It was only in the final moments of an intense 14 week competition prep that I let on about my latest crazy goal and personal challenge – I would be participating in a bodybuilding competition – Popeye’s Fall Classic 2016 Women’s Bikini Class. I’m a huge believer in setting goals and breaking them down into smaller steps to reach them. That’s partly why I keep this bucket list style blog full of various fitness challenges, places I want to explore and new skills I want to develop so that I can remember what I’ve learned and share my experience along the way.
My dedicated fitness regime that included up to 4 hours at the gym, 5 days a week in the final stretch, combined with regimented meal planning that got very monotonous, was hands down, the most disciplined I ever had to be in my life! And finally, on the eve before the big competition date, I wanted to take a moment and thank and recognize all the people that inspired me and helped me along the way.
The overwhelming response was encouraging, supportive and positive, and for that, I’m so grateful to have such an awesome network of incredible friends! However, I know that the general impressions of this industry are mixed, and I’m only starting to learn more myself.
“She’s too muscular”. “She must be on something”. “That’s not natural”. “I could never do that”. There is a lot of negativity, and that’s partly what discouraged me from doing this, and even sharing this goal of mine. Another hesitation of mine was that I wasn’t sure I could really do this. I’m not naive – there are positives, negatives and extremes of all kinds in this bodybuilding world. But that extremism can be found with anything, and my big lesson and take away is how important it is to do your research to find what works for you, and develop strategies to stay grounded so you don’t go off the deep-end on either end of the spectrum.
11 Lessons on Women’s Bodybuilding – What you need to know!!
I’ve documented my journey with highlights, struggles and practical information like: ‘What I actually ate’ ‘No, I never starved myself!’ ‘Yes, I was always at the gym!’ ‘When did I actually see progress?’ ‘And… Would I do it again?’ The below list is based on hours of research online at Reddit, Bodybuilding.com, various blogs and my own conversations with previous and current bodybuilders. I’m lucky that I have friends that were incredibly honest with me about their experience and didn’t sugar coat this.
1. Have a baseline of fitness first – don’t go into this on a whim
I mentioned that my prep was 14 weeks. I should elaborate. My coach and trainer prefers 20 week preps for herself (And this is someone who has competed almost 15 times, taking top place on several occasions!). I had been going to the gym about 3 times a week for a year, and bouldering/rock climbing regularly for a couple years, before seeing a trainer in 2015. It was only after a years experience following a training routine and meal plan (albeit loosely!) that I felt ready to challenge myself to another level of dedication and do a 14 week intensive prep.
A common piece of advice I’ve read is to give yourself lots of time and be realistic about the time you need to build muscle, and then also to cut.
This was a really great, honest account with photos of someone who wishes they had more time: http://forum.bodybuilding.com/showthread.php?t=130828943
2. Ask yourself why you’re doing this
Do not do this for an ego or confidence boost! That was one of the first controversial and helpful threads I read online! Some women admitted wanting something to make them feel better about themselves. We all have moments where we could use a boost, but the nature of competing involves getting judged by strangers and is completely subjective, so you could end up feeling worse. In my honest opinion, a more helpful reason to do this would be: to take your fitness goals to the next level. In my case, I had been involved in sports and dedicated training in the gym for years, and now I was ready and interested to see what I was capable of next.
3. Be prepared financially
This is a very expensive sport/ hobby/ lifestyle! Leading up to the competition involves paying for coaching and personal training, extra food, vitamins and supplements and your gym membership. Then ,when you decide that you are going to register for a competition and start to dedicate yourself to the process, there is the competition fee, association fee, cost of suit (mine was covered in beautiful crystals and retailed for $1500!! I opted to rent for $200 instead!), shoes, jewelry, posing sessions, and then on show day, there is the cost of a tan, hair, makeup and professional stage photos. After the show, I was advised to book a photoshoot to capture memories. All in? $3500-$4000 – easy.
4.Find the right coach
Ask around and talk to the friends you trust. I met Katelyn at work and saw her go through a healthy, natural process for her competitions back in 2012/13. She also was very passionate about learning to coach and train so I went to her for advice on finding a personal trainer to help me develop lifestyle training skills. I am so grateful I met Jennifer and I could gush about her forever! I love her completely holistic approach and I respect and admire her extensive background as a competitive athlete and also a registered nutritionist. Not only is she a Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jistu, a Yoga Instructor and multi-winner in Bodybuilding competitions, she also works with you to develop meal plans and training programs for all purposes.
I’ve read stories online about coaches that give you a cookie-cutter program filled with tons of cardio, barely eating, and even suggesting harmful substances that might work for the show date, but it will mess with your metabolism and mental health long term. Every body is different and I’m so appreciative of Jennifer being kind and patient throughout the process. Some people may respond to coaches being tougher or stricter, and in the end, it’s about finding someone you feel you trust and works with you to meet you needs.
5. Be patient and find the right time to do this
Most people want results right away. We live in an on-demand world and crave instant gratification. I was that way too, for many years. I would get frustrated spending hours on fitness and not seeing any physical results. Even with this 14 week prep, there were times I barely saw a difference and wondered why I was missing out on delicious chocolate cake when it didn’t seem like my healthy choices even mattered! Well, it’s true what they say about trusting the process. There are a lot of processes happening on a micro scale that you can’t see or measure, but it does all fall into place. I remember my delight at 4 weeks out when I finally noticed a pleasant sight – my rounded shoulder – some arm definition at last! Patience is so key. And also timing. I did consider doing an earlier competition, but I knew that over the Summer I would be traveling around Europe. I ended up going around Italy to the “Fat” Capital of the Country and even spent a morning at Gelato University. There was no way I wasn’t going to experience this Country and its food culture fully. Did I go crazy and have gelato for breakfast? No! But I did try several flavours and enjoyed every moment, while recognizing this meant I would have to adjust my goals from a September competition, to a November competition.
6. Only compare yourself to you
Social media can be a huge source of knowledge and inspiration. We can learn some cool tips, watch videos of what other fitness pros are doing, seek inspiration from those #TransformationTuesday posts and see that real people can make positive changes! But, there’s a dark side. You can start comparing yourself to others in a way that makes you doubt yourself or feel poorly. I’ll admit it. I had that sinking feeling many times. I asked myself, am I crazy for doing this? I despaired at how: those competitors have a 6 pack! I don’t even have morning abs yet! Will I make a fool of myself? Will I become an internet meme for not looking like the others?
What helped me get out of this negative self-talk was that I had a wonderful supportive partner who told me that he was so proud of me for my dedication and commitment to making healthy choices. Which was a great way to frame it and I definitely recommend you all to remind yourself of this (eg. celebrate the process) in whatever you do!
BUT – the best, most single helpful thing? Was looking at pictures of ME.
Seeing where I had come, and how I had improved. Don’t compare yourself to others (easier said than done!!) but the more you repeat this to yourself, the more you will do it and believe this is the only sane way to do it.
My transformation (Halfway into my 14 week prep at 7 weeks out, to 5 weeks, to 2):
7. Be realistic. Recognize that it’s a mental game
So, even armed with the mindset of “I’m only doing this for me!” ‘I’m the best version of myself!” there is also a danger in being naive. It’s true that there may be a moment inevitably, as you’re surrounded in a sea of beautiful women, that you will compare yourself. You might not want to, but they are right in your face! Which leads me to a piece of advice from an experienced competitor – even with the best attitude, you may feel disappointed. Even with the most positive body image, you will compare yourself. Preparation for anything is SO key. You prepare for a job interview. You prepare for a big presentation. You prepare for a wedding speech, and a performance. In bodybuilding, you have been preparing your body through vigorous weight training and incredibly strict dieting. Well, you also need to prepare yourself emotionally for any outcome. Realistically, only a few women can “win” the top call-out. So, in all honesty, I knew I might be standing at the back.
How did I envision I would I feel? Yes we “should” feel proud and not care what happens. But, it’s OK to feel disappointed. It’s wise to recognize that there may be that moment. But, know that may happen, accept it and then move on. Don’t let that consume you. On the flip side, maybe you will win! And that will feel great! But how do you celebrate that without going so extreme? Perfect segue to next point.
8. Recognize Show Day is ONE day
You will look the fittest and be the slimmest you have ever been! However, know that is not sustainable. You’re not going to have an extreme tan that makes your muscles pop every day. You’re not going keep up all that cardio from the last few weeks.
Be OK with knowing that it’s not possible to keep that up, in a healthy sustainable way. Most competitors are at least several pounds heavier outside of competition and that is what normal is. (I asked my coach what was normal, and she said about 5-10lbs).
9. It gets very lonely
Spending hours at the gym to get in your weight training and cardio sessions means time away from other social activities. A lot of social interactions involve food, and since you’re limited in what you can eat, it’s easier to simply make your own food and eat at home. My partner was away for the final 3 out of 4 weeks of prep and to be honest, it was for the best that I was on my own! Every spare moment that I wasn’t at work or at a work-related function, was devoted to the gym or shopping for groceries and then cooking. Normally I’ll organize an annual birthday hike and some activities, including a nice restaurant, but for this year I skipped all of that. I went to the gym a few times with friend which was fun, but most of my workouts were done alone because of my crazy work and volunteer schedule.
10. You can meet some wonderful people along the way!
That last point above was a bit of a downer, but, when you do meet other competitors, you finally feel like you’re understood because this person knows your exact struggle! They have been living in your shoes and grinding out those early morning cardio sessions and staying up late to fit in their workouts. They’ve also been eating a steady diet of white fish and greens, and can relate with you on how tired you are! I met up with Tania, a figure competitor, and we both didn’t bat an eyelash when we had to make modifications on our sushi orders, and we watched each other’s bag when we constantly had to use the ladies’ room during the movies!
I met two other first time competitors, Frances and Stephanie, through my coach Jennifer and it was so fun to talk about some of the foods we missed and were excited to eat again!
11. You learn that you really can do anything you put your mind to, and you can channel that drive and determination towards any future ambition!!!
No need to elaborate on that one!
(But I will anyways! I took that same determination into creating my own events on health and wellness for young professionals this past Summer and Fall!)
- 14 Weeks Out – My Journey to my First Bodybuilding Competition!
- Peak Week – Final Days
- Bodybuilding: the whole series
Please feel free to comment if you have any other comments to add or questions of your own. I’ll document part of my next fitness journey over on instagram – @poymeetsworld and happy to chat here.