athletes · body image · competition

So You Want to Be a Fitness Model or Competitor?

absFirst a disclaimer: I’m not a fitness model or a competitor, and I don’t want to be. But if the 2000 or so hits a month on our last post about fitness models is any indication, lots of people do have an interest and maybe even want to try it.  Last week, someone posted a comment asking for advice. I’m not a well of information, but I’ve  heard enough different perspectives since that post back in February 2012 that it’s time for a follow-up.

The gist of my original post was that fitness models and fitness figure competitors may look amazing, but their path to getting to that look is far from healthy.  I based my comments on  articles I’d read (including this one) and from my friend Shay’s experience of contest prep.  Neither the woman interviewed in the article nor Shay who competes think that the challenges of achieving that competition-ready or photo-shoot ready body are a reason not to go for it.  They both experience rewards.

But neither claimed it was healthy.  And so the paradox: to look like the picture of fitness you need to compromise your health.  That’s not necessarily a reason not to go for it, but it’s perhaps a reason to re-think our idea of what a “fit” or “healthy” body looks like.

Of course, there were dissenters. A couple of women commented with quite different experiences. Abby said:

I’ve been competing/modeling since 2008 and tinkered with different methods. Ultimately, most show preps should only last 12-16 weeks max and most people don’t cut out cheat meals until they’re about 4-6 weeks out. It would be too restrictive otherwise. Additionally, a good nutritionist would not make the diet quite that restrictive for the entire prep because it’s too hard on your body and is a VERY tough pill to swallow emotionally. You have to adjust gradually and shift your food list as the weeks pass. Where you deplete carbs, you generally up your fats so you have an energy source.

As for me, I eat 1400-1600 calories (6 meals per day) when I’m closer to a show. When I first start out to cut bodyfat, I’m closer to the 1800 range and feel very powerful in my training. I lift during my lunch hour and do 30-45 minutes of cardio after work. Home by 6:30 or 7, and I have the night off in front of the TV. I feel great. It took a few years of experimenting but I look and feel healthy. The last month of a show is more restrictive but I definitely don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything in terms of fast food or anything at the moment.

And she commented on my friend Shay’s experience that in the weeks immediately preceding a competition, life gets really hard. Shay said, “I usually am at 1200-1400 calories during off season just to maintain (which is about 25 lbs over what I should be on stage) and then at about 800 calories in the final stretch, working out twice a day for around 4 hours.  everyday.  I do a lot of crying and very little sleeping.” To that, Abby commented:

1200-1400 cals in an offseason is ridiculous (unless she’s like 4’10). You can’t build muscle in your offseason if you aren’t eating, especially if you don’t put carbs back in the mix. Additionally her base metabolic rate is likely in the 1200-1400 calorie range as-is– so the reason she feels like crap is she’s in full-blown ketosis (she’s eating less than she burns naturally + with exercise.) Keto diets, while effective, make you feel fuzzy in the head and weak.

If you do a bad show prep plan, you’re at the risk for adrenal fatigue, hypothyroidism, sleeplessness, constipation, missed periods, low energy, headaches, dizziness, etc. I’m sure it’s different for body builders but as far as bikini and figure competitors, you shouldn’t feel bad. You should feel good. A little physically tired towards the end, maybe, but good. Miserable shouldnt be in in your lexicon. I think that the competitor interviewed had a terrible coach. I have my 13th show in 3.5 weeks and I feel fabulous.

Note her last point:  she feels fabulous.  Another commenter had a similar positive experience. She objected to my post because it seemed discouraging to people who might want to compete:

I personally think that this post is really discouraging for those who actually want to become involved in this sport. I have been training since Novemebr for a show that I competed in my first show May and place 2nd. I am now training for a show on August 17, 2013. I have really enjoyed my journey, and look forward to taking this level of fitness as far as I can.

My couch always says “It’s all mental”, and it’s a “life-style” change. So if someone if telling you that it’s hard, and miserable, then that’s what you’re going to set your mind to believe. I would like to say that it’s an awesome and life-changing experience, just to know that you can transform your body into looking fit and feeling great without fad-diets and surgery, is a reward in itself. I’m actually going to look into becoming a personal trainer, to “motivate” all who want to have a life of health and reach their fitness goals.

My friends and family are so supportive and encourage me to keep up the good work. I have inspired many of my friends and family to change their life-styles as well. So I see nothing bad about this journey.

In short this is an AMAZING experience!!!!

Clearly, not everyone has a thoroughly negative experience. The post was never meant to discourage people, though I can see how someone might take it that way. It was more about the realities of achieving a certain aesthetic.  Most competitors will agree that their competition-ready body isn’t the same as their year-round body.  So in that sense, what we see on competition day or in the photo-shoot is not sustainable all the time.

And it would be unrealistic to think that it’s easy to get to that level of muscularity and low body fat. As with any physically demanding activity that you take to the level of competition, training for “game day” can be grueling.  It’s not all fun and leisure. In a way, that’s what distinguishes those who dabble from those who compete.

The question remains: is there a healthy way to get there if you do wish to compete?  There’s a great article by natural body builder Krista Schaus (Precision Nutrition coach) called, “Healthy Contest Prep–An Oxymoron?”  In it she argues that it is absolutely possible to prep for competitions in a healthy way. The key, she says, is to develop a new goal: always be 3-6 weeks away from being contest-ready. That’s year round–3-6 weeks away.

Besides that it feels good to maintain a high level of leanness and muscularity year round, prepping from that place is also much easier on the body:

When you’re training year-round and staying “3-6 weeks away,” your preparation phase is much less stressful on the body.

Think about it, if you only have 10-15lbs to lose for a competition it takes much less time (and much less of a huge lifestyle overhaul) than if you have to lose 30-40lbs for that competition.  The negative energy balance doesn’t have to be as great.  So, you can keep eating lots of nutrient rich foods while simply cleaning up the diet and ramping up the exercise program.

What she’s claiming is: there is a right way to do it. It doesn’t need to be soul-destroying:

In the end, it seems to me that a lot of gym folks treat physique competition like recreational runners treat their local marathon.  It becomes a holy grail of sorts.

In establishing this milestone goal, they forget that before rushing headlong into such an event, there’s some stuff to do.  Some self-exploration is required.  Some expert advice is to be sought out.  And some serious sacrifices have to be made along the way.

So if you’re thinking about competing in your first physique contest – or your first powerlifting meet – or your first marathon… “just do it.”  One caveat, though.  Do it right!

If you don’t do it right, you might end up with metabolic damage. And that’s no fun for anyone. As Scott Abel, expert on metabolic damage says, “Trust me when I say if you ever have to experience the emotional pain of metabolic damage, no contest and no degree of leanness will ever have been worth it.”

There are different ways to do it right. But as with any training, it’s best to be informed and seek the help and guidance of experts. It’s definitely not the case that everyone ends up miserable and everyone ends up damaging their metabolic health. If you set fitness modeling, or figure and body-building competitions as your physical challenge, make sure you do your research and adopt a plan that, while pushing you to your physical limits, won’t compromise your longer term health.

14 thoughts on “So You Want to Be a Fitness Model or Competitor?

  1. Really interesting post thank you. Although I would never be one to compete, I do struggle with this concept of being super-fit year-round. i think most of us think we need to stay the same size all the time, but it’s hard not to have some down time, so when we don’t, we give ourselves a hard time. What I’m taking away from this is, everyone needs downtime and those models who inspire us have those size-ups and downs throughout the year too…it should be expected and we need to cut ourselves some slack. Anyway, thanks!

  2. Anyone who can remain 3-6 weeks out year round is clearly not an academic (except Leslie Heywood, who is a genetic miracle). Not to mention, it means no Indian, no brownies, and no extended travel or travel in foreign countries, where gyms and cottage cheese are unavailable. What it means is that to have a healthy contest prep, you have to give up many of life’s pleasures.

  3. Anyone who can remain 3-6 weeks out year round is clearly not an academic (except Leslie Heywood, who is a genetic miracle). Not to mention, it means no Indian, no brownies, and no extended travel or travel in foreign countries, where gyms and cottage cheese are unavailable. What it means is that to have a healthy contest prep, you have to give up many of life’s pleasures.

    1. I wonder how much genetics come into play. As with all things, some people have an easier time of it than others because of the way their body is. No one size fits all.

  4. I appreciate hearing from competitors who have found ways to pursue this without wrecking their bodies. I don’t find a lot of appeal in bodybuilding/figure modeling, but that’s mostly a matter of personal taste. I know I do certain things that a lot of other people have been very vocal about finding utterly dreadful, so I bring an attitude of “you do you” to this.

    What does concern me is how it seems like a lot of people who get into these pursuits end up doing some serious damage to their bodies and minds. I’ve been very happy to see more and more competitors and coaches speaking out against the damaging diet-and-exercise routines that a lot of other people seem to feel are essential for success in this field. I still get that there are a lot of sacrifices to be made by competitors but it’s one thing to make sacrifices. It’s another thing entirely to destroy your body.

  5. I am very diligent with weight training and if I could force myself on a starvation 1200 cal per day, I could probably compete. However, I don’t know if the yo yo dieting is good for you and a very low BF% would be imposible for me to maintain. I have tried low cal diets in the past and was not able to maintain them, I was always hungry, cold, and cranky, plus, I am not a fan of extreme spray tans and endless cardio. In addition, weight flactuations are bad for skin elasticity.

    At 50 years old, I am 57-58 kg, which is a healthy weight, 5.4 with a 18% BF, I was able to maintain this for almost 2 years without starvation or cardio. I can rock a bikini and skinny jeans AND I eat clean/healthy without starving. At the moment I am trying to add more muscle mass, especially on my legs and as any bodybuilder will tell you, you cannot add mass on a starvation diet.

  6. The thing is, you sure can do physique competition and not endanger yourself. But it’s EASY to do so. If you’re just training to get stronger and you don’t know what you’re doing, you will probably just stall out or sustain some injury if you’re enough of an idiot about it. Not eating adequately and draining the hell out of your nervous system via adrenal fatigue through whatever conditioning you’re doing is tremendously hard on the body. It’s not a position I will ever put myself in again after being anorexic for nearly a third of my life. I am MUCH happier pursuing my sport. And I know a lot of former physique enthusiasts who switched over to powerlifting because of this issue and a host of others.

      1. hmm, in what way? Some people in the sport DEFINITELY aren’t but have serious strides by being involved in it for over a decade. Some people have, well, moderate genetics. A very few are gifted. I bet you could do just fine at it barring any mobility-challenging injuries you might have had at some point that would prohibit you from, say, squatting to depth.

  7. I used to squat and deadlift but my sciatica started playing up, plus, my genetics would be below average.

  8. I am not a bodybuilder or model of any sort, although I weight train 5 or 6 times a week for about an hour, but also usually do alot of cardio and interval training as well. So much of what I say here I’ve been told by bodybuilders. Most bodybuilders do not stay 3 to 6 weeks from competition weight year round. Not even close. Also, almost all bodbuilders juice. Without the juice, it would be much more difficult to get into competition shape (much less compete at all). Some raw vegans believe that on their diets, you could potentially remain 6 weeks away from competition weight but that would be extreme even for them. There is much debate on the best manner of getting into competition shape. Most calorie-restrict to do so, and this can and does cause matabolic damage. Unless you’re going to become a raw vegan apparently, and stay all year round only 6 weeks from competition weight, you almost have to calorie-restrict to some degree. And you have to live a very strict, regimented life to be a bodybuilder of fitness model in the first place. It might be “right” for some people, but it does require you to live in a somewhat anti-social manner or at least otherwise find a community of very like-minded friends, which is not really that easy to do. Again, it might be right for some people, but it’s a very different life, and a very regimented one, to be sure.

  9. Honest, I don’t even find it enjoyable reading blog posts about how bodybuilders or simply fit women body competitions, have to change their diet to noticeably low calorie levels and exercise routine close to competition.

    I totally agree that competition prep. really would require staying close to home or in familiar surroundings and access to known foods….it is a type of “learning” mentally (to me), that seems confining. Ok, for a few years. But only that.

    Life is SO much more than watching food consumption calories so closely, etc.

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