Contest Prep, Nutrition, Wellness

Practicing what I preach

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One of the first things we bodybuilders cut out during a prep is alcohol and sometimes it sucks. I was in prep for almost two years straight and it REALLY sucked. Although I would tell myself the standard I don’t need alcohol to have a good time schpiel, I was just really in denial, but my six-pack of abs made up for that. I’ve never been a big drinker, except during my clubbing years but that ended about a decade ago. Even so, it still sucks to cut out booze.

The reason for abstaining is simple: your body processes alcohol in a similar way as it would a super decadent dessert. So two glasses of wine is like a chocolate soufflé AND a slice of cheesecake. If you’re out to dinner and have a nice meal with a couple of drinks and then some dessert, it’s the equivalent of having all of your allotted calories in day in one sitting and then some, which ultimately leads to a plateau in fat loss (or muscle gains). As a result bodybuilders typically cut it all out completely unless it’s offseason, or they swap in booze for a weekly treat meal, which is no fun when you’ve been dieting down and can’t stop thinking about stuffing your face with a bucket of greasy French fries. I’d rather take the food over the drink any day. And so for the longest time, alcohol was a no-go for me and even going drinks with friends was usually my ordering a club soda with a lime wedge.

Last weekend though, I made the exception as a bit of an experiment to see what would happen when I drink during a contest prep. Granted I am still 5 months out, so regardless it’s no big deal. I wanted to see whether or not it actually is possible to keep it balanced and not wake up crazy bloated the next day. You see, I always advocate (as many fitness coaches do) this type of balance for my clients around the holidays or special occasions, when we know there will be good food, good drinks and you’ll definitely want to partake without feeling restricted. So I wanted to practice what I preach to see if it is possible without going overboard, and brother in-law’s 40th birthday bash would be the perfect excuse.

The day started out as a typical Saturday, where I got up at noon, fed my bunnies (pictured below) and sat down to a nice breakfast with a giant mug of coffee and a hilarious book that I could not get enough of. Nutrition-wise I’m pretty much doing macro counting as per my coach’s suggestion, so I made sure that each meal is a solid mix of complex carbs, healthy fats, and lean protein with lots of fiber. I hit the gym in the late afternoon for some serious lifting; back and biceps, which was surprisingly intense despite my ability to only curl a 25lbs barbell for 15 reps at 4 sets. I drank a ton of water all day so I was super hydrated and had another balanced meal before heading out.

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Bunnies!                                                              Breakfast (yum!)

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from this party as I was the youngest there and the only single one in-house. Plus the guest list consisted of couples with young kids who are oh so excited to have a night out without their tornado of toddlers around. Basically I was concerned that I wouldn’t fit in, even though I had already known everyone quite well for many years. What can I say except that I am a super shy introvert with some pretty intense social anxiety; but that’s a story for another day.

I had a rockin time! Seriously, this was the most fun I’ve had in a while and I haven’t partied it up in years, so this was a welcomed change of pace. The great news was that I didn’t overdo it and go on a bender or binge eat the available and yummy junk food, so much to my delight I woke up feeling pretty great the next day. I realized that the strategies of balance really do work here. I had about two drinks (vodka soda, my fave) plus one shot of coconut rum which warmed my tummy up real nice. I only ate about a handful of chips and that was it. About an hour before I headed home I started chugging water like a beast. I think I had about a litre and a half, so I sobered up pretty fast. I got home around 2am, fed my bunnies a late night snack and prepped one for myself too, albeit a totally unbalanced one which consisted of toasted white crusty bread with tons vegan margarine follow by a few bites of chocolate cake and more water. Just to be clear, this snack was for me, not my bunnies; they had wheatgrass. I binged watched a few episodes of The Real Housewives before heading to bed around 5am…although my bunnies were still going strong and hopping around, take about party animals! (see what I did there J)

When I rolled out of bed a few hours later I was thrilled to see that there was no bloating (or hangover!) and that my abs were still intact and very visible (see below). My body responded well to this strategy and it managed to use the extra glycogen towards filling out my muscles nicely and giving me a great post-workout pump when I hit the gym the next day. A real win indeed.

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The moral of the story is that you can have fun AND partake without restricting yourself or doing the opposite and getting excessive. Balance really does work. So the next time you find yourself worried about an upcoming night out, don’t panic and instead try these tried and true strategies on for size:

  1. Eat lots of hearty and healthy food throughout the day
  2. Drink tons of water
  3. Get in a serious gym sesh with lots of heavy lifting
  4. Eat before you leave home
  5. Drink lots of water when you’re done with the booze
  6. Eat a little something greasy before you go to bed
  7. Hit the gym the next day and put that extra glycogen to good use

There you have it. Take it from someone who has spent the last two years being super rigid about diet and exercise and contest prep, this shit works. I’m finally starting to see that you can be a bodybuilder, look awesome while still having a life and an awesome time at that.

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Contest Prep, Wellness

I’m not as healthy as you think

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I had a bit of an epiphany a few days ago. I was speaking with a friend about my New Year’s resolution to get more sleep, and I mentioned that I have been doing the exact opposite. I’m not sure if it’s just resistance on my part or something else entirely, but the bottom line is that I’m actually getting less sleep now than I was last year. As we continued chatting it suddenly hit me…the reason why I’m sleep deprived is because I like it. It sounds twisted (and it probably is), but this whole lack of sleep thing puts me under a bit of extra pressure, and like some, I thrive under pressure. What’s more is that I like the feeling of being under pressure.

It’s pretty common for athletes to burn the candle at both ends, and with an extreme sport like bodybuilding it’s 24/7. The goal with competing is to be the best you can and bring your best to the stage each time and what you put your body through is not even slightly close to the norm. We get up at sunrise for fasted cardio, spent at least an hour and a half weight training each day, eat like we have OCD, drink crazy amounts of water, take massive amounts supplements, cut ourselves off from the outside world for weeks on end, all to be on stage for a few minutes, covered in spraytan and glaze with only a few inches of material covering us up. We are extreme athletes with extreme lifestyles and the truth is you can’t be a “normal person” with this kind of lifestyle.

Bodybuilding puts you into a thrilling (and slightly punishing) state of mind where you’re always pushing more, lifting more and seeing just how far you can take it. In my case, what I’ve noticed is that I love the way it feels to be tired, going to the gym, lifting super heavy and beating my previous week’s PRs. There’s nothing like being exhausted but crushing it anyway. It makes it that much more awesome when I pick up that barbell and knock out some deadlifts like it’s nobody’s business and then up the ante on my next set by adding an extra plate or two. Like I said, it’s a little twisted.

I know this is unhealthy, but bodybuilding in general is pretty unhealthy. There is nothing healthy about dehydrating yourself for several days, or dieting down for months at a time or exercising for 2-3 hours every day, but that’s the nature of the sport and being on stage is pretty addictive. Most people will stop after one show, but for those who stay the course, like me, you get the stage bug and can never seem to shake it. This is what leads to the extreme and the constant need to push yourself further each day.

As I sit hear writing this now, it’s about 1am and my alarm will be going off at 7:30 so I can head out to my day job and then of course hit the gym. This pattern and ritual that have created is probably not one that I can maintain in the long run and it’ll most likely lead me straight to a burn out. But even with all of this logic and awareness, I still consciously choose to keep going. Maybe it’s some weird way of my trying to rebel after spending my life being on the straight and narrow, or maybe it’s about my wanting to be in control of letting myself be a little out of control, or maybe, just maybe I’ve become a glutton for punishment. Again, pretty twisted.

I know how this all started too and what’s triggered this for me. This is the first time in my life that I’m fully on my own. I met my ex-husband when I as 18 and I went straight from my parent’s house to moving in with him years later. I always had some accountability to go to bed at a decent time (although that did change for a few years in my early twenties when I was living it up, going out all the time while still living at home). Overall though, I stuck to a schedule with school and work, and I never really had any kind of big rebellious phase. So maybe this is some kind of early mid-life crisis, and a fairly tame one at that J. This is still a whole new experience for me in that I can hit gym at midnight if I want (and sometimes I do!) or go out and do whatever I want whenever I want. I’m assuming some shrink would probably think that this is a kind of coping mechanism that has to do with partial avoidance (an issue that I’ve been dealing with my entire life), but now it’s only magnified by all of the massive life changes and shitstorm that I’ve gone through over the past two years.

On the bright side, I am fully aware of what I’m doing and that it’s not good, so I think that’s the first step in my being able to work through it and get back into a healthier space. What this is making me realize is just how hard it is to break unhealthy habits. We get real comfortable, real fast with these rituals of ours and it sometimes seems impossible to let them go. The way I see it is that eventually I’ll get my shit together and start getting some real sleep again, but for tonight I think I’ll put on Netflix and watch a little Gilmore Girls instead.

 

Contest Prep

What I wish I had known about competing

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I love competitive bodybuilding. Everything from the training and meal prep to the custom made posing suit and yes, I even enjoy to pre-show skin prep. Taking the decision to compete is a big deal and a big commitment. Even though I had done plenty of research, there were still many surprises things that came my way. So here is my top ten list of things I wish I had known about bodybuilding before my first show.

  1. You have far less muscle than you actually think. Most of us who work out regularly are under the impression that we’re in great shape and have a decent amount of muscle. The reality is that it’s not as much as you think. When you diet down are get your bodyfat real low, then you’ll really know how much (or how little) muscle you actually have, and it’s always a bit of a surprise. I’m not gonna lie, I looked pretty puny the first time around.
  2. Posing is super hard. I’ve written about this many times before, but I can’t stress this point enough. Posing is super technical and it doesn’t come naturally to most unless you have a background in performance arts. It takes countless hours of practice to get it right and for it to look natural. It’s a lot of slow and controlled movements that require some serious physical stamina and strength. I practice for countless hours, took multiple group posing classes and even worked with a posing 1 on 1 just to get it right. Even after 3 shows, posing is still my biggest struggle and it’s what needs the most work.
  3. Show Day is really long. The day seems to go on forever. It’s a lot of hurry up and wait. You rush to get to the venue in the morning for hair and makeup, and then rush to get back stage and then wait. Then you rush to get your spraytan retouched and glazes put on and then rush again to pump and get on stage. You’re on stage for all of 5 minutes, and then you’re done. Hours go by and then it’s the same exact thing for finals. The day is full of buildup and then quiet time and then you’re on stage, and then it’s all over. As exciting as it is to be immersed in a show, sometimes I just can’t wait for the day to be done.
  4. If you can, get a room at the hosting hotel. Like I said, show day is really long so having a room where you can get some downtime in between prejudging and finals is great. If there are any last minute changes or anything urgent that comes up on show day, you’re already there. You don’t have to worry about the logistics or traffic; you’re already on sight so it takes some stress off of you.
  5. Start your water manipulation early. You have to dehydrate yourself before a show, otherwise your hard earned muscle definition won’t show on stage. In order for this to happen safely and effectively, you need to start tweaking your hydration early on. That means training with a neoprene wrap in the months leading up to a show (this wrap makes you sweat more during a workout). Consider sitting in a sauna once a week and drinking dandelion root tea each night. Water-wise what you’ll want to do is gradually increase your intake every few weeks and in the last month you want to be taking in about 6 litres per day. During peak week, if you can drink even more. Then about 2 days out you’ll start dehydrating by cutting your intake in half on the first day, and then dropping it even further the next. On show day you won’t be drinking anything. Yes, it sounds intense and it is, but the dry-mouth isn’t nearly as horrible as others made it out to be. Diuretics are almost always a must, but be careful and opt for something natural like dandelion root which you can take in the weeks leading up to a show without it having any negative side effects on your health. I’ve seen a lot of people backstage practically keeling over from the dehydration because they waited too long and had to take the harsh chemical diuretics that made them sick, so make sure you do this right way.
  6. Low-carb doesn’t work for me. Carbs were super low by the end of my first prep and I came out looking pretty flat on stage. By my third show though, my coach and I had learned what worked best and so we kept the carbs fairly high throughout but dropped the fat intake instead. Not only was my prep a total breeze and free of cravings, but I had never looked better on show day. This may not be the case for everybody though. Other ladies have told me that they go higher on the fat intake instead and still eat lots of nuts and coconut oil right up until the end. So the moral of this story is that what works for one person, may not work for you.
  7. Vivid stress dreams are totally normal. I always have the most vivid stressful dreams about everything going wrong on show day. This has happened to me at the start of every prep. I remember these dreams so clearly even now; I’m running late, I forgot to carb-load and dehydrate, I missed my spraytan appointment, etc. These dreams seem so real that when I wake up, it seriously feels like it actually happened. Apparently this is completely normal and most athletes experience this. So just FYI in case you’re planning on competing.
  8. Be prepared on show day. Have all of your meals prepped and packed, bring some resistance bands or light dumbbells to pump up backstage and have a few backup snacks just in case. But most importantly: as soon as you get to the venue and get to the backstage/athletes area go straight to the spraytan area to find out when they’ll be doing the retouch for your category and putting on your glaze. Also keep an eye on how quickly the show is going and the order of the categories so you don’t miss your call time. I almost missed mine for my first show and having to rush right before stepping onstage was awful. I was so stressed and completely freaked out. I learned my lesson and now as soon as I arrive on sight I go straight to the spraytan area and stay close by just to be safe.
  9. I always lose my appetite immediately after a show. I’m sure you’ve seen people talk about their victory meals or post-show binge fests and although I always plan for some kind of decadent meal, my appetite always tanks. I just don’t want to eat. I can’t explain it, maybe it’s the post-contest blues, but I just don’t feel like eating a victory meal afterward. I still do it anyway, but it’s not as awesome as I thought it would be. I never binge eat because that would just make me horribly sick, but I do have a big meal just cause it’s what you do. I am thinking that for nationals though, I might just forgo it altogether if I’m not feeling it. Why eat something that I don’t even want in the first place?
  10. You get the strangest feeling when it’s all over. The post-contest blues are no joke. For me it starts as soon as I step off step and slip into my sweatpants and start chugging water to rehydrate myself. It gets eerily quiet backstage towards the end. What was once a backstage full of people, commotion and energy becomes this empty space with a few stragglers. The when you get home it’s even more apparent. The silence is almost excessive. When you go from months of build up for one day and then you spend that day surrounded by people with all of this attention on you, coming home to an empty condo is a little overwhelming. The rest and break that you get to take is nice, but it’s also a big period of adjustment in that you’ll suddenly find yourself with plenty of free time.

So there you have it, my list of things I wish I had known before my first competition. I still find myself getting new surprises and takeaways with every show since. Overall though, competitive bodybuilding is the best and it brings me so much joy. If you are looking to step onstage, then I hope you find this helpful and if ever you are looking for a coach, I’m always here.

For information on my coaching services, click here

Contest Prep, Fitness

The illusion of bodybuilding

Bodybuilding is all about creating the illusion of the perfect physique. In reality, there is no such thing as the perfect body, but bodybuilding as a sport allows its athletes to strive for it as closely as possible. Everything is geared towards this from nutrition, exercise, sleep, hydration, supplementation and so on. Bodybuilding is a 24/7 endeavour that, when done properly, will produce that coveted dream body that most of us wish we had year round.

With the Bikini category, the illusion that we are trying to create is one of broad shoulders, small waist, developed glutes, a nice s-curve in the body without a lot of mass or muscle striations. Judges want to see someone lean with lots or definition minus the bulk of traditional bodybuilders. What most athletes will notice as they go through a prep, is that their natural body shape and genetics may not allow for this to happen, so they have to tweak their training to give the illusion of this look. A prime example is for an athlete who doesn’t have a small waist, but  that can build muscle really well to instead focus on building up the glutes and shoulders to create more curve that way, and give the appearance of a small waist by keeping everything in good proportion. For someone like me who is a hard-gainer (gaining muscle is very difficult), I instead would focus on leaning out without losing muscle by doing steady-state cardio for only 20-30 minutes instead of interval training like most athletes will do.

It’s not just exercise either. Nutrition is an exact science when it comes to competing and photoshoots. We tweak our diets every couple of weeks to make constant progress by gradually reducing calories and for many, cutting down carbs and fats. Usually the last phase of contest prep is the toughest where it’s all protein and almost no starchy veg or grains, and very little if any added fat. This is what gets us super lean. It’s what has to be done in order to look the way that we do. The goal with leaning out is to see as much muscle definition as possible and the less body fat you have, the more visible the definition will be. When I say super lean, I mean 8-10% body fat for the ladies and 2-5% for the guys. Just as an FYI, ladies are considered healthy at around 20% body fat and men around 15%. Yes, it’s that low and no it’s not something that can be maintained long term without hitting some serious health risks.

This is what 8% bodyfat and 50% muscle mass looks like:

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In the weeks leading up to the contest we chug water like crazies (about 2 gallons per day), drop the salt intake and start in on the diuretics in order to get as efficient at shedding water as possible. Then about 2 days out water starts being trappered off. This prevents any potential for bloating to once again be able to show as much muscle definition as possible.

Pre-spraytan vs post-spraytan

One thing that most may not take into consideration is posing. Posing will ultimately make or break you. You can hide almost any disproportionate, unsymmetrical or underdeveloped area with the right posing. In back pose, for example, you position yourself to slightly flex (but not squeeze) the glutes in order to make cellulite magically disappear and if your waist isn’t super small, but your back is developed then you can flair out your lats to make it look like you do. The smallest adjustments can have a huge impact. Posing is super technical, we are twisting and tightening certain areas to look a very specific way and show off our best assets. Another example is in front pose where you’re feet are shoulder width apart, toes forward, but you turn your upper body completely to one side and then have to turn your shoulders forward to give your body a lean and curvy look.

 

Then there’s everything else like the spraytan, posing suit, hair and makeup. The spraytan is mandatory FYI, and although up close we look super weird, on stage it’s all good. Without the tan the bright lights will just wash us out and no matter how shredded you are the definition will not show without it. The suit and hair and makeup are all to give us a glamourous look. Up close we look over the top, but on stage it’s a nice and well put together.

Pre-makeup vs post-makeup

 

As I’m sure you can tell by now, everything really is an illusion here. So the next time you find yourself wishing you had rock-hard abs and a cellulite-free tush, just remember the amount of work that goes into it and that your bodyfat has to get super low, but your muscle mass needs to go up (otherwise you’ll just look skinnyfat and puny). I must admit that there really is nothing quite like looking in the mirror and loving how your physique looks, or the way it feels when you place your hands on your belly and feel abs. But I honestly only appreciate it because I know the work that I’ve put into it. It’s not the endgame that matters but the road to it that really allows you to reap what you sow.

 

Contest Prep, Fitness, Nutrition

The Rebound

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Rebounding is just one of those things… after you reach a goal weight or successfully complete a contest prep, the rebound that follows seems to be the natural part of the process. Or is it? What I it were possible to lose weight and actually keep it off for good and maintain your body weight while maybe even improving your body’s composition? And, dare I say, what if you could be stage ready year round? OMG right? There are some things that can be done to make this happen and these mostly come down to one massive concept: mindset.

Mindset is a very tricky thing because it can be used for some really positive things, but it can also stop you right in your tracks without even being aware that you are part of the problem. Losing weight is the perfect example as you have a specific goal in mind, a magical number to reach on the scale or by dress size. that becomes your focus and seeps into all aspects of your life in that you are always mindful of the quality and quantity of food that you are choosing to consume each day and how it will affect your results. The problem usually kicks in after you’ve reached your goal when one of two things happens: either you went too low in calories and/or certain macros for too long, or there is no follow through or maintenance plan in place to help you, well, maintain your physique. Either way your mindset will take a hit once you surpassed your goal. Sometimes it can be by rewarding yourself or celebrating your achievement with food which can lead to a binge that lasts several days, and sometimes it can be the fact that you no longer have a super specific goal to keep you on track and you’re just lost.

One very popular concept floating around, but very rarely being practiced is moderation. So many of us want balance, we want to be able to enjoy foods, eat what we want when we want it. I’ve heard countless say “everything in moderation is key” or “the 80/20 rule is the way to go”, I’ve tried these things and they don’t work and not just for me but for pretty much everybody. Why? because moderation is REALLY hard, much harder than losing weight and cutting out certain foods altogether. The hard truth is that most of us can’t stop at just one or two bites, no matter how well intentioned we are we just don’t have the will power. I can absolutely attest to this. I know that when I taste something really decadent, I am all in and I will eat the entire box of cookies or pizza or mac n cheese (all vegan versions of course, animal based would make me sick!). As much as I wish I could be the type of person that has just a taste and moves on, I’m not and most people are exactly like me. As I mentioned, it can lead to a full on cheat day or binge that can massively impact not only how you look, but your health as well. When you diet down and lose body fat, your metabolism becomes very sensitive and so a sudden increase in calories especial from fat combined with simple carbohydrates will cause an increase in body fat and will ultimately impact your cardiac health too.

Another important factor in all of this is the fact that as humans we are physiologically hard wired to survive no matter what. When we lose weight or try to, our bodies signals to our brains that we may starve, so the next time you do indulge or everything in you is pushing you to eat, eat and eat. This is why it sometimes feels as if we lose control when eating or as if our bodies are trying to fight us. Our bodies aren’t actually fighting us, they are trying to protect us from starvation and ultimately death. That’s all it is, it’s not because we lack self-control or we are weak, it’s just cause we’re all made that way. Again, this is why moderation very seldom works.

This is why so many bodybuilders pack on weight in the week following a show. Everybody has a victory meal; it’s part of the contest process and part of the culture. Most athletes have been low carb and without a treat meal for so long that it’s all they can think about during peak week, so when the show is over they go nuts. I’ve seen people step off stage and run directly to their coach or family member who is waiting for them with a box of donuts. I can understand why and I certainly engage in the victory meal, but I also know that I’m not gonna feel great right after either. I get bloated and heartburn, it’s not good. In the days following the competition, my muscle definition drops and my six pack of abs starts to fade away along with my spraytan. Now most of this is because I rehydrate and so everything plumps up, but some of it is also body fat. If one  cheat meal leads to a day and then a week, well I would definitely gain back some fat.

As a woman, being at 10% body fat over the long term can impact the hormones, so the best way to be “stage ready” long term is to work directly with your doctor and your coach to find the right combination and possible hormone therapy. Yup, that’s right, anything less than 13% will usually cause amenorrea which can lead to osteoporosis and thyroid problems, so it’s very important to work with a doctor here. Now you may not be super shredded all the time because you can’t be depleted of water all the time, so another equally important part of this is to keep your electrolytes in balance by keeping your water intake high while lightly salting all meals and including potassium rich foods in the diet such as potatoes, winter squash, white beans and bananas. That way you won’t hold on to any excess water weight and you won’t be depleted of electrolyte either. The other two big components here are to hit the gym hard and use an extra calories as a means to mass gain and pack on muscle, and obviously to eat quality food that nourishes you, even if that includes sprouted grains waffles with some earth balance and maple syrup 😊

For the non-competitor who recently hit a milestone in their fitness journey and reached their goal weight or finally dropped those last 5 pounds, the a great option to making it last is the reverse diet. Essentially you will be slowly adding in calories back into your diet usually on a weekly basis. How much to add can be tricky to figure out so it may be best to consult with a nutrition coach for help with this one. Usually a couple extra hundred calories will do the trick so long as all meals are balanced and you are still working out hard. If you are going to have some treats, as a rule of thumb stay away from refined sugars and starches and opt for something that may be a bit easier for your tummy to digest. One thing that’s easy to incorporate is switching to whole grains whether it’s flours in baking, past or bread, that alone will help you get in extra fiber and micronutrients.

Having the right mindset is the difference between just reaching your goal and moving beyond that goal. Just remember that it doesn’t have to be this horrible fight with yourself; it doesn’t have to be this big struggle where you have to be super strict for the rest of your life. Change your mindset and start seeing the reality that food is here to nourish you and that’s all, the fact that it tastes great is just the added bonus.

If you liked this article, be sure to check out my Summer Special for the month July!

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