I’ve written before about how one of the hallmarks of a great career-bodybuilder is the ability to voluntarily add body fat without much psychological stress.
To those who have never been stage lean, this seems absurd. But to those of us who have spent months or years in severe caloric deficits, it’s an easy trap to fall into.
The numeric weight gain prescription set forth by the recovery diet is not difficult to comprehend, but the behavior changes that are needed to support this purposeful increase on the scale can be daunting for an athlete who enjoys the contest shreds.
As career-minded coaches, it is our duty to address these fears and help our athletes find ways to make this mental transition as easy as possible. Not all of these tactics work for every person and this is definitely not a quick process, but I’d like to present a few of these aids in hopes they will be useful to our readers.
Here are some behavioral modifications for a successful recovery diet:
EARLY MENTAL CHECK-POINTS
This is the one tip I’ll give that is actually more of a preventative measure. Before your contest prep even starts (or maybe somewhere in the early stages), document how you are valuing yourself and your physique.
Most people find that when they have lost their first five to ten points of body fat, they feel pretty great about how they are looking and feeling. If you can take some photos and write a note for your “future self” that highlights these positive emotions, it can be a very useful tool when you come back to this bodyweight after your season has ended.
Having a catalogue of affirmative reactions to your physique at various stages like this may help keep you grounded when you no longer have paper-thin skin, social media followers, and bodybuilding judges to determine your self-worth.
LESS PHYSIQUE CHECKS
Once your last contest has occurred, there is no need to keep a close eye out for tiny physique changes. On the contrary, the recovery diet actually calls for some pretty big changes, and these will show up on the scale and don’t require as much visual feedback like changes might have during prep.
So rather than doing daily or weekly physique checks, start doing them every two weeks immediately following the show. Then once the recovery phase has ended, it can turn into monthly checks or perhaps even less often.
This doesn’t mean you don’t care about how you look, but you should simply care a whole lot more about your primary goal of getting physically and psychologically healthy as soon as possible. A beat-up body doesn’t want to gain muscle as easily as a well-fed one. And if you under eat to look good due to frequent physique checks, that is counterproductive to the entire operation.
Personally, I don’t like my athletes to weigh in for at least two or three days after they step off stage. A lot of what the scale displays at that time includes water weight and stress-bloat which would give us bad data anyhow — not to mention the psychological stress that comes along with that.
When we do start back up with morning weigh-ins, I ask them to give me at least 3 or 4 weigh-ins per week, but only on normal days. My version of “normal” includes days where calorie ranges were adhered to, dinner was about at the same time as usual, sleep was plentiful, and they woke up within an hour or two of their usual rising time.
Since the athletes are no longer dieting, their food choices might change more and the need for robotic behavior goes away. As mentioned with the physique checks above, I do not want them continuing to live like a machine in order to produce steady or favorable weigh-ins. I want real life data, not early dinners and dehydrated mornings in order to achieve lower AM body weights.
This is a habit that personally helped me get out of my own vicious cycle of over-monitoring, and I’ve had many athletes say the same.
MINDFUL CLOTHING CHOICES
This tends to matter a bit more for athletes who are in the public eye, but it can be a useful strategy for anyone. This can be both preventative during prep or proactive when it ends, so I’ll present both ideas here.
A contest prep dieting phase is extremely transformative on a lot of levels. Because your body confidence goes up, you tend to want to show it off more. Many athletes (including myself) need an entirely different wardrobe towards stage-time because our old clothes are simply too big. And since we feel better about ourselves, why not buy smaller or tighter clothing to show off this new figure?
Well, I’m not saying not to do that, but I am saying that I have seen this habit bite people in ass once the dieting phase is done. You get so used to seeing more body parts look awesome that when the shreds start to fade, it become far more obvious to you than if you were covered up.
Fictional example: From 2011 to 2015, John trained hard every day at his local gym in t-shirts and loose-fitting basketball shorts. His personal social media account featured the occasional weight training PR’s, his dog and girlfriend, his coworkers, and funny memes about life. He typically posted once or twice a week. By the end of his contest prep in 2016 he never trains with a shirt on, and only wears tights or track shorts to the gym. His social media feed has posts every day of either shirtless selfies or close up training videos of his veins and striations. He no longer posts photos with his loved ones unless they are flexing together.
How do you think John will feel about himself or his progress as a bodybuilder when he gains 15 pounds? Do you think he will continue being shirtless every day? If this was a female named Jane, would she still wear the crop tops and clingy shorts when they get tighter? How will these people feel about themselves when they have to go back to their off-season wardrobe?
Let me be clear, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH TIGHT CLOTHES, SHOWING SKIN, OR POSTING ON SOCIAL MEDIA. This only becomes a sticky situation when the BEHAVIOR and IDENTITY changes along with your physique. If you create a world in which everything in your life gets better when you are contest lean, then the opposite is sure to follow.
Clothing selection is an open social-tell of character in this internet age. If an athlete lets their personal style morph into one that only favors a shredded body, it tends to be more psychologically difficult to run a successful recovery diet, which is what this whole article is all about.
**For further discussion on this topic, please listen to our podcast on Assessing Your Athletic Identity.
NEW GOALS AND HOBBIES
The spirit of any true athlete is tied to their desire for progress. One of the things that makes contest prep so enjoyable is the swift and ongoing confirmation that what you are doing every day directly relates to a not-so-distant goal.
But when you finish the season and that intense focus is pulled away from you, it can be difficult to feel like there is a purpose for your efforts. Not just in the gym, but in your day to day life.
Not many people early in their bodybuilding careers are comfortable saying “it is my duty and purpose as an athlete to put on body fat”. It seems so counterintuitive as it seems to directly contrast with why many people get into this sport in the first place.
But a saying that can make this all seem less foreign would be more like, “it is my duty and purpose as an athlete to put on muscle and get a lot stronger.” Or, “it is my duty and purpose as an athlete to have enough energy to get through my tae kwon do practice, crossfit class, or strongman workout.”
To take it even further, maybe your squat form would improve or your back would feel better if you got more flexible and worked on daily stretching. Maybe your training would be better if you focused on your kids more and got more sleep now that prep is over. Maybe your stress levels would decrease if you took up painting or guitar or had more space to focus on vocational goals.
All of these physical or mental activities can help fill the void that is often present at the end of a bodybuilding season. If you never wanted to chase anything in life besides a killer bod, adding fat for health reasons can be a much more difficult pill to swallow.
GOT ANY OTHERS?
While a lot of this foundation for healing can be laid early on (before or during the prep itself), I hope you find it useful in your current or future endeavors going forth.
And if you have any other tips or tricks to add, please feel free to leave them in the comments below and let me know 🙂