The goal of bodybuilding is to develop lean body mass and muscle definition, which takes years to attain. When the day comes to step onto the stage to be judged, your nutritional strategy and pre-competition diet have a major impact on achieving your optimal physical profile and final score.
Competitive BodyBuilding Explained
Bodybuilding is an aesthetic sport that differs from performance sports, as participants are judged on their appearance rather than athletic abilities. Bodybuilders pose on stage where they are judged on muscularity and muscle size, conditioning, body fat levels, muscular definition, symmetry and other factors.
In order to achieve the desired physique, athletes concentrate on building muscle mass and minimizing fat gain. This is typically done in two stages: a weight gain cycle called bulking, and fat loss, known as cutting. Nutrition plays an important role, and the bodybuilder competition diet — with intense resistance training — plays an important role in facilitating each of these stages.
During the bulking phase, when the goal is to build as much muscle as possible, an energy-dense, high-calorie, protein-rich diet is required to improve body composition and gain mass, reports a small study published in the European Journal of Sport Science in March 2018_._
Prior to a contest, dietary changes are necessary to enhance muscle definition and vascularity. A pre-competition diet and exercise regime during the final weeks before an event is important to achieve a lean, muscular physique with perfect proportions.
Read more: Getting Cut Vs. Bulking Up
Balance Your Caloric Intake
In the months leading up to competitions, bodybuilders traditionally strive to become as lean as possible by following a diet in which calories are decreased and energy expenditure is increased. Although fat loss is important, muscle maintenance is of primary concern during this period. To this end, optimal caloric intakes, deficits and macronutrient combinations should be carefully considered.
To prepare for a competition, a review of scientific literature published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (JISSN) in May 2014 recommends that caloric intake should be at a level that causes body weight losses of about 0.5 to 1 percent per week to maximize muscle retention. The report suggests that a pre-competition diet that encourages a more gradual weight loss may be superior to quick weight loss in terms of lean body muscle retention.
Read more: How to Shed Body Fat After Bulking Up
To maximize the benefits of nutrient timing and frequency, the JISSN recommends that the pre-competition diet should incorporate spreading macronutrients out over three to six meals per day, with each meal supplying 0.4 to 0.5 grams of protein per kilogram body weight prior and subsequent to resistance training.
While protein, carbs and fat form the basis of your diet, it's important to get enough micronutrients, too. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that are catalysts and co-factors in your body's metabolism.
For example, you need iron to ensure oxygen is transported through the blood and muscles to release energy. To keep your tendons and ligaments strong, you need vitamin C and zinc. Vitamin D and calcium are associated with healthy bones to prevent stress fractures during heavy lifting.
Focus on Protein
Protein is made up of amino acids, some of which your body is able to make (called "nonessential"). Others ("essential" amino acids) must be obtained from the food you eat.
Protein is the principal component of every cell in your body, including muscle. You need protein to make hormones and to carry oxygen in the blood to your muscles. Consuming the appropriate amount and type of protein-rich foods during contest preparation is crucial to support growth and maintain lean mass.
Complete proteins, which are typically animal-based, contain all the essential amino acids your body needs to build and repair muscle tissue. Milk is an important protein source in your bodybuilding competition diet. A December 2012 review featured in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition has reported that milk proteins — used post-workout — were more effective at promoting lean body and muscle mass development than soy protein.
The USDA Dietary Guidelines state that adults need 46 to 56 grams of protein daily (depending on their sex) to prevent deficiencies, but athletes, including bodybuilders, have increased lean body mass and burn more calories during exercise. For this reason, they require more protein in their diets.
As the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) notes, pre-workout protein ingestion helps improve body composition by increasing resting energy expenditure for up to 48 hours after exercise. This may not only help increase lean muscle mass and strength but also reduce fat mass and speed up recovery.
The ACSM recommends athletes to get 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Therefore, a 190-pound bodybuilder should aim for a protein intake of 103 to 147 grams daily to gain muscle mass. These nutritional requirements can generally be met through diet alone and without additional protein and amino acid supplementation.
Some of the best dietary sources of protein are:
- Meat, poultry and fish
- Dairy products
- Soybeans and soy products, such as tofu
Consider Carb Loading
Carbohydrates fuel athletic performance and play a key role in strength training. Consuming adequate amounts of complex carbs before exercise can reduce glycogen depletion and may enhance performance, says the JISSN review.
The same study suggests that while low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets can be effective for weight loss, once a competitor has nearly reached the desired level of leanness, it may be advantageous to reduce the caloric deficit by increasing her carbohydrate intake.
A peaking strategy often used in the final 24 to 48 hours before competing is known as carb loading, which helps maximize physical appearance on the stage. According to a small study involving 24 professional bodybuilders, carbohydrate loading may improve physical appearance by increasing muscle thickness, circumference and silhouette scores. The results were published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine in December 2019.
Some good food sources of complex carbs include:
- Whole grains
Include Fat in Your Diet
Fat is a necessary component of a healthy diet, providing energy and facilitating the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. According to the May 2014 JISSN review, there may also be a correlation between testosterone and fat intake. Researchers reported that significantly reducing fat intake in the diet may reduce testosterone levels and impair the hormonal response to training.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the hormone testosterone helps maintain bone density, fat distribution, muscle strength and mass and red blood cell production.
Although the Dietary Guidelines recommend that 25 to 35 percent of your calories come from fat, bodybuilders often restrict fat, especially in their pre-contest diet. According to the May 2014 JISSN review, dietary fat should make up 20 to 30 percent of total calories to optimize testosterone levels. As the researchers note, this amount is appropriate for bodybuilders as long as it doesn't require a decrease in the recommended carb and protein levels.
However, many competitors find they respond better to diets that are higher in fat and lower in carbs, so it's important to monitor your results and make alterations to your macronutrient ratios if necessary.
Should You Take Dietary Supplements?
Although eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods is the best approach to remaining healthy while achieving your bodybuilding goals, a multivitamin and mineral supplement may be helpful if you're limiting your calorie intake in an effort to reduce body fat when cutting.
Many muscle-building supplements marketed to athletes claim to enhance stamina. But some of these can be harmful to your health and performance if you're a competing bodybuilder. Supplements that have evidence-based benefits, according to a March 2018 consensus statement published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM), include caffeine, creatine and nitrate.
The paper reported that caffeine acts as a stimulant that may help with short-term anaerobic exercise by increasing endorphin release, improving neuromuscular function and reducing the feeling of exertion. Caffeine is often the basic element for some pre-workout supplements and energy drinks.
However, the BJSM report states that excessive caffeine may not increase performance. The Mayo Clinic warns that exceeding 400 milligrams of caffeine a day may cause side effects like nausea, insomnia, muscle tremors and a rapid heartbeat.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in your muscle cells, which helps produce the energy required during heavy lifting or high-intensity exercise. Supplementation may increase creatine stores and lead to faster gains in lean mass and muscular strength and power, reports the BJSM.
Read more: Bodybuilding Without Supplements
Eat Nitrate-Rich Foods
Nitrates are found in many foods, including leafy greens and root vegetables. Some of the best examples are spinach, rocket salad, celery and beets (often called beetroot outside of the United States). When you eat nitrate-rich foods, your body converts these compounds to nitric oxide, which in turn, causes your blood vessels to relax and dilate.
An August 2018 review published in the Annual Review of Nutrition notes that beet juice, a source of nitrates, may improve muscle efficiency and power, enhance skeletal muscle contraction and improve exercise performance.
Wider blood vessels may help increase the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to your muscles during exercise. According to the 2018 BJSM statement, dietary nitrates could benefit the high-intensity, intermittent and short-duration training required in bodybuilding. Enhancing nitric oxide bioavailability increases muscle fiber function and has been associated with improvements in exercise time to exhaustion.
Findings from a small study published in the Journal of Nutrition in May 2016 showed that beverages made from spinach, beet and rocket salad effectively increased plasma nitrate and nitrite concentrations in the body. Researchers concluded that nitrate-rich vegetables can be used to make viable and beneficial dietary nitrate supplements.
Read more: The Best Vegetables for Bodybuilding
Peak Week Pre-Contest Diet
During the final or "peak week" before a contest, many bodybuilders employ strict training and dietary regimes to fine-tune the body in an attempt to maximize their aesthetics for competition day.
A small study conducted on 81 natural male and female bodybuilders who competed during the British Natural Bodybuilder Federation championships tried to quantify the prevalence of peaking strategies utilized before a competition. The results, which were published in December 2018 issue of the journal Sports, indicated that carbohydrates, water and sodium manipulations were the most widely used pre-contest strategies.
The practices described in the above study may not be appropriate for all bodybuilders. The diet plans reported by the participating competitors are an overview of the strategies that proved successful to them. This context may provide useful for certain established strategies that you can use to customize a pre-competition diet based on your individual needs.
The study has found that most athletes focused on moderating their protein intake and consuming high amounts of carbs. The majority of participants practiced carb restriction followed by carb-loading, which lasted between one to four days. During the restrictive phase, competitors reported consuming up to 100 grams of carbohydrates per day.
Although the diets varied, carbohydrates, which were consumed 30 to 60 minutes before the competition, included white and sweet potatoes, buckwheat, white rice, oats and rice cakes. In some cases, wine consumption and salty snacks were consumed on contest day. Before stepping on stage, most competitors preferred sugary sweets and chocolate.
Bodybuilders also reported drinking four to 12 quarts of water, then restricted their water intake 10 to 24 hours prior to competition. However, the May 2014 JISSN review warns that the practice of dehydration and electrolyte manipulation in the final hours before competing may not necessarily improve the overall appearance and can be dangerous.
- European Journal of Sport Science: "Physiological Implications of Preparing For a Natural Male Bodybuilding Competition"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Evidence-Based Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Nutrition and Supplementation"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Protein Timing and its Effects on Muscular Hypertrophy and Strength in Individuals Engaged in Weight-Training"
- Dietary Guidelines: "Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Protein Intake for Optimal Muscle Maintenance"
- Journal of Sports Science and Medicine: "Carbohydrate Loading Practice in Bodybuilders: Effects on Muscle Thickness, Photo Silhouette Scores, Mood States and Gastrointestinal Symptoms"
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "IOC Consensus Statement: Dietary Supplements and the High-Performance Athlete"
- Annual Review of Nutrition: "Dietary Nitrate and Physical Performance"
- Journal of Nutrition: "Nitrate-Rich Vegetables Increase Plasma Nitrate and Nitrite Concentrations and Lower Blood Pressure in Healthy Adults"
- Mayo Clinic: "Testosterone Therapy: Potential Benefits and Risks as You Age"
- Sports: "Nutritional Peak Week and Competition Day Strategies of Competitive Natural Bodybuilders"
- Mayo Clinic: "Caffeine: How Much Is Too Much?"