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Peaking for Bodybuilding

by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist | Nov 14, 2016

When you’re peaking for a performance sport, the process is easy to define and the goal is straightforward: you want your best performance on the day of the competition and the process that supports that (such as tapering) will get you there.

In peaking for the display of a physique, it’s not so much performance we’re after, but appearance. Just like with tapering for a performance sport, a taper/peak for a physique presentation can give you your best look WHEN YOU MOST NEED IT, like for a photoshoot, video shoot, or even a show.

But hold on a second, isn’t the way to get a presentable physique best paved by the weeks and months of proper diet and training that help you lose the fat and keep the muscle you’ve built? YES. No little last-minute tricks or manipulations replace weeks and months of true fat loss and muscle retention. Just like no taper in powerlifting can make you super-strong on the day of your meet if your training up to that point has been less than serious. However, just like a proper taper in powerlifting can let you express that top-end 2.5% of your strength, the peaking process for physique display can let you be just that little bit more crisp, dry, and full so that you look your best when you most need to.

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Front Double Biceps the AM of the shoot!

The idea that peaking for bodybuilding could even be a possibility was first discovered by bodybuilders (and re-discovered many times since by younger generations of physique athletes and recreational trainers) when they observed that their bodies looked different day to day. Yes, fundamentally lean and muscular people look lean and muscular EVERY DAY lol, and out of shape people don’t have days where they accidentally wake up looking like Phil Heath. But small changes do occur day to day, and not just because more fat is being lost or muscle being gained slowly, but because of other more transient factors. These factors mostly come down to where your total body water is being stored and how much of it you’re storing. Based on just accidental patterns in your eating, hydration, activity, and sleep, some days you store more water under your skin and a bit less than usual in your muscles. This gives you a “soft” look and actually makes you look less lean and smaller than you really are. On other days, you might store a bit more water in your muscles and a bit less under the skin, making you look more muscular and leaner at the same time! The whole art and science of peaking for physique started with the observation of such variations and proceeded to the next logical question: “what factors cause the body to look differently day to day and how do we manipulate them to look our BEST on the day we choose?” That’s the basic goal behind peaking, and the rest is just details.

Not to say there are not a lot of details!! In fact, there are so many, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Luckily, here’s a very quick summary of the factors involved in getting muscles to be as full as possible and for subcutaneous water to be as low as possible (resulting in the best of both worlds of looking your biggest and leanest)”

Glycogen: The carbs stored in your muscles bring about 3 times their own weight in water. If you’re fully glycogen-loaded, your muscles look their biggest.

Sodium: Some sodium is critical for keeping muscles looking full. But too much “spills over” and attracts water to itself in the subcutaneous space.

Potassium: Higher levels draw fluid into the muscle, so going too low on it prevents being your fullest.

Water: Much like sodium, too much water will bloat up under your skin, but not enough water and you’ll look very dry/lean, but not very full.

Sleep/Stress: Long hours of sleep and waking time spent under low-stress conditions usually reduces subcutaneous water storage and lets you look your driest. On the other hand, under-sleeping (even just the night before your peak attempt) or stressing out a ton can cause too much water accumulation under your skin and make you look softer than your best.

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Most Muscular the AM of the shoot. Definitely reached a new level of dry here… 225lbs that morning.

To keep this really simple, we want to max out our glycogen stores and our sleep while keeping water, sodium, and potassium in the normal range and stress as low as possible. What does this mean in practice?

Well, that’s where things get personal. I didn’t use the term “complicated” because peaking isn’t as much complicated in theory as it is differential in personal application. What is enough glycogen for one person to fill out under certain conditions may be wildly different than another. Some people have much lower baselines of sodium and potassium than others, so simply giving them “the usual” amounts causes them bloating, and so on.

So far, the two big take-home messages on peaking: 1.) It’s only going to be a small effect so… you still have to be in great shape to look your best! 2.) While the general theory of peaking applies to everyone, personal applications can differ quite a bit between individuals.

My friends Jared Feather and Broderick Chavez not only helped me a lot with understanding the theory, but also on helping me apply it to my test-run. I was already in my best shape from 10 weeks of dieting, and I needed to look my best on the day of a photo/video shoot with Mike Rashid for a business venture we’re involved with. And the peak was done not just to get me to my best look on that date, but to help me figure out the personal variations that would work best for me when I next choose to compete in a bodybuilding show.

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A cool side shot with some leg graininess perhaps?

Here’s a brief summary of what we did for me, and some comments on how well it worked.

1.) I started loading water and salt 1.5 weeks out. 2.5 gallons of water and like 5g of salt per day. HOLY BLOAT. This had me puff up big time within a couple of days, but by the end, I was back to being my normal not-bloated self WHILE STILL TAKING IN THAT MUCH WATER AND SALT. This of course means that I was peeing like once every hour, no joke. The flight from Philly to Miami for the video shoot was lots of fun haha.

The purpose of this water and salt load was to get my anti-diuretic hormones (the ones designed to hold water on your body and prevent you from dehydrating) to go through a negative feedback loop and relax their effects. It worked like a charm. Once I resumed normal water consumption about 18 hours before the shoot, I continued to pee like crazy for most of that time. Since I was already back to relatively normal subcutaneous water levels before the 18 hours, I looked extra dry during the shoot.

2.) I started loading carbs about 5 days out from the shoot. I was very depleted before starting, so I took my time with loading. I had tried a one-day load before and that backfired, so this time I went for slow and steady. 500-600g of carbs per day for 5 days. Interestingly, I was still doing enough cardio and training during that time for that to actually NOT BE ENOUGH to fill me out! Oh, I was fuller than I was at the end of the cut, but not nearly as full as I could be. Broderick yelled at me for this, and next time he says we’re going to try a 3 day load that takes me as high as 1000+ grams per day at the beginning of the load. I’d be wary of such a big jump if I didn’t clearly see that I wasn’t my fullest on the day of the shoot. The next day (after plenty more carbs) I was actually fuller, and even 2 weeks later when my mass phase was in effect I was fuller still!

3.) In the 3 days before the shoot, I made sure to keep potassium levels in check by consuming high potassium foods like bananas and white potatoes (in moderation, of course). 24 hours out, I switched to normal sodium and 18 hours out, I switched to normal water intakes. That evening before the shoot was an interesting time, because my body was drying up over the hours, looking different every time I looked at it. New veins, new striations… very cool stuff! In retrospect, I wasn’t as dry as I could have been on the morning of the shoot, and this tells me that we should probably pull the salt a bit earlier next time, maybe 1.5 days before? We shall see.

4.) Lastly is the sleep. I knew I’d have trouble with sleep the night before such an exciting opportunity. So I did what any reasonable person would do. I took two Benadryls! Like clockwork, that knocked me the hell out, and even though I woke up several times to go pee, I slept pretty deeply and ended up waking up with my all-time best look! Yay!

5.) Last minute stuff…. Ok so here’s where it gets weird. Both Jared and Broderick told me that my pre-shoot meal should be… get this… a cheeseburger and fries (Jared also prefers Chinese takeout). What a trippy menu item to be ordering to PEAK FOR APPEARANCE. This meant that I woke up at 6am the morning of the shoot, walked down to the Burger King across the street, and, in the best shape of my life, ordered a sausage, egg and cheese English muffin with a side of hashbrowns and ketchup. Ate it quietly in my hotel room (Nick Shaw was my roommate, and I don’t wanna wake him up by accident cause he’s a grumpy guy in the morning!), and went back to sleep. When I inquired as to WHY such food makes for best appearances, Broderick and Jared both hypothesized that the salt, carb, fat, and protein combo had some kind of beneficial effect on temporary dryness and vascularity, but admitted it was all pretty conjectural in nature.

After a couple more hours of sleep, I woke up, went to the gym, got a pump, and displayed the physique in the photos you see here. My all-time best look, and definitely indicating that some of the things we did were right. Next time, we’ll try to parlay these lessons into an even better peaking process and see where things go!

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A cool side-by-side of the day before and day of the shoot. You can SEE how much water retention (and lack thereof) impacts appearance!!! This pic basically sums up the reason for peaking! And yes, those are ab veins on the upper left!!!! AHHH!!!!

The last article in this series will be about managing the post-cutting rebound. It will be up within about a week!