What It Takes To Be A Bodybuilder
Ever wondered what it takes to compete in a bodybuilding show? The general public usually misunderstands and thinks that I can compete anytime. People actually think that my body stays the same 365 days. The fact is, I cannot compete anytime and my body is not in contest condition every day. Let me walk you through and give you the insights so you can further appreciate bodybuilding in another perspective. Preparation Phase Preparation starts 6 months or even 12 months in advance, depending on the athlete's experience. This depends on the body type and how well an athlete responds to diet and training. A safe range is about 6 months. If anyone tells you that you can make it in 3 months, don't even try. From my experience, you will not achieve your best physique. I usually work backwards from the date I want to compete.
Of Contest I have to decide which contest category – bodybuilding, physique, sports model or athletic physique – to compete in. And the way competitors are being scored and judged in each category is different. I will do up another article on the differences between these categories so that you can understand better. Personally, I always register for and compete in Bodybuilding. Once I've decided on which weight category, I will then plan my strategy to get to that weight class. If I weigh 90kg, I will go for the 80kg category. Hence, I will have to reduce my weight till it’s lower than or equal to 80kg 1 day before the contest.
The moment I step into the gym, it’s like a war zone. I don't just move weights to sweat it out but to focus in every single repetition I do. It is no longer just a workout. Contest training is not just about 5 sets of 12 repetitions. In many cases, repetitions do not count when training for contests. 5 sets of 12 repetitions are for magazine marketing for the general public. Yes it works but not for contest purposes. Contest training should be as intense as possible because in Bodybuilding, there is only 1 winner. What kind of training? Back to back exercises called compound sets, commonly misinterpreted as supersets. This is of course done in a period of what we call periodisation. On top of that, we do low intensity training like jogging, walking in an incline setting or stair climbing. At times, I would throw in sprints to further expedite fat loss. A sample training day for me starts at 8am with a 40min jog followed by weight training at 2pm. Then maybe back to cardio again at night if my body is not losing fat at my desired pace.
During the dieting phase, carbohydrate, protein and fat levels are being monitored and manipulated closely. All food is home cooked, Monday to Sunday. Eating out (cheat meals) is limited to maybe 1x a week and closer to the show, absolute no outside food. Some athletes prepare their whole week’s worth of food and store it the freezer. For myself, I prepare daily. I have trained myself to compress my cooking time to just 20 minutes. Hence, I only have to wake up 20 minutes earlier to cook my whole day's meals.
Depending on what you like, you can choose from a variety of fish and meat sources like halibut, salmon, chicken, beef, lamb, turkey etc. I usually eat the highest quality of red meat e.g. grass-fed minced beef for the first few months of prep and gradually switch to white meat, halibut or salmon towards the last month of prep. Daily intake of meat should be about 1 - 1.5kg, that would add up to about 250g of protein a day. For carbohydrates, I would eat sweet potatoes, basmati rice and brown rice. Quantity varies from 1 - 3kg daily as I stagger my carb intake. So my carb count can be as high as 350g a day and as low as 100g. As for fats, I would consume oils like olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil. Usually either by drinking them or drizzling on cooked food. I try not to cook the oil as the process can change its chemical structural bond. I also rely on other sources of fats like no sugar peanut butter and avocado. Closer to the competition, I usually stop my intake of fat, consuming it only when I feel weaker on certain days. I don't really count my calories as I always believe in quality rather than quantity.
In a bodybuilding contest, we are required to pose in a line of 7, depending on how many contestants there are. There are 7 compulsory poses in the comparison round, where every contestant will really bring it because this is where judges will compare and place you accordingly. Then, we will be called backstage and wait for our turn in the presentation round called 'free posing' where we showcase our body with the best poses we have. This free posing usually only lasts for a minute. Max 1 minute 30 seconds. Many months of preparation and we only get these few minutes to showcase our body. Hence, posing routine has to be practiced over and over and over again to understand which poses suit your body best and showcase your muscles the most. I usually do my posing in a dance studio and after each workout if possible, to maximise blood flow to the body as these isometric holds pump blood to the muscles. Each posing session will go for at least an hour. I always start with the 7 compulsory poses, fine tune each pose and then do a free posing round and repeat as many times as possible.
Stretching And Easy Day Often, the general public thinks that bodybuilders train 7 days a week without any rest. That is absolutely not true. I take at least 1 day off from doing anything but stretching and maybe a light jog for about 40 minutes. In my free time, I would go to the gym's dance floor just to pose in front of the mirror or just chill and read books in the library.
Sleep And Recovery
Believe it or not, I need at least 8 hours of sleep to function well as I need to work and train for contests at the same time. If I have less than that, I find it hard to focus and sometimes react very slowly to things. Even an hour of extra sleep can make a big difference. So if I need to wake up 6.30am, I make sure I am in bed by 10pm. It is literally like eat, train, sleep and repeat. At times, I take 2-3 power naps of 20 minutes each during the day.
Grocery Shopping I usually go grocery shopping at the nearest supermarket, NTUC, weekly. At times, I would go to the supermarket 2-3 times a week as food runs out real fast. As I've mentioned in one of my articles, different supermarkets sell different products so I spend most of my weekends in various supermarkets. Towards the last week of contest training, I would go to gourmet supermarkets like Cold Storage or NTUC Finest to get certain products.
Social Life And Weekends At the beginning of my bodybuilding journey, at the age of 16, I would turn down my friends' offer to meet up because they would not understand what I was doing back then. Over the years, bodybuilding has become part of my life and even on weekends, I am eating 250g of meat and 80g of carbs for a meal. Nowadays, I bring my food along when I meet with old friends or to any gathering. Honestly, during contest prep, I love to be alone. Just by myself doing nothing. Most of the time I would be thinking of what to eat next. Weekends are usually spent tanning by the beach or pool plus a visit to the supermarket. Weekends are basically almost the same as weekdays. There are not many changes. At times, I train on weekends too. Of course, weekends are mostly spent with my dear wife.
Work And Stress Juggling work and preparing for the contest is the hardest. It’s almost like juggling 2 jobs every day - work plus training myself and trying to eat every 3 hours. Waking up at 8am and only sleeping at 11.30pm on weekdays, time is always tight for me. Back then, I was just required to fulfil my job scope but now that I am in a management role, I have stopped competing for a while. Once I get the hang of things, I will get back to competing again.
I generally spend about $700 on poultry, $150-250 for weekly grocery shopping on eggs, sweet potatoes and rice and $150-250 on supplements monthly. This is solely for myself. On top of that, I still have to support my family. Expensive? Yes and no. It really depends on how you perceive it. It would be expensive for a sedentary person who sits in front of the desk doing 8 hours of work, eating 2 or 3 meals day which cost between $20-$30 a day. A person like me would eat every 3 hours so that would be about 4-5 meals a day. One meal outside could easily cost me $12 for my strict portion of protein and carbohydrate so I prefer to cook at home. I eat for function and my body requires this amount of protein and carbs a day.
Suntanning is important because it helps to boost confidence. On top of that, it tightens the skin and a darker skin tone makes the muscles look more defined. I need the tan also because a darker skin tone can help to boost the artificial tan during the last 2 days before the contest. The rate of absorption of the artificial tan into the skin is higher. As time is limited for me, I would go for indoor tanning thrice a week and to the beach once a week. For more information about how to get darker and a detailed suntanning guide, please refer to my other article: http://amirrudinong.com/all-you-need-to-know-about-suntanning/
This photoshoot is usually done days before the contest or 1 day after contest depending on the athlete. I would usually do several photoshoots before and after the contest to help me learn more about my body. Having a tanned body helps in photoshoots as the body will look more defined. That is why suntanning is one of the important factors.
Shaving, Waxing and Haircut
Most athletes would shave their whole body; upper and lower body including the pubic area as waxing can be very expensive. I either shave or wax depending on the contest and budget. Haircut is usually short to give an illusion that our body is bigger. We try to avoid drawing too much attention to the hair, as we want the judges to focus on our bodies. We are on stage to showcase our bodies, not hair. All these will be done just a few days before the contest.
This is the week where you either make it or break it. This is the week where science plays a big part and it is where we manipulate water and sodium intake, and practise depletion of carbs and then glycogen super compensation. It’s a myth that we stop drinking water days before competing. The human body is made up of almost 80% water. If we restrict water days before contest, we will appear very small on stage, literally like a skeleton.
If I am preparing for a contest overseas, I will have to wrap frozen food with newspapers and pack them into my check-in luggage. I also bring necessities like a rice cooker and electric cooking pan along with me. Overseas contests will be a little more troublesome than local ones. I would be packing my bag, getting everything ready 1 week before the actual flying-off date. I would eat a meal before my flight and 1 more meal on the plane. When I reach the hotel, I will then cook and eat my next meal before going to the nearest supermarket for grocery shopping. Fish is always what I am looking for. So far, I've traveled to Thailand and Philippines for my contests and I must say, it was really an experience.
1 day before contest, we will have to weigh in and take our weight for the contest. Only posing trunks will be worn for weighing in. If an athlete is too heavy for the weight category, he will go one tier above or below if he is too light. After weighing in, most athletes will load up on carbohydrates until the day we step on stage. I usually eat my carbohydrates 1 day before weighing in as I take 3-4 days to fully load up my body. After weighing in, there will usually be an athlete briefing by the organization followed by collection of number tags and lanyards.
Day Before Contest
A day before the contest, I will be at home resting but eating lots of carbohydrates known as glycogen super compensation. Posing and flexing in front of the mirror is what I do every now and then to perfect my poses. At night, I will be in an aircon-ed room, applying artificial tan onto my body. These artificial tans are made for bodybuilding competitions. For more information, you can look up on jantana or protan. A set usually cost about $100USD or more. There you go with the money again. I usually apply about 2-3 coats with about 6 hours of intervals in between for the colour to be absorbed into my skin. Even when I sleep, I will wake up to eat before sleeping again as time is short and I’ve got to keep loading up on carbs to feed my muscles. I usually sleep in old clothing and on an old bedsheet as the tan can stain fabrics.
First thing in the morning, I apply my final coating before setting off to the location. No showering is allowed no matter how smelly I get as that will wash the tan away and could complicate the situation. This is the day every athlete hopes for and is happy for because we’d be thinking of what to eat right after the competition! Also, it is the most poignant day because 6-9 months of preparation finally comes to an end and the final product finally gets to be displayed on stage. The person with the best symmetry, muscle definition and balanced proportion will be crowned champion in their category. The final event of the day will be the fight between these champions, to be the only champion of the whole competition. Backstage is the most exciting scene as we would be chatting with fellow bodybuilders, seeing people doing all kinds of tricks etc. We would talk about anything under the sun! Most of all, we enjoy the spotlight and have fun together.
Post Contest Diet
A lot of athletes actually pig out and eat whatever they want. One can easily gain 10-20kg in a week or two. I am not kidding as I used to do that and got so fat at an inexplicable rate. After learning that lesson, I stick to my diet plans even after contests but sneak a few cheat meals here and there. This way, I can maintain the condition of my body and avoid shocking it too much.
Post Contest Days
I generally look smaller during offseason as I don't intend to bloat and then have to cut down so much. The process is energy draining. I’d rather maintain my frame and control what I eat. A lot of athletes eat whatever they want, bloat up to 100kg and then cut till 60kg contest weight. In the process of doing so, a lot of muscle mass is being burnt. However I look right now, is my true muscle mass. Training continues and doesn’t stop. A lot of people slack off but offseason training should be the hardest as food is always in surplus and it is the most anabolic environment to be growing! Cardio never stops in offseason for myself. I would still do a very slow jog for 40mins and train 4-5x a week. Lastly, I will look at my contest photos and see where I've improved over the years and what to work on for the next few years. My coach advised me, 'conquer your weakness, sharpen your strengths'.
I hope after reading this article, you can better appreciate the art of bodybuilding and the amount of discipline, dedication and hard work that goes into it. It is not just about eating clean and gymming all day. I made a video, about 25 minutes in length, about my preparation for my South East Asia Championship in 2014:
For those who wonder what I eat in a day, you can read on this article: http://amirrudinong.com/what-i-eat-in-a-day/
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Your Coach, Amirrudin Ong