Heath Rhoden
Per Bernal

Creating your competitive strategy is somewhat similar to the military carefully calculating and planning a battle strategy necessary to win a war. Although the objective seems easy enough— kick your enemy’s ass and win—soldiers cannot just go in, start fighting, and try to figure out what comes next as they go along. Developing the perfect strategy means everything; it means the difference between winning and losing.

Making the transition from off-season to contest dieting, in many ways, is the same. You are going to war with your body and with your competition, and getting to the competition stage seems simple. You know that at some point in time, usually around three to four months out of a show, you start your diet, so it’s automatic, right? Unfortunately, this is where many competitors lose ground from the get-go, as the conversion is far from being as simple as flipping a switch and telling your brain it’s time to shift gears and go directly into diet mode. Most competitors have a diet or a list of foods that they know are needed to strip away fat and hold onto muscle, and they have a schedule of set eating times, but for many, that’s where the plan ends. Knowing how to properly plan your contest strategy in terms of diet, cardio, and making necessary adjustments to meet the demands of your ever-changing physique can certainly make or break your entire contest prep process.

For most, the first two to three weeks of contest preparation are also the most crucial in terms of learning how your body will respond to the plan as well as the most important for identifying the types of changes you will need to make to your program in order to achieve the desired results. Obviously, the diet is what everyone places the most importance on when preparing for a competition, however, diet alone doesn’t win the competition. Knowing how long to diet, when to change up your diet, how much and what kind of cardio to do are just a few of the variables in creating a well-rounded and winning contest prep. Here I will outline the necessary steps needed to smoothly transition from off-season mode to contest prep and how to fill in all the gaps in between the beginning of the diet to the day you step onstage. With proper planning and preparation, you will always be your very best onstage and capable of winning any competition war!

Bodybuilder eating nutrition food meals


Before you even think of planning out your diet, you need to take a good look at evaluating the progress you have made during the off-season to determine how long you need to diet and when you should begin your contest diet. Many contest prep mistakes can be avoided if you pay more attention to how you look in the off-season rather than focusing solely on what the scale says. About five months out of your desired show, make an assessment of your progress: Determine how much muscle you have put on during the off-season and compare it with the size from your previous contest. When working with an athlete, I always have the individual send photos to me at various points during the off-season and regularly during the contest phase. I think photos are a great tool in gauging progress and gains, and they can help you tremendously when determining a starting point for your contest prep.

Comparisons with your previous off-seasons and previous competitions are not only great in measuring personal progress but can also be extremely helpful in letting you know that you can’t always follow the same plan year in and year out; that changes need to be made. For instance, if are you leaner but added a lot of muscle, or if you are bigger but softer than before, you obviously wouldn’t be able to utilize the same type of contest prep program. These are crucial points that you must compare, putting them into perspective in contrast to where you were at this point in your past off-season and prior to your last competition. Additionally, knowing how much size you have gained in comparison to the size you held onstage at the end of your last diet can also come into play when planning your next competition preparation.

Other factors to take into consideration when determining a starting point for your competition diet are your age, whether you have competed recently, or whether you have taken off a few years and are getting back into the game? All of these are variables that need to be looked at before jumping into your contest prep.

Assessing your off-season progress is a great tool in determining the length of a contest prep diet. Depending on how long your off-season was—if you have a healthy metabolism and put on a good deal of size, but your off-season was not long enough to mature the weight and muscle you put on, you may need to go into a longer, more gradual diet (12–14 weeks) so that you don’t lose all the new size/weight you gained right off the bat. Rather than dieting quickly for a shorter period of time, the longer and slower diet—adding higher amounts of clean foods to the beginning of your diet, giving your body a chance to mature the new muscle and to hold on to as much of it as possible throughout the preparation process, could be the way to go. However, if you have a quick metabolism and gained small amounts of weight in the off-season while staying very lean; or if you were able to have an extended off-season period to mature the newly acquired muscle, there are definitely advantages to a shorter diet period. It’s simply a matter of analyzing your individual situation.

On the flip side of this—if for instance you seem to have a “softer” conditioning to the muscle than the previous year, but you also seem to have added a good amount of muscle to your physique, common sense would tell you it would be in your best interest to diet for a longer period of time to give your body plenty of time to lose enough weight and lose enough body fat. More often than not, the longer diet is usually the path that needs to be taken—but there are those athletes who also need to factor into account that they have also added 10 pounds of muscle even though they appear softer in appearance. Even though you are softer, the added muscle can increase your metabolism and help your body and conditioning to come around that much faster and, with this in mind, you may be able to lose weight and get into shape without having to diet as long as you had in the past and sometimes a diet of 8–10 weeks could be a good fit. However, if you have added more body fat than in the past, a 12- to 14-week program is more than likely the fix. This is why it is extremely important to evaluate your situation prior to setting up your game plan.

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Cardio bicycle bike


Another constant to a competition plan that simply cannot be avoided is cardiovasculartraining—as if dieting weren’t already tough enough! But with all the conflicting information floating around regarding how much, how long, and what type of cardio apparatus is best, how do you know what to do and what will help you best reach your goals?

Planning out the amount of time you will need to spend on cardio as well as how to make adjustments to the cardio can be just as important as the diet itself. In general, it is far better to begin with a shorter amount of time spent on cardio (maybe begin with 30 minutes daily) and increase it as your body acclimates to the diet and changes. It is easier to increase the amount of cardio by slight increments—say 15 minutes at a time. You could also even add a second cardio session, if necessary and if more than one hour of daily cardio is needed. Then as needed you can add 15-minute increments to your second cardio session. In terms of knowing when it’s the right time to add in more time, generally a good rule of thumb is when the cardio seems easy, it’s time to increase.

When planning out how long your cardio sessions need to be, it is also a good time to determine when you should perform your cardio. I like either first thing in the morning or before your last meal of the day in the evening; however, that may not always work with your schedule. Whatever time you choose to perform your daily cardio—stay consistent with that time rather than doing it in the morning sometimes, then evening others or midday yet at other times. The body will respond better when sticking with a set cardio time.

With regard to the best types of cardio for a bodybuilding diet that, too, depends on the person. In a perfect scenario my favorites are the StepMill and stadium stairs. Many stay away from the StepMill because of the myth that difficult forms of cardio will “whittle”away the quads. In actuality, many forms of cardio, including the StepMill, can help shape and accentuate the fullness and sweep of the quad. There are a couple of reasons many feel harder cardio options “whittle” their legs away. First, it’s just plain harder to do the StepMill or run stadium stairs, etc., so rather than bust through and do the work, it’s easier to say, “I’ve tried it before, and it whittles my legs away” than go through the agony of the StepMill. Step- Mill is the only cardio my wife, four-time Ms. Olympia Kim Chizevsky, ever performed during competition prep and she had some of the best legs in the sport! The only validity to the worry of losing size is that harder forms of cardio have a tendency to burn more glycogen and can give a flatter appearance to the quad directly after doing the cardio, but after the muscle has been fed and rested, all is well.

There are other forms of cardio that work well—elevated treadmill, elliptical machines and recumbent bikes that also can be good choices—especially if a person has limitations due to a surgery or injuries in the areas of back, knees and/or ankles. These forms of cardio can take pressure off the affected area while still allowing the athlete to perform with high intensity.

If you are easily bored with cardio or just need a change of pace, pick a staple form of cardio such as the stepmill, but then every once in a while throw in something unexpected—wind sprints, biking/mountain biking, a bit of road work, etc.

All of this aside, it doesn’t matter how hard the type of cardio is that you pick or how long you go for if you don’t attack each and every cardio session with intensity—and I’m not talking about mindset. I’m talking about making certain if you perform cardio on a machine, you set it on a level that is intense enough to keep your heart rate (safely) elevated throughout the duration of your session. You can’t simply go through the motions during cardio; you have to actually put in some effort. Here is my point:

You are prepping for a show, but seriously frustrated because the scale wasn’t moving. You take inventory of your prep; the diet was on point, training was better than ever, and you are doing your daily cardio and have even increased it, but what was lacking was high intensity and a sustained level to keep the heart rate elevated for an extended period of time. Even though cardio was being performed, if the intensity is not there or you are performing it on too easy a level, you aren’t going to get the results you want. If you aren’t breaking a sweat to the point that you look like you’ve jumped into a swimming pool—you need to rethink your intensity level and/or cardio choice. Not only does the cardio burn fat, it also helps the body rid itself of excess fluids, keeping you flushed.

Another variable to help your fat burning, fluid-flushing cardio efforts is the clothing you choose. i strongly suggest at least a sweatshirt or longsleeved shirt if not full sweatsuits. Maximize your efforts and sweat! So, remember, just because you are performing cardio—doesn’t mean it is going to burn away the fat the way you want if you do not execute it with intensity.

Phil heath straight sets_1


In a perfect world, you could just take off three to four months from the daily grind of work, and the world would simply revolve around you and your contest prep. However, this is the real world and we know that will never happen! Not only do you have to plan your prep, but you also have to plan your prep around your “real” life. Learning to fit everything into your everyday schedule is crucial to balancing success in both your work and home atmosphere and your competitive atmosphere. When I work with an athlete, I like to map everything out in advance—find out if during the contest prep they have to travel for work, have any family gatherings, trips, etc., that will pop up along the way and plan both for and around those events. And, in the interim, plan your meals, training, and cardio around your day-today routine and what works best for your environment and your individual situation, and know that your contest prep needs to revolve around work and family.

By planning everything in advance, you can strategically map out days off of training, cardio, and even schedule “cheat days” when you know it will be impossible for you to get to a gym or eat right because of travel for work, etc. Bodybuilding is a very demanding sport and can sometimes seem all consuming, but with the right strategy and mapping out your game plan in advance, it will make a very tough three to four months of contest dieting and prep more manageable and not quite as stressful. Careful planning not only means the difference between winning and losing a show but also is the difference in successfully staying on task and knowing you did everything right.

You can add to this checklist as it pertains to you, but starting with the basics will help tremendously for a smooth transition between the off-season and contest phase of your training. By creating a transition plan and keeping track of your progress from contest to off-season, you will learn with each year that passes how to fine-tune, adjust, and produce a winning plan to suit your specific needs. 


  • When I’m planning a trip, I make a checklist to ensure I don’t forget anything. When prepping athletes for a show and transitioning into contest prep from the off-season, I like to do the same thing. By having a checklist of all the necessary variables for your prep, you, too, can insure a well-planned prep that will garner you the best results:
  • Take stick of your progress during the off-season and compare it with your last off-season as well as your last competition.
  • Plan how long you will need for your diet and estimate your starting date.
  • Look at your daily schedule, work schedule, family events, and other events that will take place throughout your prep and plan your meals, cardio, and training around your daily schedule.
  • Plan out your diet two to three weeks ahead, and adjust it as needed.
  • Plan your cardio, what types of apparatuses you will use, will you do it a.m., p.m., or both, how long will each session last, etc.
  • Take your wife, girlfriend, significant other for a night out on the town because for the next three to four months, everyone’s life will be turned upside down from the contest prep. Actually, you may want to put this at the top of the list!!! – FLEX