Why I Quit Competitive Bodybuilding

IFBB Muscle Contest, Sept 2018

Hello friends! Yes, it’s true… after 2 1/2 years of meticulously keeping track of every gram of protein I ate and every pound of weight I lifted, I decided it was time to hang up the crystal high heels and retire from the sport of competitive bodybuilding.

Why??? Why would I quit when I just turned Pro??? I mean, I can make money now…

Lol.

But seriously, to help us all understand why I decided to quit, it’s important to understand why I began in the first place. And let me preface this whole thing by emphasizing that I had the best coach I could have asked for or even imagined. Cherish Hunter of Next Level Bikini Prep was my true angel in this whole journey, and without her I’m sure I would have never stepped on stage at all. She kept me healthy, she kept me sane, and she guided me with wisdom, grace, and humour on this path of physical and spiritual transformation. I will be forever grateful to her. I seriously hope that someday we can meet in person and laugh about life over one or 3 glasses of wine!

At age 46, I’d been fit and active most of my life. But I wanted to see how far I could take it, IF I had the discipline and strength of mind to whip my little ol’ mom-bod into stage-ready condition. (I actually had no idea what it was really going to take, but I was up for the challenge.) I’d been fascinated with the sport for awhile, and bottom line, I just wanted to see if I COULD.

Left: my first progress pic, Nov 2016. Right:ANB Universe, October 2017

Turns out, I COULD! I was good at it, and I LOVED IT. I embraced every aspect of this extreme sport: lifting hard & heavy in the gym, managing my nutrition intake tightly, following my coach’s instructions to the letter, and surprisingly enough, even the stage presentation on show day. You would think that prancing around in a tiny bikini in front of a panel of judges and a room full of spectators would be a bit daunting, but to me it was an exhilarating high, the thrill of a lifetime. We were always coached to “Smile!!!”… And, “Act happy!!”… but for me, it was genuine- I couldn’t NOT smile, I actually was thrilled to be on stage.

For me, being on stage was the ultimate reward

Bodybuilding was a perfect fit for me and something that felt like mine. Everything about this sport suited me: the extreme discipline required, the meticulous records to be kept (both with food and in the gym), the feeling of control over my body, the science of physiology, and the beauty of muscles revealed.

The night before IFBB Muscle Contest, when my muscles were full of carbs!

In my 2 seasons and 3 shows, I won 4 gold medals, 1 silver, 3 bronze (1 in the Pro show), and professional status. Not too bad for a 48-year old mom of 3 teenagers!

ANB Universe 2018, where I won my Pro card

I honestly thought I would be in this sport until my old bod couldn’t take it anymore.

But I began to see another layer that wasn’t quite fitting with who I was or what I wanted to represent. (It’s very possible that I changed along the way, and that would be a good thing too.) I began to feel incongruity between the lifestyle & values I felt like needed to embrace to succeed in bodybuilding, and my own values, the way I want to live my life, and the message I want to embody not only as a dietitian and health professional, but also as a mom.

At the top is that bodybuilding is a subjective sport based solely on physical appearance. It’s all about aesthetics. And it never claims to be anything else. To be successful in this sport, it’s necessary to achieve super-low levels of body fat (most bikini competitors hit the stage at around 9-10%- for comparison, essential body fat to sustain a menstrual cycle is usually 12-13% and normal for women is somewhere around 25-30%.)

Late August 2018, about 2 weeks before Muscle Contest

So I found myself walking around in a body that represented an unrealistic and unsustainable ideal, not a healthy norm. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the look of my muscles rippling under my skin. I found it fascinating to see the lines & striations that I knew existed in anatomy books but I’d certainly never seen on my own body. In some ways I couldn’t believe what I’d actually achieved! It seemed unreal. And in some ways, it was. The measures I’d taken to achieve this look were difficult & extreme (more on that later) and definitely unsustainable. Yet I got so many compliments on my “transformation” from people who, not knowing what it took to get here, had the idea I intended to maintain my new physique indefinitely. That’s when it began to hit me that I was sending a mixed message with my look: that it was possible, sustainable, & desirable to walk around with super-low body fat, even while I verbalised that this physique was only for the stage. But I discovered that it didn’t matter what I said… I realised that I was unwittingly promoting this look to my community… and to my daughters. Not what I’m ultimately going for. I don’t want my girls, (or anyone!) to think that this is how women should look, or how they should look. I get it that it’s a sport, but it’s a powerful image, and I want our lives to be about so much more than physical appearance.

Point number 2: prep is HARD!! And not just physically, though that is a big part of it. The body doesn’t like getting below a certain percentage of body fat, and fights against it. So, as happens for every competitor, as the show date got closer, we had to keep reducing calories and increasing cardio for me to keep losing weight. We got the results all right, but at the cost of my sleep and energy. Having low body fat and an ongoing calorie deficit promotes hormonal changes that disrupt the sleep cycle, and I regularly had 2am wake-ups after only sleeping 5 hours. It seemed unfair to me that just when I needed sleep the most (not only to give me energy, but also to pass time until I could eat again, haha), it was elusive.

3 days before IFBB Muscle Contest… this was a day I felt very depleted

And it wasn’t so much that I felt hungry, I just felt exhausted. The thought of doing anything past 7pm other than being in my pajamas was overwhelming, and I missed out on countless social occasions. But more than that, I found I had little to give to my family during the last several weeks before each show. I was tired and irritable, unable to offer my kids & husband the support I normally did. I became a taker. My family gave to me, for a loooong time! It was a beautiful thing and I felt so supported. But I don’t want something in my life that makes me inherently self-focussed.

My beautiful fam… so grateful for each one of them!

Point number 3: with so many external regulations on my food intake, I forgot how to trust (or even hear!) my internal cues of hunger and fullness. During my whole first year of building, I ate in a caloric surplus to the tune of 2600 calories a day. That meant that every day, I ate past my “full” signal. It didn’t matter that I’d had enough, I needed to clean my plate and hit those calorie goals. And then when it came time to diet and calories were reduced, I couldn’t eat every time I was hungry. Nor could I always eat until I was full. No going back for seconds! I just ate according to my set calorie level. I learned to ignore my internal cues to the point where after the show, it was difficult to hear them again.

In the 8 or so weeks since my decision to stop training for the competitive stage, I’ve been practicing “intuitive eating” a lot. This means not weighing my food, not tracking it in my app, just eating according to my (very tiny, but growing louder) cues about hunger and fullness. I’m slowly learning to trust my body again to eat the right amount. I don’t have all the rules & restrictions around food that I used to have, and it feels good.

Tacos! From the little taqueria in Steamboat… sooo good!!

Sooo, looking at all these reasons I’ve given up the stage, I have to ask myself: do I regret doing it in the first place? NOT ONE BIT. I wouldn’t trade my time in competitive bodybuilding for the world. Being involved in this sport for so long helped me grow in ways I didn’t even know I needed to. I feel like I know myself better, I know in my heart that I have the discipline and mental toughness to do whatever hard thing comes along, and at the same time, I’m much more gentle with myself, if that makes sense. All these good things came from pushing my limits in this sport. I’m so happy I did it, and I’m proud of myself too. And so with deep satisfaction, I can put away that tiny little bikini and move on to the next thing. What that is, I’m not sure! But stay tuned, friends! Life is an adventure and good things are coming.

Sunrise… bringing a new day

Does Looking Fit Mean You’re Fit?

Does having a fit-looking body mean you’re fit on the inside? I wanted to find out…

Before I began bodybuilding 2 years ago, I followed a 95% plant-based diet (no animal products) and bootcamp circuit training comprised the majority of my workouts. I was healthy and fit. Now, although I still eat plenty of fruits, veggies, grains, nuts & seeds, I also include animal protein in my diet, and my protein intake is much higher than it used to be.  And my workout routine has changed pretty drastically… I still do the bootcamp training but I also lift heavy weights 5 days a week. I still feel healthy and fit.

But I’ve wondered how the bodybuilding lifestyle affects my overall health. For instance, did being in a caloric deficit for 5 months to achieve a very low percent body fat have any detrimental effects on my body? 

I decided to find out, by doing some blood work and also a DEXA Scan 

A DEXA (Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry) scan uses x-ray technology to determine the distribution of muscle, fat, water and bone in your body.

It works by passing two very low dose x-ray beams at differing energy levels through the tissues of the body. The amount of radiation that passes through the tissue is measured by a detector. This is linked to a computer program which then determines how much of your tissue is muscle, fat, water, or bone… and where it’s all stored.

DEXA scanning is available throughout the US and in many other parts of the world.  There are 3 locations right here in Manila that do it!

Who should be interested in their body composition (and not just %body fat, but also lean mass and bone density)? Well, we all should, but especially people who fall into higher-risk categories for low bone mass and osteoporosis, such as:

  • Female and older than 65
  • Female, pre-menopausal, and:
    • with an irregular menstrual cycle due to heavy exercise or low body fat
    • taking progesterone birth control for more than 5 years
  • Female, menopausal or post menopausal and:
    • Under the age of 45
    • Under the age of 65 with other risk factors
    • Not taking estrogen
    • Over 5 feet 7 inches tall
    • Weigh less than 125 pounds
  • Male and older than 70
  • Male and have clinical conditions associated with bone loss
  • Broken a bone over the age of 50
  • Lost more than an inch of height
  • Unexplained back pain
  • Personal or family history of:
    • Hip Fracture
    • Smoking
    • Osteoporosis
  • Uses medications that are known to cause bone loss (including corticosteroids such as Prednisone, various anti-seizure medications such as Dilantin and certain barbiturates or high-dose thyroid replacement drugs)
  • Type I diabetes, liver disease or kidney disease
  • Thyroid condition, such as hyperthyroidism.
  • Parathyroid condition, such as hyperparathyroidism.
  • Experienced a fracture after only mild trauma.
  • X-ray evidence of vertebral fracture or other signs of osteoporosis
  • Heavy drinker

I had a DEXA scan about 7 years ago, as a regular part of an executive check-up. Those results showed that my bone density was a bit decreased, likely due to my progesterone injection. I was advised to do “weight-bearing exercise” and take a break from the injection. I did both of those things, so I was eager to see how my results had changed.

It was easy to schedule the DEXA scan (first-come basis at a walk-in clinic in the upper level of a mall north of Makati), and the whole process was very easy & non-invasive. First of all I filled out a medical & lifestyle questionnaire to give the doctors info on any bone breaks, family history of osteoporosis, my diet/exercise routine, medications, and other factors that could affect bone density. 

I changed into a gown and laid on this scanning table. The tech adjusted my body symmetrically under the scanner, and then a scanning arm passed over me several times. It wasn’t noisy or uncomfortable in any way; in fact, I think I fell asleep! The whole thing took about 20 minutes. 

My results were emailed to me the next day. 

Apparently, my bone density hasn’t changed much in the past 7 years (my spine is good, but my hips are a bit lower than expected for my age) despite all the heavy weight-lifting I’ve been doing. I’m concerned about this and I would have liked to consult with the doctor about it, which is in fact part of the testing protocol. Unfortunately the consulting doctor’s office hours are limited to 2 hours twice a week, making the execution of this difficult.

So I settled for reading my results/assessment email, which advised me to “implement weight-bearing exercise”… um, hello?! I guess no one actually read my information sheet or they would know I’m already doing this. I’m not sure why I spent so much time filling out paperwork with detailed lifestyle information if the doctor wasn’t going to use it to correlate my results.

But given that my weight-lifting routine is likely adequate, there must be additional steps I can take to improve my bone density, and I plan to follow up with my own doctor as soon as possible to discuss it.

What really surprised me, though, were my body composition results: 27% body fat!!!

Really??!

This scan was done just shy of 3 weeks after winning my Pro card in the ANB Universe Bodybuilding competition, where I estimate my body fat was around 10-12%, which is common for most women in my category.

I confess I did gain 3 kg between show day and “DEXA day”… but even if I gained all of that weight in body fat (not considering hydration or glycogen repletion), I would still be just 15-16% body fat on scan day.  

Not 27%. 

It’s not even close to being within the 5% margin of error. So again, I wish I’d been able to follow up with the doc in person to discuss my results rather than just read on the assessment email about my need for a “meal plan.” Haha, if only he knew!

So that leads me to ask: is DEXA scanning the best way to assess body composition?  It’s supposed to be the “gold standard” of body composition analysis, better than skinfold measurements, bioelectrical impedance (i.e., Tanita-type scales) or even displacement methods (BodPod, hydrostatic weighing). And usually, it is… the science behind DEXA is valid.  But for some reason, this day I got results that were an anomaly. I’m not sure why… again, I didn’t get to consult with the doc (& this is usually part of the testing protocol).  Maybe there was tech error, I don’t know.

But at the end of the day, I truly believe that knowing your body fat percent exactly isn’t paramount to maintaining good health. I can look in the mirror and see that my body fat is just fine. Maybe that’s the best test of all!

So my advice about the DEXA scan is this: it’s useful to assess bone density, especially for those of us who fall into one of the high-risk categories… and really, who doesn’t? The science and methodology are valid, and even considering the margin of error, the scan will give you enough information to take steps in a positive direction regarding your bone health. And preserving our bone health and mobility as we age is vitally important to maintaining our independence.

But I’m not sure I would use DEXA for body composition analysis.  Not only were my results invalid that day, but the margin of error (even for valid tests) is too great to provide really helpful information.  For example, what if I’d had valid test results that showed I was 15% body fat? Given that even a valid test has a 5% margin of error, I could be as low as 10% or as high as 20%.  20% is a good level of general fitness for a female… 10% is show-ripped.  It’s a huge difference!

The best use of body composition analysis is to track it frequently (like monthly) to see trends and changes over time.  Honestly, given the cost of DEXA scanning, I probably wouldn’t do it more than twice a year… not often enough to be useful.

I’ll just stick with the good ol’ mirror test!

I also did blood work to see if I was depleted in any way after all the dieting. My most recent test was last May at the end of my improvement season, when I was eating 2400 calories per day of whole, unprocessed foods such as lean proteins, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and nut butters. My results at that time were phenomenal… even with my higher protein intake, my total and LDL (bad) cholesterol were so low my docs could hardly believe it.

While nothing was drastically different this time around, I was surprised to find out that, even after all this dieting, my cholesterol was slightly HIGHER than before!  It’s still well within normal limits, but my LDL and total cholesterol bumped just a bit.   

The chocolate cake! We ate this the very day after my show.

But thinking back on my food intake over the past 3 weeks, I probably should have done the blood work when I was actually still dieting! Instead, it came in the aftermath of my post-comp food fest!  By test time I had eaten most of the 18 things on my “Things I Wanna Eat” list that I made during a long evening of hunger 9 days before the show (see below). These yummy treats are the stuff that dieter’s dreams are made of (literally!)… but NOT what you want to be eating for optimal cholesterol levels:

So it’s a good thing my post-show cravings have tailed off and I’m back to my regular diet that keeps me “healthy as a horse.” And I was happy to see that all my other levels (thyroid and hormone levels) were within normal limits.  So even if they were slightly off during the last stages of prep, 3 weeks of resuming my normal calorie level brought everything back into line. Good to know!

I do plan to follow up with my doc regarding my bone density results, and have another scan in 6 months time.  Because I want to be able to still do handstands for my grandchildren!!

Disclaimer: My scan was provided free of charge by DEXA Scan.  All opinions are my own.

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