The last few days leading up to a physique competition are extremely stressful. You’ve been dieting for weeks on end, lifting multiple times per day every day for weeks Not to mention you’re going crazy with cardio during the hours you’re not lifting. As the content approaches, the end is in sight. You’re nearing the finish line of your contest prep, but those final decisions you make during peak week can be the difference between 1st place and 5th place.
Peak week is the grueling final mountain to climb on your way to supreme muscle definition and a shredded physique. Yet, many first-time competitors completely botch the peak week process (and their physique on stage) by messing up one of the three pillars of peak week.
Perfecting these three pillars should be your primary focus of your contest peak week and will be the ones that make or break you on stage.
Those three pillars are:
- Sodium/Potassium Balance
Ahead, we’ll address where new competitors go wrong in these areas along with what you should be doing if you want to look your best when you step on stage.
But, before we get into those three very important factors, let’s briefly review what peak week should and shouldn’t be for.
Objectives of Peak Week
The reason many first-time competitors mess up peak week is that they’re not really sure what the whole purpose of peak week is. Fortunately, we’re here to help with that.
Let’s start by discussing what peak week is NOT for. Peak week is NOT for:
Losing Excess Body Fat
By the time peak week hits, you should be stage-ready. Trying to do any last minute dramatic weight loss is pure madness and only increases the stress your body is under in the final days leading up to the competition and may actually make it even harder to lose that fat.
If you find yourself in this situation, you’re best served to pick another physique show taking place in a couple weeks. No amount of salt, carb, or water manipulation will make up for an excess of body fat.
Thinning Your Skin
For decades, bodybuilders, physique models, and coaches have prescribed eating white fish as a means to “thin” the skin leading up to a competition. Unfortunately, this is a hollow myth that holds no water.
To have thinner-looking skin, you simply need to lose more body fat and excess water weight. No amount of fish is going to magically thin your skin in the days leading up to a show.
Eliminating water weight
Many competitors and coaches mistakenly believe that missing their peak comes as a result of holding too much water. In an effort to remedy this, they remove water entirely in the days leading up to a show. Nothing could be more wrong that eliminating water during peak week.
We’ll get into this topic more down below, but just realize that decreasing your body’s water content is not a goal of peak week.
What is peak week for?
Peak week is focused on two main objectives:
- Maximizing Muscle Definition and Fullness
- Minimizing Water Retention
Both of these objectives can be accomplished through the savvy manipulation of the three pillars of peak week (carb, water, and electrolytes) that we listed at the beginning of this article.
And with that said, let’s now get into the finer details concerning each of the three pillars of peak week and what you should and shouldn’t be doing with them.
Three Pillars of Peak Week
Carbohydrates can be the physique competitors’ best friend or worst enemy. Carbohydrate loading is a familiar concept in both performance and physique sports. While both types of athletes use the carb load to increase glycogen storage, the physique athlete utilizes the technique to appear bigger and fuller on stage, while the performance athlete needs topped off glycogen for greater endurance, stamina, and power.
While carbohydrates (glucose) can be stored as glycogen, the body can only store so much. If you consume more carbohydrates than you need, and your glycogen stores are topped off, the excess glucose is converted into body fat through a process called de novo lipogenesis. Although this process is inefficient, if there’s no “rooms available” for the incoming glucose to be stored as glycogen, then your body will default to this process.
During peak week, you have been dieting for weeks and training intensely, as such your insulin sensitivity is at an all-time high, meaning your body is primed to store some serious carbohydrates.
But, as the saying goes, “the dose makes the poison”, and nowhere does this ring truer than when it comes to carb loading. Too little carbohydrate and you look flat. Too much and you risk “spillover”, gaining fat and looking “puffy”, but just the right amount and you are well on your well to maximizing muscle fullness.
To identify the “right” amount of carbs is going to be highly variable and different for each person. If you’re used to eating 100 grams of carbs per day, and then all of a sudden slam your system with 600-800 grams of carbohydrates at one time, you’re guaranteed disaster. The average 180-lb physique competitor can store approximately 350-500 grams of glycogen in muscle tissue and another 60-120 grams of glycogen in the liver. 
The best way to approach carb loading is by adding some into each meal, and on the day of the show, 6 to 8 hours from prejudging, consume 30-80 grams of carbohydrates every 2 to 3 hours. Smaller competitors will want to stay on the lower end of this range, while larger athletes can lean more towards the top end.
Don’t Forget Fiber
Fiber is important for gut health and proper digestion, and while you don’t want to completely eliminate it during prep week, you don’t want to go overboard with it either. Lest you look gassy, bloated, or distended on stage.
In the final days leading up to the show, you want to consume lower-fiber/bulk whole food carbohydrates along with small amounts of protein (10-20 g) and fat (5-10 g) with each meal.
More About Protein and Fat
During peak week, protein and fat macros should be held steady, making only minor adjustments if absolutely necessary.
Water depletion is common practice among old-school bodybuilders due to a misguided belief that cutting water helps remove residual water. It’s this residual water that is blamed for poor muscle definition, and by dehydrating yourself, there’s no possibility of water remaining under the skin.
While this sounds good in theory, the human body is quite that simple. Not to mention the fact that purposely depriving your body of water can bring with it a host of consequences that you’d rather not have to deal with.
In the previous section, we mentioned that carbohydrates are essential to achieving maximum muscle fullness on stage. What makes carbohydrates so effective in promoting muscle fullness is that when your body stores glucose as glycogen, it also stores water inside your muscles. In fact, research has noted that for every gram of carbohydrate stored in your muscle as glycogen, it also stores up to 4 grams of water too. [2,3]
This fact alone should demonstrate just how vital water is during contest prep and how it and carbohydrates are responsible for maximizing muscle fullness. Yet, in spite of these facts, many coaches and competitors still feel compelled to deplete water during prep week. What these individuals fail to understand is the difference between intracellular and extracellular fluid and the principle of conservation that applies.
Intracellular vs Extracellular Water
The human body is composed of approximately 60% water; roughly ⅔ of this water is stored as intracellular (within cells). The remaining third is extracellular fluid. Extracellular fluid by definition is found outside of your cells, and this is what many competitors and coaches believe is causing the lack of definition and muscle line “blurring”.
So, let’s take a closer look at the breakdown of stored water in the body:
- Intracellular fluid = 63-65%
- Extracellular fluid = 35-37%
- Within the extracellular fluid, 28% of it is interstitial fluid, with the remaining 7-9% of fluid is stored in other extracellular spaces such as plasma or lymph fluid
The primary concern for most athletes is the interstitial fluid — fluid found between cells containing a variety of glucose, salts, and hormones. This is the area of fluid that can negatively impact muscle definition on stage.
So, what can the physique athlete do to reduce levels of interstitial fluid?
Water storage and content is tightly regulated by the body. There is no way in which you can remove water from one compartment of the body without affecting the other. So, if you want to experiment with diuretics or removing water, you will lose extracellular water, but you’ll also lose intracellular water as a result of your body trying to maintain homeostasis. The overall ratio of water balance in your body with remain the same, and all you’ll be left with is a flat physique if you deprive yourself of water.
Remember, your body’s water storage naturally works to your advantage. The vast majority of it is stored within your cells. A negligible amount is stored in the interstitial fluid.
Sodium and potassium represent the final pieces of the puzzle to perfecting your peak week. What these two essential electrolytes do and how they can impact your final appearance are highly misunderstood by most coaches. In fact, many competitors as well as their coaches drastically adjust sodium and/or potassium intake during the final days leading up to the show.
The truth is, that sodium and potassium manipulation can certainly enhance your on-stage look, but the changes needed aren’t as big as may have been led to believe.
But before we go any further, let’s quickly recap the “give and take” relationship of sodium and potassium in the body and how it affects water balance.
For starters, water moves in and out of cells via the sodium/potassium ion pump (Na+/K+ pump). Sodium is found in high concentrations outside of cells in the interstitial fluid, while potassium is found in high concentrations inside the cells, where it can pull in water.
Now, most people will think that simply cutting sodium and piling on the potassium is a surefire way to load a lot of water into the cell. But again, the body doesn’t work quite that way.
When sodium is reduced or removed from the diet, the kidneys will conserve sodium by reabsorbing more of it back into circulation and excreting less through the urine. A 1990 Harvard study showed this perfectly when it found that reducing dietary sodium to practically zero, blood levels of sodium remained relatively unchanged. Interestingly, by day 6 of the trial, most patients had stopped peeing out sodium altogether!
The reason for this phenomenon resides in the hormone aldosterone. When sodium is decreased, aldosterone levels rise.
Why is this important?
Aldosterone is a hormone who is tasked with channeling the re-absorption and retention of water and sodium. As aldosterone levels continue to rise, so too does water retention as well as reabsorption of both sodium and water back into circulation.
Additionally, low dietary sodium can lead to a decrease in blood pressure, which pushes plasma water out of the vascular system and into the surrounding space. Without sufficient pressure in the blood vessels, reabsorbed water heads into the subcutaneous layer, precisely where you don’t want it to be.
And if you need one more reason not to embrace sodium depletion, consider this — reducing dietary sodium stunts activity of a protein called SLGT-1. This protein is responsible for glucose absorption. By reducing sodium, you’re essentially limiting your body’s ability to absorb and store glucose, prohibiting you from achieving maximum muscle fullness.
What happens to the unabsorbed glucose?
It stays in the small intestine, where it attracts water to the area, giving you the bloated, distended look that you absolutely don’t want on the day of the show.
How Much Water and Salt?
Keep water and salt at the same levels you’ve been consuming in the weeks leading up to prep week. That means if you’re used to consuming 1-1.5 gallons of water per day along with 2500 mg of sodium continue doing that in the days leading up to the show. You may want to stop drinking water about an hour or two before going on stage though, just so you don’t feel like you have to pee while on-stage for pre-judging.
What About Supplements?
Again, the same thing for water and salt intake applies to supplements. During peak week, you DO NOT want to make any drastic changes to your daily intake. Doing so adds one other variable to the equation that isn’t really necessary or productive.
That means if you’ve been using a certain pre workout, fat burner, or creatine supplement (such as Pure Steel Creatine Monohydrate) continue doing so. Furthermore, if you aren’t already, you should be supplementing with creatine, even during prep week. This is due to the fact that creatine enhances cellular hydration, meaning it improves water storage in muscle cells. This gives you a fuller, shapelier look to your muscles.
Remember, perfecting peak week only comes through a lot of trial and error. The earlier out from the competition that you can determine how your body reacts the better. We’re all different and so what macro ratio, carb load, or final meal before stepping on stage will be highly dependent on the individual.
That being said, you can use these pointers as a compass to get you going in the right direction for peak week. The fine-tuning is up to you and can only be determined through self-experimentation.
- Acheson, K. J., Schutz, Y., Bessard, T., Anantharaman, K., Flatt, J. P., & Jéquier, E. (1988). Glycogen storage capacity and de novo lipogenesis during massive carbohydrate overfeeding in man. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 48(2), 240–247.
- King RFGJ, Jones B, O’Hara JP. The availability of water associated with glycogen during dehydration: a reservoir or raindrop? European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2018;118(2):283-290. doi:10.1007/s00421-017-3768-9.
- Fernandez-Elias, V. E., Ortega, J. F., Nelson, R. K., & Mora-Rodriguez, R. (2015). Relationship between muscle water and glycogen recovery after prolonged exercise in the heat in humans. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 115(9), 1919–1926. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-015-3175-z
- Rogacz, S., Williams, G. H., & Hollenberg, N. K. (1990). Time course of enhanced adrenal responsiveness to angiotensin on a low salt diet. Hypertension (Dallas, Tex. : 1979), 15(4), 376–380.
- Poulsen SB, Fenton RA, Rieg T. Sodium-glucose cotransport. Current opinion in nephrology and hypertension. 2015;24(5):463-469. doi:10.1097/MNH.0000000000000152.