A how-to guide for perfectly full and defined muscles at ultra-lean body fat levels. The final touches to getting your muscles to look spot-on for a physique competition or photoshoot.
This post is inspired by a learning experience I had at my last physique competition. I didn't know what I was looking for at the time until the morning of the pre-judging where I had spilled over to bloated and soft state rather than full and hard. I wish I knew this information for my own competition so I hope this manual will help you look your best after the months of hard work put in leading up.
Carbs are stored in muscle fibers with water which gives them the look physique competitors are striving for.
However, once the inside of the muscle is full, water will begin to be stored on the outside of the muscle.
Not enough carbs is termed flat and is described as stringy and soft.
Too much carbs is termed spilled and is described as soft and bloated.
Just enough carbs is termed full and is described as hard, striated and defined.
There are certain signs you can look and feel for to tell whether you are flat, spilled or full, such as by poking contracted muscles and by assessing your ability to get a "pump".
Prevent walking on stage flat or spilled by starting your carb load at least 2 days out. Taking pictures frequently and adjusting as you get closer to show time.
If you spill, do some periodic light exercise and consume little to no carbs until back in the full range.
Keep calm, a spill is correctable, the show is for fun and you're learning something fascinating about your body.
Check out these pictures:
STOP SCROLLING HERE!
Pick which photo you think the muscles look best for a physique competition.
Now, let's add the following labels to these pictures: the countdown to the competition, the time they were taken and what I had done prior to them.
2 days out from competition 8:00, fasted, pre-carb load (0 total grams carbs)
2 days out from competition 19:00, post 5 meals (480g carbs)
1 day out from competition 10:00, post 1 day carb loading (600g carbs) + 1 meal (90g carbs), total consumption of 690g carbs
Post tan (obviously), 1 day out from competition 20:00, post 1 day carb loading (600g carbs) + 4 meals (390g carbs), total consumption of 990g carbs
Competition day 11:30, post 2 days of carb loading (1050g) + 2 meals (120g), total consumption of 1170g.
Competition day 15:00, no carb consumption and light exercise since previous picture
Competition day 18:00, no carb consumption and light exercise since picture #5
What The Hell Happened?
In a physique competition, where the goal is to be lean, muscular and hard, most people would agree that pictures #4 & #7 are best. The physique in each picture was improving until a noticeable diminishment of definition in picture #5. Following this, the pictures progressively improved again.
You'll notice that just before #5 I had an extra 180g carbohydrate since my last picture. This was just enough to "spill over" as they (physique competitors and fitness models who get ultra-lean for competition and photoshoots) would say. I then corrected this before stepping on stage again for the evening show.
What Is Glycogen and Why Does Eating Lots of Carbs Make Muscle Striated and Larger?
Let's start with why physique competitors carb load at all and why it makes your muscles look larger, fuller, defined, hard and striated.
Carbs are stored in muscle and in the liver as glycogen. For every 1 gram of carbohydrate 2.7 to 4 grams of water are stored with it (1). This can add some serious weight, in a good way, since you're adding it to an area that is being judged on for its size and definition.
When carbs are stored in the muscle they are predominantly stored deeply in the muscle at first and work their way to the surface.
The water is tightly bound to each individual carbohydrate particle as it flows through the body and is then crammed into your muscle cells causing distention and enlargement of the fibers. As the combination of carbohydrate particles and water has a high relative density to other liquids found in the body, this compact bulging muscle fibre becomes hard. At very low body fat levels, this gives the striated look of what you see in an anatomy textbook.
In other words, carbs and water can help give that super-lean look.
However, once the deep glycogen stores are packed full, the water starts to be stored around the outside of the muscle. Think of your muscles as a sponge, where there is a limited capacity to how much can held within it.
For an endurance athlete, this doesn't matter so much as we just want to get as much of this fast burning fuel source stored as possible to improve performance. However, for a physique competition, this extra fuel reduces performance! This water now surrounding the surface of the muscle can take away from definition making you look softer, puffy and bloated.
The Science and Research Behind Carb Loading For Physique
I struggled with the points above regarding carbs and water eventually being stored on the outside of the muscle because I cannot find a scientific reference to support this.
However, there is an abundance of anecdotal reports to suggest that this is the case (reference #2). It is agreed that after a certain intake of carbohydrates, water is stored in excess on top of the muscles causing a smoother puffy look. To me, this is certainly conceivable and I accept this rationale until science proves otherwise.
What does the science say?
Carb loading to a certain level for aesthetics is recognized as a prevalent and widespread practice among physique competitors to enhance performance (3,4,5,6).
Carb loading for a physique competition has shown to result in a 4.9% increase in muscle thickness when measured at the bicep (7).
Carb loading shows substantial increases in leg muscle mass (mean of 3%), when measured via DEXA (8)
Carb loading adds about 2.5 lbs (1.1 kg) of total fat free mass to young men weighing an average of 145 lbs (9). (those of greater weight/muscle mass would add more weight)
What To Look And Feel For
Now that the geeky stuff is out of the way, back to the point I made about over-consuming carbs leading to decrements in physique aesthetics.
In the physique competition and fitness modeling world, the term “flat” means not having enough carbohydrates in the muscle and is described as “stringy” and “depleted”.
The term “spilled over” means too much carbs in the muscle and is described as “soft” and “bloated”.
The perfect range in-between these 2 red zones is labeled “full” and is what you are looking for to achieve your highest score.
There are things to look for to know where you stand in your carb load, especially in some particular spots like your abs, chest and shoulders. Look and feel for these signs internally and externally while exercising:
As an internal cue, during your work out, do the exercises you know give you the best "pump" (that feeling of your muscles being engorged with fluid from dilated blood vessels). This is usually accomplished using 8-15 slow repetitions focusing on maximal contraction.
For the external cues, you can poke your muscles to feel if they are depleted or have someone else do it for you and describe how it feels. I suggest using the tricep for this. It is accessible, easy to contract and, by maximally extending your elbow, will always be the same shape making it reliable for repeatedly testing yourself throughout the day.
If you find you genetically store more fat around your triceps you can also use your quadriceps. However you may find you are more succumb to cramping when maximally contracting your quads.
Let’s take a deeper look at each of these 3 stages
Not Enough Carbs = Soft and Depleted
This occurs when there are low glycogen levels in the muscle and, thus, less water to fill up and engorge those muscle fibers. The muscle will be soft and this look is often described as flat and stringy.
If you're nearing the end of your fat loss diet and are wondering where your muscle went (thought: "I didn't think I was this small under that fat!") then you're likely in this zone. The lower you brought your carbohydrates with your diet, the less defined you will look.
With pump up exercises:
You likely won't feel much of a pump when working out. You'll have little to no vascularity. Your veins may show when the muscles are flexed but this won't last when the muscle is relaxed.
There will be little area between your muscle and the surface of the skin but the muscle itself will feel soft and penetrable, like a hard leather arm chair.
Hot Spots to Check Out: (Note: Think of the adjectives used in these sections as relative in description to other stages of the carb load. The following descriptions are based on anecdotal analyses of myself, clients and others and in no way have been scientifically assessed in a controlled research environment.)
Abs - May be visible depending on leanness level and how genetically predisposed you are to storing body fat over top of your abs. The muscle between the connective tissue (i.e. each individual abdominal) will be more 2D than 3D with little rounding to them. Think zylaphone keys rather than washboard. There will be less clear distinction of bottom abs.
Shoulders - Likely a noticeable tear drop look but subtle.
Chest - Either skinny and small or if you have large pecs they will look droopy. Little to no vascularity or striation.
Too Much Carbs = Bloated and Soft
You've gone past your target zone. The carbohydrates and water are now being stored on the surface of the muscle. This is because the cells on the inside are full.
With pump up exercises:
You'll be able to get a pump. You'll feel it, but it will only make you look larger and slightly more striated, unlike when the muscles aren't contracted. You'll probably have some vascularity from the pump but it won't be as robust as it was at the point before you spilled.
The back of the arm will have some give to it and it will feel like there is now some distance (due to the water) between the surface of the skin and the muscle, but the tricep itself will feel hard.
Abs - Enlarged but more blurry between the tendenous connection of each abdominal. Your waist line will likely be visibly larger due to liver enlargement as a result of carbohydrates and water filled up here as well. You won't see any striations in the obliques and it may look like you have a bit of a “muffin top” (enlargement of the area just above the hips). Likely no clear distinction of bottom abs.
Shoulders - Large, round and balloon looking. No striations.
Chest - Large, round and balloon looking. No striations.
Just Enough Carbs = Full, Hard and Striated
This is the sweet spot you are aiming for. Your muscle glycogen has been filled deep in the tissues to the brim, but there is no storage yet on the outside.
With pump up exercises:
You'll be able to get a pump which will make your muscles even more defined, striated and hard looking. You'll have more vascularity from the pump than when spilled or flat. Tendons will be visible when flexing.
Muscle hardness of cardboard or styrofoam, meaning very hard but if you push your finger into it with enough pressure it will have some give. Muscle will appear tight against skin.
Abs - A 3D look with clear outline of the top and likely the bottom abs as well. Clear tendenous connection of each abdominal (depending on leanness). A rock hard look to the core area in general.
Shoulders - Striated and much more defined jagged (imperfect) tear drop. Noticeable bumps or rigidity at the top of the deltoids where they connect to the clavicle. You will also likely be able to distinguish between the front deltoid and the chest.
Chest - Tight look where the tendon connecting your pecs to your sternum looks like it's struggling to keep it from bursting off. Striations particularly towards the sternum and a noticeable distinction of the upper chest, especially when flexed. Vascularity across upper chest.
How To Find Your Sweet Spot
Prevent a spill over by first spilling over a bit
That's right, if you want to find the perfect range, you're going to have to go past it. Start loading quickly 2 days out from your big day. Some larger bodybuilders or those who have dieted down on a high carbohydrate diet may need 3 days in order to fit in all of the carbs they need to load.
How many carbs you need is dependent on many factors. I take an individual approach, but generally, for the first day of carb loading, start with double the maximum of what was consumed prior to starting fat loss diet.
So, if Joe was eating 300 grams of carbs prior to dieting, his first day of carb loading would be 600 grams.
I also take the following into account:
More carbs for: 1. Younger 2. Those with active jobs 3. Those who have competed and/or have carbohydrate loaded in the past
Less carbs for: 1. Older 2. Are currently very low carb or ketogenic for their fat loss diet
If Joe was young with an active job, I would suggest he eat even more than 600 grams, more like 700 grams of carbs, on the first day. However, if Joe was older and ketogenic, I would suggest he eat 500 grams instead.
Again, it's okay if you don't get the first carb up day right. That is what the second day is for and it's better to overshoot a bit in the first day than under. However, we don't want to go uncalculated and just scarf down as many carbs as possible. At the leanness levels of a physique competitor, this can result in noticeable fat gain.
The second day (now one day out from show) is about correcting from the first day. On the first day, you should be taking pictures before each of your meals to see the effects of the previous meals. Remember to take these in the same lighting and same position/pose.
Once and if you do spill, you'll be able to look back and say that’s where my muscles looked most defined. You can now tailor your carb intake from within 50-100g of 2/3rds of what you are having the day before.
For example, if Joe ate 600g the day before, he would plan for 400g the next day and then decide whether to go lower or higher than this within 50-100g.
Continue taking pictures through day 2 and start to compare. You'll begin to get a feel of the look you are aiming for and how many carbs you need to maintain it for the next day before the morning prejudging.
How To Correct A Spill Over
It's the morning of the show and if:
You woke up spilled over
You've spilled over after your first meal or
You've spilled over the meal after
Keep calm, there's still time to correct it.
In fact, there is only so much you can get spilled over; as in, there is a limit to how many carbohydrates your body can store as glycogen. It's not like you’re going to have to burn off thousands of calories worth of carbs.
Continue drinking adequate water and do not take anything like diuretics or anti-inflammatories. These can make things worse! Remember we just want to get rid of the water on the outside of the muscle, not anywhere else.
The best way to get rid of carbs around the muscle is to work that muscle group and to particularly activate the energy systems glycolysis and carbohydrate oxidation. This means resistance training at high reps like 15-50 and some plyometrics that last more than 30 seconds.
Don't worry, even just going about daily activities while allowing time to pass will be burning carbs. Your body naturally uses for energy what it has most availability to. Don't feel the need to constantly workout until you've corrected your look.
For your short periodic workouts, I recommend push-ups, bodyweight squats, pull ups or dumbbell rows, lateral raises and high knees.
It is important that you work to the point where you are maximizing carbohydrate usage but not exhausting your muscles, so use light weights and don't go to failure. For a physique show, you're going to need your energy to hold your poses on stage and if you induce any muscle damage you're going end up with inflammation around that muscle which will pull even more fluid to the surface of that area.
You can also do some low intensity activity like going for a walk. This may raise the question, "but doesn't low intensity activity mainly use fat for energy?" It mainly uses oxidation (a slow energy producing system) which, if the body has an abundance of carbohydrates available to it, will primarily use the carbohydrates to oxidize for energy.
Along with this, you are going to eat little to no carbohydrates. It's also a good idea not to eat too much fat or protein either. I'd stick to 0.3g/kg max for protein every 3-4 hours as going past this will result in that protein being used for energy, sparing the carbohydrates that you are trying to burn off. Keep fat minimal but enough to keep your energy and hunger levels manageable.
Pee! In fact, look forward to peeing. As long as you are not drowning yourself in water, every time you urinate, you can rest assured that some carbohydrates were burned, releasing the water to be excreted. This is literally the water that was around your muscles that you are now flushing down the toilet.
Again, avoid diuretics. They will not pull the water stored with glycogen around the surface of the muscle but can dehydrate the inside of the muscle reducing the hard look you are looking for. Not to mention, dehydration can completely throw off your posing stamina and mental game.
Right before the moment in the spot light
If you spilled and at 3-4 hours prior to stage time you're still looking spilled, it's time to make a judgment call. With the rate you have been visually losing the watery look around your muscles do you think you will be flat by the time you hit the stage or will you be in the range of full and hard?
If you're still quite spilled, it might be best to stick with no carbs. If you're looking hard and full, you're going to want to have some carbs in order to maintain that look.
If at 30-60 minutes before stage or your photoshoot, you're looking flat, it’s time to break out the very fast digesting carbohydrates. For this, I suggest pure dextrose. You can find candy that is made of pure dextrose such as Gummy Bears or Rockets. Have these before your nerves start kicking in at the thought of stepping out in front of cameras and hundreds of people half naked (or almost completely naked if you're female or a male bodybuilder).
Nervousness is your fight or flight system which is useful for getting a pump and for flexing on stage, but is not helpful for digestion. Because there is less blood flow to the digestive system, consuming food or dextrose at this time will cause it to just sit there absorbing more slowly. This not only defeats the purpose of consuming carbs to load up your muscles but can also result in gas which can cause stomach distention, can be distractingly uncomfortable and can be bad for making friends if you stink.
Remember to drink water with your carbohydrates. This will allow them to be absorbed more easily and quickly and the hardness effect is mainly from the compactness of the water in your muscle fibers. Try to have enough that you urinate within 30 minutes of hitting the stage. Your body knows what balanced hydration is and will excrete excess.
After this, drink little to no water before the stage to ensure you are not over hydrating without enough time for it to reach your bladder and for you to reach the bathroom.
How I spilled over, I ate no carbs until 3 hours out from the night show. This was from 11:30am until 4pm. During this time I periodically did a circuit that consisted of 20 bodyweight squats, 40 push-ups from my knees, 20 db rows, and 100 high knees. I also went for a 30 minute walk.
3 hours out from the night show is picture #6. As you can see I'm back into the hard and full zone and, if anything, still only slightly spilled. I wanted to step on stage either like this or a bit below so I chose 30g of carbohydrate. By the time I hit the stage I was harder, tighter, and fuller.
What You Can Do
Plan, but be flexible - Pre-plan your carb load using the instructions above and be prepared for your plans to change based on your judgment calls.
Test out your carb load - If you are lean enough a couple weeks out from peak week (rare but possible), that's ideally when you want to experiment with loading up.
Test out your pre-show foods - This goes for supplements too. It is less about carb loading and more for reassuring you don't have any adverse reactions.
Chill - If you spill over, relax, it's fixable. Keep calm and follow the procedure above.
Enjoy! - It's times like this to switch your focus and perspective to the fact that it’s all for fun and that you just learned something pretty cool about your body. If you control your focus, you control your experience.
Refer to an expert - Would rather have someone else make the judgment calls? Get yourself a coach who works in this area and knows what they're talking about (unfortunately, there are many that don't). Contact Unlocked if you’d like to team up with me!
A big thank you to my coach, Ben Esgro of De Novo Nutrition, for helping me through my prep and being a major part of this important educational and enjoyable experience.
Dr. Layne Norton – Bodybuilding competitor and coach, PhD in nutrition - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CbdBg_KJio
Eric Helms - Bodybuilding competitor and coach, MSc in nutrition - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLjq6Zn86w4 (21:00)
Alberto Nunez - Bodybuilding competitor and coach - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjywCGGex2U (24:00)
Dr. Joe Klemczewski – Bodybuilding competitor and coach, PhD in health sciences - https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/drjoe2.htm