Road To A Figure Competition

As many who read this blog are aware, my girlfriend, Stephanie, just completed her first figure competition on April 2 – the school show at the University of South Carolina.  She has graciously given me permission to describe the preparation process for your enlightenment and entertainment.

This was also the first figure competition I have ever “coached”, so while I did program most of the diet and exercise prescriptions Stephanie followed during the approximately 6 month “road” to the competition, most of it was based around the work of more experienced trainers than I.  Where appropriate, I link out to the resources that provided me with crucial guidance.

What’s Figure?

We’ve been over this before, but to add some color, the National Physique Associate sets the following judgement criteria for figure:

Symmetry, shape, proportion, muscle tone, poise and beauty flow, which should be displayed without compromising femininity, beauty/flow of physique, etc.

Practically, muscle – but not too much muscle, and leanness – but not too much leanness.



Stephanie before

Stephanie before


The Bulk

First thing’s first – we had to build some muscle.  Starting Fall of 2010, we began a bulk.

The goal here was a relatively “clean” bulk.  Carb sources included fruit, oatmeal, Ezekiel bread and wraps, quinoa, and bulghur wheat.  Stephanie ate  one carbohydrate-heavy meal on non-workout days and two carbohydrate-heavy meals on lifting days.  Workout nutrition consisted of a double Muscle Milk shake (not the Light stuff) and a snack like dried fruit or even M&Ms every once in a while. Alcohol and dessert were an option on the weekends.  Lots of food was eaten during this time.

Training was 100% weight training.  For this period, we stuck with a 3 day per week, total body training plan based on Chad Waterbury’s Figure Body Part Checklist principles.  We started with a simplistic strength program: three exercises, six work-sets each, ramping the weight (based on Christian Thibaudeau’s Perfect Rep System).  After that we moved our focus toward what we perceived to be her weakest areas: delts and calves.  A sample workout day is included below:

  • Close Stance Front Squat 4×10
  • Seated Hamstring Curl 4×10
  • Military Press 5×6
  • Delt Tri-Set 3×10
  • a) Chest Supported Reverse Fly 5×6
  • b) Chest Supported Row 5×6
  • Heavy Leg Press Calf Raise 5×5

While we do not have accurate “pre-bulk” measurements, we got exactly what we wanted – a bigger, stronger, more muscular Stephanie.  Even a clean-ish bulk left her with higher body fat than she was comfortable with, but keeping body fat to a minimum wasn’t the goal of the bulk.  At the end of December it was finally time to “attack the fat.”



Stephanie bulked

Stephanie bulked


The Cut – Diet

Beginning December 26 (yep, the day after Christmas), the cut was on.  As a transition period, Stephanie began the cut with two weeks of her usual diet (general sound nutritional principles) before getting really hardcore.

On January 8th, she started John Berardi’s Get Shredded Diet.  While I will leave the detailed prescription to the linked article, the basic premise has you eating your bodyweight x 9 in calories, coming only from lean meat, vegetables, eggs, and cheese, in the prescribed macronutrient ratios (35% protein, 10% carbs, 55% fat).  For the next 11 weeks, Stephanie weighed every piece of food she ate on a food scale and logged it on Dailyburn to keep track of her calories and macros.  As her bodyweight dropped each week, we re-calibrated the calorie and macronutrient targets.  On her last few weeks, she was consuming:

  • 1125 calories (per day)
  • 84-98 grams of protein
  • 28-42 grams of carbohydrate
  • 69-75 grams of fat

A sample day of eating might look like this:

Pre-breakfast/fasted cardio:

  • 1 1/2 tsp liquid fish oil
  • supplements

Breakfast (around 10 am):

  • 1/2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 oz green pepper
  • 50 g yellow onion

Lunch/Post-workout meal (around 2 pm):

  • 60 g spinach
  • 4 oz chunk light tuna
  • 1 boiled egg
  • 1/2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 65 g grape tomatoes

Dinner (around 7 pm):

  • 7 oz baked chicken breast
  • 162 g green beans

Snack/Meal 4 (around 10 pm):

  • 3 oz red bell pepper
  • 1.8 oz goat cheese

Every two weeks, in order to increase metabolic hormones (which drop like crazy on such a calorie-restricted diet) and save sanity, there was a “refeed day”, where anything could be eaten up to a total of 3000 calories.  We skipped the final refeed day, as it would have fallen 1 week out from the show.

The Cut – Training

Training during the cut consisted of three parts: weight training, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and low-intensity fasted cardio (incline treadmill walking).

Weight Training

We upped the weight training frequency to 4 days per week, and shifted to a body-part split strategy based on Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program.  Workouts were altered every 4 weeks based on progress and body part emphasis.  As we approached the show, and grew less concerned with putting up big numbers, we dropped the very low-rep strength portions of 5/3/1 for more consistent volume (5×5 generally).

About halfway through preparation, we realized that Stephanie’s back musculature was not quite where we wanted it, and added extra back work to the focus we had been placing on her shoulders and calves.  So say the program was imbalanced would be an understatement, but we had weak areas to improve.

Example day (1 of two weekly days devoted to back and calves):

  • Barbell Bent Row 5×5
  • a) Wide Grip, Pronated Cable Row 3×10-12
  • b) Seated Cable Scapular Retraction 3×10-12
  • 1-Arm Dumbbell Row (90 from body) 3×10-12
  • Leg Press Calf Raise 3×5
  • Dumbbell One Leg Calf Hops 3×10-12


Our original plan was to start with one sprint session during Week 1, add 1 low-intensity session on Week 2, add a second sprint session in Week 3, and so on.  After two or three weeks, we decided things weren’t happening nearly fast enough and moved to spin bike sprint sessions after every lifting workout (4 sprint sessions per week).  Each session consisted of 10 sprints of 30 seconds each at high resistance separated by 90 seconds of moderate paced cycling at low resistance.

Fasted Cardio

In addition to the high intensity energy systems work, we also used fasted cardio sessions (performed first thing in the morning with an empty stomach).  In Week 1, three 45 minute sessions were performed on non-lifting days.  From Week 2 on we moved up to 1 hour sessions and gradually increased the frequency of these sessions until Stephanie was performing fasted incline walking for 1 hour every morning.  These sessions increased in intensity as her cardiovascular intensity increased but heart rate was kept beneath 120 bpm during all sessions.

The Cut – Supplements

Per the Get Shredded Diet, Stephanie used several supplements to both increase fat loss and improve mood/sanity during the diet:

  • Vitamins (multi, calcium, magnesium, zinc) – general health
  • Fish Oil – overall health, improved metabolic function, increased insulin sensitivity
  • Creatine – improved performance in the weight room
  • BCAAs – improved muscle retention, protein synthesis, fullness, gym performance.  Crucial for appetite suppression and muscle retention on a caloric deficit of this magnitude.  Four servings per day were consumed.  (1 serving pre-fasted cardio, 1 serving 30 min through fasted cardio, 1 serving pre-lift, 1 serving pre-HIIT)
  • Biotest Power Drive – improved concentration, mood, energy
  • Biotest Hot-Rox Extreme – increased fat loss, metabolism, energy.  Stephanie did not respond well to the high level of stimulants in Hot-Rox.  The full dose of 4 per day was enough to make her uncomfortably jittery and stressed, as well as ruin her sleep.  We eventually backed down to a single Hot-Rox capsule first thing every morning.

While one could prepare for a competition without taking these items, I would not recommend doing a diet of this level without them.  To say that a diet like this leaves you feeling wiped out would be an understatement.  Stephanie began her prep without the use of Hot-Rox or PowerDrive, but felt much more energetic while using them.

The Peak Week

The week before the competition (which fell on Saturday), we made several changes to the protocol to help Stephanie peak at the right time (mostly water level manipulation).  Most of what we did is outlined in Christian Thibaudeau’s Shredded In 6 Days.  The goal here is to hit your competition with very little water under your skin, but plenty in your muscles, making you look muscular, but very lean (dry).

The steps we followed:

  • Monday: begin water and salt load – Consume 2 gallons of water per day + 1 tsp of salt at every meal (yuck).  This causes hyperhydration and flushing.  Don’t get too far from a bathroom.
  • Monday: total body workout
  • Wednesday: total body workout
  • Friday: workout focused solely on weak areas with high volume and light weights (to improve next-day blood flow)
  • Friday: reduce water intake to 12 ounces, consumed in the morning.  No water at all after 4PM.  No salt.
  • Friday: begin taking Dandelion Leaf Extract, a natural diuretic (makes you pee more)
  • Friday night: start eating a ton of simple carbs (yes, a cupcake was consumed), and 2 tbs of vegetable glycerine.  Carbohydrates draw water into the muscle.
  • Saturday: no water, no salt, moderate carbohydrates based on water retention (this part is tricky, and you are very thirsty)
  • Immediately pre-show Saturday: drink a full-sugar soda with 2 tbs vegetable glycerine and exercise focus muscles lightly.

This part required very precise timing, and unfortunately, I didn’t get it quite right.  It still worked very well though.  Stephanie peaked at about 11 AM on Saturday morning, which was much too early for a 6PM show.  The peak protocol we used was for a midday event, and I should have modified it ahead of time.  Peaking was also somewhat complicated by the fact that Stephanie’s school’s show consists of two judged rounds of posing.  Next time…

Stephanie's Peak

Stephanie's Peak (11 AM Saturday)



The Results

Stephanie came into the show looking great, although not quite as great as she looked 6 hours earlier.  Her measurement changes from Jan 1 – April 1 were:

  • Weight: 135 to 122
  • Shoulders: 42″ to 40″
  • Waist: 26.9″ to 24.7″
  • Hips: 40.5″ to 38″

Most importantly, she loved the experience.


Stephanie In Show

Stephanie In Show



The Hindsight

If we were starting this process over today, Stephanie and I would do a few things differently:

  • Bulk cleaner – Stephanie needed to put on a lot of muscle for the show, so her bulk was not terribly restrictive.  In hindsight, we probably could have achieved most of the result with a little less bodyfat, which would have helped her to come in leaner.
  • More cardio earlier – This would have helped to offset the aforementioned bulk a bit more.  We ramped cardio slowly.
  • Emphasize back training earlier – We should have started emphasizing her back during the bulk, as we did with shoulder and calves.
  • Cut water later – Stephanie’s peak protocal did exactly what it was supposed to: made her peak around noon on competition day.  Unfortunately the competition was at 6.  She could have come in drier if we had kept water intake higher on Friday and cut it later.

The End

While the preparation was hard work, the payoff was excellent.  She doesn’t have plans for another show any time soon, but she certainly hasn’t ruled out the possibility of another one in the future, especially not with all we learned in the process.

Steph's Entire Transformation

Steph's Entire Transformation (click to enlarge)

Coach and competitor

Proud coach and competitor

[Thanks to Steph for letting me post this (especially all the pictures), and for filling in the gaps I couldn't remember.]