If you have a few contest preps underneath your belt, you are well aware of how decreases in performance can significantly affect the final look. The more performance one is able to keep throughout the process, the better the look will be at the end of the prep. Ultimately, the ideal goal would be to maintain performance as long as possible while minimizing the time spent in the final leg where performance begins to back track. Some (if not most) of this is, is out of your control. While dieting, athletes often find themselves having to fold, purely for safety reasons. By “folding”, I mean that they typically focus on getting enough stimuli to maintain hypertrophic adaptations without being so concerned with trying to match peak performance levels in the final stages of prep. If I could break down a prep into three phases when talking about performance, it would go something like this.
Despite the onset of the caloric deficit, we are still making progress. This is likely because the athlete still has enough body fat to adapt from training. Furthermore, the athlete is highly motivated at the onset of a prep. Think about it: prep rarely ever starts with huge sigh of distress. The experienced athlete also understands that, at a certain point, performance will dip down to below offseason levels. For this reason, they purposely attempt to bring offseason levels of performance upwards a bit, thus creating a nice buffer before performance slowly starts to downgrade.
You are winning some and losing some battles across all aspects of your training. In this case, it’s hard to decipher whether or not you are actually winning the war here. This is the phase where you start to see the most random “off days” happen. As you start to get smaller, you notice that you no longer have physics on your side. At this point, you are usually below your set point or getting close to approaching that threshold.
You have now arrived at a point well below your body fat set point. You are now a defensive lifter. Sometimes, you feel like a sword-less knight cornered with only a shield in hand. If you get into proper shape (lean enough), you will undoubtedly find yourself in this position. You are severely limited in regards to the stimulus you are able to generate and might have to purposely trim down volume in order to get by. A good set is not only judged by the objective value (reps x weight), but also with some subjective metrics to ensure you are making lemonade: Did you feel the targeted muscle groups? Did you feel safe or confident during the set?
That good old ‘Stage 3’ of contest prep can last many months… or as little as just a few weeks. During my most recent prep, I feel whole-heartedly that I spent maybe 2-3 weeks as the “sword-less knight”. I credit this to my ability to finally achieve something that I have achieved time and time again with my athletes for a very long time (coaching yourself ain’t easy). The solution is simple and it was made during ‘Stage 2’ of my contest prep diet. My body was shrinking, yet the loads (or at least my attempt at the loads) weren’t.
That old weightlifting cliché came to mind:
“When you are heavier you tend to move the weights, but when lighter the weights tend to move you.”
We know this and it makes sense, but we can’t help but question, “Why is this happening to me?” Again, this is a problem you have to try to catch early on rather than waiting for it to spin out of control. Catch yourself before you find yourself a sword-less knight.
Think back to where you lose the most strength in regards to rep ranges. It’s usually during periods of heavier lifting. This is pretty intuitive. If I asked you “Which rep range do you feel bodybuilder X will stall out on the least amount over the course of a prep?” with the following options:
I would bet that your answer is somewhere in the middle. Most people expect to lose some top end strength, but higher rep ranges come with their own challenges for an energy deficient bodybuilder a few months into his/her prep as well. Maybe your ideal answer isn’t in there, as you would have gone with 8RM or 12RM, but the point is, most people would expect the least strength loss in the moderate rep range. This is the rep range often referred to as the “hypertrophy rep range” and many find themselves using this zone in an attempt to deflect and slow down loses in performance. For now, I will leave this here. In the next piece, we will get into why this might be it. We will also discuss practical application and ways of finding your sweet spot in regards to rep ranges during the second half of contest prep.