carbohydrates. The many of studies in this review found decreased performance and reduced amounts of fat free mass associated with lower carbohydrate intakes. While the authors didn’t state this, I believe these findings could be a result of the carbohydrate threshold that the authors discussed in the previous section. In the end, the majority of the evidence indicates that ketogenic diets should be avoided for contest preparation.
Each person will respond to a particular diet differently, and need to make custom adjustments to the diet according to how they are reacting to it. Some of the major differences between how a diet will effect an individual include muscle-fiber composition, age, training, glycogen levels, insulin sensitivity and of course, genetics. The authors recommend that individuals should monitor their response to the adjustments they make in their diet so they can see what diet plan is best for them.
The concept of having a post-carbohydrate meal after training started in 1988. It’s based on a study that compared two groups of fasted, glycogen-depleted subjects. After both groups trained, one was provided with a carbohydrate solution. In the 4 hours after training, the group given the carb solution recovered their glycogen storage 2-3x faster than the group with no solution.
While this may seem convincing, complete glycogen resynthesis can occur well within 24 hours, as long as there has been sufficient carb intake. This means that refueling on carbs right after a workout would be important for an endurance athlete competing in a multiple stage event, such as a triathlon. For the typical bodybuilder who is working out once a day, immediately consuming carbs after a workout isn’t vital for complete glycogen re-synthesis before the next trip to the gym. In fact, it’s estimated that a resistance training bout using high intensity and moderate volume only depletes glycogen stores by 36-39%.
Most short-term studies have shown that ingesting protein, essential amino acids, and carbohydrates near or around training time can increase muscle protein synthesis and reduce muscle protein breakdown. Unfortunately, the results of long-term studies, do not necessarily agree. The authors attribute the lack of consistent results from these studies on factors such as differences in training experience of subjects, differences in the dosages of protein/carbohydrates given to subjects, and lack of investigation of protein-carbohydrate combinations.
In the end, the evidence suggests that meal timing may be less important that ensuring total macronutrients and calorie counts are made each day
To minimize fat loss while maximizing muscle preservation, bodybuilders typically employ a higher meal frequency. This is done despite the fact that the majority of studies on the subject have failed to show that different meal frequencies have different influences on body weight or body composition.
In a review that compared daily caloric restriction to intermittent calorie restriction, it was found that intermittent calorie restriction was more effective for retaining lean mass. The authors note however, that the review that found these results used methods that have been shown to provide inconsistent accuracies.
All the evidence together suggests that extreme highs or lows in meal frequency have the potential to eat away muscle and cause hunger cravings, during contest preparation. But as long as the intervals between meals aren’t too long or short, their effect is likely to be negligible in the context of a sound training program combined with an appropriate diet.