20 Tips To MaximizeYour Physique and Compete in Bodybuilding and Figure Shows
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
Having worked with various figure, bodybuilding, and bikini competitors over the years I felt it was time to write an article showcasing 20 of the most important tips you’ll need to implement if you’re looking to maximize your physique and compete with the best.
However, before I go any further I want to congratulate my incredible client and national figure competitor Leslie Petch for winning multiple divisions in her latest NPC figure show. Having worked with Leslie for well over 5 years I can honestly say she’s one of the hardest working and most dedicated clients I’ve ever trained. Competing in NPC competitions can be quite a daunting task not only because of the incredibly high level of competition but also because many of the competitors including those in female figure are using steroids and other illegal ergogenic aids.
Leslie is a true example of a completely natural competitor who’s never touched any steroids or anabolic drugs. Instead she’s chosen to put in the painstaking hours of intense training and dialed-in nutrition to reach her goals in a 100% natural fashion. Furthermore in her mid-50s, Leslie has a better physique then most individuals in their 20’s and 30’s. In addition, Leslie had not previously participated in any form of organized resistance training or fitness workouts until she began working with me in her early 50’s.
I’m highlighting Leslie not only to show what it takes to reach this level of fitness and physique development but to showcase how most individuals regardless of their age or previous training history are capable of reaching their goals if in fact they’re willing to fully commit to their objective and put in the necessary work.
In addition, each of these 20 components laid out below was strategically implemented into Leslie’s training routine to optimize her results and prepare her for her latest victory. Even if you’re not looking to compete but are simply looking to get stronger, fitter, and more muscular you’ll probably want to implement these 20 factors into your routine (with the exceptions of #17, 18, and 19).
1. Focus on gaining strength in compound movements. If you’re looking to maximize your physique and muscularity particularly without the use of steroids or other illegal drugs, the key is getting stronger on the basic compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, chest presses, pullups, rows, overhead presses, lunges, and hinges. As your strength increases, your size, muscularity, and overall fitness will inevitably improve.
2. Use eccentric isometrics. As many of you you know I’m a huge fan of using eccentric isometrics for all of my athletes and clients as they’re the single most effective training tool for optimizing muscle function and movement mechanics. However, I’ve also found them to be the single most potent stimulus for triggering functional hypertrophy throughout the entire body.
3. Train full-body frequently. For most of my athletes including my bodybuilding and figure competitors, we use predominantly full body routines or routines that emphasize targeting the entire body at least multiple times per week. In fact, many of my clients including Leslie incorporate full body routines 5-6 days per week. This doesn’t mean that we crush the same muscles day after day but instead we strategically alter volume, loading parameters, and intensity to maximize neuromuscular efficiency and functional size. If you’re looking for a training routine that outlines exactly what you need to optimize your genetic potential for strength and size, check out the training programs I offer here on my website. In fact, most of what I use with my clients involves the various protocols laid out in the Complete Series Templates combined with elements of the Advanced 6 Day Split, Monster Mass, and 4 Day Split. Read more about these programs here.
4. Don’t overtrain. Although I recommend frequently targeting muscle groups and movement patterns I’m also very careful to avoid overtraining with my clients and athletes by monitoring progress, volume, and intensity. However the number one key to avoiding signs of overtraining is to use proper form and body mechanics. If you’re getting overly sore or can’t gain strength and size, chances are you're either using faulty body mechanics or overtraining or most likely a combination of both.
5. Keep it simple for a majority of your training but periodically shock your muscles. Focusing on gaining strength on the basic movements is key. Although I like to implement unique and creative exercise variations particularly those that require greater motor control and strict body mechanics, these unique movements only comprise 10-20% of what I use with my clients. With that in mind I will periodically implement unique movement variations and protocols to provide a foreign stimulus to the body for the sake of maximizing growth. Some of these include the hanging band technique, accommodating resistance (bands and chains), offset training, bottoms up movements, perturbation training, overcoming isometrics, pre-exhaustion, eccentric accentuated training, heavy negatives PREP training, partials, rest pause, forced reps, drop sets, double stimulation, and many others.
6. Use cardio and conditioning strategically. The worst thing you can do when trying to gain functional size and strength is to overdo it on cardio and conditioning as it can make you overly catabolic ultimately impairing your ability to build muscle tissue. However, completely neglecting cardio can be problematic as well as it sets the individual up for excess fat storage not to mention decreasing the insulin sensitivity of their muscles. Aim for 1-3 high intensity interval sessions per week and 2-4 steady state cardio sessions involving predominately brisk pace walking either on an incline treadmill or outdoors.
7. Focus on squats, deadlifts, hinges, and lunges for maximizing your glutes and hamstrings. There’s nothing wrong with using glute bridges, hip thrusters and leg curls for developing your posterior chain. However a majority of your size and muscularity in your backside should be produced from squats, hinges, and lunges. If hip thrusters and glute bridges give you more size and results in your glutes and hamstrings than squats, hinges, deadlifts, and lunges, then you’re most likely performing squats, hinges, deadlifts, and lunges improperly. When performed with proper execution those movements should involve significant stimulation to the glutes and hamstrings. In fact a majority of Leslie’s glute and hamstring development was produced from squats, deadlifts, RDL’s, lunges, Bulgarian squats, and variations thereof with periodic use of glute and hamstring isolation work dispersed throughout. Ironically in every competition the judges are quick to point out that her glutes and hamstrings are some of the best they’ve seen.
8. Maximize your body mechanics, technique, and muscle function. As previously mentioned I use eccentric isometrics quite frequently with my clients as these are incredibly effective not only for enhancing strength and size but for improving body mechanics and technique. Maximizing your form and muscle function is one of the most important yet oftentimes neglected aspects of bodybuilding and figure training. If you truly want to gain the most size and strength possible you’ll want to improve your movement mechanics as this will allow you to optimally stimulate all of the available fibers.
9. Eliminate physique weaknesses by focusing on technique. Most lifters inevitably have certain strengths and weaknesses when it comes to physique appearance and size. For example many bodybuilders often have excellent quad development but poor glute and hamstring development. Although this can be remedied by incorporating additional isolation work for the posterior chain, the single most important factor for having a proportional and well-balanced physique is proper technique and lifting mechanics. This places adequate stress and stimulation across all of the targeted muscles without over-emphasizing some and under-emphasizing others. Although genetics and individual differences can account for some imbalances in the physique, if you consistently run into issues of having areas of weakness and disproportionality from a physique standpoint, chances are your technique needs to be improved.
Another comment Leslie consistently received from figure and bodybuilding judges is how well-rounded her physique is and how she always brings a full package with no visible weaknesses. This is predominately due to the fact that she uses proper technique on the large compound movements thereby stressing the muscles in their ideal fashion rather than trying to overemphasize particular muscles groups by erroneously adjusting her form (a common mistake made by most bodybuilding and figure competitors).
10. Get serious about your diet and nutrition. If you want to maximize your physique as well as your health and fitness, diet is paramount. Although it will differ slightly from person to person, focus on a moderately higher protein intake (roughly 1 gram per pound of bodyweight), moderate carb intake (this will vary from person to person usually ranging from .75 to 1.75 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight), and moderate to slightly higher amounts of healthy fats (usually .5 grams per pound of bodyweight. In addition carbohydrates should be monitored fairly strictly with many of them consumed after workouts. In addition a majority of them should come from whole foods and complex fibrous sources such as veggies, yams, sweet potatoes, oats, quinoa, rice, fruit, oat bran, wheat germ, and buckwheat. For maximizing strength and size (if body fat levels are relatively low) try to get a good amount of fast digesting carbohydrates in post workouts which produces an anabolic insulin spike (i.e. dextrose, sugars, or simple carbs).
11. Get your supplements locked in. Although a majority of your results should come through proper training and nutrition every competitor can get an additional 10-20% out of their physique by using natural supplements that help promote recovery, strength, muscularity, and leanness. These include but are not limited to protein powder, BCAA’s, creatine, beta-alanine, citruline malate, betaine, arginine, CLA, HMB, ZMA, Colostrum, fish oil, and other natural supplements.
12. Improve your posture. Posture is not only pivotal for quality of life, optimal movement mechanics, and joint health, but it plays a key role in maximizing physical appearance. In fact without proper posture it’s nearly impossible to stimulate your muscles properly as you're essentially short-circuiting neural signals due to the fact that your spine represents the signaling highway of your body. If you lack size in your back, chest, glutes, and other larger muscles, chances are your posture and spinal alignment needs correcting.
13. Build a muscle-mind connection. The muscle-mind connection is real. Learning how to optimally stimulate and activate the muscles you’re intending to target by mentally focusing on contracting and firing those muscles has been scientifically shown to maximize muscle activation. If you have trouble feeling your muscles firing or working on various movements you need to lighten up the load and focus on squeezing and contracting the muscles you're attempting to emphasize. In addition, learning proper form and mechanics is perhaps the single most important factor there is when it comes to mastering the muscle-mind connection.
14. Improve your foot and ankle mechanics for maximal lower body growth. The single most neglected factor for optimizing strength and size particularly in the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves is foot and ankle activation. If these portions of your lower extremities (feet and ankles) are not in proper alignment or simply aren’t activated properly you’ll be unable to maximally stimulate the other larger muscles up the kinetic chain. In fact, if your quad sweep, calve size or glute development is lacking, try working on your feet and ankles. Not only will your strength and size improve immensely but your joints including your knees, hips, ankles, low back, and neck will feel remarkably better. For more on this topic check out the Ultimate Foot and Ankle Book
15. Don’t forget about other lifestyle factors. Lifestyle factors are key when it comes to maximizing physique, health, and fitness. That’s because these can alter hormones and biochemistry which ultimately have a tremendous impact on the physique. Generally speaking try to get at least 6-8 hours of sleep per night (this varies from person to person). Avoid stress as much as possible (work, family, environment). Try to take periodic walks and stay active throughout the day as this keep the metabolism elevated. In general, most individuals should try to accumulate at least 30 minutes of walking per day in addition to the training they perform at the gym. Lastly, avoid excessive alcohol. A few drinks per week won’t have a significant impact on your physique but more than that and you’ll be shortchanging your progress making it nearly impossible to maximize your genetic potential in terms of physique and fitness. Oh and stay away from recreational drugs period.
16. Use BioSignature Modulation to optimize your physique. Charles Poliquin developed the BioSignature Modulation protocol roughly a decade ago. This simply involves using body fat assessment and analysis to provide greater insight into endocrine function, hormonal balancing and metabolic function. For example when training a client if I notice certain areas of their body seem to be holding more fat than others, this is typically an indication of a hormonal imbalance (testosterone, estrogen, cortisol, insulin, growth hormone, etc.) and can usually be remedied or greatly improved via adjustments in their training routine, diet, or supplement protocols. Although the BioSignature Modulation has its share of naysayers, it’s something I’ve found to be very useful and informative when training my own clients particularly for figure and bodybuilding competitions.
17. Learn how to pose. Posing is incredibly important when it comes to bodybuilding, figure, physique, or bikini competitions. This can literally make or break your success on stage. If you have an amazing physique but don’t exude confidence or are not able to properly display your physique for the judges and audience, your results in competition will be marginal at best. Find yourself a coach or fellow competitor that knows how to pose properly and learn from them. In addition, you’ll need to practice in front of the mirror quite often. It’s also good to find your own significant yet subtle posing trademark themes to help you stand out from other competitors so you’re not just another random body to the judges. Just remember each type of competition has its own unique form of posing as bodybuilding, physique, figure, and bikini, are all different so make sure you learn the appropriate format.
18. Find the right suit. When picking out your suite or posing trunks, make sure you feel comfortable in whatever you choose but also make sure it matches your skin tone, persona, personality, and posing routine. Although you don’t want to get too flashy it’s always good to go with something slightly different to help set you apart from other competitors. Lastly, for female figure competitors, classy jewelry can add a nice touch to your physique and give you an extra sparkle on stage.
19. Don’t get extreme with diet and water manipulation. Most competitors have a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot the week or several days leading up to the show as they end up implementing some crazy carbohydrate and or sodium/potassium manipulation protocol they read online for the sake of cutting water and body fat. Generally speaking there should not be a massive adjustment needed the last 7 days leading up to the show. If this does seem to be needed then chances are you did not dial in your training and nutrition properly the several months leading up to the contest. With Leslie, she kept her diet 95% the same including the last several days leading up to the day of the show with few if any significant modifications beforehand other than what she did to get her physique to where it needed to be leading up the competition.
20. Use periodic re-feeds. Something I witness quite commonly with many individuals including bodybuilders and physique competitors is their metabolism begins to slow down due to overly strict dieting and caloric deprivation. Using periodic re-feeds (spiking your calories for a day by 300-900 kcal) every 5-14 days can help create a metabolic spike and keep your body from going into starvation mode. Besides maximizing size and muscularity this is also incredibly important for cutting body fat.
To read more about Leslie's victory and see more contest pictures check out the official NPC website here.