My dear readers, you’ve followed along my ultramarathon journey and read about adventures in blacksmithing and paddleboarding. It should be no surprise that I’ve also combined my love of adventure with endurance sports to compete as a bodybuilder. And like many of you, I had no idea what I was getting into with this new sport.
I didn’t set out to be a bodybuilder and thought it was just a beauty pageant for girls who liked to lift weights. Over the course of a year, I learned what bodybuilding was really like, how many different categories exist, and how much effort goes in behind the scenes. From backstage drama to meeting new friends to learning to count every gram of food that entered my body, it was a wild ride and as much an endurance sport as Ironman or ultramarathons.
How did I become a bodybuilder?
I never had serious plans to become a bodybuilder. From the outside, it’s tiny ripped women in sparkly bikinis prancing around on stage. No thanks. I had a decent background in endurance sports: five half Ironman’s, half and full marathons, and obstacle races. I’m a tank on legs, and the idea of walking around on 5” stilettos wearing an outfit that could fit in a sandwich bag was intimidating. Plus, all that god-awful makeup. I wanted to keep doing endurance sports.
My body, of course, had other plans. During my month of training for Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga, I was diagnosed with a heart murmur/flutter. Not a huge deal, the doctor explained that the strength of my very well trained heart was squeezing so hard it caused the flutter. “Keep calm and if you feel faint, call us back. Maybe dial it back a bit, eh?” No biggie, I kept training. Two weeks later, on what was supposed to be one of my last long rides, I start feeling… weird. (This sounds a lot like my last long run before MS50k, TBH.) Finally, I decided I should head back, slow down to turn towards my car, and wake up lying in the middle of the road.
Yup, I had blacked out mid-turn and more than 10 miles from my car. I, being a dumbass, biked it back and called the ER as I drove. Long story short, I could do my race, but I had to dial back the aerobic exercise for a while.
Ok. Fine. New goals.
I can’t do as much aerobic exercise? Cool, I’ll go anaerobic and switch to weight lifting. I find a coach who will work with me and we discuss cutting down to an appropriate weight class and my level of knowledge/familiarity with lifting. The day after Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga, I started a cutting diet for the 50+ lbs. I need to lose to get to my planned weight class (59kg/130lbs). You see, I was strong. I could swim, bike, and run with the best of them. But I was carrying a lot of postpartum (and PPD) weight. I was living proof that you can be fat and fit, but I needed to lean out for this sport.
My coach had to focus on the two most important things: keeping up my fitness and learning how to appropriately fuel my body. Not diet. Fuel. He also set realistic expectations: it would take at least a year to reach my goal weight without sacrificing muscle.
Fast forward several months: the shoulder that I had repaired a year before and held up through Ironman training is struggling to keep up with bench press and overhead lifts. Depending on how I compete, I’m not going to have a high enough total weight to be competitive. Somewhere in a flurry of emails back and forth (I may or may not have been on an extended work trip to the Middle East at the time…), my coach mentioned that he also coach bikini girls and if I’d be willing to lose a pound or two of fat more, I could easily compete in NPC bikini.
Well, seemed like a good shift in goals and not too far off from the original goal, I suppose.
And that, friends, is how I started the journey to the stage.
What the heck is bodybuilding and why compete? At its heart, bodybuilding is a journey. The stage is neither the end, not the beginning, merely a single point in time. It is a goal to work towards when you want to shape your body into your idea of perfection. But that perfection is fleeting, as is the look. It’s why bodybuilders talk in seasons or cycles. We strive to bring a better package to the next show, build more muscle, adapt to new judging criteria, or earn that elusive National Qualifier that grants you an opportunity to chase down your pro card.
Regardless of which league you compete in, competitions are broken down two main ways: your division and class. The division is which type of physique you are bringing to the stage. The class is your height (women) or weight (men) category. Larger shows will even break down into novice (never won), true novice (never even competed), and age categories.
For women, the most common categories are:
Bikini: The smallest and most feminine of competitors, a bikini competitor looks like a very athletic bikini model.
Wellness: Created for bikini competitors who, like me, end up with a lot of lower body mass than their upper body. Thick thighs and rounded glutes for these very lovely ladies.
Figure: Very athletic competitors but still in heels.
Physique: These women are ripped as hell but still beautiful! Thick with muscle and vascular, they’ll be larger than figure competitors and can ditch the high heels.
Bodybuilding: The only women’s division divides classes by weight. There are the most muscular and most lean competitors. These are the woman you envision when someone derisively says “female bodybuilder.”
Physique: This is analogous to the women’s bikini division. They look like very fit fitness models with defined abs and a body fat short of vascularity. These lucky dudes get to wear Walmart board shorts and still stay competitive.
Classic physique: A well-balanced athlete that balances dense muscle mass with low body fat. The division is split into specified weight ranges for the height, with competitors aiming for a very narrow window in which to meet a classic look. (Up to and including the classic briefs.)
Bodybuilding: The true beasts of bodybuilding. These men aim to add as much muscle mass to their frame as possible while whittling down their body fat to almost nothing.
There are also multiple leagues from which a competitor can choose. Some are muscle focused (NPC), some are modeling focused (WBFF Diva), and some are professional only (IFBB, which is fed by NPC). Some are also strictly tested while others… aren’t. I chose NPC for my first season because they had the greatest number of shows, including one in my town, precisely one year after Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga. NPC is not a tested league which puts me at a disadvantage. Because I’m not on gear, my coach pushed me to pick a tested league for my second season, but the best shows were too far from where I lived to justify the cost of an airline ticket. That said, the next time I compete, I want to go against other drug-free competitors. I have nothing against anyone on gear, it’s a personal choice, but when my job precludes me from using it, I don’t want to compete at a disadvantage.
I hope this helps those unfamiliar with bodybuilding gain some understanding of the basics of the sport and how I ever ended up in such a wild sport! In my next article, I’ll cover what it takes to get on stage: the work outs, the diet, the stage wear, and all the things I never considered!
(Spoiler alert: I did ok!)
This is not be a post focused on weight loss because everything you need to know about nutrition can be found here. (Warning, this article has swear words; but if you’re on my blog, you’re probably ok with that.) Second, I don’t care about weight loss right now. I care about fueling my bod
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