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If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard bodybuilders tell me they use Mrs. Dash during their cutting phase, I’d have a few grand in my pocket.

I always look at them and
 ask why they would watch their sodium while dieting, and the common response is, “I’m trying to get lean and don’t want to hold water.” My response is, “Sodium will not inhibit your progress in getting lean, and holding some water while dieting is actually beneficial.” Then, of course, I lecture them for another 20 minutes and calm them down as I tell them I want them to begin eating four pickles a day
to get their bodies used to high sodium intake.

If you are one of those people who fear sodium due to its water-retentive reputation, please keep reading, as I will explain to you why not having high sodium intake is counterproductive to looking your best.

When beginning a dieting phase for a bodybuilding competition or a special event where you must look your best with minimal clothing, you will need to plan ahead. I always recommend that, regardless of your current condition or body fat, you start a dieting phase at least 16 weeks out. If you truly are under 10% body fat, then 12 weeks is the minimum.

Right of the bat, I tell people to start drinking a consistent 1 1⁄2–2 gallons of water a day, along with getting used to a high sodium in-take. Basically, add salt to all of your meals—or, if you hate salt, then eat pickles. Initially you will retain fluid due to the rapid water intake combined with the high sodium intake. The mineralocorticoid steroid hormone aldosterone will be increased only temporarily, until homeostasis balances out your sodium-to-water ratio. After a week you should not be holding noticeable fluid, and should be excreting sodium and water through urine consistently, which now keeps aldosterone suppressed.

The key determinant in keeping aldosterone levels low is making sure to keep both your sodium intake and water consumption high. When both water and sodium levels plummet, aldosterone increases, vasopressin is released, and water plus sodium reabsorption occurs through the distal tubules of the kidneys.
 Vasopressin, or anti-diuretic hormone (ADH), is a peptide hormone that is released when dehydration or low water and salt intake occur. Vasopressin is basically the body’s defense mechanism that kicks in when imbalances occur in the blood regarding water, sodium, and glucose.

The Facts About Aldosterone

As you begin to get leaner and leaner through the course of the diet, you will understand how valuable high sodium intake really is. Usually around five weeks out from a bodybuilding contest, your body fat should be very low (5–6%) and your carbohydrate intake should be minuscule.

When carbohydrates are extremely low, you lose even more water, since each gram of glycogen binds approximately 2.7g of water. Diminished carbohydrate levels can cause a host of side effects if sodium levels are inadequate. Muscle cramping and muscle tears are common.
 A lowered blood volume, which reduces vascularity and muscle fullness, is now present. The remedy to such conditions is having high sodium intake. High levels of salt will keep you properly hydrated for healthy muscle contractions, and help prevent cramping and injury.

I personally notice that when I am depleted of carbohydrates, yet have my sodium intake high, my muscles appear very full, hard, and vascular, which are words often times used to describe being “carb loaded.”

When your body-fat levels are very low and both water and sodium levels are sky- high, you should appear absolutely freaky looking, with road-map veins all over your body from sodium-induced vasodilation. Having yourself in incredible condition three weeks out from your bodybuilding contest or special event makes the final few days of “drying out” easy to control. As perhaps some of you know, that final few days before a bodybuilding contest can make or break a competitor, as experimenting with outdated carb/sodium/water protocols can ruin 16 weeks of training and strict dieting.

The discombobulated bodybuilder will employ crazy tactics involving severe water and sodium restriction and insane amounts of carbohydrates. Such dangerous and detrimental protocols are commonly advised by so-called contest-prep “gurus” who simply make a name for themselves on the sole basis of their “magical” drug recommendations. This route is very attractive to the malnourished bodybuilder who isn’t thinking very rationally and wants an edge at any cost.

The Finishing Touches!

When approaching the final
few days before your contest or special event, there are a few things that you can do to look even better. The first thing I have people do six days out is increase their already high water intake by 1⁄4–1⁄2 gallon, and add one more pickle or a few shakes of salt to their diet. If they still have 50–100g of carbohydrates in their diet, I bring them down by 25g each day until they
reach 0g of carbs a few days before the event.

Water and sodium intake continuously increases by 1⁄4–1⁄2 gallon each consecutive day until one day before the event, when sodium stops being added to meals. You ingest what is naturally occurring in your protein sources. Water gets abruptly cut of at some point a day prior to the event. Usually water gets shut of in the evening around 6–10 p.m. Most people are consuming upward of three to five gallons of water by one day out and will be urinating every 15 minutes. By ramping up water and sodium intake even more the final six days, we increase diuresis, which dramatically lowers adolsterone and keeps your body in a “flushing state.” When we cut out added sodium one day prior and keep water intake sky-high, we increase diuresis even more. Now when we abruptly cut of water intake and don’t TAPER water like misinformed “gurus” advocate, the body will “overshoot,” since it is used to receiving high water and salt. Around 11 p.m. the night before your contest, you will be urinating and drying out like crazy. By the time you wake up the morning of your contest or event, you will be bone dry.
 It is crucial the morning of your contest or event to control the reintroduction of sodium and water. I always have my clients eat a hearty breakfast eight hours after water has been shut of. The breakfast will include steak, eggs, bacon, and toast, as I strive to have sodium, carbohydrates, and fats in abundance. Your body is like a dry sponge, ready to soak up glucose, water, sodium, and fat into the muscle cells, since muscle cells will be first priority for replenishment.

You must avoid fluids at this point, as fluid could make you hold water in such a sensitive state. Having excess-sodium-laden foods without water intake will actually make you appear harder, drier, and fuller.

Remember that water follows salt, so any lingering subcutaneous water that hasn’t been expelled will be sucked up when sodium is ingested, creating the sought-after “shrink-wrapped” look. After prejudging is over, or you are finishing your day at the beach or photo shoot, slowly reintroduce water in two- to four-ounce increments. You will most likely see yourself 
fill out right before your eyes and improve your conditioning even more. Just make sure to have discipline and self-control and do not go overboard with fluid, since you are in such a dehydrated state.

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Once the contest or event
is over, please make sure to return to homeostasis as quickly as possible by consuming Pedialyte, Gatorade, and water to restore valuable electrolytes and minerals. You will inevitably experience a temporary rebound of excessive bloating and water retention, but if you keep the fluid intake high, symptoms will dissipate within a few days.

So, next time you are rigorously dieting for a competition or event requiring you to look your best on a specific day, please embrace the wonderful mineral sodium and leave your competition in the dust.


Note: The sodium and carbohydrates reintroduced the morning of the contest/special event are not calculated or measured. Once in a dry, dehydrated state you can ingest ample amounts of sodium and carbs without fear of “spilling over” or retaining water. This is why it is imperative to NOT reintroduce water during this time.