by Mike Arnold Iron Magazine
Without wasting any time, let’s pick up right where we left off. The next contest prep pitfall on our list is…
The diuretic dilemma
Although this subject has been broached more times than I can remember, the fact that hordes of bodybuilders continue to fall prey to this type of last-minute stratagem, most often to their own detriment, bears testimony to the importance of its repetition. While competitors have been known to manipulate several different variables during “peak week”, I would like to address one of them in particular—diuretics. Of all the last-minute tinkering that takes place before the final event, it is possible that no other factor has been responsible for ruining more physique than this one.
Diuretics have long played a role in the final phases of contest prep for one main reason—they rid the body of excess water. These days, being in contest-winning condition requires that one display extreme muscle dryness, as even small amount of subcutaneous water leads to obscured muscular detail; the exact opposite of what we are trying to achieve on contest day. Therefore, common sense dictates that anything which provides assistance in this area should be taken advantage of, and with the sole job of diuretics being the elimination of bodily water, their use is nothing more than a foregone conclusion, right?
On the surface, the answer would appear to be yes. After all, if water is our enemy, then diuretics should be the perfect finishing touch to one’s conditioning program. But, as with many other promising ideas that never bore fruit in the real-world, diuretics often fall short of their promise to deliver bone-dry muscularity. In fact, anyone who possesses extensive experience with these drugs will attest to the fact that they often do more harm than good. Instead of making the bodybuilder harder and drier, they tend to have the opposite effect, promoting a flat, soft, and even watery look, but how?
Although the science behind this subject can get quite complex (you may want to reference some of Layne Norton’s works on the subject, as his explanations are quite detailed), allow me to put it in laymen’s terms. In short, diuretics are non-discriminatory in their actions. Rather than pulling water from only one location, they pull water from all over the entire body. As bodybuilders, there are two main types of water we need to be concerned with. There is subcutaneous water, which is the water held directly underneath the skin and is responsible for blurring muscular detail, and there is intramuscular water, which is the water we store inside our muscles and comprises the majority of our muscular volume, or bulk.
The problem with diuretics is that they remove water from both compartments equally. The more water we eliminate from under the skin, the more water we siphon out of our muscles. Knowing this, you may be thinking “Isn’t there some way we can trick the body into getting rid of water from one region and not the other?” The answer is no. The bottom line is that if you use a diuretic to reduce sub-q water levels, you are going to pull an equal percentage of water out of your muscle tissue.
The main problem here is that we hold a proportionately much larger amount of water within our muscles compared to under the skin, which accounts for a significant portion of our muscular size. So, while a 5% reduction in sub-q water isn’t too significant in terms of its impact on bodyweight, that same 5%, when taken out of our muscles, is going to account for a much larger amount of total body water. This causes multiple unwanted effects, the most obvious of which is a reduction in muscle size/fullness. This is why we see so many competitors who, after using diuretics, show up flat. They pull so much water out of their muscles that they just shrink up. Truly, when it comes to diuretics, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
But the negative effects don’t stop there. Not only do diuretics decrease muscle fullness-size, but this loss of fullness tends to make the muscles look softer and even watery. Being that diuretics also reduce sub-q water, you may be wondering how this happens. The explanation is simple. Most of you have heard of the term “shrink-wrapped muscles” used in the context of contest conditioning; a term used to describe a paper-think skin look wrapped tightly around full muscles. This is the ideal look for the competition stage because it allows the competitor to be both big and detailed simultaneously.
However, if the muscles lose their fullness (size) as a result of diuretic use, they fail to push up against the under-side of the skin surface, preventing the full degree of muscular detail from showing through. It’s kind of like wearing a tight-fitting T-shirt vs. a loose-fitting T-shirt and then flexing your arm in the mirror in order to assess muscular detail. Which one do you think is going to be more revealing? Even if the loose shirt is made of very thin material (signifying low sub-q water levels), you are not going to be able to see much detail at all, if any. On the other hand, even if the tight-fitting shirt is made out of thicker material (signifying normal sub-q water levels), you are going to be able to see much more shape and detail in your arm.
This is exactly how diuretics work. Yes, they will cause sub-q water levels to fall, but the intended effect will be lost because the skin is no longer be pulled taught against the muscles surface, making it impossible to see the fine details that are present just below the skin. In the end, the bodybuilder ends up looking smaller and less detailed and the more diuretics he uses, the more exaggerated this effect becomes. This is why symptoms of diuretic over-use are often mistaken for being watery. In reality, a bodybuilder in this situation might be the driest man onstage, but because he lacks a tight and detailed appearance, he appears to be holding water.
In an ideal world, diuretics would not be used at all, as they always result in compromise. You will always trade of some your size for reduced sub-q water levels and there is nothing you can do about it. Unfortunately, many of today’s bodybuilders, in an attempt to maintain maximum fullness (at the expense of condition), employ multiple water-retaining drugs all the way up to the show. Growth hormone, insulin, Anadrol, and high-dose testosterone are but a few. In these cases, the bodybuilder can often get away with mild diuretic use, as they provide a type of “evening out” effect, in which the bodybuilder trades a bit of his fullness for some of his sub-q water, but this begs the question—why not just avoid water-retaining drugs in the first place?
This question becomes even more relevant when one considers that there are superior methods of drying out—ones which allow you to stay dry and full without having to take the last minute risks associated with diuretic use. Without going too far off into another subject, I will finish with this. Assuming the individual has brought his bodyfat percentage down into the correct range for competition (3%-4%), he is already 95% of the way there. At that point, all it takes to come in shredded, full, and dry is the proper application of diet and supplementation/PED’s.
With that said, I will admit there are some cases in which diuretics use can be helpful, but only when the bodybuilder is already in mind-blowing condition and with muscle fullness to spare (this is rare). In these cases, peeling off that last bit of sub-q water may be all it takes to achieve anatomy-chart conditioning. However, achieving this effect would require only very minor usage the last 6-12 hours before the show. Heavy, or even moderate diuretic usage has more cons than pros and should be avoided by everyone. In my experience, 98% of bodybuilders would do well to avoid diuretics altogether.
H.I.I.T cardio during prep: yea or nay?
The research is clear; H.I.I.T cardio burns more fat than steady-state cardio. With news of this revelation spreading quickly, many bodybuilders have begun incorporating this style of cardio in their pre-contest programs and in some cases, doing away with steady-state cardio altogether. This may be a mistake, especially when considering that pre-contest bodybuilders are exposed to factors not present in other population groups. With most of the research on H.I.I.T cardio having been conducted on non-bodybuilders and to my knowledge, none on pre-contest bodybuilders, I find it odd that its acceptance has grown so rapidly.
Like most coaches who stay abreast of recent research, I too was intrigued by the claims that H.I.I.T’s was able to burn more fat while doing a better job of preserving muscle tissue. So, in an effort to confirm these claims, I began slowly introducing this form of cardio into some of my client’s programs. To my disappointment, I was gradually forced to conclude that H.I.I.T was not all it was cracked up to be, at least during contest prep. While fat loss appeared to progress at an acceptable rate, I found that it placed too much stress on the system, causing a loss of muscle mass over time.
Because H.I.I.T cardio depends on intense muscular contraction in order to power fat loss, it may be too much for many pre-contest bodybuilders to handle. This is especially true for those in the later stages of prep, who are often depleted and being assailed with stressors from all angles. When exposed to such physical extremes, throwing additional stressors into the mix makes muscle loss is a very real possibility. In a program that already includes severe caloric restriction, intensive weight training, and certain fat loss drugs, H.I.I.T can be the straw the broke the camel’s back. While muscle loss doesn’t appear to be limited to any one area of the body, it seems to affect the legs to a greater degree than other bodyparts. This is not surprising, given that most forms of H.I.I.T stress the legs harder than the muscles of the upper-body.
In conclusion, I have found traditional, steady-state cardio to be a superior alternative to H.I.I.T, particularly as contest prep draws to a close and/or the intensity level of the bodybuilder’s program picks up.
Switching food sources during peak week
As a competitive bodybuilder, finding the foods that work best for us is a process that can take years of trial and error before finally getting it right. Making matters even more difficult is that “what works best” can vary drastically from one bodybuilder to the next, making food selection a very individual and critical part of the bodybuilding experience. Generally speaking, once we have stumbled upon our ideal dietary template, we tend to stick with it, having been proven to produce reliable results time and time again. This is not to say that we should never veer from this path, as we should always be looking to improve upon what we currently have. Furthermore, the body’s dietary needs can and do change over time, making “the ideal bodybuilding diet” an area of continual refinement.
Regardless, we have all heard the old saying “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”—a saying that is wholly applicable to the bodybuilding diet. As bodybuilders, we love to follow this rule, with many of us eating the exact same foods at the exact same times, day after day for months on end. This is especially true during contest prep, when even basic flavoring agents and condiments are gradually omitted from the diet, leaving only the raw essentials. Everything is accounted for, down to the last gram of protein, carbs, and fats. We accept no deviation from the plan because we know that only perfect adherence will yield perfect results.
With laser-like focus, we continue to co-exist with this one-track mind throughout our entire prep, but then, something funny starts to happen. At about one week out from the competition, when everything is going perfectly, a type of mental stupor begins to set in, in which common sense is abandoned in favor of unproven and questionable dietary methods. Rather than staying the course, the bodybuilder begins to make major changes to his diet within a short period of time. He will often begin adding in new foods, taking out others, and changing both the ratios and quantities of food consumed. Basically, the bodybuilder starts a new diet; one he thinks is going to somehow make him bigger, harder, and/or drier than the one he was previously following.
This almost always has disastrous consequences. Indigestion leading to bloat, gas, water retention, diarrhea/ constipation, and stomach distension are a few of the most common side effects associated with such a radical departure from one’s previous eating habits. When one has been following a finely tuned diet for months on end, the body becomes accustomed to not only the particular types of food being eaten, but also the quantities and timing of one’s meals. Abruptly changing any of these variables can cause violent and unpredictable changes to one’s physique through numerous different mechanisms. While sometimes these changes may be for the better, most often they are not, and the more last-minute tinkering one does, the worse off he is likely to be by the time he hits the stage.
Last-minute manipulations, if they are to be utilized at all, should be experimented with weeks out from the competition. This will give you an idea of what to expect ahead of time, alerting you both to the effectiveness of the change you hope to employ, as well as removing yourself from the unnecessary risks that come with last-minute tinkering. Remember, once the bets are placed, it is too late to change your mind. What is done cannot be undone, so any new dietary manipulations should be experimented with earlier in prep, when the risk of a screw-up doesn’t pose a threat to your final appearance.
The body is a machine of habit and adaptation. The sudden introduction of new foods or even a change in the timing of your meals can cause the body to react in ways which are counter-productive to one’s stage appearance. Therefore, the lesson to be learned here is that unless you have recent, previous experience with this kind of last-minute stratagem, you should never make the decision to include them in the final week of your contest prep. Rather, you should rely on the foods you are already accustomed to eating in order to elicit the wanted changes in your physique.