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

20-Minute High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

Jump Rope HIIT

So what’s all the hype about “HIIT” (high intensity interval training)?  Is it really better than say, going for a 45-minute  steady-pace run, or stepping it out at Level 5 on the StairMaster?  And if so, then why?

I’ll just get right to it… HIIT training has lots of benefits that steady-state training doesn’t.  First of all, it burns more calories and fat in the 24 hours after the workout than if you’d just gone for a 4-mile jog.  High-intensity training causes …

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Curtsy Lunge

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Chair Pushups

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So what are we gonna do, friends? …

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O'Heynes Abbey

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prairie dog

But on a serious note, posture like this is a result of a gradual loss of strength and flexibility in the upper and lower back, shoulders, and hamstrings.  Over time, it becomes harder and harder to look up, harder to reach up, and harder to get up. …

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HIIT (Jump rope)

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What if we get out of our routine amidst all the travel?  What if we make excuses not to work out??  What if we get out of the mindset, stop working out, and lose the fitness we’ve worked so hard for all year???

To be honest, it could easily happen. …

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Kettlebell & jump rope

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Except that I haven’t…

I trotted off to Bohol on October 25, thinking I would work out every day & even post a “beach workout,”  because how fun would that be??  But our trip was cancelled & we ended up at Puerto Galera instead.  I did nothing that weekend except hike to the amazing waterfall I told you about a couple of posts ago.  But jumping into the waterfall doesn’t really count, as you’re going down…  Sure was fun though!!

Hammocks at Sunset resort, Puerto Galera

I spent more time lying in these hammocks than I did working out!

The day after we got back, I left again for the family reunion in London, where ok, we did go running several times through the beautiful Kensington park- how can anyone resist the autumn leaves?  But I did absolutely noooo  strength training and the word burpee never crossed my mind.  And you know what??  It felt amazing to take a break!!  This was an accidental hiatus, for sure, but it’s made me realise that backing off every so often should be part of our workout routine, just as much as purposefully increasing weights or time or distance, etc.  Continual intense exercise with no time off can lead to chronic fatigue or muscle soreness, stress injury, a depressed immune system & decreased metabolism.  If you follow an intense exercise regimen and never take time off, and find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, it may be time to take a short break….

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