Physique competition is a deeply, weirdly fascinating pursuit. It’s hard to even call it a sport, considering that the goal is to show up with the most muscle, the least fat, the most aesthetically pleasing proportions, and the best posing routine. So while many bodybuilders were accomplished athletes (Nadolsky wrestled as a heavyweight at North Carolina, and won a lot more than he lost), and most are strong, those things don’t matter on stage.
It’s safe to assume that no one knows more about getting ripped than natural bodybuilders. And thanks to a 2014 review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, we have all the known research on their pre-contest eating strategies in one handy place. Its authors include Alan Aragon, the longtime nutrition advisor for Men’s Health.
Three key lessons from the study:
1. Slow-jam the weight loss
Everything we want these days, we want as fast as we can have it. You’d never have clicked on this article if the headline was, “Get shredded in 4-6 months by training your ass off and eating a lot less.” But that’s the most reliable way to reach single-digit body fat while retaining most of your muscle mass.
When you lose it faster, you lose more muscle, and you run a greater risk of slowing down your metabolic rate as your body compensates for the sudden reduction in calories.
A reasonable goal, the study suggests, is to lose 0.5 to 1 percent of your body weight each week. For example, let’s say you currently weigh 200 pounds, with 15 percent body fat. Simple math tells us you have 30 pounds of fat, with 170 pounds of lean tissue.
If you lost half your body fat—15 pounds—without losing any muscle, you’d weigh 185 pounds, with 8 percent body fat. Which would be awesome, but unrealistic. A more reasonable goal: 180 pounds with 9 percent body fat. To get there you’d need to lose 14 pounds of fat, with the regrettable loss of 6 pounds of muscle.