Finding newer and more effective ways to build muscle is something I’ve been forced to do over recent years. Nearing my 40s, and as a lifelong natural bodybuilder, my muscle-building progress had come to a screeching halt. While coming out of retirement to compete in 2014, at age 40, gave me the impetus to train harder than ever, it was evident that the ‘gains train’ had well and truly left the station. Though muscular, and despite training and dieting harder and more diligently than ever before, I was left flat and depleted and several pounds below my ideal stage weight of 170lbs. Upon assessing all aspects of my contest prep, the problem became clear. The missing variable had been found and putting all the pieces together for my next show, in 2016, would be my number one priority.
I’ve always been of the mindset that a full supplement regime is a luxury that should only be implemented when one’s diet is assumed lacking or when sufficient training intensity cannot be summoned. Such ignorance has held me back in many a contest. However, that all changed upon giving the sups a decent shot in preparation for my most recent bodybuilding contest, which took place on June 25 of this year. In the 15 weeks prior to this event, and for the first time in my competitive career, I took a selection of popular supplements (pre-workouts, whey isolate, BCAAs, creatine monohydrate, omega 3 fish oil and individual multivitamins and minerals with extra zinc, magnesium, vitamin C, and B complex). Coming in at a muscular 170lbs (a full 10lbs heavier than in 2014) with career-best conditioning, I had finally solved my peaking dilemma. No fancy training gimmicks were needed. Just basic movements and plenty of intensity – as always. Of invaluable importance however was the full spectrum array of performance supplements that enabled me to train harder, recover faster and retain more muscle in the final stages of an otherwise arduous prep. Ironically enough, I had been writing about the benefits of supplements for years. This was the first time I had fully applied my many years of research into the effectiveness of supplementation. The results were spectacular. What follows are six key reasons why supplementation worked for me and why this often-overlooked practice may work for you, too.
Reason 1: STAY ANABOLIC
One of the more difficult tasks I have faced as a natural bodybuilder is staying anabolic pre-contest. As most seasoned competitors know, intensive training combined with regular cardio and a lower than normal caloric intake can deplete the body on many levels. Without the necessary micronutrients, additional proteins and recovery agents such as BCAAs and creatine the body must work so much harder to translate training efforts into lean muscle. Training provides the spark to initiate protein synthesis. However, without enough quality proteins immediately post-workout, muscle protein synthesis is not fully engaged. Previously I had relied upon whole foods to provide the protein needed for muscle repair. But with the addition of a quality whey product, I found that my muscles actually continued to grow pre-contest – the diametric opposite of what had happened during previous preps.
Unsurprisingly, muscle nitrogen concentrations (which reflect the degree to which the proteins conducive to muscle growth are retained by the body) are also consistently higher in those who consume adequate protein. Our nitrogen balance determines the degree to which our muscles recover and grow from tortuous workouts. The rule for hard-training bodybuilders has traditionally been one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day, an amount that can be difficult to achieve on whole foods alone. Nitrogen balance must be positive at all times to ensure consistent growth. Add to this the fact that the protein needs of tissues other than muscle must be accounted for and that bodybuilders, pre-contest, typically require more protein due to a lowered caloric intake, and it is best to err on the side of more protein than less. Thus, many bodybuilders have reported greater results from 1.5 to two grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. This has certainly been the case for me. And supplementation has allowed me to do just that.
Reason 2: TRAIN HARDER
Though muscle glycogen remains the primary fuel source for ball-busting workouts, a surplus of amino acids also equates to more energy for those extra reps. BCAA supplementation is well known for boosting muscle growth. However, taken intra-workout these key aminos also provide energy by sparing muscle glycogen. Post-workout testosterone reduction can also be countered via an intra-workout infusion of BCAAs. Increased testosterone combined with glycogen sparing effect of BCAAs allows the lifter to train harder and heavier. As well as dosing with extra BCAAs, a solid pre-workout product consisting of caffeine, glycerol, beta-alanine, arginine (and other superior performance ingredients) has become a training mandatory for serious bodybuilders. A potent pre-workout not only enables fat to be burned for energy but also stimulates and invigorates the mind. The end result is a greater willingness to attack the weights and more energy to train to full capacity.
With BCAAs, a reliable pre-workout and the ATP producing benefits of creatine I personally discovered an extra level of intensity to power through the toughest of workouts. No longer was I dragging my heels and wishing for the final rep. In fact, my combined arsenal of supplements had me doing more and lifting heavier than ever before. Something that has never before happened pre-contest.
Reason 3: GET LEANER
Aside from the aforementioned fat-burning effect of a good pre-workout product is the long-term metabolic rate increases attributable to the greater nutritional balance a good supplement plan can offer. Supplements – in particular, the micronutrients and whey proteins – encourage energy production within the body. While the micros help convert whole foods into usable energy to keep the metabolic rate firing on all cylinders and banish free radicals to enhance immune function, whey, though rapidly absorbed, requires a substantial amount of energy to process. Indeed, by increasing protein levels, greater metabolic demands are created. This promotes a leaner appearance. Whey protein also has a profound effect on satiety-related hormones such as cholecystokinin. Cholecystokinin has been shown to slow gastric emptying and suppress energy intake. Indeed, the appetite suppressant effect of whey discourages the pre-contest bodybuilder from partaking in the wrong foods and thusly attracting the judges’ attention for all the wrong reasons.
Reason 4: MAXIMIZE CARDIO
Bodybuilders can be a little on the delusional side as the rigors of an arduous pre-comp regime begin to take their toll. In their glycogen-depleted state and with brain-power lagging, many significantly increase their cardio output in the belief that extra time on the treadmill will carve that extra adipose. I believe this is the number one mistake competitive bodybuilders make. Unfortunately, the opposite tends to happen. Low calorie eating combined with increased cardio drastically lowers the resting metabolic rate and prevents fat from being burned during aerobic activity. Under such conditions, the body begins to retain fat for survival purposes. Because it considers fat a precious resource, the body will turn to muscle protein for energy whenever excessive demands are placed on the body and when calories are kept low for too long. Muscle gains will subsequently diminish and the physique will take on a smaller, flatter appearance (the so-called skinny-fat look of the typical marathon runner – not good for someone wanting to build a formidable physique).
To get shredded, most lifters need a certain amount of cardio. To ensure that protein is not unduly leeched from the muscles, take a whey protein supplement one hour before each cardio session and a serving of BCAAs immediate beforehand. Doing so will not only preserve muscle but also minimize the release of cortisol. Cortisol, a catabolic hormone, blunts fat burning and destroys muscle tissue. Cardio performed without adequate protein stores and in excess elevates cortisol, and keeps it surging.
Reason 5: INCREASE & MAINTAIN STRENGTH LEVELS
I’ve found it impossible to build or even retain muscle with plummeting strength levels. Unfortunately, the pre-contest period is prime time for such pitiably lifting potential. By taking creatine all the way up to one week out from my most recent contest I was able to retain my offseason strength despite the leverage disadvantages resulting from sustained weight (fat) loss. Rather than relying on overall bodyweight to assist on the major lifts, I instead turned to the cell volumizing effect of creatine. By saturating muscle cells with water, creatine enhances muscle leverage (where the muscles move less and generate more force) and overall strength (creatine also boosts strength by significantly increasing creatine phosphate stores). A mistake many lifters make is to eliminate creatine pre-contest for fear of retaining water under the skin. While such water retention can occur it can also be eliminated by cutting creatine 1-2 weeks out from the show (though this period does differ from person to person, so find a method that works best for you).
Reason 6: ACHIEVE NUTRITIONAL BALANCE
Another often-overlooked factor in achieving a shredded and muscular appearance is nutritional balance. In short, muscles not only are more efficient during but respond better to intense training when properly nourished. This means a complete array of vitamins and minerals must be present to ensure all bodily processes – from blood sugar regulation to liver function to mental health – work in concert to produce lasting gains. The immune-boosting benefits of whey protein and cardiovascular/energizing (both physical and mental) effects of omega 3 fats further support the growth/shredding processes by encouraging greater metabolic efficiency and faster recovery and by helping to create an anabolic environment that supports ongoing lean muscle gains.
Having more nutrients surging through my system gave me a definite edge this time around. In conjunction with the above-listed supplemental considerations, I would certainly suggest increasing magnesium and zinc levels to 600mg and 30mg per day respectively. Better sleep, greater focus and increased testosterone production/protein metabolism are likely to result from this one strategy alone.
Conclusion: SUPERIOR SUPPLEMENTATION
To ensure the supplement strategies outlined above work as well for you as they did for me it is important never to neglect a well-balanced diet of nutrient-dense whole foods (the very foundation of any good pre-competition plan). Furthermore, while proper supplementation will make a difference, the sound implementation of proven performance products is no excuse not to train with full intensity (indeed, the extra nutrients and performance ingredients are likely to enhance the quality of each workout).
If, like me, you have been searching for that missing ‘ingredient’ to supercharge your pre-contest progress, you may wish to check your current supplement plan. By paying more attention to quality supplementation the best years of your competitive career could well be ahead of you, too.
About the author
David Robson is a prolific health and fitness author with a particular interest in how training, nutrition and mindset can assist bodybuilding progress, David Robson, a personal trainer and health educator, also walks the walk as a seasoned bodybuilding competitor. David, a Tae Kwon Do black belt, and second place-finisher at the 1997 World Natural Bodybuilding Championships, has competed internationally in both Tae Kwon Do and bodybuilding.
In addition, David, who holds separate degrees in psychology, journalism, teaching, and sports performance, is Founder and Director of Advanced Personal Training New Zealand (ATPNZ), a company set up to educate people on how to become fitter, healthier, and better-performing in their day-to-day life, and as athletes.
Charity work forms a large part of David’s life. As Founder and President of the New Zealand Wheelchair Bodybuilding Federation (NZWBBF) and Founder and Director of Fit Futures Charitable Trust, David provides sporting and fitness training opportunities for people with physical disabilities.
David also provides online coaching for fitness and bodybuilding results.
Contacted David at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Education (partial history)
-University of Waikato: Bachelor of Sport and Leisure Studies (BSpLS). 2002
-University of Waikato: Graduate Diploma in Social Science – Psychology (GradDipSocSc). 2003
-Golden Key International Honour Society (inducted member). 2001
-Wintec: National Diploma in Journalism. 2004
-Wintec: Graduate Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (with Merit). 2011
-Network: Fitness Leader certification. 1996