The Ultimate Photo Shoot Prep Protocol

I Was Wrong

As a seasoned lifestyle coach and fitness model(I'ma use that second title loosely), I used to handle planned cuts as a "Do as I say, not as I do," sort of thing. I'd carry around my gallon jug of Poland Spring and answer the inquiries of my clients all day long, but still warn them NOT to try this at home. 

I can be really stalwart sometimes, almost to a fault. My heart is always in the right place. I simply don’t want people to think that a shredding protocol is a normal, every-day-appropriate kind of thing. That’s just not the kind of platform I want to find myself shouting from. And I so dearly love to shout.

I mean — cuts are only for momentous, life-changing events, like baring butt cheeks on Instagram or strutting the bodybuilding stage in stripper heels, covered in nine layers of tanning gunk. The real deal, body-on-display kinda shit, right?

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But, after the past few years, I’ve experienced a revelation. I have radically changed my philosophy, realizing now that my inflexibility was actually misplaced righteousness and a blemish on my credibility.  All because I've gotten the chance to work with clients who became my best girlfriends. 

The Brides Changed Everything

I train a lot of brides. I've built a respected name on the bridal boot camp circuit in NYC. And I've prided myself on getting my gorgeous girls sustainably skinny, something they can maintain well past the big day.

But no matter how many inches we eliminate from their waistlines (five in six months on my last beauty, Meghan, pictured below), they always ask about that little something extra they can do the week before; quite obviously hinting at my #1weekout progress checks on social media. 

 The gorgeous, Meghan.

The gorgeous, Meghan.

Now, as I said, when it comes to my brides, we usually end up transcending the traditional trainer-client relationship. We might only be #sweatingforthewedding six months in advance, but we go through a major stage of life together.

It's an honor, really, all the trust they place in me. We talk about exes and go to dress fittings and gossip about in-laws… everything I'll do with my best friends when they get married.

That particular personal perspective really changed everything for me -- thinking of my girls as friends rather than clients. Really shifted the authoritative do-as-I-say mantra. 

I realized I had only one question to consider. If my girl, Lauren, asked me over drinks what she should do to get her body looking it’s absolute best on her big day, how would I answer?

Let's be real. I would grab a cocktail napkin and start jotting down the protocol immediately.

And here's why...

The first and least important fact is that if I don't give these ladies or my friends the answers they're looking for, they will find an answer. Because the internet. And who knows what kind of wild and crazy advice they'll end up following after that search. I googled the subject myself, and anything that appears on the first results page is woefully misinformed or simply incomplete. 

The second, and more important truth is this:  the altar, chuppah, beach or whatever holy ground they stand upon to exchange those vows is way more significant than any auditorium stage I will ever strut across in a fitness competition. 

You better believe that should I ever choose to make that matrimonial commitment(and I have no designs on any kind of big expensive event even), I'll look better on my wedding day than I have in my whole life. I am not even a little bit ashamed of my vanity or femininity in wanting to look and feel beautiful for myself or whomever stands next to me at the courthouse(should I be so lucky to want to). 

I'd help my best friend cut for literally any important event. I do it myself. I refuse to be a hypocrite.

And if you've got a major life event or photo shoot that you want to look absolutely on point for? Well, you have absolutely every right to. So while I generally promote sustainable change, for the sake of my integrity, I am not going to be the girl to tell you no. In fact, I plan to give you all of my time-tested, trial-and-error secrets in a three-week plan below.  

You Can Get Lucky But...

The third and most important reason has more to do with confidence. But we need to talk a little science, here.

Pictured Left: 1 day out from the shoot picture Right: looking significantly leaner and meaner

Some days you just get lucky. You wake up and look shredded. Your muscles are defined. Your tummy is tight and flat. Everything you hope to look in the mirror and see, is before your eyes. So you praise yourself for your hard work and good choices. You proceed to avoid carbs all day and hit some extra cardio because you are on a roll here! Its's working. You are the most motivated! And the next day BAM, you look kinda bloated and your muscles seem to have disappeared. 

What the fuck, right?

This is because the of the chemical bonding properties of glucose. We could get really into it, but the short story is, your carb molecules bond really easily with water. So the more carbs you eat, the more water you tend to hold onto.

And we all know salt can help our bodies retain water well, too.

All of these things don't really matter from day to day. It's just a little bit of chemistry -- getting the perfect balance of water, salt, and carbs. If you're really lean, you'll look it no matter what. I promise you. Just stay the course and follow your regular training plan. 

But, if you do happen to have a special occasion, and there is real possibility to get it just right... Why leave it to chance? 

Now, I’m not going to try and sell you on the shred. That is again, not my soap box. But there is this truth:

My typical bride is standing between Stella McCartney and an over-zealous mother-in-law(WHY are they ALWAYS like this?) while a pretty major life event looms ahead.

If I can ensure they don’t wake up and text me “I feel bloated” on top of everything else they’re dealing with? 

You bet your bottom I'm going to do everything possible to help. To know they can (and will!) look their absolute bests is one more worry off their(and mine!) minds. 

And when it comes down to it. the real thing we’re talking about here is the confidence that comes with knowing you are prepared and feeling you look your best. It’s really the psychological shift that occurs.

I mean, if you care enough to have come across this article in your research, I know you’ve done the work and you’ll look gorgeous anyway. I can't stress that enough. 

But, like I said, I wouldn’t leave it to chance either. I’m a 28-year-old single girl in New York City. Damn straight I'm gonna make sure I rock that dress, slay the stage, nail the audition, or totally shove it in an ex’s face(I’m a righteous BRAT sometimes, too), if that’s what the occasion calls for.

This is a four week program but we're going to break it into parts. Four weeks out, five days out, and one day out from your intended date.

Note: My brides DO NOT do the full water cut at the end of this article. I have an abridged version for special occasions. Shoot me an e-mail if you have interest in that. I also post about quick cutting on snapchat.
 I learned what I know from a couple years on the figure circuit and further years building a portfolio and going to auditions.

I learned what I know from a couple years on the figure circuit and further years building a portfolio and going to auditions.

6 Months Out

You thought this was a four week plan? It is. But, it must be stated that to look any level of shredded on the other side, you need to be doing a dedicated strength training program in the first place. And you also need to be eating healthy to begin with. 

This protocol is somewhat of a magic trick, but even magic has limitations. There has to be muscle to strip water and fat off of, to get that defined look. Hypertrophy does not happen overnight. 

My client Kim followed a very solid program, lifting three days per week to get arms that were the envy of all of her wedding guests. My jaw literally dropped when the texts started coming in the day after. 

Kim trained with the very complimentary intentions of building strength and improving mobility in mind. So, look for a program that is progressive and contains the big, traditional lifts. Deadlift. Squat. Bench. Pull-up. 

I happen to be an expert on this subject. BUT, I also think you can find some awesome programs or coaching by Nia Shanks, Jordan Syatt, or Dan John, to name a few. These are a few people I respect. And I've personally used a few different Dan John programs like Easy Strength to get to a show.

It’s also a perfect time to start a solid creatine regimen if you’re into that sort of thing. Creatine is naturally occurring in the body and has a load of benefits listed here by Poliquin Group that will result in superior strength and physique gains.

4 Weeks Out

Food

Take three weeks to carb cycle. And that’s nothing more than eating more carbs one day, and relatively less the next day. On high carb days, get your rice and potatoes, your starchier carbs. On your low carb days, focus on looking for healthy fats: coconut oil, salmon, avocado, egg yolks, cashews, even butter if it’s grass-fed good stuff. Fill in with fruits where you need them to feel fresh and energetic.

On all days, primary to your fat and carb considerations, prioritize protein. Josh Hillis, Co-author of Fat Loss Happens on Monday, says that you need at least .75g protein per pound of body weight to lose fat. I completely agree. I think for this particular three weeks you should even strive for 1.0g. In fact, I advise my clients who are trying to get EXTREMELY lean,  competition-ready, to hit 1.2.

Know where you fall on this spectrum. Consider things like how much you are consuming now and what your end aesthetic goal looks like when choosing your sweet spot. For instance, if you are currently at .7g, hitting .85 or .9 every day is life-changing. You don't need to force anything more.

Prioritizing protein also intrinsically controls the amounts of fat and carbohydrate you consume. For this very reason, it’s not terribly important to have exact numbers in those categories as you increase protein. You’ll just be less hungry and naturally cut those things by listening to your body. 

Some other miscellaneous things

  • Kiersten Weber-Schunke (Nutritionist and Elite Trainer at ONE Human Performance) taught me to eat as many leafy greens as possible. All that extra spinach ensures you can better metabolize all the extra protein you’ve added. If you have some stomach issues and greens are tough to digest, try cooking them, blending them down or utilizing a green supplement like Onnit Earth Grown Nutrients
  • Branched-chain amino acids during and post-workout are another great add-in. Consider that your muscles are the back-bone of the fat-loss machine you are building. They get beat up when you exercise. A BCAA supplement will stop them from breaking down and preserve your fat-blasting tools.
  • Keep your feeding window under 12 hours. So if you eat dinner at 7pm, don’t break the fast until 7am. I’ve found that, if possible, shortening to 8 or 9 hours is ideal. Note: You still need to eat the same amount of food you would have in this smaller time frame.

Training

Less is more. Seriously. This is not the time to forget your head and break all the rules to #sweateveryday. Especially since, from a fat-loss standpoint, it’s much more optimal to split your strength and cardio into two different sessions. You could easily alternate lifting one day, and sprinting or rowing the next for the two weeks, taking a day off if your body tells you it needs a break — waking up tired, having trouble falling asleep, significant drop in power output or strength… just feeling BLAH is also valid here. Like I said, stress loss is synonymous with fat loss. Don't allow the devil on your shoulder, the impending date, to take control here.

On your lifting days, focus on some heavy volume. Lift relatively heavy weight for more reps than you’ve been doing.  But do not, I repeat, DO NOT go to failure. Lots of shredding protocols recommend failure sets. I think this is silly. You’ve got to focus on getting strong, so leave some reps in the tank. Note: this is also a great day to be low carb.

On your cardio days, focus on high intensity intervals with more than enough rest (like 1:3 or 1:2) and amp your rounds to 8-12 intervals. And get creative here: 45 sec runs with 90 sec breaks; 30 sec sprints with 2 min breaks. Stop when you know you could do one more, but you’d be slower. Don't make me tell you again about failure.... Note: This is a great day to be high carb. Situate some carb servings before and after the cardio workout.

Sleep

Get at least 8 hours every night. When I’m in photo-shoot prep mode, I shoot for 10 hours on the weekends. And if I wasn’t on the weekday grind I’d be at ten all week. Your body needs time to repair. Workouts are sophisticated breakdowns, with the hope that the body responds by building itself to be even better than it was before. But most of this happens while you catch some z’s. So getting a bare minimum of eight hours is ideal.

It’s also good to pay attention to your nightly routine. Inability to fall asleep quickly can be an indicator of significant deficits like dehydration or insufficient carb intake. Or it could be as simple as what I call tech scramble. Stay away from screens and artificial lights as these things can mess with your brain and circadian rhythm. Use natural dim light from candles and turn off your cell phone prior to bedtime.

Miscellaneous

Recovery is the name of the game. During this time, I like to ensure I don't miss yoga, I get some extra cryotherapy sessions in, and I just generally focus on body care and regeneration. Schedule your float tank sessions, your facials, or your massages in this three week period.

 One of my faves, taken the day before a figure competition

One of my faves, taken the day before a figure competition

 5 Days Out

 Food

Cut yourself down to almost zero carbs. Ok people, I know that literally everything has some amount of carbs! But stick to mostly lean meats and veggies for the next four days. A handful of berries here and there is fine to get your energy going. Also, to preserve your lean muscle and stay fresh, get at least two servings of BCAA before and after your workouts.

Note: This “no carb diet” is NOT sustainable. You go past 10-14 days and you will absolutely hurt your body and hit a wall in progress. This particular part of the cut was the reason I initially hesitated to let my clients try it. It’s easy to get caught up in the satisfaction of the daily transformation you’ll see and try to stretch it out longer or try it too often. Let me be clear. IT DOESN’T WORK LIKE THAT. You’ll lose fat first. And then very shortly after, you’ll lose your mind.

#eatcarbs

Water

Your muscles are made of water and there is also lots of water sitting on top of them, just below the skin. The trick is to get rid of that subcutaneous water and hope that the muscles can retain some to create that magical shredded effect exactly when you want it. It's really not that much hocus-pocus. It's fairly simple if you follow this protocol.

We kick off the process by getting your body to start flushing water. And how do you achieve that? By drinking wayyy too much. So much, that your body just starts throwing it out as fast as it comes in.

Your goal is to get at least 2.5 gallons of water per day, 3 if you have the constitution. So prepare yourself for all of the meathead jokes: the easiest way to track is to get a gallon jug and fill it and empty it 3 times per day. Do this until 10-12 hours out from the event. Then you'll have new instructions.

 This is how you get super dry/cut abs pictured above. 

This is how you get super dry/cut abs pictured above. 

Training

Keep up the density on your lifting days. But you may want to ditch the cardio here. If it eases your mind or helps you handle stress of last minute changes to your charger plates (another nod to my brides), I’ll give you the go-ahead for a little easy steady state, like walking up a hill. But your kidneys are already under stress. Extra sweat and adrenaline action is pushing your luck. Plus, you're also pushing your luck with inflammation. Don't need it.

Note: You definitely don’t want to work out at all the day before the event. But, two days is often better. This allows natural post workout inflammation to completely dissipate.

1 Day Out

Food

Bring back the carbs! You actually get a small serving at each meal here. Bonus, if you look flat at the end of the day — That undefined, deflated, WHERE DID MY MUSCLES GO? look, eat dessert. Full permission to indulge in anything you want. I typically reach for a brownie with ice cream on top or pizza and ice cream(ok, not together). But that's just me. I respond well to ice cream. I actually believe my body looks better on dairy (for real). If you know something upsets your stomach, like gluten can be another one, avoid it. Back to that inflammation fear again.

If there’s time for another normal meal the next day or later in the day(depending on what time your event is), treat it normally. Eat a regular old meal. Protein, carb, fat, green. 

Water

Stop drinking water at your intended time (10-12 hours out). If you really want your muscles to look extra round, and not everyone is out to look jacked, I get that, go to Whole Foods and grab a bottle of vegetable glycerin (in the body care section). Two tablespoons at night and two in the a.m on the morning of. The glycerin helps suck any leftover subcutaneous water back into the muscle, giving you that extra pumped-up fitness-y specific look.

This is also the time you want to use any natural diuretics you may have in mind. My go-to? A little bit of cooked asparagus. I won’t judge any choice you make in this department. But PLEASE, keep it simple and natural. Lots of bodybuilders swear by dandelion root. 

Salt

Keep your sodium intake up throughout the day. I don't address this one at all specifically. It's a HUGE deal, yes. However, if you just ensure that you get adequate salt, you're going to hit it just fine. I've tried manipulating it. Going from no salt to increased intake. It was really just annoying and made little difference. 

1 Hour Out

Call me superstitious, but an hour before a power-lifting meet, I ALWAYS chug a can of cola. It's an old tradition my coach, Mark Leibowitz, had me adopt to get me revved up. But I also found it did wonders for my physique. I'd start a little under–watered, not drinking a thing before a meet (even skipping my coffee and breakfast) before weigh-in. Then, I’d step off the scale, carb up, and-BAM- that magic moment of shredded perfection. And don't be messing with that diet crap. You need at least half of a Coke heavy here. Wash it down with another teaspoon of glycerin if you choose.

***CAUTION You cannot just go chug a bottle of water after this

You have stressed your kidneys in the process. I typically finish out my figure competitions with a beer. It slows me down and ensures I begin to rehydrate slowly. BUT PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE realize that this process is stressful on the body and should be treated as such.

And now your only instructions left are to go forth and kill it. 

I’ve stepped off my hypothetical pedestal from the auditorium stage of “do as I say not as I do,” and shared my tested protocol so you really can “do as I do.” That said, if you’re committing to looking your ABSOLUTE best (and you have 100% of my support for this), I need you to commit to respecting your body. I can justify sharing these secrets ONLY with your tacit promise that you know this is NOT a viable long-term plan. This is your three-week prep to a major event that you are getting #onfleek for.

So enjoy reviewing the photographic evidence of this big day. Flip through the album. Post all over Facebook.—but remember you earned that extra flight of tequila or side of fries at the afterparty celebration…and throw out that meat-head asshole gallon jug of water, please. #leaning season #sophisticatedstrength

For contest prep or any other training needs, e-mail me at ashleigh@sophistocatedstrength.com