How Often Should You Compete in Fitness: A Guide for Bodybuilders and Physique Athletes
When you're in the world of competitive fitness, be it bodybuilding or physique competitions, one of the most frequently asked questions is, "When are you competing again?" The timing of fitness competitions is a nuanced topic, impacted by physiological, psychological factors, and division-specific demands.
Post-Show Body Recovery: A Balancing Act
The first consideration is physical recovery. Data suggests that fitness athletes and bodybuilders typically need between 4 to 7 months to normalize hormones and metabolic rates after a show, given a calorie increase and weight regain. Even though competitors often start feeling better within the first 6-8 weeks of the post-show phase by aggressively pushing food intake, reaching complete normalcy usually takes longer—around 4-6 months for those who achieved a stage-lean condition. Most likely, the lower the fat percentage requirement for your species OR the longer the diet has lasted, the longer it will take to recover. Prematurely initiating a diet post-show could make weight loss more challenging and potentially hinder performance in future competitions. For a more comprehensive understanding of post-competition recovery, delve into our previous blog post titled " Beyond the Spotlight: Navigating Post-Competition Blues in Fitness and Bodybuilding" Here, we unpack the unique challenges competitors face in the aftermath of a contest and offer valuable strategies for efficient recovery.
The 'Close-to-Division' Advantage
However, this recovery timeline might differ for competitors close to their division muscle mass criteria. If you're just about 10-12 weeks out from your stage lean condition during the off-season—meaning you only need to cut around 5-6 kg—it's possible to compete much sooner. This flexibility is especially relevant in categories such as women's divisions like bikini, wellness fitness, or men's physique, where the muscle mass demand isn't as stringent as in women's physique, classic bodybuilding, or classic physique divisions.
However, it's crucial to consider the typical timeline for muscle mass gains and the individual factors that can influence this. According to various studies, men can gain between roughly 0.5-1.0 kg of muscle per month with optimal training, while women can expect to gain approximately half that amount, around 0.2-0.5 kg per month.
Moreover, muscle mass gains depend heavily on training experience and genetic potential. For individuals nearing their genetic ceiling for muscle mass, the rate of gain can significantly slow down. The closer you are to this limit, the slower the muscle gains are likely to be.
Building Muscle and Maintaining a Competitive Edge
For those keen on muscle growth and continuous improvement between contest seasons, optimal progress is achieved when the body has completely recuperated and returned to its normal state before starting another dieting cycle. Especially for individuals with average genetics and years of training under their belt, embarking on a diet too early could virtually eliminate your progress from season to season. Therefore, an intimate understanding of your body and your chosen division's requirements is crucial for devising your competition schedule. Furthermore, remember to maintain a healthy body fat level during the off-season. Recent research by Mursu et al., 2022, indicates that some athletes may maintain an artificially low body fat percentage for an extended period, which could be detrimental. Our findings advocate that athletes have recommended off-season dietary intakes for the sport, and their hormonal and skeletal health matches non-competitors. However, some competitors might benefit from longer off-season periods with a higher fat mass and dieting to restore normal physiological functions.
Psychological Aspects: The Long Game
Competing in fitness also entails substantial psychological considerations. Achieving a stage-lean body demands intense dietary restriction. While feasible in the short term, maintaining such a strict regimen can be unsustainable, and even detrimental, over the long term.
An off-season allows for more dietary flexibility and a balanced lifestyle, ultimately aiding a competitor's consistency throughout their next prep. Those who don't give themselves a break from the rigor of achieving a stage-lean condition often struggle with consistency deep into their prep phase.
Deciding when to compete in fitness requires considering numerous variables - your physical recovery time, mental preparedness, the demands of your particular division, and your overall health. It's not a one-size-fits-all decision but a strategic one that requires long-term planning and a keen understanding of your own body.
A key strategy that every athlete should consider is striving to maintain a body condition in the off-season that's about 10-12 weeks out from the stage lean. This approach could potentially train your body to operate normally at a lower body fat percentage than before, a concept known as the 'set point theory.'
By following this approach, you might be able better to prepare your body for the rigors of competition, enabling it to adjust more readily to the demands of pre-competition dieting and maintain a healthier, more sustainable body condition. For your first competition diet, we recommend gradually nudging your body towards this ideal body fat percentage, to give it a chance to adapt and operate optimally.
Remember, the ultimate goal in fitness competition isn't just about competing—it's about competing better, healthier, and stronger each time. As you embark on your fitness journey, be sure to listen to your body, maintain balance in your lifestyle, and always prioritize your health.