How bodybuilders can fight post-show depression, how to eat carbs and stay lean, and what to do if squats make you hurt.
Editor’s note: This column first began back in the 1990s when TC Luoma tapped Charles Poliquin to field questions for Muscle Media 2000 magazine. Not long after, T Nation was born and Charles penned 49 Question of Strength columns for us.
We sadly lost Charles in 2018, but we’re sure he wouldn’t want anyone else to take over his column but his friend and colleague Christian Thibaudeau.
Q: I recently competed in a men’s bodybuilding show. Even though I’m eating more now and took a week off, I feel depressed! Yes, I was using steroids to get ready for the show, if that matters. What’s going on?
Several things could be at play here and it’s likely a combination of them – we’ll go over everything. But right off the bat I’m thinking neurotransmitter issues may be a factor. The two main neurotransmitters involved in depression are dopamine and serotonin.
Dopamine is intensely triggered by the competitive mindset that comes with a bodybuilding prep. When you enter that “zone,” dopamine is released in heaps. It’s also what allows you to develop a long-term mentality, which gives you the ability to delay gratification or work/suffer now to win later.
For your whole prep you’re likely neurologically supported by an intense stimulation of the dopaminergic receptors. When the competition is over, you don’t have that anymore, or if you do it’s to a much lesser extent. And lack of dopamine stimulation, especially when you had such a high level of it for so long, will give you depression-like symptoms.
Many anabolic steroids have dopaminergic activities. Dianabol and testosterone among others. So if you took steroids during your prep, you likely created a desensitization of the dopaminergic receptors: they got so used to receiving a monster stimulation that they’re now non-responsive to a more “normal” dopamine level (or likely a low level in your case).
Depression in steroid users is getting more and more press. It’s a real thing, at least when you stop taking them. And that reaction can hit you very fast because it’s not due to psychological reasons (seeing yourself get smaller) but a neurological one (lack of dopaminergic stimulation/dopaminergic resistance).
I’m certainly not advocating taking steroids, but in the case of a competitive bodybuilder, I’d wait a few weeks after the competition to stop the cycle. You’ll already have a crash after the show, no need to make it worse by having the chemical withdrawal effect from stopping the cycle.
And contrary to what some experts say, I’d recommend tapering down your doses. From a hormonal point of view, tapering isn’t really effective, but to prevent depression it can help by gradually reducing the dopaminergic stimulation to avoid the crash. So you could simply initiate the taper after the competition and take 4 weeks or so to ease yourself off of the juice.
The other neurological issue is a potential drop in serotonin levels. The most commonly prescribed medications for depression are SSRIs, which increase serotonin levels. While this isn’t the main cause of depression, serotonin does play a role in feeling good.
Lack of serotonin will increase anxiety, pain perception, and decrease quality of life. These effects will make it harder to sleep, and make you less able to deal with stress and other lifestyle changes (adaptation problems).
Serotonin is made from tryptophan, an amino acid. Without making things harder to understand, know that tyrosine (another amino acid, from which you make dopamine) and tryptophan compete for absorption and transport. When your carb intake is low, you favor tyrosine over tryptophan which will lead to a drop in serotonin.
So if you’ve been dieting down for 12-16 weeks, chances are you depleted your serotonin levels, which will also contribute to your depressive symptoms, mostly via an increase in anxiety.
A last neurotransmitter issue is related to the adrenergic (adrenaline) receptors. This will especially be a problem if you overuse stimulants or fat burners. For example, if you used clenbuterol you likely have desensitized adrenergic receptors.
Clen stays “connected” to the receptors for way too long and makes them resistant. That’s why clen “stops working” after 7-10 days, and you either need to increase the dosage (dumb) or cycle it on and off.
But if you’ve been on clen for more than a few weeks, and you come off after your competition, you’ll still have desensitized adrenergic receptors which will make you lethargic, unmotivated, depressed, and basically hate life. Why? Because your receptors don’t even respond to your own natural production of adrenalin/noradrenalin anymore.
By the way, ephedrine can have the same effect if you take it several times a day.
Then there’s the simple psychological reason for depression: you don’t have a goal anymore. For 12-16 weeks your life revolved around that competition. And now that you don’t have that anymore, you feel lost.
It’s like your driving force has been robbed from you! On top of that, you’re used to seeing yourself look better and better every day; now you’re slowly getting worse (in your mind). Even if you still look awesome to everyone else, you don’t have the excitement of the daily improvement anymore.
Honestly, a lot of people make a mistake by taking a week off from the gym after a show. Training stimulates dopamine and adrenaline and would help you land more softly, so to speak. You could take 1-2 days off then get back to the gym, doing what you enjoy. For 1-2 weeks post show, it doesn’t matter what you do in the gym as long as you have fun.
I’d also look for a new, completely different goal. Why not a strength phase that allows you to simulate a powerlifting contest prep? That’s just an example. Anything that’ll put you right back in that competitive mindset will help.
I’d also recommend the following feel-good stack, and unlike steroids, it’s perfectly healthy and legal:
- Brain Candy, which will increase dopamine levels, and rhodiola, which will increase the duration of the dopamine effect by increasing its recycling/re-use. Take both in the morning on an empty stomach.
- Magnesium (on Amazon) in smaller doses (around 500 mg three times a day) to help regain adrenergic sensitivity.
Q: I prefer to eat low-carb all the time so I won’t get fat. Do I really need carbs around the workout to maximize muscle gains?
I was like you for a long time. I ate a strict low-carb diet for the better of 6 years, during which I built very little muscle. Like most former fat boys, I was carb-phobic.
However, the science is clear. Carbs don’t make you fat; EXCESS carbs do. There’s a difference. The thing is, we’re used to seeing average people eat excess carbs on an everyday basis. And since it’s the norm for average people to be overweight, it’s easy for us to vilify everything in their diets.
But keep in mind, most people get fat from carbs because they overeat the least satiating kinds and can’t control themselves once they start. But if you eat the right amount of carbs, they won’t make you fat.
One of my new trainers (I have 20 trainers working for me) was a hardcore keto advocate, a card-carrying member of the Keto Klan! He complained that his fat loss had stopped and that he never felt his muscles full – even if he increased his calories. He also hadn’t gained any muscle in the past year or so.
I explained carb science to him and was able to convince him to add workout carbs to his diet, but no carbs during the rest of the day (to lessen the psychological shock). When I saw him a week later he looked like a completely different animal – fuller, harder, leaner looking, and he was in a much better mindset.
A week after that he decided on his own to add some carbs in the evening. Then his girlfriend even started to ask him if he was on steroids!
Eating carbs for many of us is a mental barrier, especially those of us who had a hard time getting lean and then finally got very lean by cutting carbs. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
As long as your muscle glycogen stores are not close to full, the carbs you eat won’t get stored as body fat, but as muscle glycogen. It’s only when those stores are full that you’ll begin converting carbs into fatty acids.
Again, most people eat too many carbohydrates, and most people are sedentary. An average male can store around 300-400 grams of carbs in the muscles.
If you’re sedentary, you’ll use around 100-150 grams of those carbs for energy on a daily basis. So if that person eats 500 grams of carbs per day it doesn’t take long for his muscle stores to be full. Heck, even at only 300 grams of carbs a day, they’ll be full in less than one week.
On the other hand, if you’re training hard you’re using a lot more muscle glycogen. So instead of using the normal 100-250 grams of carbs per day, you’re using 300 grams per day. So if you eat less than 300 grams of carbs per day they won’t be converted to fat.
So how could simply adding 45-60 grams of carbs around your workout make you any fatter? In your state, it can’t. Heck, if you’ve been on a low-carb diet, it probably won’t even kick you out of ketosis. But it WILL make your workout more productive.
You’ll have more energy, which will help you put in more effort, you’ll have a better pump, and you’ll be able to recover faster. You’ll also decrease cortisol production, which will allow you to build more muscle.
If you’re a person who avoids carbs, you’re saying something like this: “Yeah, but what I really care about is getting leaner.”
Well, adding carbs can even help you get leaner. How? First, by allowing you to train harder you can stimulate better fat loss, and by reducing cortisol levels you also can increase metabolic rate.
Metabolic rate is impacted by the levels of the T3 thyroid hormone. The body doesn’t make it directly; it makes by converting T4 into T3. That conversion can be inhibited by chronic cortisol elevation. If you overproduce cortisol, you can (in the long run), decrease metabolic rate. But carbs around your workout decrease the amount of cortisol produced during your session.
The bottom line is, adding carbs around your workouts won’t make you fat. If you’re tracking your macros, then you might want to decrease fat intake slightly to compensate for the 45-60 grams of carbs you’d be getting. Just decrease fat by about 15-20 grams, but that might not even be necessary.
With the introduction of an appropriate amount of carbs from the right source, like Surge Workout Fuel (on Amazon), your muscles will get harder, you’ll recover faster, you’ll get better workouts, and you’ll feel like a million bucks.
Q: Barbell back squats have just never felt right to me. I know, every strength coach says they’re a staple, but I just never seem to make progress, or I get hurt. Yes, I’ve sought out good coaches and have been trained by them. Am I really holding myself back by NOT doing squats? And what’s the best alternative? I mainly just want bigger legs.
There’s no such thing as a mandatory lift, unless you’re a competitive lifter. There’s no doubt that the back squat is a great exercise. It belongs to the category of the “big basics” that should be the meat and potatoes of a training program.
Squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, row, and pull-ups are your money lifts and they’ve stood the test of time. Barring injury, you can never go wrong with using them… but they’re not necessary to build a good physique.
Now, the key movement patterns should all be trained in a program. They are:
- Squatting pattern
- Hip hinge pattern
- Horizontal press
- Horizontal pull
- Vertical press
- Vertical pull
But it doesn’t mean that you HAVE to do the back squat. It means that you ought to train the squatting pattern, which has a multitude of varieties. Here are a few:
People with long legs relative to their torso, especially if their tibias are short relative to their femurs, will have a hard time getting anything out of the back squat when it comes to leg growth. But front squats, especially with the heels elevated, or Zercher squats, can be a solid option.
Can you achieve good size without any form of free-weight squatting? Sure. Bulgarian split squats and machine hack squat will work well if you’re strictly interested by leg size.
But I still believe that you should train the squatting movement pattern with a variation that suits your type and then complement the session with the split squat and hack squat machine.