Learn everything there Is to know about fItness, performance, fat loss and lifestyle from Adrian McDonnell.
This week just gone by; I did my second ever photoshoot.
Unlike last year where I booked a shoot 5 days prior to the event, I had a date set in mind since January 1st when I mapped out exactly how I wanted my training to look for the year ahead.
Why did I pick July?
Well firstly, who doesn’t want to look their best in summer time? And secondly, my sister’s wedding (after being postponed last year) was set for July 10th.
This gave me a clear target for the year ahead – to prepare for a photoshoot before our first family wedding because I didn’t want to be dieting during the wedding itself.
Having something to train for kept me motivated during the tough times – which is something I encourage everyone to do. It gives you focus and clarity with an end date in mind.
“A goal is a dream with a deadline.”
In this blog post I’m going to describe:
Training For My Photoshoot
Looking or training like a bodybuilder is something that never appealed to me. This is not an insult to the incredible levels of discipline bodybuilders adhere to in order to get in their best ever shape.
For me, my training is always geared around performance and being more athletic. I always wonder how fast I can get, how strong I can be & how lean I can look without training like a bodybuilder. So I aligned my training with those goals in mind (the same methods I built my Aesthetic Athlete Program on).
It may have been unconventional for preparing for a photoshoot but these are some training principles that I abided by to build an athletic body:
1.Train for Power/Speed: I incorporated plyometrics, jumps, throws and variations of the Olympic lifts (using dumbbells) in my training.
2.Lift Heavy & Pursue Strength: Every week I lifted heavy & managed to hit some PR’s (personal records) in the deadlift despite being on limited calories.
3.Move in Different Plane’s of Motion: This is probably one of the biggest difference between my training and bodybuilding. A lot of bodybuilding movements are performed in only one plane of motion (think machines) whereas life happens in 3D so I like to train this way.
4.Cardio: Running twice a week along with a 10-15 minute walk after every meal to get my steps up.
5.Train for the Pump: This is one of the biggest commonalities between my training and bodybuilding. Each week, I would train for the pump (who doesn’t love a good bicep blasting finisher?). The difference being it did not make up a large percentage of my training.
I did experience some setbacks along the way with my training including a hamstring strain and oedema – swelling of the ankles and knees so I wasn’t always able to do what I would’ve liked all of the time. However, I reminded myself why I was doing this and worked around my injuries as best as possible when I didn’t feel like training.
Is this training optimal for building a bodybuilding physique? Probably not. But that wasn’t a goal of mine – I wanted to look and train like an athlete (since my ankle surgery prevented me from playing team sports this year).
Nutritional Strategies For My Photoshoot
I didn’t follow a nutritional plan – I don’t believe in them when it comes to making change in the long term. My philosophy around nutrition is the best plan out there is one which:
1. Is sustainable
2. Includes foods you enjoy
3. Aligns with my goals and my performance.
This is exactly what I did – made it sustainable and kept it simple for me to adhere to. Some daily non-negotiables for me included:
The above principles served me right up to the final 7-10 days prior to the shoot. Then it was time to get a bit more specific for my “peak” or “prep” week which is where you essentially add the icing on the cake. Some of these strategies are the methods elite bodybuilders use to look their best on stage.
Note: I wasn’t relying on the tips and tricks I’ll explain below to make you look as lean as possible. I had been training consistently prior to this. Prep week gives you the last five or ten percent.
Prep Week Explained
Below I’m going to describe the process I went through leading up to the photoshoot to look as best as possible for the main day. Implementing these methods allowed me to drop almost 13lbs in just 5 days.
Note: This is not a sustainable method of weight loss. This is a strategy for a peak WEEK, not weeks, months or even years.
1.Drop Carbohydrates & Reduce Calories (Up to 3 Days Before the Shoot)
2.Load up on Water & Lots of Sodium (Up to 3 Days Before the Shoot)
3.Reduce Water & Sodium (Starting 3 Days Before the Shoot)
4.Glycogen Depleted Workout (3 Days Before the Shoot)
5.Carbohydrate Loading (Starting After My Final Glycogen Depleted Workout)
1. Drop Carbohydrates & Reduce Calories
Carbohydrates are your bodies primary fuel source; fat is your bodies secondary fuel source. When you deplete your body of carbohydrates, it has no other option but to use its least preferred method - fat as your primary energy and fuel source. This really helps you shed the last few pounds on top of a low-calorie intake.
My only carbohydrate sources for 7 days leading up to the photoshoot were vegetables. I limited these to broccoli, cauliflower and spinach because they have a lower carbohydrate profile than other vegetables such as carrots.
This was extremely challenging. Not necessarily because I couldn’t eat carbs, but more so because on top of depleting my carbohydrate stores, I still had to continue to train in the gym. These are known as ‘glycogen depleted workouts’ where you’re relying on fat as your only fuel source to keep you going. I was also eating less than 2000 calories a day, some days as low as 1,600 which is a deficit of between 40-50% of my maintenance levels.
Note to self: Training on low calories and empty carbohydrate stores is not fun!
I’ve never tried a ketogenic diet before – a diet which emphasises high fat, moderate protein and little to no carbohydrate intake. The thought process behind the ketogenic diet is your body transitions from using carbohydrates as its main fuel source to fat.
The transition period (known as being in a state of ketosis) is meant to be the hardest part of the entire process. Although I can’t be sure, after depleting my carb stores and running on empty for a few days, I would say I was either in a state of ketosis or almost there.
I repeat - not eating carbs and reducing your calories by up to 50% is not sustainable nor healthy in the long run. I wanted to be the leanest I've ever looked which meant I had to start doing things I've never done before for a short period of time.
2. Load Up On Water & Sodium
Drinking a lot of water & salting all of your food helps your body initially store and retain more water. This process will be reversed in the three days leading up to the shoot (later point) by minimising and reducing water intake. This helps make your muscles look less fluidy and more fuller.
I drank about 2.5 gallons (around 9 litres) in the days leading up to the photoshoot! I usually drink about 5-6 litres a day but this was challenging and almost a chore! Needless to say I was in and out of the bathroom a lot! It got to a point where I was really getting fed up but persisted through.
3. Reduce The Water & Sodium
As I mentioned above, manipulating your water intake can favourably make you look much leaner. It makes your muscles look less ‘fluidy’ and gives you more definition. The goal is essentially to flush as much water out so your muscles look fuller. Lowering sodium ensures you don’t retain any additional fluid.
My appreciation for water grew tremendously when I had to reduce it so much. You only appreciate something when it’s gone and I desperately wanted nothing more than a cold glass of water with squeezed lemon! I just drank when I was thirsty and took small sips only. I still continued to train leading up to the photoshoot despite my low water intake but I made sure I drank most of my water around my training to reduce the risk of injury.
As someone who loves using pink Himilayan salt to cook and flavour foods, I had to completely cut this out. I also had to be conscious of the foods I was eating and ensuring they were all low in sodium. This meant eating plain and bland chicken (how exciting!) and not putting in any spices at all except for some black pepper, cinnamon and lemon juice on a selection of my foods.
4. Glycogen Depleted Workouts
Training and lifting weights greatly speed up the process of emptying your carbohydrate stores. The reason you try to deplete your stored carbohydrates is when you load up on them again, you become more sensitive to them again and can store more than normal. This process is known as “supercompensation.”
I just did primarily upper body workouts during these glycogen depleted sessions as there’s a higher risk of injury doing legs coupled with the low water intake.
I avoided doing big compound lifts one week out from the shoot and focused on doing exercises sitting or lying down on a bench. Why? Compound lifts leave a higher risk of injury so I felt it would be safer to do all exercises seated or lying down.
These workouts were rough. Its amazing the impact carbs (or a lack of them) can have on your performance and energy levels. It also highlighted for me why low carb diets are not a good idea for athletes or people who regularly exercise. If your sport requires sprinting ability or power work, don’t be afraid of eating carbs.
As low and all as my caloric intake was, I still managed to hit a 200Kg deadlift operating on 1,600 calories. I often wonder the impact our thoughts can have on your performance. The opposite of the placebo effect is the nocebo effect and both can work for or against you depending on how you manage your thoughts and what you allow yourself to believe. I told myself that day that I would hit the 200Kg mark and I did it.
5. Carbohydrate Loading
After depleting your muscle glycogen stores, you now want to load them up again. This is known as ‘supercompensation.’ In laymens terms, the idea is your body is better able to store and hold carbohydrates when you severely restrict them for a period of time. Being able to store more carbohydrates in your muscles makes them look firmer & fuller rather than softer and flatter.
Eating carbs again never felt so good! After my final glycogen depleted workout (the Monday before the shoot which was on Wednesday), I started to load up on carbohydrates. It was a friendly welcome to be able to eat alternative carbs outside of vegetables.
I had to ensure the carbs I ate were ‘dry carbs’ with minimal water content. I stuck to carbs I had been accustomed to eating during my training which included sweet and boiled potatoes, rice and rice cakes. The difficult thing about eating all of these dry carbs was I did so without sipping on any (or very little water!).
All of that being said, loading up on carbs again was a pleasant welcome to my aching muscles and low energy levels. As the hours and day went on, I could literally feel the increase in definition in my muscles.
6. Photoshoot Day
Finally came the photoshoot! I warmed up, got a small bit of a pump and got on with it. I brought some rice cakes with peanut butter with me and had those fifteen minutes prior to the shoot. Reducing my salt intake leading up to the shoot before marginally increasing them helps increase the effect of the “pump” when you train. Without sodium you can’t get a pump and your body will appear flat.
After the shoot, more than anything else I craved a cold glass of water! As challenging and all as the experience was, it was another worthwhile process. I made a promise to myself that I wasn't going to binge eat - a promise which I kept to myself after the photoshoot.
After periods of restrictive dieting, it's common for bodybuilders or physique athletes to go on an all out binge and for their weight to rebound drastically. I've been there before after my two failed attempts at following 75 Hard in 2020. I don't enjoy the feeling of guilt, shame and distress that comes from using food as means of short term comfort.
So my post-photoshoot treats were my absolute favourite - chocolate protein pancakes. I couldn't have been happier eating them and the next day I woke up feeling proud of myself without the guilt or anxiety I'd previously have gotten from binge eating.
At times I wanted the week to end, to quit and just be over with but I tried focus on the process as much as possible. I made the mistake in the past of telling myself “I’ll be happy when..” (I have a 6 pack, quit my job etc.) only to be left disappointed by my expectations.
This time (although not always), I tried to embrace the whole process and feel privileged to have the capacity to “get to do this” instead of thinking I “have to do this.” And for once, I genuinely felt proud of myself - a sense of accomplishment I only ever get from persisting through challenges and doing things outside of my comfort zone.
That is why I feel it's important for everyone (mentally more than physically) to do something which makes you feel fulfilled and gives you purpose.
While I’m not a bodybuilder (nor do I have anything against body builders), I was pleased overall with my physique. As mentioned above, my style of training is more performance based – I enjoy doing jumps, med ball throws, dynamic effort lifts and even some Olympic lifting.
It highlighted for me that’s it’s 100% possible to train like an athlete but still get the aesthetics and look to go with it. And that this can be done without negatively impacting your performance.
That is why I created my Aesthetic Athlete Program. It teaches people how this can be done.
Thanks for reading.
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