The cost of looking like a fitness model

Автор: Никола Томов

10 апр. 2016

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After we published some photos from my recent shoot there was a sudden interest in the way I eat and train to have achieved such physique.

A lot of you, my own friends included, started asking me all these questions regarding my routine – what foods do I avoid, when do I train, how often I eat and train and etc.

To feel comfortable in your own skin is one of the best feelings in the world. It also contributes to your overall wellbeing, since it will bring you more confidence in both your personal and professional life.

There’s no reason to feel ashamed that you want to have a solid six-pack. If that happens to be a ripped version of yourself don’t let people tell you that you are superfluous.

A lot of you send us enthusiastic messages and emails, telling us how you want to look like Krasi, Richard or a fitness model in general.

That is the reason why all of you keep asking for model X’s exact training program and diet.

You want to train like them.

You want to eat like them.

You want to be them.

To the outside world it may all seem like sunshine and rainbows, because we make contest prep look easy. This is partially true because we only show the PRs, the awesome food we eat and we never mention the hardships.

This is an article I’ve been dying to share with you all. I want to show you what it takes to achieve a physique worthy of a photoshoot or competition.

Physiological consequences

We’ve all been brainwashed to believe that health is somehow linked to appearance. While this may not be the case, most people firmly hold the belief that bodybuilders and fitness models are among the healthiest of people you can find.

The reality is that having such small amounts of bodyfat is arguably just as unhealthy as being overweight.

Fat tissue is not just a storage depot. Au contraire fat is quite important and is involved in hormonal regulation, blood glucose regulation and other important functions, which your body needs to function well.

What happens when you reach a bodyfat % similar to bodybuilders? Hormonal dysregulation. This is absolutely inevitable unless exogenous hormones are introduced.

The sustained caloric deficit irreparably leads to drastically reduced levels of testosterone and leptin and increased ghrelin.

  • Leptin and ghrelin are responsible for the regulation of appetite and hunger. Low levels of leptin and high levels of ghrelin are individually associated with increased hunger. Now imagine the synergy between these stimuli.


During the last weeks of contest prep, right before reaching competition level conditioning your body will fight you in a number of ways.

What does that mean?

Cold. It means cold. Everywhere and all the time. While the outside temperature was 20 degrees Celsius and most people were wearing t-shirts I was shivering in a sweater. Come bedtime, I would cover myself in a cocoon of at least 3 blankets and I would still feel cold when I wake up.


Lethargy. I literally felt like a statue. My body refused to move spontaneously. All unnecessary movements like twitching, readjusting my seat and etc were kept to a bare minimum. Compared to my coworkers it looked like I was living in slow motion land.

Weakness/fatigue. My walking speed had reduced with at least 15%. My body just refused to move faster, unless I forced it to. Before each workout I wondered if I could even hit my targets. Luckily when you start moving weights your body gets too aroused to be affected negatively by the low body fat levels. Interestingly my sleep demands increased quite a lot – I required at least 2 hours more than I regularly would.

Case Study

I know how much most of you love exact results and recommendations and that’s why I would like to introduce to you all one of (unfortunately) the two case studies looking into natural bodybuilding contest prep.

Goal of the study: to document the physiological changes that occur during and after contest prep.

Methodology: the authors studied a male natural bodybuilder for 12 months. They measured cardiovascular data, body composition, power, aerobic capacity, strength, mood, resting energy expenditure, hormonal levels and blood parameters each month starting from 6 months before the competition until 6 months after it.

Results: Intriguing!

Energy balance data: resting energy expenditure decreased in half from 2500 calories six months out, to just about 1250 calories in the days before the competition. Total caloric intake plummeted from 5000 calories to 2250.

Body Composition: the subject lost around 13kgs, 3.5kgs of which was lean mass. Body fat % decreased from 14.8% to 4.5%!

Strength: one-rep max results on squat, bench and deadlift decreased from 210, 161 and 259 kgs, to 182, 147.5 and 245.5 kgs respectively.

Hormones: by the end of the diet testosterone has decreased by 80%! In addition, there is a significant reduction in ghrelin, leptin is halved, while cortisol has increased twofold.

Bloodwork: significant reduction in white and red blood cell count, haemoglobin and haematocrit.

The moral of the story is that prolonged dieting leading to extremely low body fat percentages are not healthy at all. To reach this level of leanness imposes extreme stress, which is not something you should take lightly.

Mental Health

If you’ve read my latest articles carefully, you probably have noticed that I often mention food volume.

The absolute most important aspect of a successful diet is hunger and appetite management. Out of all the factors that influence hunger, food volume has the largest impact.

Just think about it – 400gr of tomatoes have the same caloric value as 10gr of hazelnuts.


During the course of my own diet I started swapping staples like rice with more voluminous veggies like potatoes, beets, carrots, chickpeas, peas and etc.

Truth be told I haven’t felt hungry during the diet and I was always able to hit my macros. However, at one point things got out of control.

I was so scared of not being hungry that I started eating an insane volume of foods. We’re talking about at least 1kg of veggies with every meal – zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, celery and etc. I just had to eat until my stomach feels a bit heavy. Otherwise I was afraid that I’d get hungry again and I might binge.

At one point I stopped feeling full no matter how much I ate. Even when my stomach felt heavy, the feeling disappeared quickly. Curiously if I stop and wait for 30-40 minutes everything went back to normal and I wouldn’t feel hungry. However, if there’s food in front of me I would feel compelled to eat more.

Even though veggies and fruits are quite healthy, my relationship with food was far from it. This was more resembling of an eating disorder than a healthy diet.

This is just one of the many abnormal behavioural disturbances you can expect when you impose something so stressful upon your body.


The leaner I got, the more irritable I became.

The worst part is that those close to me were affected the most. I would lash out mostly at them and it wasn’t at all about something important, but things I would likely ignore and smile at.

While this is something that I anticipated and I had warned my family and friends beforehand, I still felt really guilty afterwards. When you are in that mental space you can’t realize that it’s all due to the prolonged diet.

Let me give you an idea of what you can expect. Here’s the profile of mood states of the natural bodybuilder from the case study I cited earlier.

Keep in mind the increased scores of anger-hostility, tension-anxiety, vigor-activity and the significant increase in fatigue-inertia and confusion-bewilderment.

Total mood disturbance has increased sevenfold from 6 to 43 on show day. My own experience is very similar and I confirm the findings of this case study with respect to my personal anecdote.

Figure 1

My recovery was faster, however I wasn’t even near 4.5% bodyfat and I can only imagine what this bodybuilder has went through.

Personal life and relationships

One of the benefits of flexible dieting is that it allowed me to eat out at restaurants with my friends and family or fit any indulgence that I can prepare home myself into my daily macros.

In the beginning I had no trouble going out and having 1-2 beers with my friends or even fit in a subway sandwich on the go in case we can’t sit down in a restaurant.

Of course the leaner we get, the more important it becomes to hit your macros with precision.

That’s exactly why at the very end of the diet and in combination with increased hunger I entrenched myself at home. I didn’t go out with friends, because I knew I would be tempted to eat or drink something.

I declined politely so many social events with relatives and friends, because it would’ve been hard to hit my macros otherwise. There were a few times I declined just because I knew the menu is not really compatible with my diet and I would end-up hungry and unsatisfied.

To some of you it might not sound that bad, but in reality it’s just terrible.

On one hand loneliness is not the best thing, especially when you need support like you do when in contest prep mode.

On the other, such reclusive behaviour can demolish relationships and estrange friends.

Like I’ve said before there are some things in life that you shouldn’t miss. It’s even more unfortunate that we can’t really make up for those in the future.

Remember the following – this dedication to the sport can harm your relationships beyond repair.


Probably the second easiest thing after the diet was my training program, although it did get progressively harder.

Due to the prolonged deficit and lower carbohydrate intake, “the pump” completely disappears. Not that it’s mandatory for progress, however it’s a pleasant feeling and more often than not it makes us feel good.

On top of that the longer you stay in a deficit, the less glycogen is stored in the muscles. This makes you look smaller and causes a lot of people to feel like they’re constantly losing muscle mass.

For me the worst part was that weights that used to feel heavy now felt absolutely crushing. During the last weeks I was literally getting weaker with each workout instead of getting stronger or at least maintaining performance.

My squat was affected the most – I went from 140 kgs for 5 reps (beltless) to 126 kgs for 5 reps. Bench press decreased from 108×3 to 98×4 or 5 reps on a good day.


My absolute overhead press PR was 64×5 and now I’m just getting back to 60-62kgs.

Rest intervals were becoming longer and longer and on a few occasions I couldn’t even finish the workout, because I felt like crap.

The fact that I was getting weaker was hard to overcome. In addition to the accumulated stress from the photoshoot prep, sometimes things would get out of control.

Ready. Set. Go!

After dieting down to competition level leanness there was one more thing to do – peak week. Peaking refers to the process/method used to prepare an athlete for optimal “peak” performance. The process differs from sport to sport, becasue of the various qualities that need to be peaked.

For example, in powerlifting the goal is to lift the most weight. Peaking for a powerlifting competition starts with an overreaching phase followed by a week of light-intensity lifting and/or decreased training volume. The goal is to push-it your body to supercompensate for the heavy lifting and follow it up with rest to reduce fatigue during the same time in order to bring the absolute best possible performance.

In contrast peaking for a bodybuilding show is a lot more difficult. Of course that depends on the peaking protocol, but that’s a topic for another time.

In my case that was the hardest workout week ever. Especially the depletion workout prior to the photoshoot was unhuman.

The goal is to deplete as much glycogen as possible from the muscles. I’ve always been quite persistent in the gym and I’ve never let my mind fail me before my body does, however this workout broke me mentally. Twice even, since I also did a mock peak week.

Every other workout you’ve had in your lifetime is Childs play compared to what you need to do during peak week.

The only reason I’m sharing this is to remind you that you cannot look like a fitness model without going through a peak week!

When you reach an extremely low body fat percentage, your muscles will look soft. Even though you’re lean it’s quite possible that you will also look very small, compared to few weeks prior to peak week.

Peaking is mandatory in order to fill muscle glycogen, get rid of subcutaneous water and achieve great vascularity.

To top it off, the effect is temporary – in a matter of hours it will all be over.

How to sustain a perfect physique?

I want to pay special attention to those that strive for that fitness model physique. Forget about those romantic thoughts of looking like that all year.

It’s not impossible to sustain a low body fat %, however it’s certainly not healthy and you’ll have to constantly combat everything I’ve already mentioned during this article.

And I promise you that after going through a peak week you won’t feel thrilled to do it again soon.

On the other hand, it’s not realistic to sustain your muscle mass for such a prolonged dieting period.

Slowly (but surely) your muscles will melt and even in a perfect world without any fat accumulation you’ll still look weak, soft and small.

That doesn’t mean you should get discouraged though!

Regardless of the facts, the goal of this sport is to aim for the absolute best and not give up.

Except for the sense of personal fulfilment, you will learn a ton about yourself and your weak points.

For myself I want to pay special attention to… well everything. On one hand I need to put on some mass and on a completely separate note I’m not exactly a master when it comes to posing.

Is it worth it?

After reading this article some of you might be wondering why someone would go through all of this?

For a few cool pictures?

A plastic medal from some unknown competition?

In the end it’s not even in the best interest of your personal health, so why bother?

I have noticed that a lot of people believe that looking a certain way will improve the quality of their lives.

This cannot be further from the truth. Achieving such a physique does bring a feeling of fulfilment, however It takes a few days before it disappears and as harsh as it may sound – no one really cares.

If contest prep and the overall journey do not bring you joy, there is absolutely no point of going down this road.

When something does not improve your well-being and only brings you pain and misery there’s zero value in doing it.

If training, dieting and grinding doesn’t come to you naturally then you shouldn’t feel miserable because you’re not a fitness model. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.

Sharing my contest prep experience might look like a huge whine fest, however that’s not the case.

I like to weigh-out my food and plan my menu. I’m thrilled when I have very few macros left for the day and I have to be creative in order to cook-up something tasty and filling.

I really wonder what are the limits of the human body and more precisely mine.

I actually like the grind.

I enjoy the transformation and I get excited about comparing progress photos, more than I enjoyed the end result.

Most people get demotivated when they reach a plateau. I only get more motivated. I’m a curious guy and for me there’s nothing more interesting than figuring out where the problem lies and how to fix it.

The depletion workout from my peak week is a perfect example. Two times I was unable to complete it. Without a doubt there will be a third. And a fourth. As many as needed until I achieve the perfect physique.


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