(the article below was originally written for a course I ran for figure competitors… But this is actually the same advice I give anyone who has reached a plateau in their weight loss efforts. it’s simple advice but it comes from training hundreds of women)
One of the most frustrating things about getting ready for a figure competition is when you encounter a fat loss plateau. As a competitor you understand that there is no buffer for not getting in shape – you either hit your mark on contest day… or you don’t (then you kick yourself for training and dieting for 12 weeks and not getting in your best condition). So when you get to a point that fat loss slows or stops, it’s easy to go into panic mode. Slashing calories in half is what some competitors do. For those who decide to do that, they are going to have a miserable time mentally and physically as their body tries to adjust to 50% less calories. This is something you definitely want to avoid at all costs.
When overcoming a fat loss plateau you must attack it from 3 sides:
Diet: First you must tighten up your diet. This may mean cutting your diet by as few as 100 calories a day. You want to avoid cutting too many calories because this may cause your metabolism to slow down and go into ‘starvation’ mode. Once this happens, it’s hard to fire the metabolism up again.
Workout: You must increase the intensity of your workouts. Basically train harder: (1) lift heavier weights, (2) perform your normal workouts (same reps and sets) in less time, (3) add on an extra 15-20 minutes to your normal workout time, (4) take less time between sets so that the workout is more cardio-like etc. There are many ways to increase workout intensity. The important thing is not to ‘coast’ but make sure each workout is at a high intensity level.
Cardio: Step up your cardio intensity. This may mean just going harder for the same amount of time, for example, you may be able to run 3 miles in 30 minutes. What you want to do is try and run 3.2 miles in the same 30 minutes, then eventually 3.5 miles in that 30 minutes.
- Or you may change from a less effective form of cardio cardio workout (ex elliptical machine) to a more effective form of cardio (treadmill or outside running). This is a very effective way to increase the amount of calories you burn in a workout.
One mistake I see is when competitors try to do it all by slashing calories… DON’T do that! You will lose weight initially but your metabolism will slow down too much and all progress will stop. This will make it very difficult to lose further body fat. It’s much wiser to attack it a little from all 3 factors instead of just one.
Another Mistake I see is competitors who decide to double their cardio in order to lose body fat. This will work initially but it may take a toll on your body and mind… this can lead to burnout (mental and physical exhaustion).
So, If you do experience a plateau, don’t panic and do something drastic that will cause your metabolism to shut down or that will cause you to burnout… Just use moderation in adjusting your diet and training. This is the one ‘secret’ behind my success in training fitness and physique competitors over the past 10 years.
As trainers we must look at every exercise and weigh the risks and benefits. for example, I see a lot of trainers getting caught up in this Crossfit movement and having their clients doing movements that they should NEVER be attempting… or having them lift maximum poundages when the clients only previous workout experience was jogging around the local park, aerobics classes, Zumba or the occasional spin class (that had them sore for a week!). Neither trainers or trainees should get caught up in trying to do the most difficult exercises they can… it’s not necessary to reach your goals.
When you see someone in one of my videos doing a difficult exercise, it’s because I now they can do it safely. Although there are others who can do the same movement, I know from watching them train that it may not be safe for them to do. They may even ask me “Why can’t I do that exercise?” and I explain to them the reasoning behind my decision… but i also explain how they can get great benefit from another exercise that may be similar but not as dangerous. Be careful!
When it comes to building glutes, figure and bikini competitors should be experts on what it is they need to do, to bring out this important asset. One of the main principle is that you must squat or lunge low in order to activate the maximum number of fibers in the glutes. In order to get out of a deep squat or lunge, the glutes have to do a lot of work. Your quads do most of the work after that – so you must go low if you want maximum glute development.
SAFETY: A lot has been written over the years about the knees being susceptible to injury when you squat below parallel – this is nonsense! This ‘logic’ based on nothing scientific… or anything seen in the real world. You ever seen Olympic lifters? If anyone should have bad knees it should be you neighborhood Olympic lifter… instead it’s guys like me who did stupid things like play basketball on cement for many years and tackle football on concrete with no equipment… yup we were real geniuses back then. The “Squatting low is bad for your knees” came from the guys who had big upper bodies and little ‘chicken’ legs because they didn’t want to squat!
The great thing about most of the glute exercises is that they should be done under control and fairly slowly – especially in the low position. Therefore making these safe exercises even safer.
You want to really focus on contracting the glutes in the low position. If you have too much momentum you will loose this ability to focus and the quads will take over.
For a few, figure can be a lottery hit the first time they step onstage… but for the vast majority it’s a longer journey requiring patience and the ongoing desire to improve. When I first met laurie she was soft spoken, humble, shy and amazingly nice. Three years and 3 pro cards later… she is still the same person. When she won her last overall (NPC) there was no big celebration, no fist pumping… just a nervous smile as they brought her the trophy. Afterwards, almost every picture she took she made sure her daughter, Paris, was in it… that’s because she has always kept everything in perspective. When she first started competing the victorys didn’t come easy… after finishing 5th in her first competition Laurie could have easily given up… but instead she used that as motivation to become the best she could be.
Now she is on her way to compete in the Arnold Classic in a few weeks!
Known for her intense training, Laurie is well respected by the other competitors she trains with. She’s so focused that she rarely talks during her workout. She finds a corner in the gym, goes 100% during her workout, changes clothes… and goes home.
Precontest fat loss workout: A bunch of hard exercises done back-to-back with no rest… until she is ehausted. The idea is to work the entire body and burn as many calories as possible.
“Get Uncomfortable” - Laurie doesn’t feel she is getting a good workout until she gets into her ‘uncomfortable zone’ - the uncomfortable zone is usually when most would stop and rest… her goal is to get into that zone and stay there. This is why she doesn’t have to do a ton of straight cardio to get lean… because she burns so many calories in her resistance-cardio workouts. What the uncomfortable zone really means to me is: “Leave me alone, I don’t want to talk because I’m trying to catch my breath… please go away!” Check out the short video clip of her showing me that she doesn’t want to be bothered.
Laurie is the tye of person everyone roots for. Just as gracious in victory as she had been in defeat. Never one to put other competitors down or brag on herself. I realized just how humble Laurie was when I went to her Facebook page looking for some good pitures (since I didn’t get too many good shots at the show), when I noticed that she had not posted one picture of herself… after winning a show she has been trying to win for 3 years! The only thing she posted were things about her daughter… I think that says it all! Congratulations Laurie! Oh yeah, and good job at the competition too!
Laurie performing one of her favorite exercises:
As a figure coach I see women who have varying degrees of difficulty losing body fat, therefore it is important that I continue to try and develop new techniques to burn even the toughest body fat off figure competitor’s bodies. Here is one of my favorite techniques – Progressive Intensity
Progressive Intensity is a technique I use to raise the workout intensity level for figure competitors during precontest fat loss training. There are a few ways to do this, the video shows my favorite version of Progressive Intensity…. increasing the reps with each successive set. The goal is to make your body do more work as your level of exhaustion increases.
Basically what happens is that as you go through your circuit of exercises (usually only 2 or 3 exercises) the reps will increase as you progress through the set. In the video, Laurie (who holds several figure pro cards) begins set #1 with 5 reps of Db Duck Squats followed immediately by 5 Jump Squats. Set # 2 is: 10 reps of each (duck squats and jump squats). Set #3 is: 15 reps of each exercise etc etc…. You can see how exhausted Laurie gets as she progresses through the set. The idea is to do this continously until the required number of sets are completed. Try to get to 30 reps of each NON-STOP. You can do this with practically any 2 or 3 exercises as long as you can switch quickly from one to the other. This particular example is tough because both exercises focus on the legs…. give it a try.
One round of this, at the end of your workout, is enough when first trying this out. Eventually you will be able to do an entire 60 minute workout in this manner
(CAUTION: a burning sensation in the legs, exhaustion and heavy breathing are side effects of this workout… ha ha).
Here is another example below. This is a hard one:
A lot of competitors think they need the latest high tech equipment or training philsophy to get ready for a show. I’ve always gone low-tech when I train clients. I use to work in large gyms with hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment…. but I would only need a corner of the gym, a few dumbells, a bench, a bosu ball and a few other low-tech pieces of equipment. My clients ALWAYS got the best results! This is why I developed my diets and training program… to dispell all of the misinformation out there about training, diet, and exactly what it takes to get ready for a figure show. I also realized that most of your training will be done on you own, without a trainer looking over you shoulder (if you’re lucky enough to get a knowledgeable trainer)
The other day when I returned home from a competition, I received the following email from a Julie Valencia who used by online program to get ready for her first show in Toronto Canada. She prepared in her house without fancy equpiment or a trainer. She proves that determination goes a lot further than the latest piece of exercise equipment or DVD fad workout.
Then I received the following email a few days later…..
The most important factors in training for a show are hard work, the proper diet and smart training. Don’t get caught up in the newest piece of gym equipment, cardio machine or new fangled exercise DVD that promises to burn 3x as many calories as the last exercise craze. Just focus on the proper training and diet and you will always give yourself a chance to win! …terry stokes
Congratulations Brittany Murchie for doing an awesome job at the NPC Nationals (North american Championships) this past weekend. Introduced to me by a pro competitor I also trained, the first thing Brittany said to me was: “I will do whatever you tell me to do, I want to go as far as I can.” Then she preceded to train with me for the next hour. She didn’t say one word during that workout …and she trained her butt off. I knew then that she had the mentality and work ethic to do this.
The goal with Brittany, as with all competitors, was to get better with every competition, which is what she did. She qualified for the nationals after winning the overall title in the NPC Rochester Bodybuilding and Figure Championships.
On my way home I started thinking of what it takes to be successful in figure competition. What do competitors that do well all have in common. You see, on the outside, Brittany looks like the type of competitor who is naturally in shape… not having to work too hard. She never says a whole lot, doesn’t asks questions just to hear herself talk… she makes it look easy. Then I started to think about Laurie who is doing NPC Nationals in 3 months. Everytbody thinks it’s easy for her to get in excellent condition… she never says a whole lot… she trains hard, says little, she sort of makes it look easy! Hmmm…. seems like a pattern.
Then I thought about all my competitors who have repeatedly done well, often against great odds, doubters and haters… and they all had the same quality – they all make it look easy! But… I know the truth!
I know that they struggle like everyone else, I know the doubts they have… I know when they want to quit sometimes after a day of ‘not so clean eating’ – what I realize is the difference with winners is their ability to focus, to keep setbacks in perspective and bounce back quickly. How easy it is for too many competitors to get distracted during contest prep when things get hard. They concern themselves with things totally irrelevant to their success onstage, they start to listen to everyone who wants to give them advice… they find excuses not to push harder during workouts, or for not following the diet strictly. To become a champion, it’s important not to let irrelevant things distract you. Not to get caught up in the B.S. that often comes with competing.
I love it when one of these veteran competitors (who will remain un-named – but you know who you are) walks through a class and yells: “Stop talking and get to work, you have a competition to get ready for!”
Champions think in a straight line, which is why they don’t say much, they don’t complain and they only ask questions that will help them get better. Often my competitors will wonder why I don’t spend a lot of time talking about certain things, why I ignore them sometimes. I’m not trying to be a jerk. What I’m trying to convey to them is that certain topics/conversations are not going to make them any better or further their progress towards their goal… so I don’t bother talking about it.
Winners ask the question: “What do I need to do to get better?” Winners can be awol for 3 or 4 days and I don’t worry because I know that they still trained hard, they still followed their diet to the letter and they still did their cardio… I don’t have to worry. All my winners have this trait – the ability to avoid a pleasure now (whether it’s food or just slacking off), for a greater pleasure… in a few months!
More and more I get questions from women who are in their 30’s or 40’s who’ve been working out for some time and would like to compete, but they are afraid that they won’t be able to compete with younger competitors. The other day I had a 39 year old woman come to my gym telling me how ‘everyone‘ said she could never compete with younger figure girls. I showed her pictures from a recent show in which all of my competitors were 35 or over (35-45). They won mutiple classes and one of my competitors missed a pro card by 1 point.
The really great thing about this sport is that age is not the hindrance that it is in many other sports. Recently while watching the Olympics I would hear the commentators praise competitors who are in their 30’s… for still competing with the younger athletes. In figure, age brings about wisdom, grace and often a better physique. I explained to this potential figure competitor that the over 35 competitor makes up the backbone of my entire team. I explained to her that each competitor from the recent show, besides leadership, brings something different to the table …. Erika brings grace and a flawless posing style (and hairdo) that often, as in this show, will get comments from the judges/announcers about her presentation. Karen, who brings a hardcore non-stop attitude – having just completed a national Under Armour challenge where she completed 100 (yes 100!) continous squat presses with a 45 lb Olypmpic bar (she doesn’t want me to mention that she is 50 years old… so don’t tell her I mentioned it). She reminds everyone that it’s just a sport and not your whole life. There is Andrea, who brings a more quiet, more subtle approach to training and competition, sort of a ‘just do-it’ attitude… no complaints, not too may questions – just workout, practice posing and get on with life, these are traints I try to get younger competitors to model. Finally we have Denise, one of the hardest working competitors I have ever met. Competing 9 months after having a baby, her before and after pictures are so incredible that people didn’t believe they were real! Told she would never be a figure competitor because of her age, she has won first place trophies in the Untied States and Canada… and proved all her critics wrong.
Then I hear this: “Won’t the judges always go for the younger competitor?” It doesn’t matter what your age is… if you have the best physique you will win, besides, judges respect the over 35 competitor… most judges are former competitors, and they know how much hard work goes into getting onstage in your 30’s and 40’s, when your metabolism starts to slow down, your skin is not quite as tight as it use to be and you have more life responsibilities which makes it more difficult to find enough time to train for a show…. they respect that.
So don’t listen to the naysayers… most don’t know what they’re talking about. If a trainer says you are too old, then find s trainer who is knowledgeable and willing to work with you – the truth is, a lot of trainers only want to train ‘easy’ competitors women who are 24 years old and in shape, who may have competed and done well in the past. They don’t want to start from square one with a woman who is 37 and never competed before… Ironically, as is often the case… that 37 year old will find another trainer (I hope it’s me) and show up at a competition and kick the other trainers competitor’s butt! Nothing like a little sweet revenge!
So without my ‘veterans’ …there would be no “Stokes Crew”
Here are my thoughts on dehydration before a figure competition…
I get so many questions about last week prep and dehydration/cutting water. My stance is still the same… It doesn’t work! Although it SOUNDS legitimate when someone explains how it supposedly work… that doesn’t mean it works.
As far as dehydration before a show to increase definition (bring out your ‘cuts’)… I’ve always said that it makes muscles smaller and decreases definition (and women can’t afford to lose any muscle size or definition going into a competition). Below is a video about one of my favorite bodybuilders, Kai Greene, and his prep for the Arnold Classic. This excerp shows how dehydration can have very negative effects on muscle size and definition of one of the greatest bodybuilders in the world. If it can negatively effect him… what in the heck do you think it will do to your physique!?
Not only is dehydration ineffective in making you look more definined… it will most likely have the opposite effect!! The only tricks are hard dieting and hard work. Competitors are always surprised when I accuse them of dehydration (when they sneak and do it against my advice). They don’t realize that I can tell from the audience and from pictures. It may be a day, a week or a month … but they eventually confess. They think they are going to make up for that last 5lbs they should have lost with diet and training, by losing 5lbs of water right before the show… this doesn’t work and you may very well lose placings because of it.
Besides not using enough weight (my last blog post) another big reason figure competitors (this applies to anyone actually) don’t get the results is that they don’t train with enough conviction… they just ‘go through the motions’… Whether it’s lackadaisical movements, half movements… or just wasting time tying sneakers, talking etc., It all adds up to lack of progress over time. Everyone is entitled to a crappy workout occasionally… but competitors need to consistently train at a different level. If you’re a competitor training in a gym, but your workout looks like everyone else’s in the gym… then you will probably not the get results you seek – a competitor’s workout/energy level should stand out from the average person, in the gym, who is just trying to stay in shape.
In the video, the first few reps are done at about 50% effort… which is ok if you’re just looking to get a little exercise, tone up a little bit… but definitely not for someone looking to compete in a figure competition or lose significant body fat. The remaining reps are done with good energy… this is the type of energy you need in the beginning (of competition training) so that you don’t fall behind schedule… and even moreso close to competition time, when fat loss becomes much more difficult and your energy level is low.
It’s hard sometimes to take an honest look at your diet and workouts when not getting results… everyone wants to feel that they are giving 100%… but in order to succeed you must be able to look at yourself and take responsibility for lack of results and then do what’s necessary to reach your goals.