Rapid Backload Peaking: CARBS, WATER, and SODIUM
To show you what I mean, imagine you are running a marathon. You have trained for years to prepare for this race. You are near the front of the pack, and with only two miles to go and it looks like your hard work has paid off. You like your chances but you want to do something that will give you an edge on your competition during the home stretch. So you decide to lighten your load, take off your shoes and socks and run the last two miles barefoot. Rather than lightening your load, you find yourself wincing and dancing in pain with every sharp rock you step on, and end up losing the race by a mile.
I know what you are probably thinking, “That is the worst idea I have ever heard! That just ruined any chance I had of winning.” This situation may seem crazy but this is the equivalent to what most bodybuilders do during the week leading up to their show. They handicap themselves right at the end and ruin any chance they had of winning. There is a lot of misinformation on peaking in the bodybuilding world. But as long as you know certain principles you can be sure you will not sabotage yourself.
People that have followed my clients have come to know that my method for peaking has become somewhat legendary for the amount of carbs I recommend in the days before the show. Although, my peaking methods may be somewhat controversial and fly in the face of the norm, they are fully based on scientific research and the results speak for themselves.
This method is one of things that has allowed me to go from having only a handful of clients and zero pros 2010, to now having clients around the country including many pros, and multiple clients in the Yorton Pro World Championships in 2011. There are many small working parts to my entire peaking process but the main components involve carbohydrates, water, and sodium.
The self-sabotage that is usually seen during the final week of show prep is almost always due to the standard model for peaking. I say standard model because bodybuilding “experts” have been following the same practices for years. The truth is that most of the commonly accepted theories about peaking are just plain wrong and have no scientific basis whatsoever.
The standard peaking method looks something like this. First you carb deplete for three days at the beginning of the week, then follow with a carb load for three few days before the show. Water and sodium will both be dropped either one or two days before the show. Lastly, some people will start loading up on potassium once they take sodium out.
Sound familiar? It should because this is what most people still do for their peak week. Most are left wondering what went wrong come show day. Knowing how your body reacts to carbs, water, sodium, and potassium will allow you to make the right moves during the final week and bring you into show day big, full, and absolutely shredded.
Carb depleting and loading will cause your body to store more glycogen that usual. This is called Glycogen Supercompensation and is about the only thing that is correct with the typical style of peaking. When you deplete your body of carbs and subsequently glycogen, your body takes steps to try and correct the imbalance. One of the ways it does this is by increasing the amount of glycogen which can be stored within the muscle tissue.
So after a few days of depleting carbs your body will be ready to store higher than normal amounts of glycogen. This is why you will want to carb load after you deplete. A muscle that is loaded with glycogen will be very big and full which will cause your skin to be very tight around the muscle, making you appear both bigger and leaner at the same time. This is obviously a good thing for any competitive bodybuilder.
There are multiple methods of doing a carb up that can all be effective. Some people do a front load, meaning they carb load at the beginning of the week before a show and slowly taper their carb intake as the show gets closer. Some do a back load where they will load carbs for the 3 days prior to a show. Any carb up method can be effective as long as you achieve the goal of filling the muscles with glycogen and not spilling over.
A front load has its advantages because if you spill over you have plenty of time to correct the problem. Although I had always used the front load method of carb loading in the past and it worked very well, anyone that has ever read my past articles will know that I am not concerned with what works well, I am concerned with what works the best. This led me to a carb load protocol that was somewhat controversial. I call it the Rapid Back-Load Peaking Method.
A few years ago I stopped using the front load technique and switched to a back load. The main difference between a typical back load and the back load I now use is that my new method hinges on taking in nearly all the carbs you will need in the day or day and half before the show. Hence the name- rapid back-load. This may not sound like a big deal but, this means that you must now consume enough carbs in a single day to completely stock your body with glycogen.
You must also make sure that you know exactly how many carbs to consume. If you over carb, you will hold water and look blurry on show day. If you under carb you will be flat, and any carbs that you consume on show day will not really hit your muscle tissue as glycogen in time to make a difference. So you must really be familiar with your metabolism and body type. If you know exactly what you are doing there is no risk of getting it wrong. When I work with my clients I get months to become very familiar with their metabolism, so come carb up time I know exactly how many carbs they will need.
You are probably wondering why I would switch from a very safe carb up method to one that has so many risks involved. The simple answer to that is RESULTS. The main reason a rapid one-day load works better than a typical three-day load is adaptation. Every single time you make a diet adjustment you body will try to adapt.
With a three day load your body will take notice that carbs are coming in on the first day. As a result, it will immediately start to take actions to undo some of the supercompensation that it created during the deplete stage. By the time the third day comes around a lot of that extra storage space that was created has been diminished. This is another reason why many people over carb on the three day back load method.
With a one-day load the body does not have time to adapt to the carbs coming in. This means that far more glycogen will be able to be stored within the muscle tissue. The new method gives far better results because it more effectively takes advantage of the Glycogen Supercompensation created by the deplete.
So how many carbs should you consume during your load? Unfortunately this is not a very easy question to answer. The amount of carbs it takes for the perfect carb load is usually higher than most would think. This is usually the area where people think that I am crazy. During the 24-36 hours before pre judging, some of my clients will consume up to 1600 grams. That’s right, up to 1600 grams of carbs in a single day!
You might be thinking that is absolutely crazy, but if you have run your deplete stage correctly then it will work. The trick is to know your individual requirement. 1600 grams is just about at the top of the range for carbs that I will have people consume. Most people will actually take in between 900-1300 grams.
In designing a recommendation I need to take into consideration an individual’s gender, body type, metabolism, bodyweight, activity level and every possible combination of these. It is not easy, but if I am given enough time to work with someone I will be able to nail down the perfect amount of carbs that they must take in. Generally the more muscle mass you have and the faster your metabolism, the closer you will be to that peak number.
Once again you must make sure that you hit the CORRECT amount of carbs during your load because if you don’t the results can be disastrous. If you do not take in enough carbs you will look flat and small, like a deflated balloon on stage. If you take in too many carbs you will be big but you will hold too much water under your skin and your detail will be blurred, making you appear less lean. The reason too many carbs will make you hold water under your skin is that carbs draw water with them wherever they go.
If you completely fill up your glycogen stores all the water will be drawn into the muscles. If you fill up your glycogen stores, then the extra carbs will have nowhere to go but the outer tissues. When this happens they will draw water to the outer tissues, causing water to be held underneath the skin and over the muscle tissue, blurring all the definition you worked so hard for.
There are other still other factors that come into play when executing this carb up method such as time of day the carbs are consumed, what type of carbs you use, how much potassium is in the foods you eat, and what time of day the you eat higher potassium foods. These little factors still play an important role but the primary concern is still how many total carbs you take in during that 24-36 hour period. I have used this carb load process for some time now and the results achieved through the rapid back load are definitely greater risk but also give much greater reward when done correctly.
One of the most common practices in a peak week is the time honored tradition of cutting water. I can’t begin to describe the looks that my clients get at shows when they walk in drinking their gallon-jugs of water. People think they have lost their minds. It is understandable why people think this though.
Common sense tells us that if you don’t drink water you can’t hold water. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work like that. You must continue to drink water or else your carb up will be essentially pointless. As I said earlier, carbs draw water to them wherever they go and this is also true of carbs within the muscle. In the absence of water carbs will be preferably stored as fat rather than glycogen. This is because glycogen can ONLY be stored in a hydrated state. (2)
When carbs get stored within the muscle they store 2.7 grams of water for each gram of glycogen. This means that when you carb up and your muscles become full and round, water accounts for about 75% of that size. So if you stop drinking water you can kiss those nice, full muscles goodbye and say hello to flat, small, sagging muscles. So cutting water will not only leave you smaller but also not nearly as lean. If you muscles are full they will push out against your against your skin making it tighter.
Even when I explain to people the importance of water to the peaking process, they still have a fear that drinking too much will cause water retention under the skin. The culprit for holding water under the skin is actually carbs, not water. Your muscle tissue is a lot like a bathtub with the drain open. No matter how much water you let flow into that tub it will just empty through the drain. The water in that tub needs something to stop it from emptying through the drain.
The same thing happens when you drink water. Anything you drink will just be urinated out unless something stops it from leaving the body. Now let’s say I start throwing sponges into the tub. The sponges will start soaking up the water and prevent some of it from emptying out. This is very similar to what carbs do within the body. They soak up water wherever they go. When you eat carbs and drink water you body will always fill your muscle tissue first.
The issues with water retention arise when you throw too many sponges into the tub. If this happens some of the sponges and water will start spilling over onto the floor. The same happens if you eat too many carbs, they will start to spill over into the out tissues, drawing water with them. This is why it is so important to eat precisely the correct amount of carbs for your carb up. The water will never find its way to the outer tissues if you do not eat too many carbs much the same way the water would not have spilled onto the floor had I not thrown so many sponges into the tub.
If you want to look your best on show day, do not cut water. This is one of the most common reasons why people are often dissatisfied with their peak come show day. The important thing is to take steps to make sure that the water you consume is kept within your muscle tissues and not underneath the skin. As long as you have consumed the correct amount of carbs no amount of water will impede your results, it will only help.
The last major piece of the equation to peaking correctly is sodium. Just like water, many bodybuilders also avoid sodium before a show for fear that it will make them hold water. Sodium plays many important roles in the processes of hydration and carbohydrate metabolism. Just like with other nutrients that are required by the body often times if you restrict them severely you will get an equally severe reaction. Unfortunately, it is not always the reaction you were hoping for.
There are numerous reasons that you will want to keep sodium in your diet all the way up until the day of the show. Sodium is a primary controller of blood volume. When sodium intake is low blood volume will be reduced. (3) This means you can kiss all that nice vascularity good bye, and you might as well forget about trying to get a pump. This may sound like a nightmare but it happens all the time.
To prove my point, think of the last time you were really lean and had a salty cheat meal. Within an hour you probably had your veins popping out and a slight pump while doing nothing more strenuous than sitting on the couch. A lot of people think that it is from all the carbs, but this is usually due to the excess sodium that usually accompanies cheat foods.
As if increased blood volume wasn’t enough there is an even better reason to leave sodium in your diet during peaking. When sodium losses occur in the body, the initial loss is accompanied by water loss as well. We have already discussed why water loss is not a good thing. As sodium and water loss continue, there will be the expected reduction in blood volume.
This drop in blood volume causes your body to secrete a hormone called arginine vasopressin, or AVP for short. (4) AVP has several functions in the body, one of which is causing water retention. The retained water due to AVP release will be primarily held in the extra cellular tissues, meaning under the skin. This spells disaster for any competitor on stage. AVP also causes vasoconstriction, which will further inhibit vascularity.
Many people do not realize that sodium is also necessary for carbohydrate absorption. Carbohydrates and sodium are both absorbed through a transporter called SGLT-1 which stands for sodium-glucose-transporter-1. It is called this because this transporter carries both sodium and glucose and will not carry one without the other.
Even though it has been suggested that exogenous sodium is not required to ensure adequate activation of the active sodium transporters, subbing in magnesium for sodium in a glucose beverage results in less glucose absorption. (5) This means that although you will still absorb carbohydrates if you cut sodium, carb absorption appears to be enhanced if extra sodium is consumed.
Lastly, sodium works with potassium to regulate intracellular and extracellular hydration. Without getting too in depth into cellular processes, sodium and potassium are moved into and out of cells by something called the sodium-potassium pump. The sodium-potassium pump is a primary regulator of cell volume. This process hinges on keeping the correct balance of sodium and potassium.
When sodium goes up, potassium must go up as well. Also, if potassium levels ever go higher that sodium then the balance will be thrown off and water will begin to leak out of the muscle cells into the surrounding tissues. This is why you do not want to start loading up on potassium before you show. You are going to strive for balance above all else.
So to summarize: If you restrict sodium you will be flat, unable to achieve a pump, lacking vascularity, dehydrated, and holding water underneath your skin, all at the same time. Keep that list in mind the next time someone tells you that you should cut sodium for your next show.
For these reasons I never cut sodium one bit leading up to the show. In fact, depending on the individual I may even increase sodium for the day or two before the show. Sodium levels during the final week should range between 3000-5000 milligrams per day. I will also make certain sodium adjustments on the day of the show to make sure my clients are fully pumped and vascular.
Putting It All Together
These are the main points to my Rapid Back-Load peaking method: keep sodium intake at higher than normal levels, keep water coming in, and take in extremely high levels of carbs the day before the show. Although there are still other factors I use in creating a perfect peak, they are minor details specific to each individual.
There is one final major catch to getting the very best results from your peak. You must be absolutely shredded before peak week starts. You can’t go into peak week with fat on your hamstrings, glutes, and abs thinking that the peak week will take care of everything. This may sound harsh, but the truth is that 95% of people that say they were holding water on show day were just simply not nearly lean enough.
So make sure you put in the work to rid your body of every ounce of fat before peak week starts. The rapid back load peak will only use the body’s natural mechanisms to highlight your muscular and vascular development. It will not compensate for deficiencies in your training and diet.
If you follow these main points to my peaking method you are well on your way on your way to a show day like you have never experienced before. This peaking method will not only allow you to keep your shoes on down the home stretch but it may just give you that second wind you need to win the race.
- Dunford, M., Doyle, J. A., Nutrition for Sport and Exercise, 2007, 99 p.
- Gibney, M., J., Introduction to Human Nutrition, 2009, 45 p.
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- Arnaud, M., J., Hydration Throughout Life, 1998, 93-94 p.