What I Learned Training for a Bikini Competition - And Failing

After moving to North Carolina in 2013, I quickly realized that fitness/bodybuilding competitions were like the unofficial state sport here. 

In every gym where I trained or taught classes, I kept seeing them: competitors training for shows. I even had a few awkward run-ins with competitors when I showed up to teach a class and discovered they were using the group fitness studio for "posing practice."

I admired their discipline, and - as a personal trainer and fitness professional - am endlessly fascinated by the human body and what it is capable of. How we can make it bigger, smaller, stronger, leaner, faster, and change its shape with how we eat, how we train, and how we live.

I was also saddened by the many competitors I knew who had wrecked their metabolisms by trusting "coaches" who had no idea what they were doing, prescribing extreme low-calorie diets and hours of cardio on bodies that were never ready to begin with.  

Could it be done in a safe and smart way? I had seen other women do it and wanted a new challenge. I wanted to be pushed outside my comfort zone. For better or worse, I decided a fitness competition was the way to do it.

Starting Competition Prep

In 16 weeks, there was a competition in Greensboro, NC.

My starting stats were good. I'm 5'9" and my weight was at 149, with 19% body fat. I knew I had a decent amount of muscle on my body from years of training and teaching and was told that would be more than sufficient time to prepare for hitting the stage.

I started the diet and training program and absolutely loved it. I was lifting 4-5x a week, getting stronger each week, and seeing subtle changes in my body - more muscle definition, clothes fitting better. My mindset was fire: I felt like a bad-ass! I was rocking this!  

And then, 5-6 weeks in, as I got closer to the deadline of the show - I freaked out. 

When my coach told me I would likely need to be between 130-135 pounds for the stage, I REALLY lost it, because I have never in my adult life weighed that little and could not fathom it. 

"How did I have 20 pounds to lose? Where would it come from? Surely this would require the removal of organs or limbs. And what would happen afterwards? What if I ballooned up after the show and lost the happy, balanced lifestyle I'd worked so hard for?" 

The panic set in and, as a lovely bonus, I gained 2+ pounds in a week. 

After a lot of though, I knew I had to walk away from this goal.

Now that I've had a week or two to reflect on my decision (which I know was 100% the right call for me), I realized I learned some really valuable lessons.

I'm sharing them with you in the hopes that you can benefit from some of them too. And I'm putting them in black and white so I never repeat this mistake again.

Lessons Learned From Training for a Bikini Competition - and Failing.

1. Heavy weights are magical. 

I have always known in my head that heavy weight training was the key to body transformation, but on some level, deep inside the pre-fitness career corners of my brain, I was afraid to really commit to consistent, heavy lower body training.

When I finally did, I was shocked to see the changes in my lower body. A few weeks of consistent, heavy, 2x/week lower body training transformed parts I didn't believe were ever going to change. My only cardio was one 30-minute HIIT workout per week (teaching Les Mills SPRINT) and walking my dog.

I discovered my favorite lower body exercise was the barbell hip thrust, and that I still hate barbell back squats. I chalk that up to #tallgirlproblems.

This heavy lower body training is staying in my routine for the foreseeable future.

2. It takes a LOT of food and hard work to gain muscle.

For my first few weeks, my calorie intake was just over 2100 calories per day, and I *lost* about 3 pounds - on all this food! (My caloric intake would not have remained this high throughout the program.) 

I ate real whole foods: protein, carbs (especially those high in fiber) and a little bit of good fats. I ate at regular intervals (every 3-4 hours) throughout the day. I wasn't eating a "bro diet" and had the freedom to choose the foods I wanted (choice of protein, starches, veggies, etc.)

Daily supplements included a daily multivitamin, magnesium, and fish oil.

You may be thinking, "But wait - isn't this pretty much how you always eat?"

Yes and no.

When you're training for an event like this, there is no room for "close enough" or "this little bite won't hurt." I was more careful with tracking my macros and making sure I got ALL the food in.

There's a lesson for us all here, ladies: you cannot gain muscle in a caloric deficit - at least not much, and especially not if you've been training for a while.

To truly BUILD and re-shape the body, you need enough calories and you need a muscle growth (hypertrophy) training program. 

You cannot and should not always be in fat loss mode, especially if you are looking for more muscle definition and some athletic curves. Lose all the fat you want, but without muscle underneath, there isn't much to see.

3. Deadlines are the enemy - for me. 

I'm an extremely competitive person. I like winning. That's one reason I thought I would take to this sport.

PLOT TWIST: when I'm up against a deadline and feel pressured to look/be a certain way by a certain date, all bets are off.

Who managed to GAIN WEIGHT in a caloric deficit because she was freaking out? YEAH. THIS GIRL. I knew I reacted strongly to deadlines from my brief stint as a Presenter for Les Mills, where I would be rocking along fine until I had an event coming up where I had to be on stage in front of hundreds of instructors. I would stress out, gain weight, and not enjoy any part of the experience because I was afraid I was being judged - for how I looked and moved and coached - the entire time. (Do you know who was judging me for those things? Me. That was it. Way to ruin all the fun in life, LAQ.) 

As soon as I told my coach I could no longer proceed with competition prep, I started prioritizing stress management (leisure walks, yoga, etc.) and bumped calories back up a bit. What do ya' know? The pounds fell back right off. 

You can't measure stress. Stress doesn't have calories, but it has a huge impact on what your body looks and feels like. 

4. You have to want it more than anything else.

And I just didn't.

I hated having to spend almost 90 minutes in the gym doing a workout some days, texting my husband, "I'm almost done! I'll be home soon! One more set!"

He was 100% supportive. I just wasn't 100% committed - and you have to be.

The more time and attention the food and workouts started taking, the more I kept thinking, "This is exactly what I teach and coach women to get away from!"

I didn't feel authentic to me. It didn't feel right for me. I tried to fit in to this world of competing and learned that I'm not wired for it - but I can and will celebrate anyone who is.


5. I really like my body the way it is.

I'll admit, part of the appeal of a bodybuilding competition is to see what your body is capable of and all the crazy ways it will change. But something surprised me.

In the process of taking weekly progress photos for my coach, I realized that many of my perceived flaws either didn't exist OR were much less of a problem than I thought.

Come on girls, you KNOW what I'm talking about! ALLLL the nasty things we say to ourselves about our bods?

"Ugh, my thighs are huge! I have SO much cellulite! I'm wearing pants and long dresses all Summer!"

This brief period of training for a competition helped me see my body for what it really is: strong, athletic, healthy, and already pretty lean.

Oddly enough, it helped me attach even less emotion and judgement to how I look.

My clients know this is something I coach regularly: step back, get clinical, take out the emotion. It's your physical body. It's not your worth, your value, and it says nothing about who you are as a person. 

When I stepped back and looked at the whole picture, I liked what I saw. It was enough for me. I didn't need to get leaner, or bigger, or smaller, or anything else. What I needed was to stop trying so hard to be something else and APPRECIATE what I had.

This body takes good care of me because I take good care of it. Without obsession. Without punishment. With weekly trips for frozen yogurt. ;) Oh and sorry about the lame bikini - I never made it far enough in the process to order a sparkly suit!

This body takes good care of me because I take good care of it. Without obsession. Without punishment. With weekly trips for frozen yogurt. ;) Oh and sorry about the lame bikini - I never made it far enough in the process to order a sparkly suit!

So, while I won't be strutting this bod across a stage in 4" clear heels, I'm still going to put a bikini on it - I'm just taking myself to the beach and pool instead. And I think I need to invest in some more cute swim suits. JCrew.com, here I come.

Everything is a learning experience - even things we "fail" at, even things we have to walk away from. I hope you can take something away from my experience and maybe appreciate your own body a little more today. 

Is there a goal or habit you're hanging on to that isn't serving you?


Leslie Ann