Ben Pakulski is a IFBB Pro bodybuilder and creator of the new Mi40 Xtreme training system and the Mi40 Nation website. He is based in Tampa, Florida.
One of the biggest mistakes athletes make when trying to get back into serious training after their off-season is to go from zero to one hundred overnight.
Not gradually and progressively moving through the gears is a problem most people encounter when wanting to get into shape. They’ll drop carbs right down and start doing an hour or two of cardio per day. Three or four weeks later and they’ve made substantial changes to their physique but where do they go from there? Drop calories even lower and up the cardio to three hours per day?
That’s not a smart approach. A lot of women competitors are guilty of dropping all carbs and doing hours of cardio from 16 weeks out, but then they get to eight weeks out and their body has stopped responding and there’s nothing else they can do. I understand that people want to lose a lot of weight quickly, but the only way to do it is to create the right plan and the right systems.
Increasing energy expenditure
My first step, having eliminated most of the cheat meals I have in the off-season, is to progressively increase my caloric output as high as I possibly can, before even considering decreasing my caloric intake.
There are two ways to burn fat: decreasing your caloric intake or increasing your caloric expenditure. My approach is always to slowly and progressively increase my output as much as possible first.
From 16 weeks out from a contest to about eight weeks out I won’t change my calories at all. I’ll still eat 5,600-6,000 calories a day on average but focus on cranking up my output. I’ll train as much as possible – usually two workouts per day – and won’t do any cardio.
Once I reach the point where I think I can no longer sustain my levels of output, that’s when I’ll look at reducing calories a little bit. That may be only 300 calories a day, but it’s enough of a drop that my body continues to change. I’ve set a baseline of a tremendous amount of energy expenditure with a really efficient muscular system and my recovery is excellent because my body has adapted to the demands I place on it, so just taking the calories down a notch further helps my body adapt in the way in which I want it to.
Upping workout density
I created my prep workout programme about three years ago, and I use the same template ahead of every show. Every year I’ll make notes and apply changes where necessary to see what I liked and didn’t like, or what worked and what didn’t work.
In the off-season my rest periods are longer so my goal from 16 to 12 weeks out is to increase my strength and decrease my rest periods to increase the density of my workouts. I’ll keep driving to increase workout density so eventually I’ll get to 40-60 seconds of rest between sets about 10 weeks out when I have good cardiovascular conditioning. And that point I can start adding in supersets, then we get to six weeks out and I can do tri-sets or giant sets, to continue to push the cardiovascular requirements up each workout.
How do I know my programme is working? My workout capacity goes up, my strength levels maintain or go up, and my body composition starts to change. I do weekly body composition analysis and weekly photos, and that’s it really. I want my body to look and feel like it is changing but my workouts are hopefully still getting better, or at least staying the same.
I track my progress on how I am looking and feeling, rather than a body-fat percentage. I could be 8% eight weeks out but I’ve done a lot of cardio on no carbs to get there, so I’m screwed.
Whereas if I’m eight weeks out and yet to start any cardio at all and still eating 600g of carbs a day – which is where I am now – I’m not shredded but I have so many things in my locker that I can change to give me manoeuvrability to keep that body-fat percentage coming down.
Getting bigger and leaner
Every year there is a sense of urgency and that’s what it’s supposed to be like. You have to push it as far as you can. Bodybuilding is about being as big as possible on stage whilst still be as lean as possible.
If it was just about being lean that’s easy. I’d start cardio 16 weeks out and just hammer it. But I need to stay as big as possible.
My philosophy each time is to get to the point where I realise I need to drop the hammer, because I’ve been trying to get bigger and bigger but the point arrives where I need to get shredded. I try to push it like this every year because I know I am getting as big as I can but I am always within striking distance of getting shredded. It’s about cutting it as close as you can so you stay big but can also get lean.
I want to be at the stage 10 weeks out where I am able to do high-intensity cardio or do workouts that would make most other guys puke. Every time I do a leg workout I know the next day I am going to be leaner because I am doing so much work in that session and I rely on it to make me progress that week. Working such a large body part is going to burn a tremendous amount of calories and stimulate the metabolism so I use training legs as the workout that sends me over the edge.
The concept of control
If you’re trying to get to sub-human levels of body fat, which we are because we stand on stage with less fat than any human being was ever meant to have, you have to do something very controlled. It’s like being in a lab, where every single aspect needs to be monitored and controlled, so you can manipulate the smallest things to keep progressing.
Control is everything. It’s about eliminating margin for error. Can I get away with eating a Pop Tart every day? Absolutely, and I’ll still get shredded. But it doesn’t allow me to control every confounding variable. There are certain things I can never control so I need to have complete authority over those aspects I can control.
If everything goes the way I want it to every year, which is never does, then I have no doubt my prep would always be perfect. But life always gets in the way. You have to miss workouts, or go six hours without eating, and my family comes first. If I was a single guy and only focused on bodybuilding then I could be very confident in saying I know exactly what I am going to look like on stage and I am going to win.
Back with a bang
Last year I was questioning why I was still bodybuilding. It takes away from my family and it takes away from my business, which makes me more money than bodybuilding. So I wasn’t sure if I still wanted to compete. I don’t have any insecurities and I had nothing to prove.
But taking some time out from bodybuilding made me realise why I do it, and that’s because I love it. I love pushing myself and getting into the gym and doing things that other people can’t. I love being the last man standing. The only guy who can beat me, is me. I can’t control any other bodybuilder so I’m not worried about any of them. I just do what I need to do to make every show my best one ever.