Thin Skin to Reveal Your Muscular Definition

Six Steps for Preventing Water Retention


Water weight. Water retention. Subcutaneous fluid. Thick skin. However you wish to describe it, the thin layer of fluid which obscures hard-won muscle development on an otherwise well-defined physique can spoil a bodybuilder’s chances of competitive success. Dieting down only to arrive onstage looking ‘smooth’ is one barrier to victory all bodybuilders must avoid.

Our bodies have a natural tendency to store water directly beneath our skin for hydration purposes, just as carbohydrates and fats are sequestered away for future energy demands. Stored with this subcutaneous water are ions (or electrolytes), charged particles which play a vital role in strengthening our immune system, and aiding water and nutrient storage. Though due to a host of factors (including menstruation, certain medications, lymphatic congestion, and, in extreme cases, kidney failure), water retention can be excessive and pose health concerns, a certain amount of subcutaneous fluid is to be maintained at constant levels (where it nourishes cells before being returned to surrounding capillaries).

Enduring months of monastic eating and training only to be hampered by a substance that is essential to life is one irony that is not lost on the scores of bodybuilders who falter due to the ubiquity of water retention. This is why physique athletes will spend the final days before a big show (or photo shoot) endeavoring to flush this water from beneath their skin, in particular from the lower abdominal region, where it is more likely to accumulate.

So don’t let months of dedicated effort be for nothing.

Banish water from beneath your skin and arrive onstage at your very best. In the following article I will take you through the water-shedding steps I use to get my bodybuilding athletes into supreme contest shape.

Top six steps for addressing water retention

  1. First get lean

Before seeking to specifically eliminate subcutaneous water you must be sure that it is water you are dealing with, and not actual body fat. Though both are definition obscuring, one is more easily remedied than the other (no prizes for guessing which). To determine in a very unscientific manner whether you are holding water or fat, pinch a small amount of the excess away from your body and let it return to its original position: if it ripples like water then it is likely to be, you guessed it, water, not fat.

So get to work carving the excess adipose from your physique, to where you are holding no more than 6% body fat; only then will you have a true indication of how much final-stage water depletion is necessary. This is the most important step as not only can you not deplete what you cannot properly see, but any subcutaneous water elimination is simply a waste of time if you arrive onstage with rolls of fat hanging off your glutes.

  1. Hydrate

Similar to the effect calorie restriction can have on dampening our metabolic response, and thus curtailing the fat burning process, poor hydration can cause us to hold excessive amounts of water under our skin. People often think they must withhold water consumption in order to prevent it from being stored subcutaneously. This is a myth that must be destroyed. In fact, the opposite is true: the body holds water, a precious resource, as a survival response to its limited supply; limit its intake and the body will release anti diuretic hormones which will enable it to hang for dear life to all the fluid it can store.

By drinking plenty of fresh, clean water on a daily basis (a gallon, or more, most days), our body gets to work rapidly releasing water (both that which is consumed and that which is stored) through urine and sweat.

Since muscle tissue consists of over 70% water, water restriction may cause our muscles to look flat and may even lead to severe cramping. Instead of limiting water intake pre-contest, manipulate carbohydrates and use the tips below to flush water from beneath the skin, not from the muscles where it promotes fullness and a shredded appearance.

  1. Limit sodium consumption

Commonly found in rock salt, the chemical element sodium plays an important role in maintaining the fluid balance of our cells; for the proper functioning of our cells we need between 2000 and 2500mg of sodium per day, which it not hard to achieve given it is included naturally in many of the foods we consume and added in abundance to other less healthful nutrient options.

However, because any excess sodium is held in our skin cells where it attracts water, the more we consume beyond the above recommended allotment, the greater our chances are of experiencing excessive water retention. As your contest (or shoot) approaches, gradually eliminate added sodium (which can also be found in most condiments and sauces) from your diet.

Sodium manipulation can, however, be used to the more advanced-competitor’s advantage. For 10-2 days out from a contest, salt all meals. Doing this will help some sodium and water to be excreted from under the skin, though a thin layer of water will remain. To transfer all subcutaneous water to our muscle cells, to create greater fullness, all dietary sodium must be completely eliminated during the final two days (as well as regular salt, this includes egg whites, protein shakes, sauces and other condiments so check all labels to ensure no sodium passes your lips).

Supporting the sodium manipulation process is water loading/depletion where, from days 10-2, water intake is increased by 1-2 liters (if you consume two liters per day on average, drink 4-5 liters); halve this amount two days out and on the day of the contest, drink around 500mls, total. By loading, then depleting (but not entirely cutting), your water intake you can trick your body into sucking any remaining fluid from beneath your skin and into your muscles. Experiment with this process 2-3 weeks out from your show to see how this approach works for you.

  1. Sweat it out

In conjunction with optimal water consumption we may also sweat to get tight and hard. Whether through intensive cardio, weight training, or time in the sauna, stored water, salt and ions are excreted whenever we sweat. Though we refer to it as water retention, a great deal of the puffiness associated with subcutaneous water storage is due to sodium ions trapped directly under the skin. Sweating forces these ions out first (which is why our sweat initially tastes salty) and accompanying them will be the excess water. Once our sweat begins to lose its salty taste we will know that the depletion of water retention is occurring. Be sure to consume plenty of water while sweating out the excess to stay well hydrated, and take a multi mineral supplement to replace any lost electrolytes excreted through sweat.

  1. Fuel with fiber

As well as being excreted through sweat, water retention is also removed via the colon. The easier the ‘passage’, the more water we can eliminate. A clogged colon, however, may prevent the natural excretion of water. Thus, a diet comprised of sufficient fiber (supplementing with psyllium husk is an excellent way to drop excess water weight) may not only cleanse the intestinal tract to promote sound health and offset the occurrence of diseases such as stomach cancer, but may also help us to achieve shrink-wrapped skin come competition time.        

  1. Try a natural diuretic

Whether synthetic or natural, diuretics increase urination to force more water from our system. For a healthy-functioning person, diuretics of any kind are largely unnecessary, though, as an adjunct to the methods listed above, one, or several, of the natural diuretics may accentuate final-stage water loss to ensure we achieve a shredded appearance.

While many good supplements have been used by serious competitors (which may include in them natural herbs such as dandelion root) simple foods like lettuce, spinach, asparagus, beets and pumpkin and good old coffee and tea may work just as well. Take note: diuretic use many cause dehydration so be sure to consume at least one gallon of water per day while using them and when employing any of the ideas outlined above.

Rip up by cutting the H20

To achieve the kind of contest conditioning that may automatically place you in the top category of bodybuilding finalists, it is imperative that no traces of water retention are visible. Often mistaken for fat, and just as likely to blur the muscular definition we have spent 12 or more weeks refining through precision eating and intensive training, water weight can be easily avoided by following the steps outlined in this article.

The pre contest (or pre-photo shoot) intake or water should only be done in an attempt to saturate our muscle cells, to create a full and shredded appearance. Any excess must be eliminated. So to ensure conditioning is not a barrier to success for you, fully address any excess water retention before you next step onstage.

David Robson

A respected health and fitness writer, David has been published in industry publications such as Status Fitness Magazine, Muscle & Fitness and With 20 years in the personal training trenches, the insights he has gained through practical experience, alongside degrees in psychology and sports science, have enabled him to go beyond the surface to provide educational articles that have informed thousands of health and fitness devotees the world over. Contact David at: and at

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