I write this post nearly four weeks since I last stepped onstage, all bronzed and shredded at the BodyPower USN Classic. I now have a confession to make.
A year ago, when I first started working towards my goal of competing, I told myself I would allow my coach to help get me stage ready, but following my competition I would maintain a state of being extremely lean. Granted, my thought processes were still hungover from the effects of years of Anorexia and I evidently wasn’t thinking straight, but even so it seems extremely common for those who compete to be reticent to allow themselves to gain weight once they have been in stage condition. Here’s the thing. You diet for months on end, turning down any morsel of food or sip of fluid that is not on your plan. You wake up early to do cardio, and stay up late to do meal prep for the next day. You wake up in the morning and the first thing you do is feel your abs, noticing how lean you are becoming day by day. You step on the scales, and the weight creeping down provides you with empirical evidence that you are slowly but surely dropping body fat. You go to work, you go to the gym, and people comment on your muscles and your veins (which were always there, just hidden beneath a cosy layer of body fat). You feel fucking indestructible. Why on earth would you want to give that up?
I see this fear of fatness, by which I mean the fear of having body fat, not ‘being fat’ per se, manifest itself in numerous ways –
1. The over cautious reverse diet, which seems very common in bikini competitors. I am all for the reverse diet principles, where following calorie restriction individuals slowly increase their calorie intake and reintroduce food groups as a way of best preventing further metabolic damage and unnecessary fat gains. Indeed, after my competition season I did not immediately revert straight back to my old off season diet, but have gradually introduced more carbs and overall calories. At four weeks post-competition I am now making gradual gains at around the 3000 calorie mark and will push this as high as possible over the coming weeks. However, it seems that a lot of competitors use the reverse diet as an excuse for attempting to stay lean for as long as possible. They may allow themselves the odd treat that would have been absent during contest prep, which are soon posted on Instagram with the #OffSeason hashtag sprinkled below. But the rest of their diet is still what most people would consider as ‘restricted’. High protein, low carbs and/or fats. If you are guilty of this you will stay lean, but you miss out on making the most out of your rebound period, and therefore improving your physique long term. If you never allow yourself to get back into a calorie surplus, where you are eating more than you are expending, you cannot and will not gain more muscle. Don’t let the fear of temporary fatness, softness or less definition hinder your long term gains. Don’t let the fear of fatness stop you from living life and having fun.
2. The unnecessary cardio. A lot of people use cardio, either fasted or fed, as an additional tool to get lean. Once show day is over it has become an ingrained habit, something that has become part of your daily routine. People expect to see you at the gym, slogging away on the bike or cross trainer. As you start eating more food your irrational brain goes into overdrive, panics and says “it’s ok, I’ll just keep doing cardio to off set the damage!”. So there you are, stuck in a cycle of doing cardio to compensate for eating. The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, after contest prep your body needs to rest. It needs sleep, and to return to homeostasis (balance within the body) in order to function efficiently. Secondly, your body gets conditioned to cardio. You will still burn calories, but what will you do next time you decide to get super shredded? Double the duration, increase the intensity? I believe that cardio should be limited in the off season and kept in the ‘back pocket’ for contest prep where possible. The exception being cardio that is done for fun – a long walk or bike ride with loved ones, a swim in the sea – rather than being just another thing on your daily ‘to do list’. This catch 22 psychology can equally apply to a lot of your average gym-goers. Time and time again I see people eating a sub-optimal diet, which leads them into undertaking hours of mind numbing cardio in the gym, following which they go home and justify their crap diet on the basis that ‘my FitBit says I have burnt 1000 calories at the gym today’. To look better naked, a lot of people would be better off not even going to the gym and simply cleaning up their diet.
3. Dieting for another competition or photoshoot while the tan still hasn’t faded from the last one. Competing is an amazing feeling, and is understandably addictive. I simply cannot wait to get back onstage again. Having said that, I do not want to get back up there looking the same as I did this year. I want to make improvements, and to show that I have worked hard to build on my weaknesses. I am taking a long off season, the rest of the year at least, to eat a shed load of food and put in some hard graft in the gym. Bikini girls are no different to anyone else. The physiques I most admire in the industry, both male and female, belong to competitors who haven’t been scared to go off season. They haven’t dieted down for a different photoshoot every other month. Doing so will only put more added stress on the body and, again, prevent any meaningful or long term muscle gain.
4. The fallacy of the hardgainer. I am an ectomorph, or what people call a ‘hardgainer’. I am naturally tall and fairly slim, and gaining weight involves me eating a lot of food. If you are struggling to gain weight the answer is simple – EAT MORE. Throw peanut butter on every meal. Mix olive oil in with your rice. Eat the whole goddam egg. I speak to a lot of people, both male and female, who tell me how hard it is for them to gain weight, yet the reality is that they don’t really want to. They have a mental block. If you eat more calories than you burn, whether they come from a ‘dirty’ McDonalds or a ‘clean’ fillet of organic grass fed beef, you will gain weight. Some muscle, some body fat. Deal with it, know that it is temporary.
5. The eating disorder in disguise. I am not the first person with a history of ED to decide to compete, nor will I be the last. In some respects my experiences of OCD and Anorexia made me very good at contest prep, and it was therefore less of a struggle for me than others, both mentally and physically. For me, off season is harder. Eating more calories, and with more freedom and flexibility, goes against a lot of my deep rooted thought processes. In the days of Anorexia I never thought I was fat. Indeed, this is a common misconception about people who suffer from eating disorders. The fear of fatness, the fear of weight gain, was what had me seduced into a lifestyle of excessive cardio and minimal food. I believe that some bodybuilders share these feelings. Your rational mind knows you are in good shape, even when you are a few kilos over stage weight. Your rational mind also knows that, both for health and aesthetics, it is not a good idea to be super shredded all year round. But, even so, you are scared of the fat gains. You are scared to eat. It is possible that you have an eating disorder, it’s just packaged in a different way.
So, what is the take home message of this blog post? Why put pen to paper on the subject? Well, because I want to reassure anyone who can relate that, firstly, its ok to feel this fear. It’s perfectly understandable. And secondly, you can overcome the irrational thoughts by simply acknowledging them, laughing at them perhaps, and nourishing yourself in the way you know you should. Over the past four weeks I have noticed changes in my physique. I am 3kgs over stage weight, my ‘trademark abs’ (as my coach likes to call them) are a lot softer, and my ass is already holding more fat. I’ve had the odd mental wobble and have considered missing a meal, dropping my carbs or doing some compensatory cardio. I still have some anxiety around cheat meals. But, I do not let these thoughts affect my behaviour. I have got my head fully into off season mode, where I eat all of the nutritious food that is on my meal plan but also have the odd glass (or bottle) of wine if I so wish. It is important for me to know that I have the mental strength to overcome the odd irrational thought that presents itself, and confirm with every bite that Anorexia is firmly in my past and not in my present. This is more important to me than being lean. A lot of women use the phrase ’embracing off season’ or ’embracing my curves’. This is all well and good but, for me, now is the time to embrace life.
Please interact with me on social media as I would be interested to hear your own thoughts and experiences on this subject, or any other. For Personal Training enquiries please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org , on Facebook or Twitter / Instagram @BimsWinter.