It’s April 16th, 2021.
I wake up with a flutter in my stomach.
Today it’s the day of my first fitness photoshoot.
It means a lot for so many reasons.
On a personal level, I haven’t had top surgery yet. I don’t feel comfortable competing in bodybuilding – my greatest fitness-related passion since 2018 – even though there are a couple of gender-diverse federations in America that would let me.
So training and dieting for this shoot has been the second best alternative to a real bodybuilding contest preparation, and today will be a little like stepping on stage.
On a professional level, I think that practising all the stages of the physique improvement process that I guide my clients through – from muscle-building phases (“bulks”) to maintenance phases (“recharge or maintenance phases”) to fat loss phases (“cuts”) – will make me a better coach.
A photoshoot prep is more extreme than my average client’s fat loss phases, which makes it even more educational. I already feel a lot more confidence in my ability to predict the thoughts, feelings, and physiological responses that a dieting client might encounter, now that I’ve spent five months losing 13.7 lbs for this day.
I step on the scale and look down at the number with relief.
I’ve hit my lowest weight of the week.
A single low weigh-in doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve lost body fat, but that’s not why I’m relieved: since Monday, my weight has been going up by about 1 lb compared to last week’s average, which isn’t exactly comforting when I’m supposed to look my leanest on this Thursday morning.
I suspected it was most likely a little water retention from the stress of the “big day”, and I was worried about the effect this could have on my physique.
Would it hide my definition? Would my muscles look “blurry” in the pictures?
Seeing the weight drop, gives me hope that I haven’t ruined the look.
Next, it’s time to take physique shots.
I’ve been taking them two to three times a day for a month: once when I wake up, once around the time I’ve arranged for the shoot in the late morning, and once late at night.
From countless bodybuilding articles, podcasts, and courses, I’ve learnt the importance of documenting and studying my physique throughout prep.
On shoot day, no one cares how much you weigh. What matters is the way you look.
The first and best way to look great is obviously to get lean. However, when you’re lean enough, you can manipulate what you eat – such as carbs, fibre, sodium, potassium, and water – to enhance the look further.
The pictures provide valuable feedback I’ve been using to guide my decisions in that regard.
They’ve been particularly helpful to plan my “peak week strategy”.
Peak week is the week leading up to shoot day (or contest day). As the name implies, you can choose to implement certain training and nutrition strategies to try to get your physique to “peak” and look its best for your event.
The purpose of peak week is to replenish your muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) stores – which can become depleted in a caloric deficit – so that your muscles appear as pumped and bulging as possible whilst still retaining definition. This look is called “full”, whereas the opposite is known as “flat”.
Peaking is an art as much as it is a science.
For example, if your glycogen stores are too full, you’re going to look “spilled”, which means blurry and less defined.
Striking the balance between “flat” and “full”, without “spilling over”, is a real challenge.
There are many ways to peak a physique. In general, a peak week protocol is going to involve strategic increases and decreases to your carb intake depending on the day.
Whichever strategy you choose, it’s best to test it at least a few weeks before the big day. Some people look their best the morning after a higher-carb day; others take a few days. You can only find out how you respond with trial and error.
That’s why physique shots have been so important: I’ve been studying them to perfect my peak week strategy.
I ended the hardest portion of the diet in March, when I realised I was reasonably happy with my leanness. I could have pushed for more fat loss, but I was physically and mentally exhausted from the effort, so I decided it was time to pull back.
Unfortunately, we were still in lockdown in the UK, so I had to wait an extra month before the shoot. I spent this time reverse dieting, which involves gradually increasing your caloric intake from a deficit back to maintenance.
Reverse dieting is still a diet because you’re still eating below your maintenance levels for a time, but the caloric deficit gets smaller and smaller over time. This slows down the pace of fat loss instead of stopping it all at once.
Whilst reverse dieting, I took the opportunity to test the peak week protocol.
The test went well, so I’m reasonably confident it’ll have worked this week, too.
In hindsight, I wasn’t lean enough to need a peak week. Even when you’re lean enough to step on a bodybuilding stage (which, for this shoot, I was not), peaking is a risk. When you’re not lean enough, it makes little difference at best, and can ruin the look at worst.
But I let my emotions get the best of me.
I’ve been thinking of this fat loss phase as “the photoshoot prep” since November.
This has added a whole lot of pressure to the whole process, since I hold myself to very high standards. In addition, it has also somehow convinced me that I’m leaner than I actually am, and that I ought to make decisions that would better suit a leaner person, including a peak week.
It’s hard to explain.
On one hand, the rational part of me has been telling me that I’m not “bodybuilding contest lean” because that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to get “fitness photoshoot lean”.
On the other hand, the emotional part of me that would love to compete, has grown attached to the idea that this is the closest I can get to a true contest prep, and it’s been acting as if I’m shredded enough to walk on stage.
This psychological dichotomy will be my downfall this time.
I set up the tripod and stand in front of the camera with trepidation.
I take several front shots, going through the same bodybuilding poses I’ve been practising for every round of physique pictures throughout this prep.
Finally, I remove my phone from the tripod.
I feel the weight of all the pressure that has been slowly growing inside me whilst on the outside I’ve been shrinking for the last five months.
I feel the bite of the insecurity that’s been nagging at me for a while.
If you have a serious physique goal, your first, second, maybe even third fat loss phase after a muscle-building phase will leave you feeling dissatisfied. Most people underestimate how much muscle they can put on in a few months of “bulking”, and I’m no different.
As I’ve been leaning out, I’ve been happy to look more defined… but less happy to discover I have far less muscle than I thought I did.
I feel the sting of the extremely high expectations that I’ve always set myself in every area of my life. I love that I’m ambitious, but the self-imposed stress that comes from this trait? That, I don’t like as much.
I flick through the pictures.
I sigh to myself.
I don’t look as good as I did last week, when I last tried my peak week protocol.
Of course, it’s only been a few days, so the difference isn’t stark enough to undo five months of hard work. But last week showed me that I could have looked 1% better, so of course I focus on that 1% and not on the 99% of the process that went really well.
In the end, I like the pictures from the actual shoot; I even use them on my website and social media accounts. I just don’t like them as much as I’d have wanted to; I feel like I “failed”.
I spend weeks after the shoot feeling sorry for myself.
I’m always telling my clients to celebrate their wins without hyper-focusing on their mistakes. I learnt the importance of that message from this post-shoot experience.
My partner Kai tells me, ‘You’ve worked too hard for this to feel this way.’
I still remember those words more than a year later because they strike me in that moment.
I know she’s right, but I can’t help it.
I make a promise to myself for the next shoot. I want to build more muscle and to get leaner, but that’s not the main priority.
What I really want is to enjoy the prep more and to feel satisfied afterwards.
Kai is right. I’ve worked too hard to feel this way.
So it’s back to the drawing board. I take notes: what went well? What can I improve upon? What’s my strategy over the next year?
First off, I need more muscle, so a muscle-building phase is on the cards for as long as possible. Before the shoot, I decided I’d hire a bodybuilding coach to learn from him and understand what it’s like to be a client, so that’s exactly what I do.
I store the notes on what went well and what needs improving for the next fat loss phase.
These will set me up for success when that time comes.
For now, I have my coach, my new training program, and my most pressing goal: more muscle.
It’s time to get to work.
It’s August 18th, 2022.
I wake up with a flutter in my stomach.
Today it’s the day of my second fitness photoshoot.
It means a lot for so many reasons.
On a personal level, I made a commitment to myself over a year ago: I swore I’d enjoy the prep more, and do my best to get more satisfaction from the shoot itself.
I smile to myself because I already know the first part went well.
When I started dieting in February, I told Kai, ‘I want this fat loss phase to be much more chill.’
So I made no plans to do a shoot. I’d simply hit a point in my muscle-building phase where I was no longer comfortable with the amount of body fat I’d gained (which is inevitable even during the most successful muscle-building phases), and I wanted to lean out a little.
It was only eight weeks before the shoot that I decided I’d do one, and it was only four weeks before that I contacted the photographer.
This choice made a huge difference to my mindset, and I strongly believe that results start with an effective mindset.
This time around, I didn’t spend every single day of the diet obsessing over the outcome. Instead, I focused on the day-to-day process: hitting my calories, protein, training sessions or rest days, and steps.
I never get tired of preaching the importance of your mindset to my clients for a reason: it works wonders. Indeed, I have a whole podcast in which I rave about this concept.
Moreover, stress can impact the way you look, particularly when you’re very lean, which is counterproductive when you’re dieting for the whole purpose of having cool pictures of yourself taken by a professional.
Dieting to get as lean as I did, already takes a considerable toll on the body and mind, so I’m sure that removing any unnecessary pressure from the start will have contributed to the visual end result.
On a professional level, this second prep has taught me even more than the first, arming me with more knowledge to help my clients set realistic expectations and apply the best methods to get the best possible results from their own diets, whether they be for health and lifestyle improvements or for a photoshoot or contest prep.
For one, I’ve had to apply all of the knowledge gained last year in order to correct my previous mistakes, thus testing new strategies that I can now include in my “coaching toolbox”.
The most obvious example is my peak week.
Last year, I didn’t need it in the first place and overdid my carbohydrate intake, increasing it too much over the course of five days. This excess resulted in a less defined physique.
This time, I’m taking a more conservative approach, increasing carbs in the last two days before shooting by about 25 grams (100 calories) each day, going from 1400 calories up to 1600. I’m not reverse dieting, so 1400 calories has been my daily caloric intake for the last eight weeks.
I experimented with this strategy four weeks ago and then again last week, building up my confidence that it’d work.
Another example is my condition: I’ve lost 6 to 7 lbs more than I did for the first shoot.
However, it’s because of that first shoot that I’ve been able to achieve this.
Although on one hand I’d have wanted to get leaner last year, in hindsight I’m not sure I’d have been able to, even if I’d tried. In March 2021, I was mentally, emotionally, and physically drained; I just wanted the diet to be over.
This time, I’ve been able to take the diet further because I developed more mental resilience in that first prep. I also knew what to expect during the last, most challenging stages of the prep: how hard the diet would get, how hungry I would be most of the time, how my sleep and mood would worsen, and how training would become a laborious feat.
Without that first shoot, I wouldn’t have had this understanding and the mental fortitude needed to overcome these difficulties.
I take a deep breath and stand in front of the mirror with trepidation.
No tripod this time. I moved to Liverpool in September 2021 and I now have a full-length mirror that’s perfect for physique shots, so I’ve been taking the same three front shots every day for the last month, comparing them over time.
I stare at myself in the mirror.
I remember taking those morning pictures on April 16th last year. I remember deflating when I saw them and realised I didn’t look the way I hoped.
I remember the commitment I made to myself.
To be better this time. To be satisfied.
Then I smile at my reflection.
I look bloody awesome.
The photoshoot hasn’t even started yet and I still need to eat my last dose of carbs before leaving, but I already know I’ll love the pictures this time.
When I step into the gym, some four hours and a long trip later, I hold my head high and grin as I shake hands with Yannis, the photographer.
I’ve kept my promise to myself.
This time, I truly am satisfied.
2021 vs 2022
Thanks for reading. May you make the best gains.
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An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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