Peak week- the last week before you compete, during which time you try and optimize your appearance to hit a temporary “peak” on show day- is probably the most discussed, hated, and easy to fuck up piece of any contest prep. Glycogen depleting workouts, sodium manipulation, water loading and restricting, tilapia and asparagus for breakfast because the combination magically “thins your skin…” the bro-science seems to know no end, on the topic. Check out #peakweek and you’ll find all manners of insanity, mostly bitching and whining about being hungry and foggy headed and eating cold fish from sandwich baggies while backing into stationary items and crying over missed Quest bars. I won’t claim I’m not a little foggy-headed at times during contest prep, too- low calories affect us all, but damn…
Contrary to popular bodybuilder-lore, peak week is not “magical.” You will not suddenly transform from not stage ready to stage ready in the course of 7 days. But if you are ready, a proper peak week will give you that extra little push to go from good to great. Luckily, there has been a fair bit of scientific study on the subject of peaking, or coming in to the show looking your absolute best- optimizing your appearance, if you will. I’ve spent a fair bit of time combing through the research and creating my own peak week, tailoring it to my body’s needs. There are three major components to any peak week, and I will discuss each in a post:
- Input (food, water, and supplements)
- Output (training)
- Put On (what to do with the outside of your body- hair, skin, nails, posing, outfit, etc.)
In a summative post, then, I will give two sample peak weak protocols that I have used, to serve not as a prescription, but as a model, as well as my own peak week protocol.
Having found such success last year using a modified version of Layne Norton’s peak week protocol, I have utilized this information once again, as well as my own contest prep notes from last year, to inform my peak week this time around. This protocol is laid out for a much larger person- someone at least twice my body size and with much more muscle mass, so it does require a bit of fine tuning in order to not be overwhelming for my 115 pound body. Little bodies need little adjustments- everything in context, you know?
In my opinion, the input is the most important, and easiest to screw up, part of your peak week, so let’s start there.
The traditional bro-science bodybuilding peak week goes ahead and says fuck science, and throws into the bin everything that even remotely makes sense, instead changing everything at the last possible moment- your fluid intake, the foods you eat, your sodium… fuck what’s worked so far, right? Bodies obviously lose their shit in the last week before you hit the stage and require you to change everything!
Bodies hate change, and will do everything in their power to counteract change, despite your best efforts. Homeostasis. That’s a real thing. Changing your approach during peak week is like getting ready for a race, but then the night before, changing your transmission from automatic to 6 speed, getting new brakes, and changing over to a different gasoline. Why would you do that to yourself?!
I will repeat and repeat and repeat:
There are NO. MAGIC. FOODS.
No, tilapia and asparagus will not magically make you lose 8 pounds of water weight.
No, Oreos will not make you gain 5 pounds overnight.
You don’t need to cut out any foods, or eat any special foods either.
The last week or two before hitting the stage is not the time to experiment with new recipes, snacks, or cuisines, or really new foods at all. Stick to what your body knows. If you have food sensitivities to certain grains or lactose, for example, perhaps skip those things so avoid any bloating- common sense. I keep my fiber slightly lower during peak week (around 18-25g where I normally hit about 35-40g), choosing veggies like asparagus and zucchini over ones that may cause some gas, like broccoli just as a precaution against showing up on stage with an abdomen full of farts. Same goes for carbonated beverages and chewing gum, which I usually take out on Thursday. If there might be gas bubbles, I’m not interested.
With calories being low towards the end of prep, my peak week typically contains a few fewer cookies than weeks leading up, perhaps, but only because it’s just harder to make my belly stop growling if I spend my macros on calorie-dense foods. I also don’t focus on eating the most possible volume of foods, this week either, like I might in other weeks. I don’t want my belly to feel distended this week- my brain needs to just feel and see my body looking tight and lean as the show approaches, just as a peace-of-mind sort of deal. That said, the end of my peak week usually sees my calories being higher than in the weeks leading up, as I try to fill up my muscles, and this is so, so welcomed after weeks of dieting. Largely, my food choices remain pretty similar during peak week as throughout my prep, albeit with a few fewer fibrous veggies and no cottage cheese, as I DO have reactions to dairy (but dammit, I can’t quit it completely!)
Last year I touched on the importance of carbs a bit. Carbohydrates have the special ability to be stored inside your muscles as muscle glycogen, making them appear full and swollen- a desirable look, or course, in a bodybuilding contest. The bigger your muscles look, the leaner you look, the better you will look overall, however, more is not always better. Proper carb intake is key- too little, and you look flat and skinny on stage. Too many, and you look bloated and lose definition- called “overspill.” It’s a delicate balancing act.
Traditional peak week sees you reducing carbs drastically, or even cutting them out entirely, at the beginning of the week, and loading up on them Friday, or maybe Thursday if you’re lucky. This is called backloading, and it’s fucking miserable. The idea behind it is that you get rid of ALL the carbs, stored in the form of glycogen, in your muscle, before super compensating and forcing a bunch more in. You spend the first half of your week doing strenuous workouts with no energy as you eat almost no carbs, and you kind of want to be dead, but you know that on Friday you get some rice cakes or pancakes, so you push through. Friday, then, you load up on carbs- typically a HUGE amount of them. The danger here is that you overshoot, and wake up on show day looking watery, and that’s pretty difficult to fix on a few hours notice, especially since you run the risk of sweating off your tan in the process as well.
The safer approach is to load carbs a bit more modestly, a bit earlier, and then reassess your body’s needs each day. This is called front loading. For men, this can mean as early as Monday, but for me, I like a Wednesday carb load, or even Thursday if I really feel like my body can put it off. I know that of my own body, three days of carbs consecutively can lead to a bit of bloating, so I am careful to pinch and poke and assess what I look and feel like before deciding ultimately when I will carb up and how much. I keep my initial carb up moderate- about the level I use as a refeed in the last few weeks or prep, and adjust based on appearance and feeling during each meal leading up to the show, adding more, maintaining, or backing off as needed- a careful balancing act that requires a lot of attention to detail… and restraint.
Traditional peaking methods will see you doing a water load- sometimes gallons per day- at the beginning of the week, then tapering off your intake until the days before the show you are literally drinking nothing or next to nothing- I’m talking 8oz allowed in a day, in some cases. Girls will be showing up to the morning show on Saturday looking like mummies- using Vaseline to keep their lips from sticking to their teeth because they are so parched.
Not cool. Not healthy.
Also not necessary, and actually detrimental.
Fun fact: bodies are mostly made out of water. And bodies are smarter than you, despite how you may try to trick them. I’m not even going to TL;DR this one, just watch the video about water.
As for me, I keep my intake the same as always through Friday, averaging about 150 ounces each day, being more careful to not overdo it as show day nears. Personally, I have a tendency to drink a lot if left to my own devices, so I have to keep a pretty conscious eye on my intake so I don’t take in more than I can process, leaving me swollen up like a balloon, but for most people this isn’t a concern, and I find that most are under-hydrating as a habit.
Saturday morning, I have a cup or two of coffee while getting my makeup and final tan coat done (which is great because coffee makes you poop, and also I’m a massive bitch without it, to be honest), and drink water as needed throughout the day. I carry my 36oz water bottle around with me all day. I’m not forcing myself to drink, because I don’t want my belly to be full of water, but I’m also not stopping myself from drinking. I’m not worried about electrolytes and crap because I haven’t messed with my sodium and mineral intake at all this week, so there’s nothing to worry about. My muscles aren’t cramping from dehydration, I don’t feel terrible, my muscle cells are nice and hydrated and looking nice and full- water is your friend!
Sodium and Supplements
I operate on the KISS method here: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
I don’t change a damn thing. I don’t make a habit of tracking my sodium, like I do pretty much everything else. I remain aware of how much salt I am adding to my food, careful only to not have more than normal, but otherwise don’t toy with it. Once I made the mistake of making a Thai dish that was particularly heavy on the fish sauce the night before a photo shoot- don’t do that- but being super restrictive about it it’s necessary either.
I keep my supplementation the same all the way through prep, including during peak week. During the last two or three weeks of prep, I do double my vitamin C dosage (normally I take 1/2 of a pill, but I begin taking a whole one) simply because being so lean and working so hard is pretty hard on the body, and I’m not trying to get sick before show day, but otherwise I stay constant with my vitamin D, magnesium, fish oil (I take krill oil because fish burps, but same deal), and zinc.
Some cut out powders like pre workout, BCAAs, and creatine, because… again I guess they assume their body is different when they reach one week out and they need to change up the game. Creatine is sometimes blamed for water retention, but LISTEN, honey. The water retained is reflected on the scale, maybe, but in the mirror? This water should be reflected back to you with fuller muscles- the water retained is intercellular, giving your muscles a fuller, rounder effect- not interstitial, sitting below the skin. If you’ve been taking creatine throughout your prep, let it be. Don’t mess with what’s already been working! If you’ve not had a weird bodily reaction to your preworkout or protein powder during your prep, why would you suddenly this week? Don’t overthink this. You’ve got enough to think about without trying to reinvent the supplemental wheel here.
Now… which of us on this stage did all of the above, and which of us was thirsty and eating cold tilapia and sweet potatoes in tiny portions covered in honey backstage, discussing the massive pizza and ice cream gorge-fest they were planning after the show?
You cannot outsmart your body.