In the Spring of 2016 I set a goal to compete in my first-ever natural body building competition. It was something that I had contemplated for years. I earned my degree in Health and Human Kinetics and I found the science behind fitness incredibly fascinating. It would be accurate to call me a fitness nerd. Finally, in 2016, I had the chance to compete. After being an avid weightlifter for years, it was time to get lean enough to compete in the extreme world of body building and apply my passion of the sciences. For 12 weeks I prepped for the competition, following a strict diet and weight lifting schedule.
The process of becoming a body builder was empowering. Going to the gym and lifting weights made me feel like a lion: powerful, strong, and confident. It was incredible how my body would change every week, with every progress photo. I felt a sense of pride as I became stronger and could lift heavier weights than ever before. Each week I would grow more excited to compete, and passionate about all that I was learning through the process. If you've been to the free-weight section in a gym, you have probably overheard a man grunt while lifting really heavy weights, and then proceed to drop the weights to the floor, and growl as if they were a proud bear who had just killed its prey. That's how I felt. For the first time in my life, I understood why they did that: it felt good to be powerful.
During these 12 weeks I began a ‘cut’ in my diet, in order to lower my body fat down from 20% to about 9%. Keep in mind that "healthy" for women is between 20-30%. The diet was pretty miserable. Each week my diet shaved off calories, starting at 2,000 calories per day and slowly whittling down to about 1,600 to ensure I would become more lean, to show muscle definition. Which meant that I was hangry most of the time.
One common misconception is that body builders are incredibly fit and incredibly healthy. While the sport generally does attract athletic, healthy people, body building is not about having the healthiest lifestyle- it’s about having extremely low body fat for aesthetics. In order to achieve that goal, the body must dip below the "healthy" line of body fat percentage. During the 'cut' strength is lost, because of the diet. At some point during the prep (for me this was around week 7), competitors become increasingly weaker as they become more lean and lose more energy. Workouts become more challenging as the body struggles to keep up with meeting the demands that are placed upon it, with increasing fewer calories to do so. Paradoxical to what most believe, competition day is the peak of physical weakness for a competitor, as they are at their lowest calorie consumption and thinnest physique.
As soon as a competition is over, people regain weight, their strength, and become healthy and fully functional again. Many people refer to body building as physique modeling, which might be a better title, considering that there is no "performance" piece involved in a competition. During a competition the competitors walk on a stage to be judged on their appearance: muscle definition, skin tone, and stage presence (smiling, posing, exuding confidence).
While the process was empowering, it wasn't always fun. My brain and body began feeling the impacts of the training and diet. I began having a fuzzy short term memory. This caused annoyances, like forgetting my gym shoes, or putting my coffee mug on top of my car and driving away with it still up there. But I did learn quiet a lot during those 12 weeks, that any person can apply to their goal-setting, and I'll share them with you here. My hope is that you can learn through my experience and reach your goals most efficiently:
1. DIET IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WORKING OUT.
If you only have time for either diet or exercise, focus on your diet. What you eat has a huge impact on the way you feel, the energy you have, and the way your body looks. If you’re not sure where to start with diet, that’s OK. I recommend checking reading this about the foundations of diet. When I cut down to extremely low body fat percentage, I was shocked how easy it was to see the effects of food on my body.
One thing that surprised me when I was preparing for my competition was that 1 large meal outside of my diet could dramatically change my body! My body fat percentage could go up 0.5-1% just from eating a high fat meal- which is a lot! To give you an idea of what this means; on a strict diet, it takes about a week (or more) to loose 1% of body fat. So ONE meal that is higher in calories could be an unfortunately large setback. Now- for the average person, working towards regular weight loss goals, the results of a cheat meal is not going to be NEARLY as dramatic, so don't get nervous if you have some meals that fall out of your normal guidelines. As long as you're consistent most of the time, you're going to continue to make progress toward your goal
2. ACCOUNTABILITY IS KEY FOR SUCCESS.
Reaching a fitness goal is challenging. Having a coach, team, or workout buddy can keep you on track during the hard times. It can also provide you with the structure, skills, and support you need. Most people don’t have every single skill they need to be successful on their own. They might be really good at working out and really good at avoiding soda on weekdays, but maybe not so good at avoiding cookies at work or designing a weight lifting routine. Having accountability will not only keep you on track for your goal, but will provide you with the tools you need in order to make it to the finish line. During my competition preparation, I worked with a coach and we checked in every Saturday for 12 weeks. Her encouragement, guidance, and structured plans helped me rest assured that I was on track with my goal. Without her accountability, there would have been times that I skipped workouts or bailed on my diet. I am disciplined by nature, but there were days where I was ready to throw in the towel, and the only thing that kept me on track was knowing that I’d have to email her.
3. HAVING VISIBLE ABS = NOT WORTH IT!
I’m 100% serious. I made it to my goal of competing, (and one of my secret, embarrassing/ vain goals of wanting to see my abs), but I was miserable! Some women can see their abs at low body fat, but many probably never will. I had to get down to about 10% body fat before my abs were visible, and the diet and exercise that were required to get to that point were insane. The body looses functionality as the body fat gets extremely low. Women stop getting periods, and their body begins shutting down. I felt exhausted, emotional, and had trouble thinking clearly. That’s a pretty high price to pay to see abs, so set realistic expectations for your end goal.
4. GOALS WILL REQUIRE SACRIFICE.
This is a no-brainer, but I think often times the idea of sacrifice isn’t something that is talked about when someone sets out to achieve a goal. I know many people who have excitedly set out to “lose 20 pounds before vacation” but don’t put any thought into what they will have to give up long-term in order to make that happen. Then, about 5 days into the plan, reality settles in, and they fall off track when they discover the sacrifices it would take to stay on course. It is helpful to be realistic with yourself and list out the sacrifices that will be required in order to accomplish your goal before you start. For my competition prep, I knew I would need to spend 90 minutes a day at the gym, another 30 minutes a day prepping, logging, and weighing my food. That meant giving up time with my friends, going to the gym on my lunch break, and eating pretty bland food for 3 months. I was ready to make those sacrifices and commit to the long term goal. I grieved the loss of good tasting food the first week, and then I got over it and settled into a new normal.
5. TRACK YOUR PROGRESS AND CELEBRATE IT.
There will be many days when you feel like you aren’t making progress. Results take awhile to see, and because of that, it’s important to measure and track your results every week. Maybe you can’t see any changes in your size when you look in a mirror, but the scale tells you that you’re down half a pound. Long term goals can take an agonizingly long time to become visible. But seeing even the smallest changes and celebrating that landmark is important to stay motivated. During my prep I measured results in 4 ways: weight, body fat %, inches, and progress photos. After a few weeks I could begin to see results in my progress photos and could feel the body fat decrease in my mid-section. On days when I couldn't see any progress in the photos, I'd look at the inches or the body fat % and there was usually some sign of progress within the data!
There you have it! I hope that you can learn from my experience.
While I don't plan on competing ever again, I am grateful for the lessons that I learned, and still really enjoy going to the gym to lift and feel empowered.
Enjoy your journey!
Aimee Frazier is the owner of Emerge Health Coaching. Her goal as a coach is to empower individuals with the tools and resources needed to live their healthiest life. Aimee has her B.S. degree in Health and Human Kinetics. When she's not working she loves getting outdoors to hike, kayak, and run.