For first-time competitors and bodybuilding amateurs alike, contest peak week is a stressful, enigmatic process. Nothing is more demotivating than spending months training hard, doing hours of daily cardio, and following a strict diet plan only to see it all fall apart in the immediate hours before your contest.
In fact, this is why many bodybuilders never make it past their first competition.
Naturally, peak week tends to be the focal point for competitors during their contest preparation; they want everything to come together perfectly, while also not doing something wrong and ruining their look (which often happens, unfortunately).
Crazily enough, many competitors (even seasoned veterans) still have no idea what they’re doing come peak week. It’s almost like a mystical process to them and they try new tactics every time out of pure speculation and curiosity of what should happen.
Moreover, these competitors usually get their recommendations for proper peaking strategies from anonymous “bodybuilding gurus” who reassure them, “Don’t worry, bro; it worked for me.”
It goes without saying that there is no cookie-cutter peak week protocol that will work best for everyone. Contest peak week is very much a trial-and-error endeavor, but there is still plenty of science and calculation behind it, which is exactly what this guide is going to cover.
Most importantly, after reading this guide you will have a general guideline of how to approach your contest peak week (and likely bring an outstanding package to the stage come show-day).
The problem with all of this is that too few people make the effort to understand the variables and working parts in the process.
When you don’t understand how things work, you cannot adapt to the process, you cannot be flexible, and you cannot be consistent with outcomes.
In actuality, there are really only three primary variables you need to concern yourself with for an effective peak week:
Before we delve deeper into these variables, it’s important that we start with the question very few people ask, which is, “What are the primary goals of contest peak week?”
Oddly, peaking goals aren’t something that a lot of bodybuilders really take the time to consider.
If you ask most bodybuilders what their objectives are with their peak week they’ll likely recite that they want to be swole, jacked, shredded, peeled, and numerous other wonderfully diverse adjectives that describe a lean, muscular human being.
However, there’s a bit more precision required as those adjectives are woefully unclear. Once you clearly identify the objectives of peak week, then you start to get a clearer idea of how to proceed.
Before we delve into what a proper peak week SHOULD accomplish, let’s look at what should NOT be an objective during peak week.
Most competitors incorrectly assume that contest peak week is a last-ditch effort to cut as much body fat as possible before taking the stage.
It cannot be emphasized enough that you should be “stage lean” at least one week prior to peak week.
If you find yourself not being lean enough going into peak week, you are better off bypassing the peaking objectives covered herein and just using that week to cut more body fat.
Ideally, if you aren’t lean enough, the best option is to aim for a future show so you have the necessary time to diet. Contest peak week is not a magical time frame by any means; if you’re not lean enough going into peak week, no amount of nutrient/salt manipulation is going to make you appear leaner on stage than competitors who are stage lean.
Many competitors and contest prep coaches purport that the primary reason for a “missed peak” arises from holding excessive water.
Given that humans are mainly comprised of water (upwards of 70%), it doesn’t require much brainpower to arrive at such a conclusion.
Nevertheless, the supposition that cutting water during contest peak week is the main objective couldn’t be further from the truth.
We will get more in-depth with water intake, but for now, it’s important to note that reducing total body water content is not an objective of peak week.
There’s a longstanding conception in bodybuilding subculture that certain foods thin the skin (such as fish, especially tilapia and cod). In short, this is plain silly and has no basis in how your body/skin functions physiologically.
If you want our skin to appear “thinner,” you simply need to be leaner (e.g. have less body fat). Don’t buy into the idea that eating fish will magically make your skin more like that of an actual fish. It’s sad that this is the level of understanding some people have about how their body works.
Now that you know what shouldn’t be accomplished by a proper contest peak week, let’s look at what should be accomplished.
This objective is achieved via several mechanisms. Firstly, you must ensure maximum storage of carbohydrates within muscle tissue in the form of glycogen. Secondly, you need to consume sufficient water/fluid adequate to be stored in skeletal muscle tissue. Lastly, you’ll want to properly balance electrolytes, specifically sodium and potassium.
This is accomplished by avoiding glucose/carbohydrate spillover, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances (particularly sodium and potassium).
Now that you know the objectives for peak week, let’s look at some of the variables you will use to accomplish these objectives and bring your best look to the stage come show day!
It’s rather common knowledge to competitors that carbohydrates help bring a fuller looking physique to the stage. You don’t have to be a bodybuilder to be familiar with the concept of “carbohydrate loading,” which is a common practice in many sports.
When you consume carbohydrates, the body breaks them down into glucose so they can either be used as energy or stored as glycogen for later use.
However, glucose can also be converted into body fat (adipose tissue) through a process called de novo lipogenesis; though this is a rather inefficient process for the body, and if there is space to store incoming glucose as glycogen, then the body will preferentially do so.
This is particularly true during peak week considering that a long contest prep of calorie restriction, and low body fat levels, creates a situation where your body is exceptionally insulin sensitive and ready to store carbohydrates efficiently.
Hence, carbohydrates are crucial for maximizing your muscular fullness during peak week.
The key to proper carbohydrate loading hinges almost entirely on the quantity you consume.
Some competitors feel that certain foods are ‘best’ when carb loading for a contest. This simply isn’t true. There is a range of foods that can be used for a proper pre-contest carb load. Again, quantity is the true key to carb loading success.
Far too often competitors assert that they need a “Massive carb up to be swole, bruh!” I assure you that such a mentality will leave you looking like a bloated walrus on stage, even if you are lean.
As aforementioned, glucose can be stored as glycogen as an energy reserve, primarily in muscle tissue and the liver (and to a minute degree in the brain).
The average 180-lb human body can store roughly 350-500 grams of glycogen in muscle tissue and about 60-120 grams of glycogen in the liver.
These quantities are largely dependent on the size of the individual and the muscle mass that they carry. Since bodybuilders are typically much larger and more muscular than sedentary humans, it’s possible that they could hold upwards of 800+ grams of glycogen.
It’s imperative to note that glycogen must be stored with water (more on this later).
Glycogen is roughly 3-4 parts water; this is to say that every one gram of glycogen attracts about three to four grams of water. The combination of glycogen and water stored in the muscle provides fullness and roundness to the muscle tissue.
This not only makes you appear larger but also leaner (two great things come show day).
Fuller muscles push out more forcefully against the skin, making you appear tighter. As an analogy, think of a water balloon that is only partially filled.
A half-filled balloon will have an exterior that is a bit soft and mushy. The more you fill the balloon, the tighter it will get as the water pushes out against the rubber.
The same thing happens to your skin. The more you carb up (to a point), the bigger, tighter, and more vascular you will look.
Nevertheless, more is not always better regarding carbohydrate loading. As aforementioned, there is limited storages space for glycogen within the body.
So what happens if you continue to carb load once all of the glycogen space has been occupied? This is when you get what is referred to as “spillover” or carbohydrate “spill”. If you consume more carbs than your body can store as glycogen, much of the excess glucose will begin to spill over into the interstitial spaces and begin to make you look watery and bloated.
Drastically depleting water consumption prior to a bodybuilding contest is practically gospel among competitors. Walk into most any bodybuilding show with a jug of water and embrace the stares you receive.
The other competitors will probably laugh at you and think you’re clueless about how to peak properly. Oh, the irony of it all…
The idea behind peak week water cutting is the supposition that water resides under the skin, and thus, is what blurs muscular definition; therefore, if you dehydrate yourself, there will be no water under the skin to do so.
Seems like a nice and easy explanation of water physiology in humans, right? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple and there are numerous problems that stem from dehydrating yourself in an effort to achieve that perfect conditioning peak.
In the carbohydrate section, we covered the importance of water for achieving maximum muscle fullness.
Recall that water stored with muscle glycogen is what provides fullness to your muscles. The glycogen-to-water ratio in humans is approximately one gram of glycogen for every 2.7 grams of water.
However, it’s possible that it could be even higher than that, as some research shows it could be closer to one gram of glycogen for every 3-4 grams of water.
This should show just how important water is, and how much it is responsible for “filling” your muscles.
Despite many competitors and contest prep coaches understanding that water stored with glycogen is responsible for muscle fullness, they believe they can circumvent the system and keep water in the muscle while eliminating water content that is not stored in muscle tissue.
What these people fail to acknowledge is that water balance within the human body is strictly conserved.
The body is composed of roughly 60% water; of this 60%, about 65% of it is located within intracellular compartments – known as intracellular fluid (ICF) – some of which is within muscle cells. The other 35% is extracellular fluid (ECF), which is fluid found outside of your cells. Many people worry that this 35% of bodily fluid is what is causing their soft and smooth look on stage, but not all of that ECF is contained in spaces that cause “blurring” of muscular definition.
Let’s take a look at a rough breakdown of body water percentages:
The main area of concern for bodybuilders is the interstitial fluid. This is the area of fluid that can detract from your muscular definition on stage.
Interstitial fluid is found between cells and contains various salts, hormones, glucose, etc.
So what can you do to reduce the amount of interstitial fluid you hold? Fun fact: You can’t!
Remember, water compartments are tightly regulated by your body. The good news is that you don’t need to worry about that, because your body’s intrinsic water balance operates to your advantage.
The majority of fluid in your body remains in the intracellular compartments (which is where you want it). Plasma fluid is also advantageous since it encourages better blood flow and pumps. Hence, a negligible amount of water resides in the space between cells.
You may be asking yourself, if this interstitial fluid is nothing to worry about, then how do people spill over? That’s a pertinent question.
In this situation, water is not the problem; rather, it’s the excess glucose (carbohydrate) that is the problem. As covered in the carbohydrates section, your goal should be to fill the muscle with as much carbohydrate as possible.
When you fill the muscle with glycogen, water naturally follows along.
However, once the muscle tissue has reached full capacity, there comes a point where the glucose has nowhere to go. In this case, excessive glucose tends to float around in the interstitial space and water will trickle along.
The important thing to always remember is that water follows substrates. Wherever there is glucose, sodium, potassium, water will seek those nutrients out.
As such, you want to make sure that solutes are being placed where you want them to be, and in the amounts you want them to be.
If you do this, your water intake can be rather high throughout all of the contest peak week with no ramifications; any excess water you consume will simply be expelled via urination.
Understanding this, you can be more cerebral with your carb loading. A carb load that is too minimal will have you saying, “This carb load left me looking flat on stage!”
A carb up that is too aggressive will leave you saying, “This carb load made me spillover and look smooth on stage!” Contrarily, if you hit the right amount you’ll be left saying “This carb load was perfect; my muscles were popping and I had veins all over!”
Quantitatively, I find that most competitors do very well during peak week with a steady intake of 1.5-2 gallons of water per day, every day, up until show-day.
At no point during contest peak week should you feel dehydrated.
While carbohydrates and water are the main variables during peak week, proper sodium and potassium balance is basically the cherry on top.
These electrolytes are quite misunderstood and underappreciated factors throughout the peak week process. Many competitors (and their prep coaches) drastically adjust sodium/potassium intake during peak week, while others don’t even bother manipulating/tracking salt consumption.
So which is correct? In truth, you can absolutely benefit your stage appearance with proper manipulating of sodium and potassium, but only minor adjustments will be necessary.
For starters, be aware that sodium and potassium work in conjunction to regulate water balance in and out of cells by way of the sodium/potassium ion pump (Na/K pump).
Sodium is found in high concentrations outside of cells (in the interstitial fluid) and potassium is found in high concentrations within cells (where it can and will draw water).
Upon hearing this, many competitors think they can just cut sodium, load potassium, and all of the water will follow potassium into the cell because there will be no sodium to draw water to the interstitial space.
That is actually where the myth of cutting sodium and loading potassium comes from, and once again it doesn’t work like that in real life.
As such, the most common approach among competitors is to significantly cut sodium intake during peak week and concurrently increase/load potassium. Most competitors do this by eating bland foods and supplementing with potassium pills or eating things like bananas and potatoes.
Let me assure you, this is setting yourself up for nothing but regret come contest day.
The fear of sodium before a show comes with the idea that sodium will make you hold water (which is in fact true). As previously discussed, water follows solutes throughout your body.
As you likely are aware, sodium makes you retain fluid/water; carbohydrates do the same, and so does potassium.
However, for contest peak week, we aren’t concerned with simply “holding water,” but rather “holding water in advantageous places,” specifically skeletal muscle tissue.
When your body is retaining excessive amounts of water, it’s a great thing so long as it’s being held in areas that enhance your stage appearance. Contrarily, if you’re holding gross amounts of water in the interstitial space, your muscle definition will fade and you will look fat/soft on stage.
The conundrum competitors face is that the Na/K pump requires both sodium and potassium to function properly.
The Na/K pump works by transporting two potassium ions into the cell while transporting three sodium ions out of the cell. Potassium cannot make it into the cell to provide more fullness without sodium.
If you cut sodium, then the Na/K pump will stop working; thus, potassium will begin to pile up outside of the cells and draw water to it. This leads to spilling over.
It’s key to note that sodium plays a myriad of other roles throughout the body, and serves as a crucial mediator of blood volume.
Higher sodium intakes lead to greater blood volume, which can induce greater pumps while you take the stage, which leads to a bigger/fuller look.
With this understanding, it should be clear that you should never cut sodium or load potassium in excessive amounts.
Typically, I have found that a ratio of 4:1-5:1 of sodium to potassium works well for most people.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you exactly how many carbs you should load with during peak week, nor can I tell you the optimal water, sodium, and potassium content you will require during peak week. Each person has vastly different requirements based on their size, leanness, genetics, and many other variables. However, once you understand how the variables all interact with each other, you are free to try new and subtle combinations while avoiding disastrous situations.
Nevertheless, here are general recommendations for contest peak week water and salt intake:
Water: 1.5-2 gallons of water per day, every day up until the contest
Sodium & Potassium Intake: 4:1-5:1 ratio of added sodium to potassium (e.g. 100 mg sodium per 20 mg potassium)
Refer to the sample contest peak week section below if you are completely unsure of how many carbs to eat.
One final note: if you’re already looking great going into peak week (which you should be), then only minor changes are necessary.
If you aren’t sure what to do, a conservative approach is always going to be best. Always remember that peak week is merely the icing on the cake; you should be stage-ready the week prior to contest peak week.
Use the final week to put the finishing touches on your physique.
Your contest peak week supplements shouldn’t be much different than what you were using in prior weeks.
Here is what we recommend if you’re looking for a simple, effect contest peak week supplement plan:
This section will outline a basic contest peak week schedule with a rather conservative carb load. During your exercise, make sure to perform them in the order listed. This is a good plan to follow if you’ve never competed in the past and don’t want to spillover.
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