Washboard abs, firm glutes, squared shoulders, and sculpted legs.
These were physical features I long sought after since my teenage years. In high school, I spent my free time perusing health and fitness magazines that featured athletes and trainers displaying their physique. Their raw energy, mental focus, and Herculean built left me feeling in awe with a hint of envy.
Perhaps it was envy then that drove me to make a significant decision: to compete as a bodybuilder in a bikini competition.
It feels bizarre to write it out. A bodybuilder? Me? Can I really call myself that? Even though it’s been a month after my debut as a novice bikini competitor, the experience still feels much like a fantasy.
But it happened.
It was a yearlong process of training, tracking my diet, and redirecting myself before I strutted my most lean, tanned, two-piece suit wearing, heel-clacking, glammed up self on stage. The journey that carried me through this intense preparation came from a history of askew body confidence, limiting self-beliefs, and a slew of unhealthy behaviors. The longstanding beliefs that governed my world would transform as I entered one of bodybuilding.
I expected to make shifts in my life, but the impact of those shifts slipped past my initial understanding of what I was getting myself into. Here are five takeaways from my experience in training for a bikini competition.
I was in graduate school when the idea to compete formed in my head, and I promised to revisit it after I completed my studies. Surprisingly, I had the financial prudence to start saving. (Proud, Mom?) Every month I put aside $100 into a savings account specifically for my goal (I used SmartPiggy.) I assumed that hiring a trainer would account for the biggest expense. Little did I realize that I’d get squeezed for a whole lot more.
Here is a breakdown of my expenses.
- training program
- gym membership
- groceries for meal prep
- supplements (only protein powder)
- group posing sessions
- private posing sessions
- National Bodybuilding Committee (NPC) registration fee
- entry fee for each competing class (I competed in the open and novice class.)
- bikini competition suit
- posing shoes
- stage jewelry
- glam kit (makeup, nail polish, hair products, etc)
Show day expenses:
- hotel room
- a full body tan
- makeup and/or hair services
- business cards
This didn’t include miscellaneous items such as exercise tools and equipment, skin products, and other add-ons.
Competing as a bodybuilder is a major physical endeavor, but it’s also a high-cost personal investment. In retrospect, I would have started saving way earlier had I known what to expect. If competing is of interest to you, get a jump start and save whatever you can, and have a savings plan before you start thinking about getting a trainer.
2. Social Life
The first few weeks of acclimating to a new routine barely made a dent in my social life. As the weeks turned into months and my training schedule and meals became more established, it became more difficult to make plans to socialize.
Family visits became few and far between, and I felt distant from friends. Some of my favorite activities, such as dining at the newest vegan restaurant or exploring neighborhoods became rare occasions. One time I had gone two weeks without having phoned or met a single friend. That’s when it struck me. Have I morphed into a gym rat and made a second home at the gym? I used to roll my eyes at those gym-crazed people who boasted about living in the gym.
Nevertheless, it was a struggle to stay singularly focused and not abandon the people close to me. For the first time, I became selfish and fervent about achieving a personal goal. But I had to remind myself to check in with people not just for the sake of staying connected but to keep myself grounded and not lose sight of the other important aspects of my life.
3. Training & Diet
Exercise was not an unfamiliar territory for me. Training for a bodybuilding competition, however, was a foreign terrain. For the first time, I had been given a structured workout routine that included circuit training, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and resistance training. My only experience with weights had been with five-pound dumbbells, and now I was tasked with bench presses, deadlifts, and Bulgarian split squats (they are as terrible as they sound). The first time I was in the weight area I felt lost trying to locate scattered dumb bells without walking smack into somebody’s bulging bicep.
As training grew to be a daily fixture in my life, I felt more comfortable navigating the weights section and utilizing the equipment. I became more keenly aware of my transforming body: its increased strength and muscle development. I was less timid and now approaching stocky, muscular men and asking them, “How many sets do you have left?”
Before training, I enjoyed eating out with total abandon. I gave no thought to the calories or grams of fat my cashew cheese-arugula marinara pizza or a raspberry chocolate mousse cake contained. Once I started training, I had to adopt a more calculated way of eating that did include counting calories and tracking my macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, and protein). Measuring cups and spoons, and a food scale became my primary kitchen tools. It wasn’t long until I recognized the benefits of meal prepping.
I don’t mean it lightly when I say meal prepping is life changing. I was already used to packing my lunch for work but I would do it the night before every day. With meal prepping, I learned to cut down my time in the kitchen and limit cooking to two nights a week. My life never felt as efficient as it did when I had my meals prepared for days at a time. It also helped with budgeting as I knew how much I would expect to pay for my staple foods in my weekly trips to Trader Joe’s.
I also learned the power of proper nutrition, which was entirely based on whole plants foods. I was already familiar with a whole-foods diet, but I became even more discriminatory on my selection of foods. By fueling my body with a wide variety of nutrient-dense, colorful plant foods, I felt a kind of energy and invincibility that allowed me to complete my workouts with relative ease and recover from any soreness in no time. In fact, I don’t recall missing out a single workout from being sick!
Posing unexpectedly commanded a lot of dedication and time. It didn’t occur to me how significant posing was until I got closer to my show date. I mean, it’s just stepping on stage and doing some twists and turns for the judges, right? Wrong.
Posing is a choreographed series of movement that you hit right on the mark each time. It involves hitting all the mandatory poses while showing individual flair. Much like a dance, the execution of an impeccable posing routine comes from months of practicing and fine-tuning. It wasn’t just the footwork that had to be mastered. It was also timing, holding your body in place, displaying your body from the most advantageous angles, smiling at the judges, staying balanced in heels, and all the while appearing relaxed and looking like you’re having the best time of your life.
My trainer advised me to search for a posing coach four months before my competition. I heeded his advice, but it wasn’t until I was actually attending posing classes that I realized how much time and work it would involve. I signed up for more group and private posing classes. I integrated posing into my daily training. I would go to the gym early in the morning when I had the studio room to myself, put on my heels, turn up the music, and practice posing. Some nights I went back to the gym to take advantage of the full mirrors and practice again. The importance of posing was ingrained in me so much so that I found myself posing in between my workout sets. The most common piece of wisdom I heard was that you could have the most sculpted and leanest body in the world, but your stage presentation could make or break you.
5. Competition Bug
Considering the physical work, mental and emotional energy, social sacrifice, and the exhaustive list of expenses that all go toward one event, one might feel shortchanged and not consider repeating that process. After all, it took me over a year to attain a stage-ready physique, but I only spent a few minutes on stage to show my work for it.
My goal to compete as a bikini competitor actually came out of a bucket list I created for myself. It was the first item on my list of things to achieve in the first year of my thirties. Once I fulfilled my goal, I would check it off, keep the experience as a memory, and move on to the next item. But it didn’t happen like that. I realized I didn’t want a one-time experience. After my first show, I decided that I wouldn’t close the door on competing and that one day I would return to the stage. It wouldn’t be for the fanfare or adrenaline, but what the stage represented: that you can truly achieve what you set your mind to do.
This experience didn’t just transform my physical self. It allowed me to shed off preconceived notions about bodybuilding, my insecurities, and self-imposed limitations and feel strong-willed and empowered to continue on the path of self-discovery and personal growth.
Related: Vegans Around the World: Iranian Vegan Bodybuilder Nasim
Interview: Top Vegan Figure Competitor Claudia Lailhacar
Interview: Top Vegan Bikini Competitor Samantha Shorkey
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Photo: Vivian Lee