For the sake of full disclosure, two things: first, despite my cheat meal on Friday night, I remain in a constant state of hunger. I’m hungry before I eat, I’m hungry while I eat, and most frustratingly, I remain hungry AFTER I eat. So writing is one of the many distractions I employ to keep myself sane at this point in prep. Second, I am not a veteran competitor or an expert. What follows are just my observations based on personal experience and the experiences that others have shared with me, not the be-all, end-all of competitor wisdom.
Okay, now that I have that out of the way, here are some of the things I have learned during the course of two competition preps with two different coaches for two different divisions and having spoken with numerous other competitors:
- Don’t rush into your first show. I made this mistake. Looking back on it, I have to laugh because I really did things in the opposite order that I should have. I did figure first, when I was less muscular and not as lean, and I am doing bikini now, when I have more lean mass and started prep much leaner. In fact, I am actually 10 lbs heavier! My stage weight last time was 109 lbs. Now, I’m at 118 lbs and 12% body fat. In order to look competitive once you get really lean, you absolutely need a good amount of muscle to start with. This is particularly important for figure. During a cutting cycle, you will inevitably lose some lean mass, and you need to factor that in when determining how much time you need to prep. Do you need to spend some time adding muscle first? Do you need to improve your conditioning and lean out a little bit more before you even start prep? How many weeks do you really need? My prep for figure last time was 14 weeks. I didn’t have anywhere close to the amount of muscle I should have had, and 14 weeks was not really enough time for me to be ready without having to do some seriously hardcore dieting and cardio. This prep, I planned for 20 weeks, started out leaner with more muscle and better conditioning, and guess what? My prep has been much more sustainable, much less extreme, and consequently, much more enjoyable. And I get the benefit of being ready sooner than expected and being able to compete early, which is huge from a mental standpoint. Especially in light of Lesson #7.
- Choose your coach/trainer carefully. I have also made this mistake. I have worked with three different competition prep coaches. The first one was just plain awful. The second one was a good coach, but not a good fit for me personally. The third one has been awesome. Do your research and take the time to interview the people (and their clients if possible) who you are considering working with. And bear this in mind – just because a person is successful as a competitor does not necessarily mean that they make a good coach. Learn about their approach to dieting, to cardio, to lifting, and to supplementation. Are they the tough love type or warm and fuzzy type? Do you they have the time and availability to provide you with the level of support you want? Will they honestly assess your readiness to compete or just tell you what you need to hear in order to get your money? Do they customize and change prep according to individuals or put all of their competitors on the same cookie cutter plan? Do their girls/guys regularly place well in competitions? Is their approach to prep rigid or adaptive? And finally, is the combination of the answers to those questions a good fit for you based on your goals, priorities, personality, and lifestyle?
- The scale is a crappy way to judge progress. My first prep I sent progress pictures every week and my weight. No other measurements taken (this is partly due to the fact I was working with an online coach, so I didn’t have anyone to do measuring tape or body fat assessments). I had weekly weight loss goals that I rarely achieved, despite adhering closely to the plan on most weeks. This really was discouraging. You and your coach should be using more than just your weight to gauge your progress and readiness. Progress pictures are great. Body fat testing is good, although it can be quite inaccurate (for this reason, I focus more on the change over time than the actual number – the judges don’t care what your body fat percentage is anyway, they just care how you look). Using a measuring tape is great too. My weight has changed very little during this prep, so if I relied solely on that to judge my progress or if I had been given weekly weight loss goals, I would have been discouraged and frustrated very early on! The scale is often very misleading and doesn’t accurately capture your progress.
- No one has a perfect prep. You will miss a workout. You will eat something off plan or have a little bit more of something than you should have. You will get sick, get injured, get stressed, get busy, etc. Life does not come to a halt when you are prepping for a show (although sometimes it feels like it does). You do the best you can and make every effort to adhere to your plan as much as possible. I am not saying it’s okay to half ass it or make excuses to blow off your diet and training. I am telling you that you need to forgive yourself for the minor deviations that are inevitable because you are human.
- Everyone has food issues. Some people already know they have food issues. Some people may think they “used to have” food issues, but don’t any more. Well, I’m breaking the news to you that you do have food issues, and they are going to rear their ugly heads at some point in your prep. You never realize how much of your eating is emotional until you try to approach it from a purely functional perspective. And those dormant “issues” that you slayed years ago? Chances are, they will awaken. Can you overcome/manage them? Absolutely. But be prepared that you are going to learn a lot about your attitude and relationship with food, some of which may surprise you.
- You will feel like giving up. At various points, you are going to feel like throwing in the towel. You will want to skip your cardio. You will want to eat an entire chocolate cake. You will wonder why the hell you decided to do this in the first place. You will wonder if it’s worth it. This is totally normal. It is a seriously difficult undertaking to prep for a show and to get your body to a degree of leanness that most people will only dream about. If it were easy, we would all walk around with ripped abs, shoulder striations, and veins popping out everywhere. Part of the reward comes from the fact that it is so hard. That is what makes it so satisfying in the end. If your prep feels easy, then you are probably doing something wrong!
- You will worry about being ready. Every single competitor I know has anxiety about whether they are “on track” or “ready” as they get closer and closer to a show. Even if they look freaking awesome. This phenomenon is compounded by the fact that a lot of significant changes take place in the final week (aka, Peak Week). And I can also affirm from firsthand experience that a super dark competition tan does WONDERS for bringing out definition and lines that were not clearly visible before. Worrying about being ready is useless. In fact, it may elevate your cortisol levels and actually impede your progress, so instead of worrying, do something productive. Talk to your coach about your fears (hopefully they will provide some support and encouragement), focus on executing your plan to a tee for the remaining time you have until the show, and reframe your anxiety about stepping on stage into excitement! (Fun fact: excitement and anxiety are exactly the same physical feelings…the only difference is how you interpret them).
- Posing is paramount. Practice is crucial. It’s easy to get so focused on the diet and training components of prep that you procrastinate on practicing your posing routine or make it a low level priority (I am guilty of this as well). However, bad posing can sink your chances of placing well, even if your body is banging. Likewise, you can camouflage your weaknesses and highlight your assets if you know how to pose correctly. Stage presence and confidence are important! In addition, you are going to be nervous/amped up when you get on stage. The last thing you want to do is freeze up and forget what you are doing because of nerves. Practicing your routine frequently until it feels like second nature will help ensure that you will draw the judges’ eyes (in a good way) and present your best self!
- You will only be on stage for a few minutes. This was the biggest letdown for me at my first competition. After 14 weeks of living and breathing competition prep, my debut at prejudging was over in a matter of minutes. It seemed anti-climactic. Like, “This is what I shed blood, sweat, and tears for?” It all comes down to just one day. Enjoy every moment of it because it will be over before you know it!
- Competing is not for everybody. Some people will never understand or support the people who do these competitions. Some people will do them once and then never do them again. Some people will find that competing takes them to a dark place, while others will find that it lifts them up. Some people will do multiple shows each year for years at a time. You have to decide what is right for you. I competed, then had two false starts with regard to competing again, spent some time training just for fun/health/fitness, and then decided the time was right to compete again. I don’t know what will happen after this show. Continue competing in bikini? Switch back to figure? Try to qualify to compete at a National show with the goal to eventually turn pro? Leave the sport altogether and do something else entirely (i.e. CrossFit)? Who knows. I sure don’t. But whatever decision I make, it will be the one that is right for me and me alone.
There you have it. The top 10 things I have learned from competing and wish I had known when I first started. Does anyone else have anything to add? Please comment below and share if you do!