Sunday, March 3, 2013

Scientific BB Contest Prep Coverage: Six Months of Dieting, Daily Workouts & Hormonal + Metabolic Shutdown Pave the Natural Way to the Sub 5% Body Fat Zone

Dexter Jackson was not the 26-year old natural bodybuilder in the study at hand, but he is the Winner of the Arnold '13 (Photo
Who would have thought that!? Dexter Jackson won the Arnold Classic 2013. "The Blade" as Jackson is also called has been competing ever since 1999 and will thus probably be able to tell you one thing or another about the hardships bodybuilders have to go through during the pre-contest phase. It is these hardships today's SuppVersity post will be dealing with - the hardships of those who do (almost) everything to "peak" (=achieve the best conditioning possible) at day 0 and in this particular case without resorting to all the readily and less readily  available "helpers" from the arsenal of the "big guys".

People like the 26 year-old caucasian, natural, professional bodybuilder, whose latest contest prep has been monitored by Lindy M. Rossow and her colleagues from the Department of Health and Exercise Science at the University of Oklahoma and her colleagues from the Creighton University and the University of Central Florida (note: the whole study period comprised 12 months, 6 months prep and 6 months follow-up and the data on diet and training volume were derived from the subjects meticulous food and workout logs).

Diet, meal planning and nutrient timing

With 5 meals per day and occasional week-by-week reductions in fat and carbohydrate intake (5-10g), whenever he felt he stagnated, neither the meal pattern nor the total energy intake (~2,500kcal/day) of the subject changed dramatically over the course of the pre-contest period.

With a ratio of 36/36/28 % the macronutrient ratio of the pro-bobyduilder who started out with a body-fat percentage of 14.8% (4-C model based on DXA and BOD POD data vs. 8.9% when measured by chest, abs and thigh skinfolds), was very balanced and actually pretty close to what I suggested in my interview with Sean for CasePerformance for both average Joes and Janes and aspiring gymrats alike (read the whole interview here).
Figure 1: Overview of the key aspects of the nutritional regimen in the pre-contest (Prep), immediately pre-contest (last wee before the show) and the subsequent recovery period (based on data from Rossow. 2013)
With two moderate carb-refeeds per week during which he increased his carbohydrate intake to 48% (see figure 1), the subject, who had won his pro-card two years before he agreed to participate in this study, stuck to the above macronutrient ratios until "just prior" to competition, when he dropped the carbohydrate intake to <30% and increased the protein intake to 46% keeping fats almost stable at 25%. When we do the math in order to calculate the corresponding nutrient intakes in grams we get ~207g of protein, 130g of carbohydrates and 112g in the last phase of the contest prep.
There is evidence that a high carb bulk works best the classic way, i.e. with almost zero fat (read more)
"I don't want to gain fat too quickly afterwards": While the subjects declared goal for the post-competition phase was "not to regain body fat too quickly", his irregular and unquestionable ravenous eating habits tell us that he must have forgotten about that ;-)

No wonder his body fat levels shot up to 15.5% (higher than precontest) within 5 months, then stabilized and despite constant overeating began to drop again. What is an interesting side-note that over the whole study period, but especially in the off season, the often hailed skin-fold measurements hilariously underestimating the body fat content (the values were up to 8% off).
The only supplements the subject took were 5g/day of creatine and whey protein, which was already part of the regular diet and thus included in the macro-breakdown in figure 1 and the ~200g/day of protein I calculated based on the not exactly exhausting information about the exact macronutrient and energy content of the diet.

Strength and cardio - working out every day is key

A key contributer to the sustained weight- and, as we are going to see in figure 3 further below, fat loss at a relatively high energy intake (2,500kcal at a starting weight of ~100kg is obviously below maintenance, but no starvation diet) is probably the versatile workout routine with daily workouts, except on days before the exercise tests at the lab were conducted.
"During competitive preparation, per week on average, the subject performed four days of resistance training (5 hourst total per week), two days of high intensity interval training (HIIT, 40 minutes total per week), and one day of low-intensity, steady-state, aerobic exercise (30 minutes per week). This resistance training split allowed for the athlete to train each major muscle group twice per week."
This training regimen, as well as the often underestimated 30-60s isometric contractions during the 15-30 min posing practices the subject performed only once in the initial 1-6 weeks and 2-4 times per week during weeks 20-26, will have done one last thing to propel the fat loss in face of a constantly declining resting metabolic rate. The latter, as well as the hormonal changes, the dropping blood pressure and the - for a non-athlete - dangerously low heart rate all point towards one thing: Metabolic shutdown (see figure 2):
Figure 2: If you want to know about the hormonal / metabolic consequences of cutting down to sub-natural body fat levels (4.5% for the guy in the study) this is the graph to look at (data expressed relative to pre-prep values; based on Rossow. 2013).
As I have already hinted at in one of the infoboxes in figure 2 the resting metabolic rate the scientists measured only thrice during the 12-months observation phase, i.e. twice before and once after the contest  dropped by >1,000kcal from week -25 to week -1 (=one week before the contest) and did not fully recover within the 12 weeks up to the subject's last REE assessment with a metabolic cart.
A note to the desperate haters out there:  No, I did not check the guy's urine for additional "supplements", so I cannot know for sure whether he was indeed natural. What I do however know is that you were just about to post something along the lines of "you cannot achieve this level of conditioning without drugs" - obviously, without daring to do so under your own name. Do me and yourself a favor and spend the time and energy in the gym instead - thank you!
Starvation mode without starvation = continuous fat loss?

In view of these metabolic changes the drastic reduction in body fat (%) from 14.8% to 4.5% appears surprising. Likewise, common sense would tell you that the cortisol increase (more than +100%) would (a) burn away your muscles in no time and (b) stop your fat loss in tracks. The data in figure 3 does yet speak a very different language.
Figure 3: Body mass, fat free mass and body fat % over the 12-months study period (Rossow. 2013)
What the increase in cortisol did, was saving our dieter's brain from starving while getting him shredded by facilitating the catecholamine induced lipolysis (=squeezing the fat out of the cells) and bugging the liver to produce more glucose (Exton. 1972; Lamberts. 1975). That the substrate for the increased hepatic gluconeogenesis was not exclusively fat, but also protein should be obvious. As obvious as the fact the contribution of muscle protein was still negligible compared to the energy that came from the adipose tissue. Otherwise you could hardly explain that the subject lost not even 3kg of lean mass, while he dropped 14kg of body weight and kept the hydration level constant (62.6% at the beginning and 62.12% on contest day).

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Bottom line: If you look at the time it took the subject of the study to get down to the <5% body fat range and at how his body reacted (cf. The Athlete's Triad), I probably don't have to mention that the notion that any of these guys, drugged or not, is running around like you see him on stage or in the magazines all year is hilarious.

This does also mean that any training program that aims at running around at real (and not caliper measured) single-digit body fat levels year round is destined to fail and will go hand in hand with hypogonadism, low thyroid levels, 6-7x elevated fatigue levels, confusion, anger, hostility and overall 7x higher levels of mood disturbances. I bet your significant other will like neither the former nor the latter symptoms and let's be honest, even if you are single, would this be worth it?

"So are natural bodybuilders stupid idiots?" 

Certainly not! The exact opposite is the case, people like the subject in the study at hand have a goal and the plan, the determination and the guts to achieve it. They want to show up on stage in the best form possible, never knowing whether this will be enough to take the trophy home. They are sportsmen like so many other athletes; and while it may be debatable how healthy these ups and downs in body weight eventually are, I would venture the guess that natural bodybuilding is not unhealthier than American football.

So, if there is anything "idiotic" about bodybuilding, it would probably be its unintended downstream effects on some of the gymrats who believe they can have the upsides, i.e. the hyper-muscular contest-ready sub 5% body fat look, without the downside, i.e. the time spend at a normal body fat level of ~12-15%.

Moreover, if you look at the way the guy in the study broke through the 5% body fat wall, there is just one thing that sticks out: persistence! Patience and a stubborn persistence. No low-to-no-carb diets, no no-fat interventions, no protein only days, not even intermittent fasting or thermogenics and certainly no natural test boosters.  If you feel that you have the persistence and want to step on stage, go for it, but be aware that it's not going to be an easy ride.

  • Exton JH, Friedmann N, Wong EH, Brineaux JP, Corbin JD, Park CR. Interaction of glucocorticoids with glucagon and epinephrine in the control of gluconeogenesis and glycogenolysis in liver and of lipolysis in adipose tissue. J Biol Chem. 1972 Jun 10;247(11):3579-88.
  • Lamberts SW, Timmermans HA, Kramer-Blankestijn M, Birkenhäger JC. The mechanism of the potentiating effect of glucocorticoids on catecholamine-induced lipolysis. Metabolism. 1975 Jun;24(6):681-89.
  • Rossow LM, Fukuda DH, Fahs CA, Loenneke JP, Stout JR. Natural Bodybuilding Competition Preparation and Recovery: A 12-Month Case Study. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2013 Feb 14.


  1. right AFTER a my first natural BB contest, I had so high prolactin levels (dopamine antagonist) that my testosterone was very very low... and I felt DOWN and depressed. cortisol and tyorids levels where OK.

    that's why I SUGGEST to keep protein intake quite HIGH but NOT too much, cause they induce prolactin release, and also the abuse of BCAAs gives you high prolactin (-> low testosterone and mood).

  2. This was utterly fascinating.

    1. Indeed, utterly fascinating that someone like Adel believes in natural bodybuilding on the level of Dexter Jackson.

    2. The bodyweight shown is from 103kg to 89kg, still a significant 15% lower than Dexter Jackson's competition weight, which is totally acceptable if you use the FFMI (fat free mass index), the picture was solely for illustration and Adel stated reasons why you can believe it was a drug free experiment.
      Read the article before making such statements.

    3. I am not implying that study subject is juicer, but Dexter Jackson is whole another story...

      Also regarding bradycardia. I've been diagnosed with it after abusing clenbuterol, I suspect. Not so severe as at study at hand, but years after it is still ~50 bpm resting, down to 33 during sleep. Just a tip.

    4. well, bradycardia is actually "normal" for most ultra endurance athletes. It's not a problem in athletes and I did NEVER imply that our study subject did look like Dexter Jackson (who on earth would want that, anyway?)

  3. Thanks for this very interesting article. Would also be very interested to hear about strategies for rebounding post-contest.

    1. this may sound hilarious, but I am honestly not sure, if it is not better to rebound and get out of the starvation state as fast as possible.

      Obviously keeping the diet clean would certainly help and not totally giving up on calorie counting. One day of "do whatever you like refeeding" afterwards the guy in the study would have been better off to go back to 2,500 and increase by 100-150kcal every other day to end up at no more than 15% of his actual energy demands.

      Another thing that may make sense is to keep an eye on the glycemic load of your meals. Keep that on a reasonable level and don't stop training altogether

    2. I was hoping your answer would be, "numerous studies unequivocally prove that the optimal rebound strategy is to eat as much pizza as possible." :-D

      Thanks for the input!

  4. I'm still struggling with how to get from 25% to 15% bodyfat. Perhaps I should just attribute it to old age and give up?

    1. knowing about your problems with blood glucose management and your inability to train more than 2, max. 3 times a week (+ having no daily "exercise" due to a physical job) - that is certainly tough, but I don't think it's impossible. However, it won't work without losing some muscle and my gut tells me that's where you are always failing. The fear of muscle loss will keep you from dieting long / hard enough - question is though. But in the end, that's just guess work. Although, I know you better than many other people here, I cannot give you any more concrete advice than patients + a caloric deficit of 20%

    2. You may also consider looking into Lyle McDonald's Rapid Fat Loss program. You are only allowed 2 heavy weekly workouts to maintain muscle, and many people have found success with it in fat-loss and blood glucose management. Although I am not aware of your individual situation, it is worth consideration if you really want to lean down quickly, effectively, and most importantly, safely. Lyle is a complete ass-hole but he knows his stuff.

      If you do decide to take that route, let me know. I have done the program and frequent the support forums enough to answer any questions/concerns you might have.

    3. Wow, I really appreciate the response from two people I highly respect. My comment was meant to remind Adel that some of his devoted readers are elderly and less than muscular. However, since I can use all the informed help I can get, let me set the record straight on my situation:
      Age 72, two kids 11 years and 6 weeks, waist 36", retired last 20 years, impaired fasting glucose (mornings only - dawn effect), body fat 20-25%, 1RM leg press (90 degrees): 400#, 100m in 20 secs, resistance training thrice per week 1+ hr, HIIT thrice per week 20 min (alternate days with RT), weight gain on >1600 kcals, metabolic tests all within normal range, including T.
      I suspect that if I could get my waist down to 32", I'd have a fair chance of seeing my son graduate from high school or even college. I am not fearful of losing muscle with a hypoenergetic diet, having read the 1999 Bryner study on VLCD and resistance training. So, what's my problem? One word: HUNGER? (OK, will power, but remember I have the will to workout more than most folk my age, so I'm not totally deficient). I don't love food and eat only when hungry. I probably have a higher adipocyte count than normal, having once been on the borderline of obese.
      Okay, so my own advice to me would be to grow a set before sitting down for dinner, and I assume yours wouldn't be much different. I've read all of McDonald's stuff that one can get for free (diapers are expensive), I avoid processed foods, and my macros average about a third each.

    4. And the question mark after HUNGER was meant to be an exclamation point.

    5. That is very impressive ProudDaddy! It is older adults like you that I hope to be when I am older; still in very good shape and athletic and healthy. As for the hunger thing lol. I guess it is like DOMS, you just have to deal with it ;)

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  6. Great read...somehow I didn't see this when first posted, glad you linked to it.