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My First Contest Prep & 10 Lessons Learned Since

I posted a few of my old competition prep photos to the Facebook page a couple days ago after coming across them in an old file. From 2006, let’s just say I have learned quite a bit, not only about contest prep, but about perspective, balance and moderation since then.  To set the stage, below is two sets of progress photos from my first contest prep. The first is from 4 weeks out and the second from 2 weeks out. Pretty amazing how different I look in just a matter of 2 weeks.

 In the first set of photos, I had just got back from a 4 day beach VACATION eating trail mix and drinking rum & cokes :) My muscles were nice and FULL to say the least. Once I posed for my coach, Reggie, after getting back, he basically told me I had a long way to go still. I decided I needed to bust ass for the last 4 weeks if I wanted to avoid embarrassing myself (my #1 and only motivation). The only expectation I had for myself was to look like I belonged on stage and not be laughed off the stage. SO, first, I simply stopped cheating :) and then went completely Paleo and upped my cardio to two-a-days. No starchy carbs, no cheats and all protein and veggies. I started shrinking immediately, my muscles deflated as a result of glycogen depletion and probably a little muscle loss. I was flat at one week out and needed to “carb up” for the show. Hmm…after weeks of no carbs, I was scared that I was going to blow up by eating 1/2 potato. lol so I reluctantly ate 1 single white potato to carb up on Friday before the show, which in retrospect really was not enough and I still looked somewhat stringy on stage (I probably should have had some rum & cokes lol!). But, I ended up winning my class and not embarrassing myself. Here is my stage photo:

Now comes the fun part! Getting to EAT every single thing that I come across–treats, sweets and cheats, oh my! I HAD NO IDEA that the body can respond the way it did for me, and that is, by putting on 15 pounds within a week after the show. WTF. Insane. I dealt with a lot of feelings of depression, “now what?” and feeling betrayed that “no one told me” it could happen. Obviously, I can see now that it is no one’s fault but mine (no one else was stuffing Reeses cups down my throat), but I was sad and I felt resentful because without the knowledge and guidance of a prep coach who had been through it, how could I know?? How could I have prepared myself? Or could I even have prepared myself had I known? Probably not. More likely, it was simply the 4 weeks of complete deprivation that propelled me right into a sugar-centric diet. I really had no choice–I had actually set myself up for a huge rebound, mentally and physically, and on an emotional level I was really struggling. If you have been following this blog, you know that it took me several years after that first experience to really understand balance, self-acceptance and perspective, as to pull myself out of the grips of insecurity and misery, both of which I had created with my own mindset.

So anyway, this post is to share 1o key insights I have learned about contest prep, both physically and mental/emotionally, so that you don’t make the same mistakes I did. I am grateful for my mistakes because without them, I wouldn’t have the insight or have learned the lessons. Because they came the hard way, I cherish the process even more. Here they are, enjoy!

1) Stay tighter farther out on your diet. I am a huge procrastinator and I did the same thing with contest prep–I ate bites of this and pieces of that along the way and then would have to bust ass for the last 4-6 weeks before a show. This is NOT an advisable strategy because it pretty much assures you will rebound faster and more.  Instead, by keeping things tighter farther out, you are able to maintain a more moderate approach for longer with no last-ditch carb cutting, double cardios, etc. And you might be able to keep structured cheats and carb-ups in your plan for longer.

2) Don’t eliminate carbs completely, ever. Sometimes when we feel like we are coming down to the wire, we feel like cutting carbs completely will help expedite results. Though this may be true, but you also risk losing muscle, coming in flat and experiencing extreme compensatory reactions via increased hunger, cravings and energy fluctuations which can bite you in a the ass. Also, cutting carbs completely may actually stall results, depending on your unique metabolism. It may work for some, but in the long run, cutting starch completely is not advisable. Instead, choose clean carbs from hypoallergenic sources like potatoes, brown rice, oats, pumpkin, starchy veggies like squash, and fruit. No one ever got fat off apples.

3) A tight diet is more important than any mode or amount of exercise. Like the saying goes, you cannot out-train a bad diet. This is imperative when training for a show. You cannot cardio your way to the stage. A tight, clean diet is way more important than even training. Lifting weights is the #1 way to change the shape of your physique, by adding muscle but it is NOT the best way to burn fat or get lean. Using cardio strategically is effective and can potentiate results, but you are much more likely to get lean via tight dieting than from any amount of exercise, regardless of type. Of course, for contest prep, both intelligent training AND tight diet need to be in place.

4) You can never really win. Our good friend and former Collegiate Nationals Champion Bodybuilder Gary Leake told Jillian and I this very true statement, and ironically, coming from someone who actually did win, it really resonated. Because…it is the ONLY subjective sport on earth. Every other competition has a clear winner based on objective data–time, points, baskets, runs, etc. In physique competitions for placing purposes, it literally does not matter that you came in in the best shape of your life, conditioned, full, etc, because it is all about who else shows up, what the judges see, what they don’t see, etc. Any guess what? All those other people are all in the best shape of their lives too. So for the purposes of personal development and goal setting, training for a competition is an amazing, worthwhile goal, but as soon as you begin to expect that you will place high, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment. Cherish the journey, but don’t be too attached to the outcome. If you win, be happy. If you don’t place, be happy. Besides, you ARE in the best shape of your life, right? Not many people can say that :)

5) They aren’t going to measure your body fat % on stage so stop focusing on the numbers. Once again, a gem from Mr. Gary Leake when we were reporting on our body fat %, looking for affirmation that it was low enough–the truth is, the numbers can be a good guide, but in the end they mean nothing. The “look” is what matters most. You can come in at 8% body fat and look like you are about to die, or you can come in at 15% body fat with the best symmetry and most aesthetically pleasing look on stage. Finding your personal best “look” is key–besides, it’s not a skinny contest, so just getting as lean as possible should not be the goal either. Work with your own proportions, symmetry and muscular balance to find the right look for you first, then measure after.

6)  You cannot change your bone structure. So you might as well be happy with it right this second :) This is a toughie, because as soon as you get lean enough, there is a body under there that simply is what it is. You can add muscle to certain places to improve balance and you can work to lose fat from trouble areas, but if you have thick bones or a short torso or muscular legs or short clavicle bones, they are there to stay. You can wish and hope and pray and beg and plead and cry and yell all you want, but your bone structure is what it is. And unfortunately, not every bone structure is what will win in a figure competition. Doesn’t mean you can’t make improvements and work with what you have, but you better start loving what you have because it’s there to stay. I gave up on having skinny legs a long time ago, and after accepting this, I am a lot happier, while still working to keep them big ol’ things tight and toned instead.

7) It doesn’t hurt to be a sweetheart. I understand why some competitors or fitness professionals can be bitchy, pissed off or annoyed–they are dieting! I get it, but honestly, there is no excuse for being rude or acting “better than” another person, whoever it is. Treating another person rudely because you are depriving yourself of carbs is unacceptable. Take responsibility for your choices, and realize that your goals, your choices and your way of life are no more important than anyone else’s. If you read my blog on Turning 30, you know I learned this lesson at the tender age of 22, and it has become an even more important practice for me as I have gotten more into the fitness industry. Sorry, but no matter how hot or lean or good-looking or professional or how much you know or how successful you are, there is no excuse to treat someone poorly or with disrespect. It’s like that saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”–this is critical in the fitness/service industry and so often competitors or fitness models can lose sight of this truth as they get more recognized or popular or successful. Besides, it takes just as much energy to be an asshole as it does to be a sweetheart–I vote for the latter :)  PS this especially applies backstage, when emotions are running high and carbs are running low.

8] Come off a contest diet sloooooooooowly. I wrote about this in my Post-Competition Blues blogs 1 & 2, but essentially, in order to not gain 15 pounds instantaneously like me, it is crucial that you continue to exercise some self-control post-show. Remember your goals–Jillian and I were just talking about this yesterday–don’t treat your shows like they are one-offs, meaning treat your show like it is a continuation of your journey as a competitor. How you eat and train AFTER your show has a direct impact on your prep for your next show. Shows don’t happen in isolation. How in shape (or not) you stay in your off-season affects how easy (or hard) it will be to get ready for your NEXT show. Huge fluctuations in weight between shows, seasons and years can damage your metabolism, making it that much more unresponsive over time. So I suggest for the week following your show, eat 1 single serving of something you have been missing like a Reeses cup every day. And then get back on a maintenance or building plan within a week or two after the show with structured and scheduled cheats. Having structure during the off-season is just as important as structure during prep. This will also help you mentally to stay focused and not get depressed with a feeling of “what now?” which many competitors can experience as a results of a lack of routine after months with a routine. In other words, don’t do what I did, which was a free-for-all-no-plan-zero-structure program that left me depressed for a month :)

9) Pick one coach and stick with him/her for the duration of your prep. Getting opinions from every ex-bodybuilder, friend, family member, couch potato, trainer at the gym will only do one thing–drive you to complete anxiety and insecurity. When you are prepping for a show, everyone has an opinion and wants to throw in their 2 cents, whether they know something or not. Listening to a variety of people will only drive you insane and freak you out. Do your research beforehand and pick a single coach or trainer to help you with all aspects of your prep from training to diet to supplements to posing. Follow their guidance to the T, do your best, work the plan, tune everything else out and then compete. If you have issues with the plan, coach, trainer, placing, look, etc, then after your show you can decide to go with someone else or not for your next show. Reevaluate AFTER the show and avoid changing up too many variables DURING prep.

10) Stop playing the blame game. Don’t do what I did, which was get mad that “no one told me” I could blow up like a balloon after my show or feel “betrayed” that I was left to figure it out myself. Take responsibility for your choices and move on. This is tough because it is easy to feel done wrong–by your coach, by your plan, by the judges, by your fellow competitors, by the process itself. I have had many women write me and say that they resent the contest prep process because it messed them up, mentally, physically. It may have, no one is doubting it, but the question is–what are you going to do NOW? Where do you go from here? What’s the next step? You can’t go back in time…all you can do is LEARN from the process and MOVE forward. Even though at times it really hurts and it really sucks, I do (in time) cherish my screw ups because I know they are opportunities to grow and learn. Whether someone else “did me wrong” or I set myself up–doesn’t matter. All that matters is that now I need to take back my power and stop waiting for someone or something to rescue me. There are no answers “out there” for me. There are only the answers I look inside myself to find. Any time I look outside myself for affirmation or rescue or relief or answers, I can never feel satisfied because only I can give it to myself. So if you find yourself blaming someone else or something else, it is time to get over it. Whether it is someone else’s fault or not, your ONLY choice is to learn from it and move on. Love this applicable quote (I posted on Twitter last week), seems fitting:

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else;
you are the one who gets burned.”  —Buddha

Related: Lovers & Haters Part 1: Is it really all about me?

About the author

Jill Coleman

DISCLAIMER: JillFit.com is an educational health and fitness brand. Information herein is not meant to diagnose or treat illness or injury using food or exercise. All information is shared based on personal experience and years of clinical experience with training clients. JillFit is not a nutritional care services company, and all information used and shared is done at your own risk. What is presented here is my point of view. Yours may differ, and that’s absolutely fine, you always need to listen to your own body and do what's right for you. JillFit cannot be held liable for any losses, injuries or damages that may occur as a result of the choices you make based on the information presented on this site. Gracias!

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