What To Expect From Your First Bodybuilding Contest Prep, + Tips From 2 PhDs Who Compete

If you aspire to a career in bodybuilding, know that you can’t just waltz out on stage. Regardless of division, physique athletes dedicate months of their time to contest prep — the 10-to-20-ish-week period before show day.

Bodybuilding contest preps allow athletes to shed the body fat they’ve been carrying, practice and hone their posing posture, and hit all of the “extra” bells and whistles like costume fitting, tanning, and so on. If you want to present your best package under the lights, you need to know what’s coming down the pipe from the day you commit to doing your first show.

Credit: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

That’s why we’ve compiled this handy beginner’s guide to bodybuilding contest prep and enlisted the aid of two PhD experts (who also happen to be competitors themselves) to light your way. 

Meet Our Experts

This article contains advice and testimonials from BarBend experts Drs. Ryan Girts and Eric Helms. Both have extensive experience in clinical research, sport science, and, especially, what it takes to make it out onto a bodybuilding stage. 

What Is Bodybuilding Contest Prep? 

Even if you maintain six-pack abs on a daily basis, you probably aren’t ready to step up on a bodybuilding stage. Bodybuilding contest “prep” cycles are multi-month periods in which the athlete dedicates themselves to preparing the best possible “package” for an upcoming competition. Contest prep cycles typically involve:

Periods of significant, sustained energy deprivation in the form of a calorie deficit to lose body fat.

Modified bodybuilding workouts to help the athlete maintain muscle mass.

Rigorous practice of bodybuilding poses and other performative aspects of the athlete’s stage routine.

Other “bells and whistles” such as a tanning protocol to improve complexion under stage lighting or selecting appropriate attire like board shorts, posing trunks, or bikinis, depending on the athlete’s division of choice.

Those are the broad strokes, but contest prep diets also include precautions such as habitual check-ins with a coach who oversees the athlete’s diet, training, posing, or a combination of the three. Some bodybuilders outsource these duties to different professionals, while others work with the same coach for everything they need to prepare for their show.

How Long Should Bodybuilding Contest Prep Last? 

The defining feature of a bodybuilder’s contest prep period is its duration — how long the athlete needs to reach the single-digit levels of body fat (for men, at least) required to excel in the sport. 

How long your contest prep diet lasts depends mainly on how much body fat you and/or your coach are aiming to shed before stepping on stage (spoiler: It’s usually more than you think).

[Read More: The Best Pre-Workout Meal for Bodybuilding Based on Your Goals]

As a general benchmark, most bodybuilding contest prep diets last between 3 and 4 months, or around 10 to 16 weeks, though there’s plenty of individual variance to this as well. Both Dr. Helms and Dr. Girts have competed in bodybuilding’s various divisions — here’s what they have to say:

From Dr. Helms

“Most beginners don’t have a concept of how much weight they need to lose to truly get into stage condition,” Helms says. “For 90% of first-time competitors, 12 to 16 weeks is far too short. They’ll often need 20 to 30 weeks to avoid crash dieting or losing muscle.” 

Helms touches on the deleterious effects of aggressive contest prep diets specifically, saying, “As you get leaner, the diet gets harder, and you’ll typically experience more hunger, food-focused behavior, lethargy, and sleep disruption.” 

Helms called up a comparison to a fitness model preparing for a magazine shoot, who typically needs to lose 5 to 10% of their body mass and can do so in 8 to 12 weeks. However, most first-time competitors don’t walk around in comparable condition, so they’ll need a longer ramp-up period to get shredded. 

From Dr. Girts

“The primary determinant of how much time you need to prep will depend on how much body fat you’ve got to shed,” Girts says. “The more dramatic the weight cut needs to be, the longer your prep should be.”

Girts notes that a faster, more aggressive bodybuilding contest prep diet runs the risk of also burning off some muscle mass.

Dr. Girts also recalled from his competitive days that he was able to prepare for a show in the Men’s Physique division in about six weeks’ time. He attributed that shortened period to his not carrying very much body fat at the onset of his prep.

Bodybuilding Contest Prep Coaching: Is It Required?

Like all high-level athletes, the world’s best bodybuilders rely on coaching and supervision from professional trainers and dieticians, sort of like a Formula 1 supercar receiving constant maintenance from its automotive team.

Does that mean you necessarily need to hire a bodybuilding coach if you want to compete? The short answer is, “probably.” But you should still weigh and analyze the pros and cons of prep coaching:

Benefits of Bodybuilding Contest Prep Coaching

Coaching lets you offload many of the organizational responsibilities of prep, so you can focus entirely on the work you need to do.

Coaches serve as an emotional support network throughout the diet; an informed and empathetic ear distinct from your family and friends. 

Coaches can help you troubleshoot unexpected problems or sidestep hazards in advance. 

From the Expert: “Your first contest prep cycle is basically a science experiment, even if you have a coach,” Dr. Girts says. “It’s a great opportunity to establish a baseline and learn what works for your body.” 

Drawbacks of Bodybuilding Contest Prep Coaching

Coaching services can be quite pricey. Veteran coaches charge many hundreds of dollars per month for their services, depending on how involved they are in the prep process. 

An underqualified or ill-intentioned coach may put you at risk of illness or injury through their prescriptions. 

If you’re a “learn by doing” or trial-and-error-oriented individual, handing over control of a contest prep diet may interfere with your ability to discover what works for you. 

From the Expert: “Even if you don’t recruit a coach, do a lot of homework and consult experienced competitors for their advice,” Helms suggests. 

Bodybuilding Contest Prep Training

During your contest prep, you won’t be able to train with the same intensity and vigor as you would when bulking up. You’ll inevitably find yourself in a state of chronic fatigue that dampens your performance as your food and nutrient intake dwindles, but that doesn’t mean you can start sandbagging your bodybuilding workouts. You’ll have to make some adjustments, though:

Intensity: You should be able to maintain a high relative intensity during your workouts for most of prep. Training close to failure ensures that you maintain your existing muscle mass. 

Volume: The deeper you get into prep, the more ground you’ll have to give on total training volume, since you’re providing less and less fuel to your body to power through your training sessions. Fortunately, studies show that you can maintain muscle mass on just a few sets per muscle group per week, provided you perform those sets to near-failure. (1

Frequency: If you train each muscle group twice a week (and you should), (2) stick to that. Expect to drastically increase your treadmill workout frequency over the course of your prep cycle; bodybuilders rely on often-daily cardio sessions to keep their calorie expenditure up. 

Exercise Selection: As you move deeper into prep, don’t be afraid to wean off the free weight compound exercises for machines or cable exercises instead. Many bodybuilders swear by these tools for their safety and stability during energy-depleted workouts. 

[Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Building Your Own Bodybuilding Workout Plan]

In an Apr. 26, 2024 YouTube Q&A, pro bodybuilding coach Joe Bennett described how to best adjust bodybuilding programs over the course of a cutting or contest prep phase in order to maintain as much muscle as possible. Bennett recommended reducing or eliminating the following elements, in order, on an as-needed basis:

Intensity techniques (drop sets, supersets, cluster sets, rest-pause training)

Overall training volume (“working” sets per week)

Proximity to failure (measured by RPE) 

Absolute load 

Bodybuilding Contest Prep Nutrition

Make no mistake, contest prep for bodybuilding shows is all about what you do in the kitchen, not the weight room. You’re going to be in a steep calorie deficit for months on end. We aren’t going to sugarcoat it either; it’s not a pleasant experience. 

That said, evidence-based prescriptions for bodybuilding contest prep nutrition can help alleviate the stress associated with long, arduous dieting periods. Here’s a general framework for approaching your contest prep nutrition: (3)

Calories: Implement a calorie deficit between 500 and 1,000 per day, depending on your intended rate of weight change. Losing more than 1% of your body weight weekly tends to affect muscle preservation. 

Protein: Consume between 1.6 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. As you lose body fat throughout your contest prep diet, gradually increase your protein intake toward the upper end of that range. 

Fat: Dedicating 15 to 20% of your total caloric intake to dietary fat will likely help you maintain adequate hormone levels while providing more “spare” calories to allot toward either protein or carbohydrates. 

Carbohydrate: Carbohydrate intake is a flexible decision, since you technically don’t need to consume carbs while you diet. That said, carbs are the primary and preferred fuel source during strength training, so you may want to keep your carb intake as high as is tolerable within the context of your other macronutrient and calorie needs. 

[Read More: How Much Protein Do You Need for Bodybuilding?]

As you wade deeper into your contest prep phase, bodybuilding supplements tend to increase in relevance. Not because supplements are better than whole-food nutrition; as you habitually reduce your caloric intake, your overall quantity of food falls as well, reducing your intake levels of valuable micronutrients, minerals, and so on. 

Protein Powder: You aren’t required to rely on protein powder supplements since you can technically consume all the protein you need through whole-food sources. That said, protein shakes are a convenient option that almost all bodybuilders rely on to help hit their protein quotas. 

Creatine: The benefits of creatine go far beyond its relevance in the context of a bodybuilding contest prep diet, however, some studies have indicated that creatine may have a muscle-sparing effect as well. (4)

Multivitamin: Restricting your food source selection, in addition to consuming less food to lose weight, may result in deficiencies of valuable micronutrients. In such cases, a multivitamin supplement would be a wise inclusion. (5)

BCAA: You may want to include a BCAA supplement deeper into your prep as your whole food intakes diminish, but studies are mixed on BCAA efficacy for muscle-sparing in the context of a calorie deficit. (3)

Beyond these four main supplement categories, things get a little dodgy in terms of relevance and efficacy. One notable exception is caffeine, which has been shown to be a potent thermogenic (energy-burner) and ergogenic (performance-enhancing) aid. (6

Bodybuilding Contest “Peak Week”

All bodybuilders know what “peak week” is — the five-to-seven-ish day period directly before they step out on stage at their show. 

During peak week, your goal isn’t to make any drastic last-minute changes. It’s to harness and polish the package you’ve put together over the last few months. To that end, peak week typically entails: (7

Maximizing muscle fullness & volume by replenishing muscle glycogen

Cutting water to improve conditioning and “dryness” 

Minimizing abdominal bloating as much as possible to emphasize the “V-taper” look

While you can achieve these goals during peak week with minimal assistance, bodybuilders do commonly abuse ergogenic aids like diuretics, laxatives, and even insulin; (7) substances and compounds that are best administered under medical supervision.

Bodybuilding Contest Prep Tips From Dr. Eric Helms

As part of the interview with Dr. Helms, we asked about his perspective on the single biggest error committed by first-time bodybuilders. Helms had an unexpectedly concise answer: “Posing,” he said. “No matter how good your physique is, if you can’t effectively display it, you won’t be judged appropriately.” 

[Read More: The Only Beginner Bodybuilding Routine You Need to Start Building Muscle the Right Way]

Drs. Helms and Girts both went to bat for the benefits of almost excessive posing practice, but Helms also offered these tips for first-time athletes: 

Get a Coach, ASAP

“The best way to tackle the common misconceptions of contest prep is to work with an experienced, evidence-based coach,” Helms says. He’s biased, but it’s worth shouting out — Helms is part of the 3D Muscle Journey bodybuilding coaching team alongside other industry heavy-hitters like Jeff Alberts and Alberto Nunez. 

Stretch Your Workouts

Helms notes that in the early stages of a prep diet, many bodybuilders actually experience increases in their aerobic fitness and general health. But as the diet deepens, that paradigm shifts. 

“In the deeper phases of prep, a 90 to 120-minute bodybuilding leg workout can become substantially more fatiguing,” Helms notes. “In such cases it might be better to increase your workout frequency from 4 or 5 days to 5 or 6, but with less volume per session.” 

Helms tells it like this: 

Four 90-minute workouts amount to 360 minutes of weekly training

Six 60-minute workouts equal 360 minutes of weekly training as well, but as shorter and more manageable session. 

He also recommends tapering down training volume by 10 or 20% if you find you can’t effectively recover from your workouts. 

Be Ready Early 

Contest prep phases don’t necessarily have to be linear all the way through, according to Helms. “If you end up shredded 4 to 8 weeks out from your show, you can start eating a bit more for a few weeks,” he notes. 

[Read More: The Best Full-Body Bodybuilding Workout for Beginner to Advanced Lifters]

“Despite not being in a deficit for most of this period, you’ll actually look leaner and bigger from regaining lost muscle mass and muscle glycogen.” That said, Helms mentioned that this non-linear approach to stage dieting is difficult to achieve without a coach, even for experienced bodybuilders. 

Bodybuilding Contest Prep Tips From Dr. Ryan Girts

When BarBend recruited Dr. Girts for assistance with this prep guide, we asked the hardest question first: What was the biggest mistake you made in your last contest prep? “I cut too much water right before my show,” Girts replied. “I came in shredded, but my muscle volume and vascularity weren’t where they should’ve been.” 

Noted. Beyond that, here are Dr. Girts’ top tips for any first-timer looking to dip their feet into competitive bodybuilding.

[Read More: Why Do Bodybuilders Use Spray Tan for Competitions?]

1. Practice, Practice, Practice Posing

“Looking great in the gym doesn’t carry over to the stage,” Girts says. He’s right — the lighting and even mirrors in commercial gyms are often designed to make your body look as flattering as possible. Moreover and to Girts’ point, you can’t stand idly on a bodybuilding stage the same way you would between sets of a bodybuilding workout.

[Read More: The Evolving History of Bodybuilding Poses]

“New bodybuilding competitors often overlook their posing routine,” Girts continues. He suggests that new bodybuilding athletes should prioritize their posing routines just as much as their workouts. 

According to Dr. Girts, posing is one of the areas that most novice bodybuilders could do with assistance from a coach, calling it a “game-changer.” 

2. Do More Ab Training

The weeks before a bodybuilding show are not the right time to fret about adding muscle to your frame. That said, you should continue to train as though meaningful muscle hypertrophy were possible, according to Dr. Girts. This is doubly true for your abdominal muscles:

[Read More: Ab Training 101 — Everything You Should Know About Training Your Core]

“As I get deeper into prep, I do incorporate more ab exercises into my program,” Girts says. “It’s partially to improve my ab development, but it’s mostly about core control and my ability to keep a tight midsection on stage.” 

Bodybuilders must maintain a level of muscular contraction even when performing the “front relaxed” pose on stage. If you’re looking to compete in a division like Classic Physique, abdominal feats like the stomach vacuum are mandatory. 

3. Get a Coach (That You Trust)

Going through the rigors of a bodybuilding prep diet without a coach is a bit like navigating a foreign country without a tour guide. That’s where a coach comes in — “Trust them to lead you through the experience. A good coach will know when, and how, to adjust your plan,” says Dr. Girts.

[Read More: The Best Online Personal Trainers]

But the benefits of coaching go beyond navigation. “A coach can assess your progress objectively; something that is almost impossible to do yourself as your show date closes in,” Girts remarks. 

You may be able to find all the information you need to undergo contest prep online, but that doesn’t mean coaching services are redundant. A good coach can help you organize and interpret that information so you don’t spin your wheels, waste precious time, or stumble into a pitfall. 

What To Do After Your Bodybuilding Competition

Bodybuilding contest prep amounts to months of hard work for minutes of glory on stage. Once it’s all over, you’re left with a shredded six-pack, layers of self-tanner, hopefully a trophy or IFBB pro card, and nary a carb to be found.

Getting yourself out of the proverbial hole is easier than digging it, but you don’t want to recklessly rebound from your contest prep diet. Here are a few key points to keep in mind after you take off your posing costume: 

Research conducted by Dr. Helms & colleagues (8) on natural bodybuilders in the post-competition period indicates that, “many of the biopsychosocial changes [that occur during bodybuilding contest prep] return to baseline two months post-competition.”

Be patient after your bodybuilding show. Contest prep takes a toll on your body and your mind — you’ll need multiple weeks to recover from these rigors.

A Sept. 2022 Stronger by Science research review article titled “Reverse Dieting: Hype Versus Evidence” doused the merits of the common bodybuilding practice. 

The article, penned by Dr. Eric Trexler, is worth your time to read in full. That said, one of Dr. Trexler’s main takeaways on reverse diets was: “…there’s no evidence to suggest that … reverse dieting accomplishes anything more than a maintenance phase with a dynamic calorie target.”

Frequently Asked Questions

How to prepare for a bodybuilding contest?

Bodybuilding contest prep diets are specifically designed to help you lose fat and maintain muscle in the weeks leading up to a competition. This typically involves reducing calories to lose fat and adjusting both your meal choices and workout plan. 

How many weeks for bodybuilding contest prep?

The duration of your contest prep diet will depend on how much fat you have to begin with. Expert recommendations vary, but most bodybuilding contest prep diets last between 12 and 20 weeks. 

What do bodybuilders take before competition?

Bodybuilders employ a variety of techniques to look their best on “show day”. These modalities range from using diuretics or laxatives to applying layers of self-tanner to help bring out as much muscle definition as possible. 


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Featured Image: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

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