As the competitive season gets into full swing, athletes around the country are hard at work trying to dial in their conditioning.
A key element in this regard, provided you’ve added sufficient muscle, is dropping body fat to single digit levels. This is not an easy task because it requires a fine balancing act to decrease subcutaneous body fat levels while holding on to that hard-earned muscle.
#1: Control your carbs
Insulin is a powerful hormone, not only for its role in muscle growth, but also its ability to promote fat storage.
By now it should be clear that the overconsumption of processed and refined carbs is largely to blame for the obesity epidemic that currently grips society.
As such, it is essential that you are strict about the types and amount of carbs you eat each day, and the times at which you eat them. The general consensus is that fibrous carbs from fresh fruit and vegetables should be the dominant source of carbs in your diet, with as little processed carbs and simple sugars in your eating plan as possible.
Low glycaemic index (GI) sources of carbs provide the most benefit, while high GI carbs should be limited to before and after your workout to assist with training intensity. You can also play around with carb manipulation techniques like carb cycling to really dial in your conditioning and blast more fat.
#2: Count your calories
At its most basic level, dropping weight and shedding body fat boils down to a simple equation; burn more calories than you consume.
While there are additional factors involved, such as controlling insulin and other hormones, when we consume excess calories, they will be stored and you will gain weight, most of which will be in the form of stored body fat.
However, Sarah Lotter, an online coach at Dynamite Training, advises that athletes plan their calorie deficits. “You can’t suddenly decrease calories or suddenly ramp up the exercise. This will more than likely result in a loss of muscle mass, or will slow down your metabolic rate when you need it to be working at its most efficient.”
#3: Map out your macros
Another important factor to consider is your macronutrient ratios. Lotter, who is also a competitive Bikini athlete, recommends that you give special attention to your diet from a meal plan perspective.
“With a carefully calculated macronutrient intake you can transition the glycaemic load of the foods you’re eating, shifting your intake from higher GI to lower GI carbs such as white rice and potatoes, to butternut and sweet potato. Together with this you slowly reduce the fat content of the protein in your diet by replacing fattier cuts of meat with options such as extra-lean beef mince, skinless chicken, hake and egg whites,” she explains.
Bernadine Schwartz, founder of BikiniBoots, a full service training and advice consultancy for competitive athletes, and anyone else who wants to change their life and body, adds that determining your efficiency as a fat or carb metaboliser will help to inform your pre-contest dietary approach.
“Once your coach has established if your body responds better to good carbs or good fats, athletes can adjust their meal plan according to their training schedule.”
#4: Perform fasted state cardio
While fasted state cardio is a double-edged sword – it has the power to burn fat and destroy muscle – when used correctly there are few things as effective at tapping into fat stores.
When we’re in a glycogen-depleted state and require energy, we force our bodies to get it from other sources. Fat is the most energy-dense and, in general, most abundant form of energy in our body. It is also more efficiently metabolised than muscle tissue, so it will become the preferential form of energy used during fasted state cardio, when the correct intensities are used.
Lotter recommends that you slowly increase the amount of cardio you do to get the balance right, depending on your body type, to further increase the daily caloric deficit.
Schwartz uses high intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio with her clients. “We start with fasted-state HIIT cardio 12 to 16 weeks before a contest, and increase the duration according to the conditioning of athletes when they get closer to their competition.”
For those worried about muscle loss, sip on a BCAA supplement or eat a protein-rich meal before you train to limit or mitigate this. Again, the key here is balance; too much protein and you won’t tap into fat stores as efficiently as the circulating amino acids will more likely be used as fuel.
#5: Boost the burn with supplements
Using thermogenic fat burners and body toners will help to boost your metabolism and preferentially tap into fat stores while you train.
In terms of promoting sustained fat loss, CLA has been clinically proven to reduce total body fat and increase lean body mass. It is also an ideal supplement for sustained, long-term use because it is not a thermogenic fat burner.
However, thermogenic fat burners remain the most effective products for fat loss. By increasing body temperature and, subsequently, your metabolic rate, they are able to burn more calories throughout the day, most of which comes from fat stores. However, prolonged use is ill-advised due to the effect that the stimulants in many of these products have on your nervous and endocrine systems.
A number of coaches also advise that athletes “save” thermogenic fat burners for the final weeks of pre-contest prep. This ensures that they have one last tool to give their metabolism a boost if all other avenues have been exhausted. Those who use thermogenic fat burners all the time blunt their sensitivity to these highly effective compounds, another reason why cycled use is highly advised.
For these reasons Schwartz also advises her athletes to stop all forms of caffeine and other stimulants 3-4 months before starting their contest prep. “By doing so we’ll get more of a benefit from these powerful aids when we reintroduce them at about 12 weeks out to kick that fat loss up a gear.”
#6: Prime your body for fat loss
Similarly, it pays to improve your insulin sensitivity before entering the pre-contest phase, as this will make the body more responsive to carb intakes and carb manipulation techniques such as carb cycling or carb backloading. This is best achieved by limiting carb intakes for a period while increasing muscle mass through weight training.
#7: Take your time
Athletes often become obsessive while dieting down for a show, especially when you have to get leaner while the clock is ticking away. This is when many athletes go to extremes to try and achieve the conditioning they’re after.
However, crash dieting can destroy muscle and wreck your metabolism. It is better to diet over a longer period before a show, which requires patience. Think of pre-contest fat loss as a marathon and not a sprint. Winners of this marathon are the ones who maintain their physiques and not those who drop weight in the shortest space of time.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.