While that may not mean much to most people, to anyone interested in strength and physique sports, it only means one thing: The Arnold Sports Festival is upon us.
My social media feeds have been inundated with snapshots of lean, sinewy fitness models posing at protein bar booths, spray-tanned bikini competitors strutting their stuff on the national stage, and strong-as-Hell women setting 601-pound world raw squat records (you SLAY, Bonica Lough!)
Just over a year ago, I would have had no idea (nor could I have cared) about the incredible, inspiring feats of strength, discipline, and tenacity going on in Columbus, Ohio right now. But then again, a whole lot has changed since I dove head-first into the world of bodybuilding in January 2015. Over the course of nine months, I lost 23 pounds and around 9% body fat - but it's what I gained that tells the real story.
1. I found what I'd been looking for for years: a calling that I could call my own.
I spent my high school, college, and post-secondary years as a self-described dilettante. It's not that I mind being interested in a great number of activities and ideas - I believe unbridled curiosity and openness to the world's possibilities is one of the most valuable human traits. But I also always felt like I was missing something.
I was never a kid who could be identified by a bracelet charm of a soccer ball or a musical note or an ice skate. I loved playing the oboe in small chamber groups and pit orchestras, but I not-so-secretly loathed the innumerable hours of solitary "woodshedding"-style practice necessary to take my playing from good to great. Politics was always an interest of mine, but in college, that transformed from my Weberian avocation into something I actually thought I'd pursue as a career - then those dreams dissolved after a particularly grueling summer where I learned the reality of political organizing.
Though it felt nonsensical at the time - I loved working out, sure. But me, diet?
...And wear a microscopic, rhinestoned suit on stage in front of an audience?
...In 5" plastic clear heels and three coats of copper paint?
But somehow, like all of the greatest love stories, it also made all the sense in the world. It was the push I needed to take my currently uninspired exercise routines from "chore" to "passion." It made me wake up for 6am gym sessions genuinely excited. It made hours and hours of self-guided learning fun - no, irresistible. It made me understand what true obsession felt like.
2. I gained impeccable mental-math skills.
Quick! You're making a protein banana bread recipe. The recipe calls for 4 egg whites, but you don't buy whole eggs; you use the whites from a carton. How much liquid is that supposed to be? Well, each egg white is about two tablespoons of the pasteurized stuff. There's three tablespoons in a 46-gram serving. 4x2=8, and 8/3 = 2 and 1/3, and that times 46 = just under 123g of whites needed for your baking adventure.
Before I got into bodybuilding, it was an accomplishment just to calculate the tip correctly.
3. I found ingenious ways to sneak vegetable matter into everything.
You want some oatmeal? Shred a zucchini in there and you've got twice as much volume for breakfast. Daily carbs getting too low to enjoy those oats? Easy: grind up a head of cauliflower in your food processor and boil it on the stove with some protein powder and you've got yourself a piping-hot bowl of "fauxts." Craving pasta? Buy this mung bean fettuccine and you'll be giving yourself a whopping amount of protein and fiber and a delightfully full stomach.
4. I started seeing food as fuel, and I stopped seeing exercise as punishment.
As loath as I am to admit it, in the first seven years I spent as a gym-rat, I didn't do miles and miles of cardio on the treadmill because I found it fun. I did it because I wanted desperately for my body to change. I needed to believe that eventually, after just one more intense HIIT class or after slogging through one additional mile every day, I'd wake up one morning with the "toned," cellulite-free legs I've always dreamed of. If I didn't believe this, I may have stopped those workouts altogether. Because a good portion of the time, I wasn't actually having fun.
Shifting my focus from trying to burn my body away to building my body up changed the way I saw food, training, and my own body. I needed food to fuel my workouts - which I was actually excited to do (almost) every day - and I needed to give myself ample recovery time not to get smaller and thinner, but to come back stronger and bigger. For the first time in my dieting life since pre-adolescence, I wanted to be more, not less.
5. I found freedom from my fear of "bad foods."
Deep in the recesses of my Pinterest, one will find a treasure trove of "grain-free" treats waiting to be made. During my highly impressionable adolescent years, I was surrounded by a culture of misinterpreted dietary studies that called some carbs "bad" and some carbs "good." Low-glycemic carbs wouldn't "spike" my blood sugar, and we all knew that insulin was the reason people got fat...right? Wrong.
Since my first foray into the world of bodybuilding, I've been a dedicated follower of flexible dieting, also known as "If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM)." This approach to nutrition is based on the evidence that overall calorie balance (energy intake versus energy output) and to a slightly lesser extent, your breakdown of fats, carbohydrates, and protein (the three macronutrients or "macros") is responsible for the overwhelming majority of changes in body composition.
Flexible dieting allows the individual to choose foods that fit best with his or her own taste and preferences, schedule and lifestyle - you love low-GI brown rice and sweet potatoes? Enjoy! PopTarts, ice cream, or cereal more your style? Be my guest. Provided you are hitting a baseline amount of fiber and eating a variety of foods every day, you will be able to effectively meet your fitness goals, fuel for performance both in and out of the gym, and eat the foods that will be part of a long-term fitness lifestyle, not a six-week crash diet.
No food is "bad" and no food is "good." Any and all foods, eaten in the appropriate amounts to fit your needs, can help you reach your goals.
Intrigued by the idea that you can eat what you want, when you want (yes, carbs after seven are kosher!) and still meet your goals for now and for life? Read on here.
6. I started grasping the idea of moderation.
Lifetime card-carrying member of the Clean Plate Club: that's me. I'll always remember the early fall of 2014, when I was just starting graduate school, as the point my approach to nutrition and balance reached its nadir. I decided that, after finishing off yet another jar of full-fat peanut butter in less than a week, I simply couldn't be trusted with the stuff. I made the shift to PB2, powdered peanut flour that could be reconstituted into something vaguely resembling the real thing, and never looked back.
But several months into flexible dieting, I had a realization. I was now able to put just one cinnamon brown sugar PopTart in my nightly bowl of yogurt, and save the other half for as many days as I wanted until it fit my macros again. Me. Leaving half an opened treat in my pantry without a second thought.
It was revolutionary.
Could I do the same thing, I wondered, with my old flame, peanut butter? The answer was yes! ...Sort of.
Moderating my intake of my most-loved foods is still a skill I'm mastering. I have days when the thought of an unmeasured spoonful of the good stuff doesn't even cross my mind, and I enjoy a truly satiating two tablespoons like some form of a normal person. I have other days when I go HAM on a freshly opened jar and wake up a few minutes later, disoriented, with a sticky mouth and a spoon in my hand. But I now feel the freedom to keep peanut butter - the real stuff - as a household staple, and when I do have my moments of indulgence, I savor them, eventually seal up the jar, and move on - (relatively) guilt-free. Hey, I'm still learning.
7. I fed my thirst for new knowledge and expanded my vocabulary.
One of the more unexpected avenues that opened for me when I began bodybuilding was the amount of new information I learned along the way. Coming from a family that values curiosity and lifelong learning, I've always been a bit of an autodidact. This is a trait I like about myself and one that I seek and value in others. In this way, it makes perfect sense that I'd fall deep into the world of bodybuilding, which combines all the best aspects of continual learning, self-guided education, and the application of theory in the eternal n-of-1 experiment of the human body.
Suddenly, I was spending hours listening to podcasts and filling every unoccupied moment reading articles about the science of muscle growth, body composition, human nutrition and athletic performance. Some of my favorite muscle-nerd podcasts that entertain as they educate: Ice Cream 4 PRs and Physique Science Radio. If reading is more your style, check out the undisputed king of the evidence-based fitness and nutrition movement: Alan Aragon.
8. I made new friends, and for the first time in my life, learned what it felt like to be part of a team.
Bodybuilding, most presume, is a solitary sport. It's true that it can often feel that way: many hours spent on your own pounding out cardio during competition prep and foregoing a round of drinks shared with friends at the bar because it doesn't fit your weight-cutting macros can make you feel all alone in your endeavors. And after all, at the end of the day when you're up on that stage, you're competing on your own.
But if you're lucky enough to find a group of people who love the sport as much as you do, you will find an overwhelming sense of community, shared values, and mutual support. I found this with a local group made up of both male and female competitors across the sport's different divisions. We share 5am fasted-cardio selfies to motivate others to get out of bed and start their day. We show our triumphs when we lift a weight we've never lifted before, or reach new levels of leanness before an upcoming competition. We revel in one another's successes and we commiserate when calories are low and anxiety and hangriness run high. At local competitions, we are in the front rows screaming the loudest to cheer on our teammates. And even when we are sharing the stage in competition, we are also hoping for our teammates to succeed along with us.
Before bodybuilding, I had never experienced the camaraderie and the kind of drive that comes with sharing a passion with others who share your goals. And in a sport that can be as mentally and physically challenging as this one, I can't imagine going without it.
9. I learned the importance of smart goal-setting - and the virtue of patience.
My first "prep" for a bodybuilding competition technically lasted nine months. During the first three, I didn't lose a pound. My body was adjusting to the changes in diet and training and building new lean tissue. I could feel that changes were happening in my body, but they weren't fast enough to my liking. If I couldn't see it on a scale, it was hard to find it worth the work.
Through my first competition prep, I learned the value of taking goals day by day. I believe much of the reason we as a society struggle with adopting and keeping healthful habits is not an issue of determination; it's an issue of expectation. Pills, creams, "waist trainers," and "30-day squat challenges" offer nothing but empty promises of drastic changes in minimal time, often with minimal work. But as anyone who's successfully transformed any part of their life can tell you, it's the small, daily habits that add up over time and make the difference.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that I couldn't depend on dreaming of the final end-point goal to motivate me day in and day out. I needed to focus on every small step along the way that would eventually get me to the destination - every meal, every workout (sometimes, every rep!), and every day that I'd put in my best effort was a success to be celebrated. With this mentality, I lost the angst of pining after the far-away prize, and saw every day as a reason to feel accomplished.
10. I learned to love my body at every stage - not just stage-lean.
One of the first things I did when I began competition prep was that I started following countless competitors on Instagram and other forms of social media. While I was on my first "cut" and trying to get lean for a show, others were in the midst of their "building period," putting on quality muscle by lifting heavy and eating a caloric surplus. I quickly learned that, in order to put on muscle and to progress from year to year, you must provide your body with enough energy to build new lean tissue. This means - yes - eating slightly more than your caloric maintenance level. And though a smart training regimen can minimize fat gain, it's important to remember that along with new muscle tissue comes new fat.
I thank my lucky stars that I stumbled upon a community of young women who made it their mission to show the reality behind the sport: that no one who wants to truly improve their physique from year to year can spend their whole life looking cover-model lean. In fact, it's quite the opposite: the most serious competitors take the longest time between competitions in order to improve their weak points, which means taking time away from dieting and returning to normal levels of body fat. They spend the majority of their life looking relatively "fit," but the terms "diced," "cut," "ripped" need not apply. When running errands and attending family events, they do not look like the version of themselves on the cover of Muscle and Fitness.
Annika, AKA The Swole Barbie, isn't a stage competitor, but she's one of my balanced-lifestyle idols all the same. She made Hella gains over the course of two years and rehabilitated her metabolism and strength to sky-high levels.
Lisa Mahoney, Registered Nurse by day and powerlifter/national Canadian bikini athlete/online coach by night. She's one of my biggest inspirations when it comes to embracing the off-season. Over the course of her last cut in summer 2015, she lost 15 pounds and added upwards of 20 pounds to her deadlift. Yes, queen.
Erin Dimond, a competitor who built enough muscle to transition from bikini to figure division, documents the changes in her physique from the end of a building season to the end of a bikini competition prep.
They are real people with real bodies. Seeing these young women proudly bare their physiques at all phases - not just when their abs were most visible and their arms at peak vascularity - made me feel comfortable with my current body for the first time in a long time. I realized that this sport was about so much more than the five minutes spent on stage in a spray tan. It is about the years of sweat and dedication poured into every day, and the body will (and needs to) look different on the days when the hardest work is done.
11. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I did something that scared the living sh*t out of me.
In the final analysis, the biggest impact that bodybuilding had on me had nothing to do with my body and everything to do with my approach to life. For too many years, I chose only to do things with which I had a reasonable shot of success. Going to college, going to grad school, getting my first job: I was checking off the marks of the Pathway To A Successful Life, and although I felt challenged plenty of times along the way, I never truly feared I would fail. I was living the easy way.
Bodybuilding was different. Not only was I, like any sane person, afraid of baring my body for the purpose of being judged against others'. I was afraid of the psychological wound of outright failure. Coming in last place. Getting the red lantern. Being - gulp - the worst at something.
But in a strange way, the idea of setting a goal at which I could possibly face a tremendous, unmitigated failure actually excited me. Just thinking about the possibility of failing made my stomach drop and my heart race. It energized me and pushed me toward working harder for something than I ever had in my life. And it made me realize that the only way to find out just what I was capable of, would be to let go of the reigns I had placed on my list of what's possible, and accept the possibility of failure.
Of everything this sport has taught me, it's this lesson I value the most.
12. I developed an addiction to chewing gum.
Let's be real here. It's not all glamour and neatly-wrapped life lessons. Every competitor will feel hunger at a certain point of prep - that's the reality of living in a prolonged calorie deficit to obtain necessary levels of leanness for the stage.
Different people deal with hunger in different ways. My relatively tame poison of choice came in the form of finishing off more than a pack a day of Orbit Cinnamint.
What can I say? You win some, you chew some.