Improvement Season For The Female Competitor Post Show and Beyond
Written by Leanne Hurst
You’ve done it! Through hard work, science, determination and probably a few tears, you have got yourself into arguably the best shape of your life. What’s more, you faced the crowds and critics by jumping onto the stage to show the world the incredible results of your hard work.
Stepping onto that stage is the culmination of weeks, or even years, of hard work and commitment. It will leave you buzzing, on cloud nine; but for how long? Here, I take a look at what happens after a competition or photoshoot: calorie maintenance and reduced output; strength and performance; and muscle development to keep you healthy, happy and focused post-comp and beyond.
For most of us, bodybuilding is a hobby. It is something that we enjoy and get a huge amount of satisfaction from. However, like any big challenge, during the latter stages of competition or photoshoot prep, the hobby can become all-consuming. The demands of competition preparation are hard to explain to non-bodybuilders; some of the time they can be hard even for you to comprehend. And yet, you do it. Day in, day out, ticking boxes, working towards set goals that will help you to achieve success on a bigger level. The precision, focus and commitment required is simply staggering, both mentally and physically.
When times get tough, which they will, it is the thought of having a very specific goal that will quite often keep you pushing through. And it is precisely because your end goal is so hard to achieve that it is so worth having; if it was easy, it wouldn’t be an achievement.
But what happens “after”?
With all the focus on preparing for the end game, it is easy to forget to consider what happens afterwards. Do you go back to “normal”? Do you even know what normal is any more?
The post-comp/ post-photoshoot period, if not managed properly, has the potential to be a difficult time. There is no longer this specific target to keep you on track. Which is why, in my opinion, it is crucial to have an exit strategy in place. To stay healthy in mind and body, and to prevent yourself from losing the condition that you worked so hard for, it is critical that you spend a little time thinking about “after”.
The best way to stay focused after a competition is to set new goals. These can be identified during your prep period and from the results of competitions and photoshoots.
As you enter the latter stages of your prep and your body fat drops, it is quite common to find that you may not be holding quite as much muscle mass as you originally thought, and you may identify areas that you wish to work on in the future. In addition, once you reach the competition, most Federations will also provide you with feedback on how you can improve your physique in the future. This feedback, combined with your observations from prep and photos, can be used to help you to identify new goals to work towards.
Whatever stage of prep you are at now, start setting yourself mini goals for after, but bear in mind that your main priority in the period immediately following a competition is to rest and recover, so that you can push healthily onto the next stage.
Prioritising health: maintenance calories and reduced output
Your first post-show priority should be a period of time focusing on rest and recovery and getting your body and mind into a healthier place.
No matter how much you have tried to optimise your health during the prep, by virtue of being lean enough to compete on stage, particularly as a female, your health will be sub optimal. Body fat levels will be much lower than your body wants them to be, energy will be low and food will have been restricted.
Gaining body fat post-show is inevitable, and it is important that you embrace the process. It has to be done to improve your health markers; you need to understand this and accept it.
The first thing I like to do is to get a client’s calories back up to maintenance as quickly as I can after a show. This has a number of benefits:
- Help prevent binges and unhealthy relationships with food. If calories are higher, it is easier to incorporate different sources of food within those calories. If you try to keep your calories too low, you are more likely to find yourself in a restrict/ binge cycle.
- Help to restore energy levels, which in turn will improve mood and mindset.
- Improve performance in the gym much faster.
- Restore healthy sleep patterns.
- Allow you to regain some “normal” life and incorporate social events with less apprehension.
I will also reduce a client’s output. Many clients are able to increase output during a dieting phase by way of increasing step count without the need for formal cardio. Incorporating steps becomes a daily routine and habit for many people. Whilst it is important to maintain some output, reducing the step count helps from a recovery perspective and means that increased step count can be utilised as a tool again in future.
In terms of training, post-prep, it is a good idea to temporarily reduce your intensity in the gym. I encourage clients to either take a short period of time away from training or to go into the gym and train purely for enjoyment with no pressure to hit numbers or follow a plan to the letter. This is not only great for the body in terms of recovery, but the mindset, too.
Focusing on strength and performance
Once health markers such as energy, recovery from training, sleep and focus on food are improving, you can start putting plans in place to move forward. At this stage, not everyone will want to compete again but the majority of people will want to have a goal to focus on, whether it is working on those areas identified for improvement, setting some specific strength goals, or finding a place of maintenance which may allow you to progress in other areas of your life.
Regardless of the goal, a general principle of taking focus away from body composition and focusing instead on improving your strength and performance in the gym is a good way of moving forward.
During a dieting phase, focus is on the scales dropping, new muscles making an appearance and generally feeling leaner. It is usually easier to visibly see the changes and the progress, and it can be very motivating. In contrast, focusing purely on body composition during an improvement season can be demoralising. You are getting heavier, a layer of body fat starts to cover your muscle definition and clothes become snugger. This is when, for many females, it is tempting to remain very lean, which is counterproductive for all the above reasons.
I therefore encourage my clients to set some strength goals and to focus on the numbers in the logbook and not the number on the scales.
What do we need to consider for muscle development?
- Get good at the basics – think squat, deadlift, pressing variations. There’s a reason these exercises have stood the test of time. Note, however ‘variation’: we are all built differently so find the exercises that work for you and spend time getting good at them.
- Train with intensity – this is a tricky concept to explain. One of the best suggestions I have to really understand this is to watch training videos of those people whose physiques you admire and if possible reach out to them to see if you can get a training session in with them. This has really helped me in the past and continues to do so.
- Progressively overload – I could write a whole article on this point on its own but in essence we need to force our bodies to adapt and change. They are very clever and adapt very quickly particularly if you repeatedly use the same loads and volume. Get a logbook, record your sessions and then focus on beating the numbers in it. If it doesn’t scare you, chances are you aren’t working hard enough.
- Prioritise weaker body parts – if you have identified weaker body parts or areas that require more work, prioritise them. First, ensure you are recruiting these muscles properly when training and when you are satisfied that you are, consider training them more frequently within your programme if recovery allows.
- Recover and sleep – these are as important, if not more important during a building phase. If you are working with the correct intensity and progressively overloading, resting won’t be an option, you will need it. Tell-tale signs that you aren’t prioritising this will be things such as fatigue, lack of motivation to train, strength plateaus and potentially even injury.
- Eat – I’ve saved this one until last as it’s the one we females struggle with the most. Just as we get our heads around losing our ‘shreds’ and maintaining, we now have to eat even more, a surplus, more than our body needs. This is essential to build muscle. It doesn’t however mean that we need to put on an excessive amount of body fat. If strength and performance are improving in the gym, this is a good indication you are building some good quality muscle tissue.
Finally, remember that building muscle takes time, it requires effort and consistency but most importantly of all it should be enjoyable.
It is not uncommon for bodybuilders to experience post-comp blues. With my help, you will be able to move on from your competition with fresh new goals and a strong mindset for a healthy body and mind.
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