It’s the season to get STAGE READY!

By Spencer A. Berry

Now that 2015 is here, it’s time for many of us to transition from a holiday of indulgence, popularly called the off-season, back to our competition-ready physiques.

Or maybe you’re planning to participate in a bodybuilding competition for the first time this year. Your motivation may have come from seeing a friend enter the competitive circuit last year. Seeing your friend transform from the normal gym patron to a bodybuilding competitor made you say to yourself, “If they can do it, why can’t I?”

Regardless of whether you’re new to bodybuilding or already in the competitive circuit, it’s time for you to get off your butt and get prepared for that first contest or improve on last year’s physique. Whether you plan to compete in a few weeks, months, or at the end of the year, I’ve been right where you are. Throughout my many years of competing, I have found what works and what doesn’t, and I want to share the steps I’ve taken to become STAGE READY.

IMG_2027Get in the ZONE!

Before anything else, you need to be focused on and committed to doing everything necessary for a successful contest season. That means any off-season and holiday binging must be history. Whatever you do from here on out will be concentrated on transforming your less than desirable appearance to that of a world-class  bodybuilding/fitness athlete. You need to get your mind right…and get to WORK!

I cannot stress the importance of this next step enough. Locate the right gym. The facility that can provide all of your contest training needs has to be well-equipped and have the right environment for your workouts. That  may mean driving a few extra miles every day. It’s worth a little extra time in the car to get to the type of serious gym that will offer you a great workout each and every time you’re there. Fighting for space in an overcrowded, poorly equipped fitness center does nothing to help you get in the zone. And you must be in the ZONE if you really want to compete.

Select your contest(s) and register.

Once I decide on my first contest of the season, I immediately purchase the appropriate organization’s membership card (which can vary in price from $30 – $120; amateur competitors), and I also pay my contest registration fees. I find it tough to back out of a contest once I’ve invested up to $300 of my hard-earned money–especially after Christmas. The registration fee doesn’t include the additional expenses you’ll incur while prepping for your stage date. Excluding food, which will probably be your highest expense, you’ll still need to purchase your posing suit(s) (which can be outrageously expensive for women), tanning, hotel accommodations, and, depending on the contest location; transportation.

If you haven’t realized it by now, this is an expensive sport. However, when you’ve dedicated yourself to the bodybuilding lifestyle, you’ll find the investment is well worth the cost. Don’t be indecisive…get your bodybuilding organization membership card and register for that contest NOW.

Gradually clean up your diet.

It’s hard to transition from an off- or holiday season of eating a variety of tasty foods (you know what I mean by tasty) to a pre-contest diet. For most competitors, a pre-contest diet will require eliminating all of the saturated fats, high glycemic carbohydrates and sugars you may have enjoyed for the past few months.

A few times, I have attempted to go directly into a super strict pre-contest diet at the beginning of my competition prep. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered this was not a good idea. First, I mentally suffered trying, all at once, to avoid foods that I had enjoyed for months. I also suffered physically with a lack of strength and energy because my body couldn’t adapt to the extreme changes in my diet. With some trial and error, I found making gradual changes in my pre-contest diet was a much healthier and happier option for contest prepping.

Depending on my contest date, I now gradually eliminate one thing out of my normal diet every week or every two weeks—foods high in saturated fat, high glycemic carbs, dairy products, and sodium. This allows my body to slowly adjust to the change in my diet. I am also able to better adapt mentally and physically to these weekly or bi-weekly changes.

No one is going to transform their body into a stage-ready physique overnight. Trust me. Gradual changes in your diet will pay off for you in the long run.

Alpha FitT deadlift light color photoEvery day in the gym is a TRAINING DAY.

I constantly remind anyone I help prepare for an upcoming contest that there is a huge difference between the way we approach our workouts and the way normal gym patrons do. While their goals may include losing weight, getting stronger, or just improving their overall health, a competitor’s focus in the gym is always on training.

Having a focus on training means you must take your body to its ultimate limits and exhaust each muscle group for maximum recovery, growth, and conditioning. You should have an “us” and “them” attitude when you step in the gym. This attitude is the difference between just working out and serious bodybuilding training. Every push, pull, squat, fly, etc. must be focused on coming closer towards obtaining that perfect physique.

Either you’re going to become a competitor, or you’re not. If you work out like an average gym patron, you will look average. If you approach every trip to the gym as a training day, you will make that transition from average to a competitor. Ensure every day in the gym is a TRAINING DAY.

Seek expert knowledge.

You may have committed yourself to getting on stage for the first time or improving on your last year’s contest results. Whatever your status, it is important that you improve your competition prep knowledge to achieve your specific goal(s).

I remember my first contest in the spring of 1996. After the evening finals, my right bicep cramped up so badly I thought it was going to rip in two. When I shared this cramping incident with an experienced competitor, he asked me, “How did you balance your sodium/potassium intake during your diet?” At the time, I had no clue what he was taking about. He went on to suggest I purchase the book Sliced (Bill Reynolds and Negrita Jayde, 1991). In reading this book cover to cover, I learned everything I needed to know about balancing sodium and potassium intake. And I realized the importance of getting advice from professionals. This competitor’s recommendation had led me to a resource I desperately needed.

You might require a different type of resource to help reach your competitive goals. Fortunately, this sport offers many avenues for professional advice. Besides reading and research, you can hire an experienced competition coach or pro trainer. You can attend competitor’s workshops, or you can just seek advice from a successful pro competitor.

Please understand that professional advice will more than likely come with a monetary cost. However, having someone provide you with the knowledge and guidance you need to prepare for the stage could be well worth the investment.

IMG_3746 - Version 2Continuously practice your posing.

Besides seeing many competitors step on stage with either poor conditioning or symmetry, I often witness a lack of skill in stage presentation. Although you may develop a great stage package, you still need to know how to present it in front of a panel of very subjective judges.

Having judged a few contests, I can tell you there is nothing more frustrating than seeing someone bring a great physique on stage and his or her presentation sucks. The experienced competitor with a sharp stage presentation knows how to gain the judge’s attention and also hide their flaws. Perfect posing can make the difference between winning and placing at bottom of your respective class.

Don’t wait until you are weeks out from your competition. Start practicing now. Although critical for all competitors, posing is highly critical for bodybuilding and women’s physique competitors, who will go through no less than three rounds of posing. Bodybuilding and women’s physique competitors will also be judged in no less than two of these rounds (symmetry, mandatories, and a 60 – 90 minute posing routine).

If you are going into your first contest or if you know you have flaw in your stage presentation (pictures don’t lie), I would highly recommend hiring a posing coach. Each posing session should last no less than an hour. The entire posing practice must mimic everything you’ll experience on stage in front of the judges. When selecting a posing coach, ask to see photos from some of their previous clients. Seeing clients they have previously coached for the stage will show you examples of their posing expertise and give you clues as to whether or not their coaching services are worth the cost.

Frequently change your training routine; try something new.

I make it a point to change my workouts every week. I’ve found that having new training routines every week helps my body avoid adapting to any particular exercise. This also brings more variety to my training, which prevents me from getting bored with my contest preparation.

I also recommend trying to add something new to your routine—specifically exercises you’ve never attempted or have excluded from your training. For example, I started doing deadlifts three years ago. Before that, I’d believed deadlifts weren’t important or necessary for contest prep. I was not a power-lifter, therefore, how could deadlifts benefit me as a bodybuilder? However, once I added deadlifts to my back training, I quickly realized they were outstanding for overall back thickness and development.

Never discriminate in the weight room. That exercise or weight machine you have been avoiding for years could make the difference in your training routine and your overall physique.

Have a good support system.

Just like everyone is not born to be a bodybuilder or fitness competitor, many folks just can’t comprehend the sacrifices competitors make for this sport. Therefore, it is very important to surround yourself with people who not only understand your goals but are also there to support you through the journey.

Home should be your first line of support. Your spouse, parents, siblings, etc, must understand that what they may interpret as weird or obsessive behavior from you is absolutely necessary for you to step on stage. I always warn anyone interested in competing that this is a very selfish sport. You’ll have to sacrifice at lot of normal family time and skip lots of social gatherings to stay on track. Having loved ones who can understand these sacrifices and who are there to support you will help in preventing mental stress during your competition prep.

Your training partner and friends who are familiar with competition preparation will be your most valued support system. These folks can definitely relate to the rollercoaster ride you’ll take during your journey. They’ll also know when to give you a swift kick in the ass when you lack motivation or begin to neglect your training and/or diet.

If you don’t have a good support system, find one. It may be the difference between your having the drive to step on stage for the first time or deciding to quit weeks before your contest.

IMG_2374Be patient and honest with yourself.

No one becomes a competitor overnight. Unless you were born with world-class genetics, it will take some time to reach your full potential in this sport. Even having 19 years of stage experience and being a pro natural bodybuilder, I am still working on my full potential. Patience can help you overcome some of the frustrations you’ll experience.  You should never get to the point of saying, “This is the best I can do.” When you come to that conclusion, then it  may be time to find something else to do.

Things will get difficult during your prep. You may not be putting on the quality muscle you need, or you may be having a hard time getting in shape for your particular class. If you are having one or more of these issues, find the shortcomings in your training and/or diet. Once you have found the shortcomings, make changes immediately. Do not wait until you’re less than a month away from your stage date to intensify your training or fine tune your diet. I have always believed if you’re not ready two weeks out from your contest, you won’t be ready.

You must be honest with yourself as to whether or not you really put enough effort into your contest preparation. Being honest with yourself will also make it easier to accept whatever placing you receive from the judges.

The road to competition is a long one, and it bears repeating that if you can’t get yourself mentally prepared or bring the necessary commitment to your training and diet, then this sport is not for you. However, if you’re willing to work your butt off, your efforts will pay you back in more ways than one, as they have for me. In closing, these tips and approaches have helped me immensely as I’ve prepared to step onto the bodybuilding stage. Hopefully, some of them will work for you as well as you begin, or continue, your journey towards becoming STAGE READY.



Spencer A. Berry is the owner of Alpha FitT Hardcore Training, LLC, a pro natural bodybuilder, and certified personal trainer.

You can contact him at or for any business inquires. 

Don’t forget to check out the featured products for men and women on the Alpha FitT Hardcore Training GEAR homepage.


SLICED: State-of-the-Art Nutrition for Building Lean Body Mass, by Bill Reynolds and Negrita Jayde. Published by Contemporary Books, Inc., Chicago, Illinois. 1991

Photo credits:

Photos #1, #3, & #4, Alpha FitT Hardcore Training, LLC. Photo #2, Kenneth Cooper: Entuitive Edge Photography

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