Posted 1 year ago

How to manage prep brain

If you have competed before, or have gotten extremely lean, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about when I refer to “prep brain”. If you haven’t been there before but are currently dieting for the first time, you will no doubt find out about prep brain soon enough. It’s not actually something you really need to worry about – it’s more just about knowing that the leaner you get and the closer it gets to your show/shoot, the very logical part of your brain may simply not be as rational as it normally is.

But the thing is that even if you’ve competed before, it can still be fairly hard to manage this whole “prep brain” thing. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to discuss what we mean exactly by this term, and to offer some advice on how to best manage it.

So… What IS prep brain?

Let’s assume you’re dieting to the extreme for the first times and you’ve never truly experienced what it feels like to be lean. Not only is this physically very demanding, but it will be an intense daily mental challenge as well. What you will often find is that the leaner you get, and the closer you get to being “ready”, the less likely you are to see this readiness in the mirror. You will become your own worst critic: you will look from every angle at what you’re not happy about, and you’ll no doubt tell your coach that you feel a million miles away from being ready.

This can be simply because you are looking at yourself every day, and within that, you’re aiming for and working towards seeing changes week to week; as a result, you can often forget to stop and appreciate how you look at the current moment. Combine this with the presence of social media, you may find yourself comparing yourself to other competitors/athletes and thus making yourself feel even worse. If I could give you any tips it would be to mute/unfollow those athletes that make you feel like that, or to even come off social media completely.

The reality might be that you are almost ready for your competition/shoot and are perhaps only a couple of kilos away. However, because you have a warped view of your physique, all you will want to do is dig, drop your food, and push cardio when there might be no need for this. If you choose to do so, you might in fact be at risk of making your physique look worse and of losing muscle mass. I’d like to think of myself as being fairly experienced when it comes to managing this aspect of prep in general, but I still experience “prep brain” when I compete. It never really goes away; you just get better at managing it. This is one of the reasons why I work with a coach, because it helps bring the logical hat back on when it gets lost in the haze.

You might be reading this and thinking “this sounds silly”, and you’re probably right, but unless you have experienced it, you won’t know what I am trying to describe. Here’s a scenario of how your day might go: you wake up, look in the mirror, do your posing for your check in and think to yourself “I am looking sharp, this is a great look”. Then a few hours go by, and you’re getting ready to go and train, you look at yourself again and think “F**k me, I’m flat and have zero pop, I’m not big enough”. You then go train, and once you’ve trained, you get some post workout photos and think “Holy s**t, I’m bang on point, condition is spot on and we are bringing it”.

Another few hours go by, it’s time to start winding down for the day, you get into your comfies, have a quick check in mirror and think “Omg I am so soft and watery, I’m way off, I’m not sure I’ll even compete if I look this way”. Does this sound familiar? If you have prepped before, you’ll no doubt be reading that and nodding along; if you haven’t, you’re in for a ride when the time comes. What I want you to understand is that those thoughts are completely normal.

Is that all?

Not only will you have these thoughts, but prep brain could also have an impact on other areas of your life across the day. For example, you may find it incredibly hard to concentrate when someone is chatting to you, and what they say might go in through one ear and out the other. I still remember constantly asking my wife “sorry babe can you say that again?”, simply because information didn’t register. Alongside this, you might completely forget conversations that you have had with others and not be able to recount it at all.

This can be incredibly frustrating for your other half or peers, but it’s not something you can control. It all comes down to a little brain fog. What’s that you might ask? In short, your brain requires carbohydrates to function; and bearing in mind you’re probably only putting in enough to fuel performance, it might be deprived of some of the fuel its usually got in abundance.

This is why concentrating on anything at times can be hard, let alone just a conversation. General day to day tasks at your work might become hard, and parts of your job that require a lot of concentration might become incredibly difficult in those last few weeks of dieting. I don’t say any of this to scare you, just to explain the reality of what might happen as you diet down and get lean/

Please note that once food is reintroduced, everything I have described so far will return to normal. However, I have often found my productivity in work increases significantly as I diet, as it mostly stems from trying to ‘fill’ time until the next meal and to take your focus away from food or being hungry.

Prep is selfish, there is no question about that. It is for this reason you might find that all you speak about throughout the day is your prep, the diet, the training, or the show/shoot. This is something you might do unintentionally but that is simply because with each passing week, it is consuming your life and everything you do is in accordance with that show/shoot. This means you can have very little interest in other life factors that don’t pertain to bodybuilding/physique development. Once again, once the show/shoot is over and food is reintroduced, your thought processes and general day to day ability to hold conversations will return to normal.

How to manage it

You might have read this article till here and will now be wondering, “how the hell do I go about managing that?”. It’s normal to panic a bit, so I’ll give you a few suggestions I feel will help “prep brain” – but let me reiterate, this will never truly go away irrespective of the number of times you diet, you will just get better at managing it.

The first strategy I’d suggest is one I’ve already mentioned and should be obvious: hire a coach. Work with a coach who is well experienced, has a proven track record of results and can provide you with the support you need. It’s all well and good going with one of the top coaches, but if they don’t give you that extra bit of support when you need it, they might not be one for you. I cannot express the importance and value of having a coach there to give you feedback on how you’re looking, detail the plan that needs to be done for the day, and to make the decisions around food and exercise for you. It can be a massive relief, remove stress, and help take away some of those thoughts we described earlier in the article.

All you might need is the clarification from your coach that you are “right where you need to be”, and just that bring forward a complete mindset shift. You will stop second guessing yourself and have fewer irrational thoughts. Although you might feel off and want to dig, if your coach thinks you’re on point and that there is no need, you’ll listen, because hopefully he/she will be thinking logically about the time frame you have left and how you look now.

Another thing I’d suggest is to stop looking in the mirror as much: the only times I really look at myself on prep is when I need to send a check in, as it then just allows me to focus on my day to day job/tasks without being fixated on how I look. It also means I’m not as emotional or irrational in my thinking across the day and around others.

Other things that can help is to make “to do lists” of things that need to get done, perhaps from conversations you’ve had with your other half, so you don’t forget. I’d also try and get any important conversations in soon after you’ve eaten and have got energy, as that’s when you’ll be most alert. This would also be my suggestion for works tasks that require a lot of concertation. If you try and do this 2 hours after a meal, you may find it challenging.

And then finally, just understanding and realising that there is more to life than bodybuilding shows, or a photoshoot can help alleviate the prep brain stress. The world is still going on around you, so don’t lose yourself. Show interest in others, ask questions, be present and ensure you hold onto those relationships throughout your prep. Take it from someone who did the opposite in his first prep: you don’t want to get to the end of your dieting phase and be ‘Billy nae mates’.

In summary ‘prep brain’ can have a huge impact on how we see ourselves in the mirror and skew or thought process, decision making, and mood. On top of this, we can find it difficult to concentrate on day-to-day tasks at work and even generally in conversations. These can be managed well by hiring a coach to make the decisions for you, doing tasks/conversations around mealtimes and just trying to be present in the world as you make your way through prep.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons