One of the most interesting, yet not fully understood or written about topics in the world of fitness and bodybuilding is “how to prep for a photoshoot” or bodybuilding contest.
If you’re reading this right now I bet you are fairly familiar with the concept of “peak week”…
…but most of the information you found online is probably either super sketchy or super outdated.
There is a lot of “bro-science” out there regarding peak week…and many of the older, more traditional theories have been debunked long ago.
For example, if you search online, most of the self-help peak week articles will give you some form of this:
Sunday through Tuesday: Eat barely any carbs, go “zero carbs” if you can. Pound water, pound sodium, and put salt on everything you eat. Do hundreds of reps to help your body “deplete” stuff.
Wednesday and Thursday: On Wednesday start upping your carbs. Stop training and doing cardio on Wednesday night. On Thursday quit drinking water to help you “dry out” so you can look extra ripped.
Friday: Continue to pound the hell out of water and carbs and drop sodium down to zero. Barely drink any water “just small sips” to help you “dry out” and look shredded. Start taking a diuretic to further deplete water and load up on potassium so you can “balance everything out.”
Saturday (Shoot Day): Continue to aggressively load up on carbs. Drink barely any water and continue to load up on potassium while taking the diuretic.
Now, this isn’t a horrible plan, in fact it can work quite well.
I have followed similar plans myself with pretty good success…
The problem with this approach is (1) it can be a relatively risky approach if you don’t really know what you’re doing; and (2) some of the science behind this approach has been shown not to work as well as newer methods.
For the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on what most industry heads refer to as “peak week” which is the prep week leading up to a shoot or bodybuilding/fitness show.
Also, this article is going to primarily focus on photoshoot prep…and I am going to walk you through the steps I went through just last week as I prepped for a shoot for a fitness magazine.
However, regardless of whether you are trying to prep for a photo shoot, a bodybuilding contest (or if you are just trying to tighten things up for an upcoming vacation or pool party)…the basic concepts will all remain the same.
Just as a little disclaimer before we get into the meat of the article: everything I am about to share with you is just my way of doing it.
This is just ONE WAY.
There is a science to shoot prep.
It isn’t rocket science, but it is still science.
Other fitness pros may have a slightly different take than what you’re about to read here – but the most important thing you need to do is develop a peaking system that works for you.
At the end of the day, that’s actually what science is all about – experimenting with various theories and testing new methods so we can find a true way that works for us.
All nerdy science aside though, most of the basics of peak week will always remain the same…
…but some of the more advanced strategies that really help you dial in will require some more in-depth experimentation on your part.
The stuff I am about to share has worked for me, and I used this same exact plan just a few weeks ago to get ready for a few big shoots I have had this month.
This method has given me some pretty good results, so I wanted to share some of the things I have been doing and perhaps they will work for you as well.
Again, I just want to reemphasize that this is just one way of doing it.
This method has worked pretty well for me, but you may want to add your own spin to it.
But before we get any deeper into this I need to point out that in order for this to actually work…
…the first thing you need to do is BE IN PHOTO READY SHAPE.
There is really no point in going through peak week if you aren’t ready to get in front of the camera.
So what does photo ready actually mean?
Well, it can mean different things for different people…and depending on what you’re shooting you may need to be super lean, or moderately lean.
For fitness type pictures, you will usually be expected to be very lean.
You don’t have to be contest level shredded, but you should look “impressive”.
If you’re shooting sports/commercial type stuff, you don’t have to show up as lean as you would if you were at a shoot for a fitness magazine.
Instead, you should try to look the part for the sport or concept you are shooting.
For example, if you are shooting a basketball concept, you probably don’t want to show up looking super shredded because that’s not really what basketball players usually look like.
If you show up looking extra ripped, you’ll probably just scare everyone, it will be super awkward, and they will most likely just send you home.
But I digress.
Let’s get back to the good stuff.
Here are some general guidelines for what it means to be photo ready:
GUYS – Your abs should be shredded (4%-10% body fat range). Your back should be very well defined, with some separation. Your arms should be well defined and “noticeable”. Your legs don’t have to be extremely ripped and jacked but they should at least look like you lift.
GALS – Your abs should be visible (14%-17% body fat range). Your back should be firm with a little separation. Your arms should be fairly well defined with no “flab”. Your legs should look fit and firm, and nice glutes are always a plus.
I usually walk around at around 6-8% body fat during most of the year because as a working fitness model it is very important to stay lean so you can book a big job or shoot at a moments notice.
This body fat range gives me the ability to either quickly shred down in 1-2 weeks for fitness type shoots – or flatten out a little bit for commercial work.
I know this practice is slightly different than what many bodybuilding and figure competitors practice (on/off season), but most of the top fitness models I know try to stay “camera ready” at all times so at the very worst you’ll only need a week or 2 to dial everything in just right.
Not letting yourself go definitely makes prep and peaking a whole lot easier in my opinion.
Also, it is worth mentioning that the people who can get work for you (photographers, casting agents, etc) usually know and remember the models who always show up in shape and ready to work…
…and they also remember the models who are less reliable and/or may need a lot more time to get ready to shoot.
One more thing I need to put out there is that nobody walks around 24/7 looking like their best pics all of the time.
Anyone who says they do is either lying or photoshopping!
The idea that people walk around every day looking their absolute best is one of the biggest misconceptions in the entire fitness industry.
Yes, you see fitness models in the magazines.
Yes, they are in great shape.
Yes, they look amazing, sometimes they even look unreal.
But they don’t walk around looking like that every day – and this is where peak week comes in.
Peak week is where the top fitness models will use science in order to “peak” for their shoot.
Depending on a few factors, this “peak week prep” should give you roughly about a 5-10 hour window of looking your absolute best.
Now, before we get into the nerdy stuff, it’s important to keep in mind that one article can’t possibly cover all of the various ins and outs of shoot peak week…
…but my goal in sharing this information with you today is to give you a general idea of how some pros actually prep, walk you through some of my various tips and tricks, and offer some unique perspectives that you can go and experiment with on your own.
With that said, let’s get right to it.
WHAT IS PEAK WEEK
You have probably heard the term “peak week” thrown around a million times either in the gym, online, or in certain bodybuilding circles, but what exactly does peak week mean and what does it entail?
Peak week is actually just the final week of preparation that you would go through before stepping in front of a camera for a photo shoot or on stage for a bodybuilding or fitness competition.
Peaking is the process of using nutrition, training, and supplement science to help bring everything together and allow you to look hard, full and tight when you step in front of the camera.
Now, regardless of whether you have a big shoot coming up, a bodybuilding contest, or if you just want to look good on your vacation, it is important to keep in mind that what you are actually doing is creating a temporary illusion.
As I mentioned earlier, nobody walks around looking their absolute best 24/7/365.
You will be using science (the main premise revolves around carb loading) that will give you a short window where you will appear to have hard, full muscles with barely any water retention.
Sometimes I even amaze myself at how much more ripped and jacked I will look after just one week of peaking.
When you look in the mirror after peak week sometimes it is almost hard to believe that you’re actually looking at yourself!
Unfortunately though, this “illusion” will not last.
With that said, I know you probably want to walk around looking shredded all the time but I do not advise going through multiple peaks back to back.
Newton’s third law tells us: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
So be prepared for your body to swing back like a pendulum after you have taken it to one end of the extreme.
After your prep and peak, your body is going to want to return to its normal state of balance.
Like I pointed out earlier, this is a science.
We have to respect it and not abuse it.
Peak week nutrition is all about carbohydrate manipulation.
Plain and simple.
If you screw your carbs up, your whole peak is going to suck and you’ll most likely look flat or soft in front of the camera.
Now, there are several different strategies you can use to manipulate your carbs.
The first, and more traditional way, is depleting carbs earlier in the week and then loading them back up towards the end of the week.
I have used this method quite a few times in the past and it has worked quite well for me.
However, this method can be a little risky (especially for beginners) because if you consume too many carbs when you carb back up they can “spill over” and make you look like crap.
Unless you know EXACTLY what you’re doing I’d probably advise against using this approach.
For my past couple of shoots I have been front loading carbs in the beginning of the week and then tapering them down leading up to the shoot.
The reason for doing this is twofold: (1) it is a less risky option as it gives me more room to make adjustments depending how my body is responding; and (2) I still give myself enough time to make adjustments (by lowering carbs) if I do happen to spill over in order to get tight again before shoot day.
There isn’t an exact science to “how many carbs you should consume” during peak week, but there are general guidelines.
At the end of the day, however, it is all really a matter of trial and error.
With that said, I hate extremes.
Especially when it comes to peak week.
I can’t afford to risk doing anything crazy and showing up to the shoot looking like crap.
Magazines and hiring companies expect fitness models to show up to booked shoots looking a certain way – and if you don’t show up looking like they expect you to, you will get sent home!
But I digress…
I know some people are extremely “carb sensitive”, but I have found that my body can tolerate a higher amount of carbs.
So I have been training hard and front load carbs earlier in the week without many adverse effects.
That is an adjustment that I have made over the years and it works pretty well for me.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, it is easier to make adjustments this way…
Following the traditional way of cutting carbs early in the week and then loading back up is a whole lot riskier because the closer you get to the shoot, making adjustments if something goes wrong is usually no longer an option.
So how many carbs should you eat during this time?
As I mentioned earlier, I do not believe in extremes, so I don’t get crazy when it comes to my carb load.
I typically only eat 1.5 to 2 times more carbs than I would normally eat, and I strongly advise against eating anything over three times your normal contest/shoot prep carb intake.
This means if you are used to eating 200g of carbs per day, your carb load would be in the 300g to 400g range with 400g being the max.
If you are used to eating 200g and then try to get fancy and eat 700g, 800g, or even 1,000g of carbs per day during this loading period you will probably end up with some shitty results.
Especially if you are super carb sensitive…
I typically eat around 250g to 300g of carbs per day in my normal maintenance schedule, so during my carb load I will usually increase this to 400g to 600g depending on things.
Good carb sources during this phase include: jasmine rice, brown rice, white potatoes, yams, and oats.
Pro Tip: I also like to use rice cakes during this phase because they are a lot easier for me to get down during a big carb load.
In terms of protein, I never try to get too fancy.
When I increase my carbs, I will slightly reduce my protein intake by about 10%-15%.
As I taper my carbs down mid-week I will increase my protein intake to adjust and compensate.
My protein sources during this time are primarily: white fish, chicken, egg whites, shrimp, and whey protein.
Pro Tip: I also include ground beef (10%) and/or bison steaks once a day. I have found that this helps keep my energy levels up and I’m not as hungry.
In terms of veggies there isn’t a whole lot to really say here.
Eat lots of leafy green veggies and asparagus.
Don’t get fancy.
SODIUM and WATER
This is the part where the science starts to get a little tricky and a lot of people make critical mistakes.
You see, a common misconception is that in order to get that hard n’ ripped look, you have to quit drinking water in order to “dry out”.
Actually, the opposite is true.
You see, the human body stores water in two compartments (both inside and outside the body’s cells).
Intracellular water, the first compartment, makes up about 65%.
Extracellular water, the second compartment, makes up the remaining 35%.
Intracellular water is the stuff that makes your muscles look jacked and full.
Extracellular water is what most people are trying to lose during peak week (either by cutting water or by taking diuretics).
Body water is all regulated by hormones, including anti-diuretic hormone (ADH), aldosterone and a trial natriuretic peptide.
This water balance is important for blood pressure, cell function, ion balance, and more…
…so before you decide to test out some type of broscience water depletion theory during peak week let me just state for the record that the human body is smart enough to adjust and compensate for what you are doing.
The human body is actually quite a sophisticated machine.
And it was built to be relatively idiot proof.
You see, this idiot proof functionality is what causes the body to constantly reset and re-regulate in order to keep the 65/35 ratio of extracellular to intracellular water tightly balanced.
So in case you’re thinking about restricting water or using a diuretic you need to know that the problem with this strategy is that you’ll lose extracellular water, but you’ll also lose intracellular water right along with it.
Point is, it doesn’t matter what you try to do…the human body is smarter than you.
So it doesn’t matter if you try to use a massive water depletion…that ratio will remain 65/35 and you will just end up looking flat as hell.
If you have ever experienced this you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about…
…you show up to the event feeling excited but for some reason you just can’t fill out…you can’t get a pump…and your muscles look smooth as hell.
It’s the worst feeling ever.
Now that we got some of the do’s and don’ts of water manipulation out of the way, another critical aspect to your water retention/loss strategy that you really need to pay attention to is sodium manipulation.
You have probably heard many so-called experts and gurus dishing out conflicting information online regarding sodium manipulation…
…with the primary message being “you need to cut sodium” if you want to get hard and dry.
Similar to the false notion that you need to cut water – I actually recommend increasing water AND sodium.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a science to this – it isn’t rocket science, but it is still science.
That means we’ve got to put all false notions and misconceptions aside and actually respect the true science behind all this.
Sodium is responsible for a ton of important body functions – it affects fluid dynamics and blood pressure, and the kidneys regulate blood sodium levels with an iron fist.
When you reduce sodium in your diet, the kidneys will try to conserve as much sodium as they can by reabsorbing it back into your body instead of peeing it out.
On the flip side of that, if you eat more sodium, the kidneys will try to make sure that you pee out more sodium.
This is due to the very potent sodium retaining mechanisms of the human body (aka the rennin-angiotensin-aldosterone system).
Which brings me to my next point…
What is it and what exactly does it do?
Aldosterone is a hormone produced in the outer section of the adrenal glands, which sit just above the kidneys.
It serves as the principal regulator of the water and salt balance in the body.
Aldosterone plays a central role in the regulation of blood pressure mainly by acting on organs such as the kidney and the colon to increase the amount of sodium reabsorbed into the bloodstream and the amount of potassium removed in the urine.
Its primary job is to reabsorb and retain water and sodium.
All science and big words aside…when you deplete sodium, aldosterone levels increase.
When you are in a state of excess sodium, aldosterone levels will decrease.
So when you deplete sodium, aldosterone becomes activated to make sure you have less water in your blood vessels and more water in the space around them.
This aldosterone activation means water will be retained…and then that water will be reabsorbed back into circulation.
This is what makes you appear soft and flat.
Definitely not a situation you want to find yourself in on shoot day.
So now with all of that said, here’s what I recommend you do in terms of water and sodium during peak week:
1. Increase your sodium intake during peak week.
Pro Tip: Don’t go crazy, because most of the time moderate increases are good enough. Most pros I know typically add anywhere from 2,000mg to 5,000mg of sodium per day (using plain table salt).
2. Increase your water intake to around 2 gallons per day (depending on how much you typically drink).
Pro Tip: I recommend increasing water by 50% to 100% from your normal daily intake during this time depending on how much you can tolerate.
I usually drink around a gallon of water in a normal day, but during peak week I typically increase it to around 2 gallons per day (or at the very least 1.5 gallons).
The more water you can drink, the better you will set yourself up to look more ripped and defined at the end of the week.
I do know people who drink 3 gallons a day but that is way too much for me. If you weigh 250 pounds or more you may want to think about pushing it to 3 gallons, but for most of us normal sized folks, 1.5 to 2 gallons should work just fine.
Pro Tip: I usually keep my sodium intake high throughout peak week. I do not taper off the day before I start carbing up again even though this is a very traditional practice.
There is a big myth floating around out there that you need to “stop training during peak week because you’ll deplete too much muscle glycogen”.
Actually, the opposite is true.
If you quit training, your muscles will actually STOP holding onto glycogen, and the longer you don’t train the higher probability you’ll decrease your ability to store glycogen even more.
Now, with that said, since you’ve gotten this far you’re probably starting to sense a particular theme here…
…and that is “DON’T GET FANCY.”
When it comes to training during peak week, I believe the same principle also holds true.
Here are the two things you are essentially trying to accomplish from your training during peak week: (1) stimulate your muscles just enough to keep the muscles full of glycogen and; (2) keep as much water as possible inside the muscle cell so you look hard and tight instead of soft and flat.
My shoot was on a Sunday, so from the previous Sunday through Wednesday I followed my normal training split.
Keep in mind that I wasn’t in the gym powerlifting or trying to lift heavy. Instead, I backed off to about 60% to 70% of my normal weight.
During this time I will also train with higher reps (12-20 reps per exercise) and increase my working sets by 50%.
This means if you usually do 10 sets on triceps, increase that to 15 sets.
Pro Tip: be sure to decrease the weight to a level that allows you to hit that volume, get a pump, and not tax the muscle to failure. You’ll want to focus on really squeezing the muscle as hard as you can with every rep.
That Thursday (or 3 days before the shoot) is where things start to get interesting.
This is where I will back off from my normal training, and instead, perform short 30-40 minute circuits to help drive MORE glucose into my muscles.
Here is a typical circuit I’ll use on Thursday and Friday.
I’ll perform 20 reps of each exercise and go through the entire circuit three times.
Bench press (dumbbells or machine)
Dumbbell or barbell row
Shoulder press (dumbbells or machine)
Seated cable row
Ab exercise 1
Ab exercise 2
The day before the shoot or show to really dial things in (and I learned this trick from a pro bodybuilder I met a few years back) is to complete a final prep workout and do two sets of 25 on each exercise.
For this final pre-shoot workout you’ll perform the same circuit as before except you’ll do 2 sets of 25 on each exercise and not perform it as a circuit.
I never do much cardio during peak week and I strongly suggest you ease off of whatever regular amount you have been doing.
Cardio is great during prep, but once peak week rolls around you should already be lean and doing a bunch of extra cardio is probably going to be counterproductive.
If you are a serious cardio head and simply refuse to give it up, you may be able to get away with 15 minutes of light cardio (I would just walk on a treadmill) each day for a bit of active recovery, but it isn’t totally necessary.
The use of supplements during peak week is a hotly debated concept in many fitness circles.
Some people strongly recommend them, and other people strongly advise against using them.
The science supporting both arguments is relatively weak, and I find myself treading the line somewhere in the middle.
I usually use the supplements that I know work for me and I stick with those.
With that said, I keep it incredibly simple when it comes to peak weak supplementation (you probably knew that though right?).
Nothing really fancy at all.
I typically only use whey protein (to keep my intake high) and dandelion root towards the end of peak week (to help naturally get rid of subcutaneous water).
As I mentioned previously, I don’t recommend using diuretics because they sort of defeat the purpose, but I will take a half a dose of dandelion root twice a day the day before the shoot to try and tighten up a bit (without losing any hardness).
On shoot day, you will probably also want to invest in some Arginine and non-flush Niacin to help keep you pumped and vascular.
There are quite a few things that you can do to really screw up during peak week, and you will figure out what most of these things are as you go through the process a few times and figure out what works for you.
Here are some unofficial, extremely broscientific guidelines to consider that many folks I know swear by:
1. Avoid carbonated drinks
2. Stop using pre-workout
3. Limit coffee and caffeine
Again, these are broscience tips more than anything.
However, I do know people who swear by them.
To help simplify things for you, I have created this super simple, super easy to follow peak week cheat sheet for you to follow.
It outlines each day and tells you exactly what to eat, take, do, and more.
And that’s basically it.
Yes it’s that simple…AND that complicated.
It has been about 10 years since my first photoshoot, but even as a veteran, photoshoot prep is always super interesting.
Some people may think that as a fitness model you just go to the gym, get shredded, then stand in front of a camera looking awesome.
But it really isn’t quite that simple.
Your first time going through prep and peak week will probably suck (a lot)…
…and mastering the art of posing in front of the camera is a whole different beast in itself.
The good news is that once you go through this process a couple of times it gets easier and easier.
So even if you screw up your first time, don’t get discouraged.
Just keep trying and experimenting until you finally get it right.
Trust me, once you get it right, you’ll feel on top of the world…
…and the pictures you take will probably help inspire someone, somewhere, get in the gym, start lifting, and get in shape.
And that’s really that being a fitness model is all about. Inspiring other people to get in shape and get healthy.
Well, now you know exactly how to go through peak week like a true pro – the only thing you need to do now is to go rock it at your shoot!
So what are YOUR favorite photoshoot prep tricks?
Do you have questions for me?
Please leave them as comments below!
PS – If you’re looking for a good resource that will help take you from ‘out of shape’ to ‘photoshoot or contest ready’ in just a short time, check out Brian Cannone’s Stage Ready Nutrition & Training Plan.