Every bodybuilder who has ever competed in the sport knows that, no matter how good your genetics, how hard you've trained, and what kind of mass, shape and symmetry you've achieved, what gives you the kind of ripped-to-shreds, muscular and defined, "anatomy chart" look you need onstage is proper contest preparation.
Of course, being "in shape" like this was not always a requirement of bodybuilding competition. Look at photos of Mr. Universe events in the 1960s or the first Mr. Olympia contests, and the competitors appear incredibly smooth by today's standards. However, bodybuilding is judged on a visual basis and bodybuilders in the past 20 years have gradually developed training and diet contest preparation techniques that have produced the modern contest look; including striations, cross-striations, veins like a road map and incredible detailing of the physique.
The problem is, as hard as they are trying, most bodybuilders don't seem to be getting it right. Take a hard look at the lineup of even the Mr. Olympia and Ms. Olympia contests and it's hard not to be disappointed at how many of the competitors are almost, but not quite, in super shape. Or the number of top champions whose ability to reach their peak just at the right time seems to be largely accidental, one contest they get it right, the next one they don't.
In many cases, if you know anything about the individual bodybuilders, the reasons for their not being in perfect shape are obvious. Some are known for not training hard enough, for example. Others bulk up too much off-season, and come into shows looking depleted and soft because of having to diet too severely. Others don't diet hard enough, or take too many steroids, or have personal problems that prevent them from giving 100% to their contest preparation.
But many top-level bodybuilders seem to be doing everything correctly and still show up at contests almost, but not quite, in top shape. They've worked out a careful program of contest preparation and have followed it to the letter. They've been dedicated and disciplined. They've sacrificed time, money and much of their personal lives in order to come in at their best. And yet there's still something wrong. Something so basic and fundamental, and yet so widespread, that some of the most talented and intelligent competitors in the sport are falling victim to it.
What can it be? Research and a lot of observation of top male and female champions all over the world suggest the answer may he far simpler than you might think. Simple enough to be consistently overlooked by bodybuilders always in search of more esoteric and high-tech solutions. In a word, the problem seems to be dehydration; failure to drink enough water, particularly during the last week.
When it comes to bodybuilding, water is probably the most misunderstood and undervalued of all nutrients. We are creatures who evolved from sea-dwelling ancestors, and we took our fluid environment with us as we made our transition to the land. All our cells are soaked in water throughout our lives. The human body is 70% water by weight. The food we eat is 70% water. Losing only 10% of your body water will make you very ill; losing 20% will result in death. You can survive weeks without food, but only a few days without water. And, in very hot and harsh environments, only a few hours.
Virtually every important function in the body involves water. Blood is 90% water, and it is the blood that carries nutrients to the various tissues and washes out lactic acid and other metabolic waste products. Without sufficient water, our tissues would starve and we'd poison ourselves on our own biochemical waste.
Muscles are more than 75% water. Water continuously moistens our lungs, without water we'd simply stop breathing. Water helps us to maintain our internal temperature and lubricates our joints and the interactions between certain organs. We use about a gallon of water a day to run our digestive systems.
Water is also very important in energy metabolism. When the kidneys don't have enough water to adequately filter out impurities and excrete them in our urine, the liver is called into service to help deal with these toxins. When the liver is occupied in this task, it is less efficient in its other jobs, which include more than 60 functions involved with the body's rehabilitation and recovery after strenuous exercise, as well as metabolizing stored bodyfat for energy.
Additionally when the body perceives itself in a state of "drought," one of its first reactions is to slow down the elimination of water from the system by curtailing urine output. Dehydration, therefore, paradoxically always leads to a state of excess water retention.
In other words, when you re dehydrated you don't recover from your workouts as well, your body is less able to burn up bodyfat for energy when you're dieting and much of the excess water your body is retaining is stored extracellularly, much of it under the skin, smoothing you out.
This retention of subcutaneous fluid is what bodybuilders mean when they say they are "holding water." Out of fear of holding water, many bodybuilders consistently restrict their water intake in the days prior to a contest. But, as described above, this actually has the opposite effect. Restricting fluids forces your body to "hold water," exactly what you're trying to avoid.
A primary mechanism the body uses to hold onto water when it begins to become dehydrated is the antidiuretic hormone aldosterone. As fluid levels fall, the adrenals release additional amounts of aldosterone, which acts to reduce urine output. One strategy bodybuilders sometimes use to deal with increased aldosterone output is the use of diuretic agents like spironolactone, which is a specific pharmacological antagonist of aldosterone, or tnamterene, a potassium-sparing diuretic. But since water is such an integral part of muscle (muscles are more than 75% water) when you begin flushing fluid out of your system your muscles shrink and lose their hardness and density. So you end up small, smooth and lacking density and definition, hardly the formula for success in bodybuilding competition.
Carbing up is also an important part of contest preparation, and water plays a vital role in this process. The purpose of increasing carb intake prior to a contest is to load the muscles with large quantities of muscle glycogen. This makes muscles bigger, fuller and harder, increases muscle separation and improves muscle shape.
But carbing up does not work when the body is dehydrated. When carbohydrate is ingested, it's turned into glucose, which needs to be in solution with almost three times its weight in water in order to be available to form muscle glycogen. Glucose is driven into the muscle cell by the action of insulin. The problem is that glucose will not move into the muscle cell even with the help of insulin unless there is enough water to maintain this 3:1 ratio. Instead, the glucose will remain circulating in the bloodstream until dealt with by the liver. The liver uses some of the glucose to replenish its own glycogen levels, but then it uses the excess to begin synthesizing lipids — making fat. So the bodybuilder who takes in a lot of carbohydrate without drinking enough water is unknowingly directing those calories away from the muscles and into storage as bodyfat.
Incidentally, a common belief is that it takes 72 hours for the body to turn calories into fat. True, there was a study in which fat that had been radioactively tagged was ingested, its progress through the body traced, and it did turn up in adipose (fat) tissue 72 hours later. But when there are excess levels of glucose in the blood, the liver begins to manufacture triglycerides from them very quickly, and it is this form of fat that the bodybuilder's body stores in adipose tissue when the carbing up process is carried out in the absence of sufficient amounts of water.
It seems obvious, given this information, why bodybuilders have had so much trouble with the carbing-up process and why they're so afraid of it. The carbs they have been eating have, in the absence of sufficient fluids, been turning into bodyfat instead of muscle glycogen. So it's no wonder that so many bodybuilders are afraid to take in the recommended levels of carbohydrate before a show. If they did, and continued to restrict their fluids (as so many have done) their muscles would look no fuller, they'd just end up that much fatter!
This also explains why many competitors look so much better a day or two after a show. Once the contest is over, they not only go out and eat but, more importantly, they begin to drink large amounts of fluid. With adequate fluid in the body, the muscle cells begin to take up glucose and turn it into muscle glycogen. So only then, after the contest is over, is the carbing-up process really starting to take place!
A day or two later the bodybuilder is bigger, thicker, harder and more defined. But not necessarily in top shape. Because during the days previous to the contest, when he (or she) was taking in carbohydrate without enough water, a lot of triglycerides were manufactured and ended up in adipose tissue. So the bodybuilder is carbed up, but also has gained unwanted bodyfat, which smoothes him out. But not understanding this, many bodybuilders assume that the smoothness comes from the carbing-up process itself, and this makes them even less willing to try to carb up adequately for their next competition.
But once you understand the role of adequate hydration to contest preparation, it's obvious that the correct strategy is to drink a lot of water prior to a show. Drink a lot of water while you're dieting, so that the liver can adequately metabolize stored bodyfat, and drink a lot of water while you're carbing up to allow glucose to be turned into muscle glycogen.
How much water do you need? It's hard to say, but Dr. Howard Flacks, a Beverly Hills weight-reduction specialist, recommends his patients drink 96 ounces of water a day, which comes to eight 12-ounce glasses. But when you're talking about a competitive bodybuilder, with far more muscle mass than the average person, who's training hard and trying to create large amounts of glycogen in the muscles, the ideal amount of water is probably considerably more than that.
Another problem bodybuilders experience in contest preparation involves sodium. Bodybuilders know that excess sodium in the body can cause subcutaneous water retention. However, dehydration makes the sodium problem worse. High levels of aldosterone cause sodium to be reabsorbed in the body rather than being flushed out in the urine. But if you are adequately hydrated, the kidneys will excrete any excess sodium. Therefore, small amounts of sodium ingested with your food will not cause undesirable amounts of water retention.
When potassium levels exceed sodium levels in the body, water tends to be drawn into the cells and out from under the skin. However, the body always tries to achieve a balance between intracellular potassium and extra cellular sodium. So if you drop your sodium intake for too long a period, the body will excrete potassium, and you'll end up with low levels of both minerals.
Therefore, going on a low-sodium regimen for several days or more before a contest is not a good idea. (Bodybuilders who lower their sodium levels excessively weeks or months before a show are totally unclear on the concept!) It can be beneficial, however, assuming you're drinking enough water prior to a contest, to wait until the day before the show to cut down on your sodium and to augment your potassium with a potassium supplement. If you wait until the last minute, you can fool your body long enough for this strategy to have some effect.
But having made the case for drinking large amounts of water during the precontest carbing-up period, it should also be pointed out that there is a place for fluid restriction in the preparation process. Some bodybuilders continue to take in fluids during the days before a contest but begin fluid restriction the night before the show, or at the very least the morning of the show. There's some evidence that this is a good idea.
The body needs water in order to turn glucose into muscle glycogen. But once muscle glycogen is formed, it will stay muscle glycogen until it is utilized for energy production. It won't move out of the cell again. So once you have adequately carbed, up, if you then restrict your fluids you won't lose the muscle glycogen that the carbing-up process produced.
In addition, it takes a while for the adrenals to begin producing additional aldosterone in response to lower fluid levels in the body. Therefore, when you first begin restricting your water intake, your kidneys will continue to function normally and flush high volumes of fluid out of the body for a number of hours. So if you begin fluid restriction the night before or the morning of the show, you'll retain your muscle glycogen and continue to lose fluids, making you even harder and more defined without shrinking your muscle size excessively