The peaking savior complex
It’s kind of odd that we’re still relying on a half-century-old research paper showing that carbohydrate “super-compensation” is the greatest thing (for runners) since landing on the moon. Oh, wait, that was written before we landed on the moon. The problems with this theory and practice are equally outdated. The technique requires mass glycogen depletion during the beginning of the week prior to competition. You would also train your entire body to deplete glycogen stores, and since carbs are withheld, there is no repletion.
Don’t pretend you haven’t done it—it’s how we all started, and unfortunately many still do. Is there any other time in training or event prep where an athlete would want to avoid recovery and anabolism post-training? Any part of not eating carbs for days while working aggressively sound odd? Besides the obvious catabolism—training for days during depletion—the body becomes more insulin sensitive. Thus the supposed super-compensation. Let’s stop here and review the logic: We begin the week of competition by setting the body up to be flat, catabolic, and sensitive to carb intake. Then we over-consume carbs to the point of mass spillover, hoping that we can assimilate the excess carbs prior to competition. If not, we look like we didn’t diet at all—the amount of water held outside the muscle cell hides all muscularity.
Here’s the real irony: The human body is using carbs all day long. As soon as you over-consume, hit the spillover threshold— and maybe even achieving some super-compensation— your body starts draining it. You use those carbs over time. The fact that you likely over-carbed—since that is the goal—means you have to taper back into a deficit state. Now you’re not only going to not haul super-compensated, glycogenated muscle tissue in front of the judges, but you’re likely depleted and flat again, this time still carb sensitive and maybe a bit spilled over. Trying to “carb up” the day of the show is too little, too late. You can’t assimilate glycogen that fast and you missed the chance to be more resilient to the possible negative effects of the carbs.
Solution? Instead of depleting carbs early in the week, and then planning a binge mid-week, elevate carbs at the beginning of the week to the point you’re full—not spilling over—and then maintain that for a couple of days. As the week progresses, you can decide if, due to your genetics or your division criteria, you need to taper down to err a little on the side of tightness, or if you can increase again moderately to ensure fullness. Carbing up conservatively from the position of already being full, and not being overly-sensitive to carbs, you can assimilate the small amounts you need and coast in with a fine-tuning mindset rather than wildly swinging a sledgehammer.
Water consumption parallels carbs intake—literally. Water follows solutes. This is another topic brimming with irony. I don’t know too many competitors who want to be flat, small, and soft the day of the show. Insert Viagra joke here at your own leisure. Since muscle tissue is only full, hard, and engorged when fully hydrated (I’ll wait for your brain to finish detouring back to the middle-school humor…), can someone tell me why completely dehydrating to the point of health dysfunction is supposed to provide an optimal look? Because someone said so in the 1960s? If I could show you pictures of the thousands of clients we’ve worked with over the years who walk onto the stage hydrated, full, and with the crisp look of ultimate conditioning, we wouldn’t need all these words. I love rolling through photos on a big screen when I lecture on the topic—eyes bulge and jaws drop. Instead of giving up the best look because of being hydrated, normal water intake increases the chance of tighter skin and deeper muscle separation because of cellular muscle hydration.
The reason carbs and water are inseparable parts of the peaking equation is because you need the right amount of carbs
for your body and context to make sure the water is channeled where you want it. I do like to schedule water with some precision on contest day, but invariably that means increasing to the point of normal consumption—more than a gallon typically for a male prior to pre-judging. Scary for most, I know, but consider what you look like a week prior to the contest. When drinking limitless amounts, look at your abs and quads at various times of the day. Is water spilling you over? No. Excess carbs cause spillover, sometimes instantly.
Sodium needs for most humans is over 2,000 milligrams per day. Add copious amounts of training, sweating, and water drinking, and the need elevates substantially. Sodium helps keep water in cells. Trying to force changes in the sodium/potassium ion exchange across membrane barriers in the body is a joke. If you can get even a tiny change, it’s shortlived as your body adjusts back quickly. When you try to “trick” your body, even thinking there’s a secret 24-hour window, you’re just flat wrong. And without sodium, you’ll be flat, period. No matter how much carb or water you consume, you’ll have zero vascularity and an absolute inability to achieve any muscle fullness when warming up or posing on stage.
So, that’s what we need potassium for, right? Wrong. Potassium will make you hold water systemically just like sodium, when consumed in amounts higher than needed. And reread the above paragraph in trying to trick your body. Ain’t gonna happen. I’d keep sodium normal, stable, and consistent, and then look for the potential need to increase in targeted ways the day of the show. Knowing how and when is dependent on your body type and dieting context, but a little sodium is often more helpful, less risky, and definitely faster-acting than trying to achieve fullness through carbs when you’re hours from the stage.
Since I recommend managing carbs as I have, consider what normal training would look like. What if you had days to recover and felt recovered all week instead of feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck. As you train and consume carbs on a typical schedule, you create dynamics that you can use to your advantage. As you use glycogen through training, and then replace it, water follows glycogen into the muscle. That is the opposite of spilling over. If you stop training early in the week and “rest” the last couple of days, you lose that fluid dynamic and your muscle tissue goes deeper into a healing state. That means pooling fluid around the muscle. The difference between training the day before the show, or even the morning of the show, can create dramatic changes in how your skin looks— thin, tight skin over the muscle, or thicker-looking skin due to a small amount of fluid retention.
This is a great reason to take notes how you look day to day after all types of training. Training the morning of the show, and even doing cardio, can help due to body temperature, metabolism, and the above-stated glycogen turnover, but the biggest issue is time and tanning product considerations. It can be a powerful tool, but it needs to be well-planned.
The Peaking Savior Complex:
Many people diet under the assumption that they just have to “get close” and the peaking process will take care of the rest. No chance. If you’re not as lean as you need to be a week or two early, peaking can’t make you leaner. I prefer even more time so we can rebuild food intake and fullness. You’ll only be as good as you can be at that condition. Listen to what natural pro bodybuilder and Team Klemczewski Peaking Director Marques Caudle has to say about it:
“The biggest issues that I find in prep revolve around consistency. We all have had our bad days while dieting; nobody is perfect. It’s when mistakes turn into habits. Every so often I’ll have clients who repeatedly fall off the wagon. There are varieties of reasons but just to name a few: eating way too much (binging), not checking in on scheduled dates, or just saying “screw it” all together. Unfortunately this happens often. I can understand life happens and some things can’t be prevented, but the damage adds up. Typically these days fall on weekends. Entire weeks can be lost from repeated actions. You can’t expect to step on stage looking your best with half effort. It’s just not going to happen. At some point you’re going to have to be accountable for things you can control. Once I explain this to clients who I see going down this road, the light bulb goes off and things are back on track.”
I used to use the phrase that peaking is management, not magic, to help competitors understand that the ability to assess and nudge the body in the right direction is what leads to the center of the lineup. That’s still true, but now that everyone uses coaches, and coaches have qualifications ranging from doctorates in nutrition and biochemistry to gun range attendants and mail carriers, it’s a little more difficult. “But my coach said…” is what I usually hear a few days before a contest and, “But I looked so good days before the show—what happened?” after the contest. If you have a qualified coach, you still need to be an engaged partner in the process. Communicate changes and share your intuition as you move through the week—you live in your skin. Don’t accept being silenced or told, “Because I said so.” If you have an unqualified coach, fire him or her and count it as a lesson learned. You get what you pay for—your grandma gave you the same advice decades ago. Always listen to grandma even if she doesn’t know how to contract her glutes in a back-double bicep pose.