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Contest Prep Chronicles – Part 1: On a mission to be shredded

Case study, assessment and prioritising goals

I can remember a young skinny boy looking up at posters and watching movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, idolizing the sick condition of Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV and the impressive stature of Dolph Lundgren as Yvan Drago, his opponent.

I remember myself as an unfinished human teenage product of 6’1’’ and 165 pounds, with just enough skin to cover my bones. Muscles were something optional that I didn’t have, and even though I was very athletic at a young age, I wasn’t the kind of guy you would look at as being ‘’an athlete’’.

So many things have changed with the years and the education, the thousands of books read, the many seminars attended…I now understand a lot of things in this field and I must say bodybuilding has helped me evolve over all these years. The discipline it has taught me is in many ways the reason I made it to my last contest.

As you read these lines, I’m probably resting or leaving the post-surgery room at the hospital. ‘’Oh my god! What happened? He probably harmed himself because he is doing bodybuilding!! What a sick and unhealthy sport!!’’ – Ok wait and read carefully because the reason I ended up there has no link with bodybuilding.

In fact, bodybuilding helped me realize that I had an underlying problem with one of my kidneys. But before I tell you the whole story, let me tell you how this contest prep began and all the steps I made to get to my all-time best level conditioning.

By reading this, not only will you see the different steps I followed to prepare but also, I will give you tricks to get over the hard spots and comment on what you should do differently than I did.

18 weeks out

I decided to put myself under pressure and get out of my comfort zone. The idea was to come back to serious bodybuilding after 10 years as a contest prep coach. Seeing all those guys and girls getting themselves into great shape for shows has always left me with a taste of it and this time, for various reasons, I just thought that it was now or never.

I told myself ‘’I must do this show in 18 weeks or I will never get back on stage’’. My wife and I discussed it at length, and we finally decided that it could be a good idea to show what I am capable of. Plus, I needed some more stuff to market myself and show people what I look like in real condition. I have learned a lot of stuff the last years and experience has made me a better coach, but I was craving to try these things on myself.

First step I did was to rid my diet of the bad stuff and increase my calories using ALL GOOD stuff. I didn’t want to put myself into a calorie deficit so soon in the diet because I also had some muscle mass to gain in the process. This was a ‘’grow into the show’’ contest prep type. I ain’t no Kevin Levrone, but I think to a certain point, some people are more prone to growth when prepping than others.

Then, I also increased my training frequency and increased the volume in each session over the course of the next 4-6 weeks. I was training 6 times a week with an upper/lower split. My opinion is that growing muscle to serious level requires you to hit them hard at least twice a week. Less than that is not optimal, except if you are a genetic freak or are using PED.

Stats at 18 weeks out were:

Weight: 235 lbs – flat and low muscle tone from low volume and low frequency of training

  • Diet started at:

Proteins: 350gr
Carbs: 400gr
Fat: 50gr

Total calories: 3450 – which is not that much but you must consider that I was eating a low amount of calories and training at low volume/frequency

  • Assessment pictures:

  • Supplements used:

First thing in the morning
2gr l-tyrosine
600mg alpha GPC
1000mg Acetyl-l-carnitine
Apple cider vinegar and cinnamon (digestion, blood sugar)

Intra workout
20-30gr EAA intra workout
10gr glutamine intra-workout
Hydromax

Last meal and before bed
1 tsp fish oil (omega-3)
1000mg magnesium blend
Camomile tea (for sleep – increase GABA)

12 weeks out

My body had adapted to the high load and volume of work, so I needed to up my game a little. I decided to change my training regimen to go into extreme high frequency and volume spread over the week. Something inspired by the work of Dr. Scott Stevenson and his fortitude training.

The plan was to hit whole body at each training session but with different intensity and goals for each muscle group. Lower body could be hit hard and intense for the big lifts in the 6-10 reps range for one session, while the upper body pumped out the sweat for sets of 15-25 reps per upper body muscle.

All exercises shot for 1-3 working sets maximum. This was effective, as I started to gain back some muscle with this routine.

I also needed to tweak my cardio and increase my calorie expenditure, so I started to introduce fasted morning “cardio”. Nothing too fancy, just a walk on an inclined treadmill every morning. I shed some more fat slowly from there.  Thanks to my good friend Christian Thibaudeau for the morning walks we did together!!

At this point, stats were looking like this:

Weight: 242 lbs (heavier and leaner)

  • Diet outline:

Proteins: 350gr
Carbs: 300gr
Fat: 50gr

Calories:  3050 cals

  • Assessment pictures:

  • Supplements used:         

First thing in the morning
2gr l-tyrosine
600mg alpha GPC
1000mg Acetyl-l-carnitine
Apple cider vinegar and cinnamon (digestion, blood sugar)

*I did have a big cup of black coffee right before morning fasted cardio

Intra workout
20-30gr EAA intra workout
10gr glutamine intra-workout
Hydromax 3gr per workout

Last meal and before bed
1 tsp fish oil (omega-3)
1000mg magnesium blend
Camomile tea (for sleep – increase GABA)

10 weeks out

The added morning fasted cardio and increased HIIT interval plus all the training regimen through the roof clearly depleted me to a much higher degree than what I was used too.  I felt a loss in strength, but also in size. I then decided that it was time to add ‘’refeed days’’. Be careful here, I said “refeed day” and not “cheatday”.

I had never cheated once in the whole prep, not even a piece of cake or a cookie, not even something that contained sugar or bad fat. And without any scientific proof of this, I still think it is one of the reasons I was able to consume that many carbs all along the prep and continued to gain muscle while shedding fat at a continuous rate.

The actual refeed day consisted of higher amount of carbs that are easily digestible and contain fewer fat than usual.For example, instead of oatmeal (which is already lean), I used a high amount of cream of wheat or cream of rice. Instead of Ezekiel bread (which is very high in fiber – good for health and blood sugar stability but can be hard to digest if eating too much) – I’d eat bagels or English muffins.

All in all, I used foods that I could enjoy without hurting the progression. On the refeed day, I’d hit 400gr of carbs which is a moderate amount of carbs, but we must consider that I was already eating carbs everyday. So, I increased the carbs on one day per week, but I dropped them on workout days to 200gr carbs.

This is something tolerable for a couple of days, but at the end of the week, I was really glad to see the refeed day coming. Depleting was difficult but the Saturday refeed was giving me some ‘’fuel to burn on’’ for the remaining weeks.

At this point, stats were looking like this:

Weight: 240 lbs (a bit flatter than 12 weeks out)

  • Diet outline:

Proteins: 350gr
Carbs: 200gr
Fat: 50gr

Calories:  2650 cals

  • Assessment pictures:

  • Supplements used:         

First thing in the morning
2gr l-tyrosine
600mg alpha GPC
1000mg Acetyl-l-carnitine
Apple cider vinegar and cinnamon (digestion, blood sugar)

*I did add a big cup of black coffee here right before my morning fasted cardio

Intra workout
20-30gr EAA intra workout
10gr glutamine intra-workout
Hydromax 3gr per workout

Last meal and before bed
1 tsp fish oil (omega-3)
1000mg magnesium blend
Camomile tea (for sleep – increase GABA)

8 weeks out

Things were going pretty well as muscle separations were slowly showing and workout sessions were productive. But I started to have sleep issues. I would wake up often and my nights were not restorative. I woke up in the morning and it took everything to get me out of bed, and at night I had a hard time falling asleep even though I was tired. My cortisol was completely out of whack.

So, here are the supplements I added to counter this:

First thing in the morning
100mg licorice roots
50mg pantetine
100mg astragale roots
100mg ashwaganda

I would take this stack upon waking, at noon and by the end of the evening too. This stack is really a blend of adaptogen and cortisol modulator. It really helped bring up my cortisol levels in the morning (which is a good thing) and made me functional all day.

After diner
125mg of magnolia bark
125mg of holy basil
100mg L-5-HTP

*This stack acts more as an anxiety modulator, while keeping neurotransmitter functions in an ‘’active state’’. It really helps to calm down nerves at the end of a big stressful day. But the blend of ingredients don’t have a sedative effect, which was amazing as I needed to stay functional and productive to write programs and follow clients and consultations.

30 min before bed, I would take these supplements
500mg L-theanine
75mg valerian roots
2mg melatonine
1000mg magnesium biglycinate
500mg GABA

This stack is the ‘’go to bed now’’ stack. 30 to 45 min after, I immediately started to fall asleep and slept a deep sleep the whole night. I wasn’t even able to get a full 8 hours.  My body was so adapted to short nights of sleep that I would wake up after 5-6 hours of deep sleep and felt completely rested.

As for diet, I didn’t change anything as making the sleep efficient should create results by itself. And this is what happened: changes occurred quickly after some good nights of sleep.

At this point, stats were looking like this:

Weight: 236 lbs (a bit flatter than 12 weeks out)

  • Diet outline:

Proteins: 350gr
Carbs: 200gr
Fat: 50gr

Calories:  2650 cals

  • Assessment pictures:

  • Supplements used:         

First thing in the morning
2gr l-tyrosine
600mg alpha GPC
1000mg Acetyl-l-carnitine
Apple cider vinegar and cinnamon (digestion, blood sugar)

*I did add a big cup of black coffee here right before morning fasted cardio
**plus the added morning cortisol stack

Intra workout
20-30gr EAA intra workout
10gr glutamine intra-workout
Hydromax 3gr per workout

Last meal and before bed
1 tsp fish oil (omega-3)
1000mg magnesium blend
Camomile tea (for sleep – increase GABA)

*plus the ‘’go to sleep now’’ stack

4 weeks out

Changes really started to take place. At 4 weeks out, we can clearly see if a physique will look peeled off or not on contest day. At this time, I was feeling that things were getting serious and it was very motivating. On the other hand, I also started to have very heavy acid reflux between meals. High stress from constant dieting and high loads of work wreaks havoc on my stomach and it was becoming annoying.

A good friend of mine made me realize that being on a mission to a 4% body fat shredded condition is a very stressful lifestyle by itself. Add to that the fact that there was so much more stuff going on in my life: my wife and I were in process of buying a house and my daughter was in the evaluation process for a possible diagnosis of ADHD. Yeah! How to out your focus to the test!

House and daughter, this is family, and family is first so even though I did my best to keep everybody’s “head out of the water’’, my wife is really who made the biggest difference here. She took over all the family issues and made sure everybody could go on with their day to day life. Without her help, it would have been impossible to attempt to continue this prep.

Moral of the story: For an efficient contest prep, have the best wife ever in your life and even If you are a fool sometimes (or often), make sure you always give back to her because it is in the most difficult times that the best or the worst of your sweet half is seen. And that’s not even the worst – more to come in the amazing wife story!

Coming back to the acid reflux chapter. I really needed to calm this down as it was literally burning my esophagus. I introduced some Aloes Vera gel to help relieve the symptoms. While it helps to cut down inflammation and reduce the acid reflux, it doesn’t exactly solve the problem. I added digestive enzymes and HCL. Many times, acid reflux is not a problem of too much stomach acid, but not enough stomach acid. In my case, I added the following supplements:

800mg betaine HCL
50mg Gentian Roots 5:1
A complex of alpha-amylase, lactase, pectinase, protease and lipase (digestive enzymes)

Cardio and training still stayed the same. Because of all the stress surrounding the prep, adding more volume wasn’t a good idea, and as long as I could maintain the cap to the end, I was still going to make it.

At this point, stats were looking like this:

Weight: 232 lbs (harder and waist shrinking)

  • Diet outline:

Proteins: 350gr
Carbs: 200gr
Fat: 50gr

Calories:  2650 cals

  • Assessment pictures:

2 weeks out

That terrible 2 weeks out. Honestly at this point, we knew I was going to make it and that my condition was going to be sick. Like if the rest was not enough, I started to feel dizzy and got swollen ankles. I felt very fatigued, and not the usual fatigue you can get from a hard prep.

I know the feeling when you come down to a really low body fat and each step you make is counted; when a set of squats takes you 4 to 5 min to recover from and each day becomes a new chapter to get through. But this time it wasn’t this kind of feeling. I felt something was going wrong internally. Something I had felt for a very long time but never felt so much affected by it until then.

I decided to go to the hospital to make sure nothing was going out of control. We can go hard in the gym, but health must be our priority if we want to keep pushing that hard. After much testing and medical examinations, they found that the channel that extracts fluid from my right kidney was compressed and could not function properly. This obviously affected the functions of the kidney, since it could not properly eliminate the accumulated fluids.

At 2 weeks out, I spent 3 days in the hospital, barely eating and obviously not training. They also looked at the possibility of surgery. I must say I was totally whacked out by this news as it wasn’t my plan at all. They finally make the decision to go ahead with the surgery 2 days after the contest.

When I got back home from the hospital, I needed to assess the damage. 3 days of eating barely one meal a day and not moving is a weird peaking trick for a show, no?

Here are the stats then:

Weight: 236 lbs (regained weight, lost a bit of condition, but nothing that could not be corrected)

  • Diet outline:

Proteins: 350gr
Carbs: 200gr
Fat: 50gr

Calories:  2650 cals

  • Assessment pictures:

  • Supplements used:         

First thing in the morning
2gr l-tyrosine
600mg alpha GPC
1000mg Acetyl-l-carnitine
Apple cider vinegar and cinnamon (digestion, blood sugar)

*I did add a big cup of black coffee here right before my morning fasted cardio
**plus the added morning cortisol stack
***Digestive enzymes and HCL plus Aloes Vera Gel at every meal

Intra workout
20-30gr EAA intra workout
10gr glutamine intra-workout
Hydromax 3gr per workout

Last meal and before bed
1 tsp fish oil (omega-3)
1000mg magnesium blend
Camomile tea (for sleep – increase GABA)

*plus the ‘’go to sleep now’’ stack

Peaking week

Then came the peaking week: that week where most people completely destroy their hard-earned gains by doing a bunch of things they didn’t do while on the prep. So, to make sure I didn’t do stuff that would mess with my condition, I just did nothing that I hadn’t done until then. No depleting, no extreme high carbs day, no water loading nor too much sodium loading.

I just keep everything as it was because the condition was showing off by itself day by day. I kept my normal carbs intake that was then at 150gr per day all week except on Wednesday, where I did a high carbs day (the same high carbs day – 400gr – I did on Saturday since 10 weeks out).

I didn’t use any fat burners the entire prep, and I think it really helped in the recovery process on the peaking week and help to fill out better because stress hormones can stay low.

At this point, my weight was still going up and I was refeeding easily from all the training volume and dieting from the whole prep. I could start my day at 229 and finish it at 240-242 lbs. But I had to do the weigh-in at 230lbs, so on Friday, the day of the weigh-in, I checked my weight every hour to make sure I would not go over. After meal 1, and 2 liters of water, I was done, and weight went up to 232.

I was clearly going to be too heavy. I needed to lose those pounds quickly to get on the scale in 2 hours. Thanks to the sauna there, I sweat my life for 15 minutes in my hoodies and jogging pants, didn’t drink any water or eat until the weigh-in. To be sure, I even chewed gum and spit in a bottle to make sure I dehydrated myself while waiting.

When the time came to get up on the scale it showed 229,8! I was in, we got it!! At this moment, I think my wife was way more stressed out than me! Now time to eat protein and drink water. I then introduced carbs back into the diet and started to fill muscle back in. I cut water around 11PM and add a cup of wine to help with dehydration and vascularity.

It did a great job and the muscle stayed full and dry. I even lost another pound in the dehydration process even if a glycogen load the muscle. Have to say I stayed pretty conservative with the carbs to make sure I didn’t overspill.

  • Assessment pictures:

I entered this show feeling pretty good: muscles were hard, skin was tight, and vascularity was insane!! I also felt pretty good in my stomach: no bloating no digestive problems, I was able to pull the stomach in easily and pose comfortably.

The pose down was crazy as we posed for more than 15 minutes on stage with all solid guys on the stage. Everybody left the stage drained but satisfied. I placed 3rd, and I know what I need to work on.  It’s one of the things I really like about bodybuilding: it never stops. You step on stage, see the good, see the bad, and then come back to the gym to correct it.

For myself, I need to bring up my legs with more thickness and roundness to match the upper body. Most of my work will focus on the adductors to bring more inner muscle in the legs from the front. I also need to bring roundness and thickness to my hamstrings. So you can bet I will build a new specialized program for this – maybe The Absolute Legs program part 2 is in the collimator!

I will also need more arms, mostly triceps but a bit of biceps too. Being a long-limbed individual makes legs and arms appears longer and smaller on stage while torso can look great.  I need to bring more muscle without any gaps in every pose I perform on stage, and arms and legs will fill those gaps and make me look thicker and bigger.

Here’s a quick shot of what I brought to the stage:

Photo shoot:

Next day was my photo shoot day with one of the best in this industry, David Laplante. I needed to keep water low to keep my condition. I also needed to continue to eat carbs as I was flattening pretty quickly after the show.

David did a fantastic job at bringing out the best of my physique on every picture, the guy knows his stuff and how to do it. And I was really glad he took the time to shoot me even if time was a bit squeezed out for him, the work he did is still up to his game! Here are some preview shots of the work we did:

The surgery

All good things must come to an end. I worked really hard in the past few weeks, I gave my best and went through a lot of stuff, but this time was the time where I needed to switch to off. And without any choice, recovery will be imposed on me. On Tuesday morning, my wife and I went to the hospital so I could get ready to have my kidney surgery.

I need to reopen a chapter of the ‘’Amazing wife story’’ as again, she took over all the family stuff and even professional stuff to make sure I didn’t worry about anything. She stayed by my side all along the surgery time and was waiting when I got out of there.

Everything went well! But the recovery days were so much easier with the fact that she took the world on her shoulders again to make sure I got through this in one piece. I think that some people are living angels and I clearly have one in my life. I have a lot to give back to her.

Now I am back home and need to rest for a month. No training is a bit hard I must admit. I got some cheat meal food to enjoy with family but overall, I still eat very clean. I increased my calories a little even though I’m not training and have still maintained a good condition.

The secret lies in the quality of the food you eat. Prepping and keeping carbs all along have made me very sensitive to carbs and I can now eat way more than I used to be able to while still maintaining a nice condition. 

Not training for a month will be hard on the physique but I will be back after and will write the second chapter of this article: The Rebuild. I will show you all the tools and methods I will use to build back to where I was and also correct my weaknesses to come back bigger and stronger.

What it takes to be shredded?

The whole point of this article is not the most educational, although to some extent you can learn how a contest prep goes and what different types of assessments can be done to correct as needed over the course of a prep. But the point was to demonstrate that whatever your goal, there will always be many obstacles in your way to give you reasons to give up. 

Being in this field for many years, I can tell you that most people fail to reach their goals because of different factors they can’t control and how they let those factors affect their focus. If you want to reach something that not everybody can reach, prepare yourself to fight with stuff not everybody can fight. Don’t let anything get you off track.

Just be better and better until you get to it. Plan, assess, evaluate your situation and the people surrounding you.My whole contest prep length was 18 weeks, and more than once there was an occasion to cheat or give up on the project. This is why I always say that motivation is not what you need. Discipline is the key factor of the winner. Day in day out, like it or not, those who reach their goals do what they have to do.

My clients always show up in great condition too, but they can tell you they have been working their ass off all along the project. I don’t ask them to be motivated, I just asked them to get up and do the job that is needed to get where they want to be. They’ve asked me for this. It’s their will.

So, for everybody that would like to get into physique transformation, note this:

-It will take much longer than what you think

-It will take effort and discipline to a degree you are perhaps not used to

-Cheat food? Get lean and we’ll talk about it

-Carbs? If you work your ass off, trust me you will have plenty of them

-Supplements are of great help but food is much better. Eat instead of swallowing pills

-Assess your physique each week with those 3 variables: mirrors/pictures, scale, measuring tape (also a good indicator of proportion improvement)

-Improve volume of training and cardio overtime to make sure you are not adapting, reduce it when you feel you need more recovery. Usually, 4 to 6 weeks of volume/frequency progression followed by 1 to 2 weeks of deload should make you hold on long enough to ensure improvement in a contest prep.

-Don’t cut out on food as soon as you don’t see any results. Keep the work on and be patient. Every time you drop calories, you are losing a card from your hand. Make sure it is worth something.

– Bodybuilding food is the same kind of stuff for a reason: these are foods that are packed with vitamins, minerals & fibers, are easy to digest for most, low on the GI side and for some reason, people are still improving on them. So yes, sweet potato, rice and chicken are part of the game.

-Don’t use fat burners, they really don’t bring that much to the end results. If you want to use them, keep them as nitro for the final 2-3 weeks. If you introduce them sooner, you’ll be forced to keep them all along the process and they will do more harm than good.

 -SA

Stéphane Aubé

Written by Stéphane Aubé

Stéphane Aubé has worked in the fitness industry for more than 12 years. He works as a trainer and advisor for Hungry For Victory, a company he founded which specializes in nutrition and physical development for athletes of all disciplines. He has wo…