Competing in Bikini Model competitions with the ICN (Natural BodyBuilding in Australia) was one of the best experiences of my life.
I learnt so much about myself; pushing my body and mind to places I didn’t know I was capable of. I worked so hard, overcame obstacles, pushed through pain and found a discipline and determination stronger than ever before. It gave me confidence that I can achieve anything I set my mind to and made me realise my strength within.
I think competing can be an incredibly empowering process and can teach you a lot about yourself, training and the way your individual body works. I definitely recommend it for those reasons if doing a fitness competition is something that interests you.
BUT… it’s not all glitz and glamour. This article is not to put you off competing; it is simply to forewarn you of some of the “behind the scenes” problems female fitness competitors face. It outlines the truth behind how competing can affect your body and your life long-term.
It’s not all doom and gloom in this article. I also highlight what I think are the best ways to “damage control” each of these problems to make sure you’re doing prep in the safest, and healthiest way possible for your body, your mind and your relationships.
1. It causes an incredible strain on your relationships – with both your partner and your friends.
Firstly, it’s pretty difficult to eat out while you’re on competition prep. You need to weigh and track your food down to the gram, and make sure there aren’t any extra oils etc sneaking in that might throw off your calories for the day. Some competitors choose to eat out during their prep and “guestimate” their macros. But even then they are limited on where they go based on restaurants who provide macro estimates online etc. Personally, I don’t like to take the risk so I don’t eat out at all from the 6-8 week out mark.
It’s pretty hard on your boyfriend/husband/fiancé when he can’t even take you out for a nice dinner, enjoy a glass of wine, or just generally have some spontaneity in your lives because you have to stick to a rigid meal plan. It can also affect your relationship with your friends. They know you aren’t able to eat or drink alcohol, so the invites you get may dissipate more and more. I know that when I started competing I got less and less invites to things and started to feel a bit socially isolated from my friends. Even after prep, I had to start reminding people that “hey, I can drink and eat out now!” so that I was included again. You certainly find out who your true friends are and who want to spend quality time with you.
Aside from the eating out issue, you also get a kind of “tunnel vision”. You’re so focused on your goal, that getting extra cardio in or getting to the infra-red sauna is far more important than spending time with your partner or your friends. It’s a selfish sport in that regard. How would it feel if you were no longer your partner’s priority for a few months? It’s hurtful to them, and I’ve heard many stories from friends in confidence about how much strain its caused on their relationship. You guys don’t see that side of it on social media, but it’s important to know what goes on behind closed doors if you’re thinking about doing a comp prep.
YOUR DAMAGE CONTROL PLAN:
I would suggest speaking to your partner/ friends before you start a prep. Explain the situation, explain that its only really 12 weeks where you’ll have to be super strict and reduce your social life. Get their support, and try and make social plans that involve walking, infra-red saunas, training, home cooked meals (by you), coffee dates and anything that allows you to see your friends without falling off your plan.
2. Getting that lean is extremely unhealthy
We all know that holding excessive body fat is unhealthy, but being leaner is NOT always better. Females are complex hormonal beings and we have higher ‘essential body fat stores’ than men. A healthy female should sit between 21 and 30% body fat to be considered healthy (Note: if you want an accurate assessment of your body fat percentage, please get a DEXA scan – any bio-impedance analysis scan where you stand on it and hold the handles can be out by up to 8%). A general population lean/fit female should sit between about 21-24%, but in a competition prep we have girls pushing down to 15, 10 and even as low as 6-8% body fat for some divisions!
The actual “essential fat stores” (that is, the requirements of body fat just to support BASIC BODY FUNCTION) is 10-12% for a female. That means some competitors are literally pushing themselves to the point where they are sitting below the body fat stores necessary for them to simply maintain life and regulate hormonal functional! Once your body fat starts to fall below 18%, you’ll start to notice poor temperature regulation, poor concentration, impaired immune system to name a few.
In contrast, males essential body fat stores are 2-4%, so they can handle sitting a lot lower than females. This doesn’t mean competing is healthy for them, but from a hormonal perspective females need to realise that our bodies really aren’t designed to get that lean, nor to stay that way!
Not to mention, training up to twice a day (some girls do more- crazy!) while on relatively low calories is a HUGE stress on your body. Hell, I’m still battling my chronically high cortisol levels from 3 years of competing and overtraining (however, note that in this time I was also often working 40+ hours a week, getting up at 5am every day and running my own business so my stress levels were not due to competing alone).
YOUR DAMAGE CONTROL PLAN:
Unfortunately, you do need to get to a unhealthy level of body fat for competition. Bikini would be the least stress on your system in that regard, with most girls going on stage around 16-19% (in the natural federations anyway).
What I would urge you to do is know and understand that you can’t hold that low body fat percentage for long. Immediately after comp, start to work your weight back up slowly to your healthy range. And while you ARE competing, make sure that your dietary fats don’t slip below a healthy level. I would never let a female eat below about 45 grams of fats a day even at the tail end of comp prep. Preferably higher, depending on their particular body type. You need to make sure you choose a coach who UNDERSTANDS FEMALE HORMONES and GENUINELY CARES ABOUT YOUR HEALTH. It should be alarm bells to you if your coach starts dropping your fats below 45g. You should raise the issue with them, and if they aren’t understanding of the fact you want to look after your hormonal health…. You should look elsewhere!
Also make sure you’re making time for recovery in your prep. Take magnesium and glutamine. Eat your protein and carbs soon after your workout. Get regular remedial massage and foam roll/ stretch yourself. Relax in the infra-red sauna, through meditation, or taking epsom salt baths. Make sure you make YOU time and just chill out a few times a week – your body is under enough stress, you need to balance it out.
3. You will almost definitely lose your period
It’s partly a result of getting to that unhealthy level of body fat, and partly due to the stress that over-training and dieting has on your body. You will almost definitely lose your period, and for how long? It’s hard to say. Some women will get it back once they reach a healthy body fat level, others won’t. It’s called hypothalamic amenorrhea, and it’s becoming more and more prevalent in today’s “fitness culture”. These super lean women we admire to look like on Instagram probably don’t have their periods, yet they don’t talk about it. It might be all well and good for now while they’re 26 years old but what about when they want to have children in a few years and are told they can’t? I’m not trying to scare you, but I want you to be aware that not getting a period is NOT OK and it’s important to work toward getting it back once you’ve finished competing.
Note: If you’re on the contraceptive pill, you probably won’t notice that you’ve lost your period either. You’ll still be getting an ‘artificial period’ caused by the hormones in the pill, not reflective of your fertility or your hormonal health at all.
Note 2: If your period was already inconsistent before comp (perhaps due to a past eating disorder or already being too lean) and comp has made it disappear again, you should definitely speak to your doctor and get some blood work done.
YOUR DAMAGE CONTROL PLAN:
Firstly, when you’ve finished comp you need to increase your dietary fats to help support that hormonal function and increase your calories as a whole til you hit a healthy level of body fat. Dietary fats will help regulate hormones so definitely start by bumping those up (ideally working with your coach!). You may choose to take some hormone regulating supplements such as Maca Powder and ATP Science Alpha Venus and generally take steps to de-stress. It is very important at this point that you SCALE BACK YOUR TRAINING. Reduce (or even eliminate) any long cardio you were doing and reduce volume of weights. You will need to give your body some time to regulate, but if you are still struggling to get your period back after a few months I would suggest you speak to your doctor and get some blood work done to ensure you work your way back to full hormonal health.
4. You might end up bigger than you’ve ever been after the comp
After a long period of calorie restriction, you might find it extremely difficult to control your eating. Studies have actually shown that with long periods of calorie restriction, we tend to lose our hunger and fullness cues and over-eat when food is presented to us.
When comp finishes, the discipline that you’ve had in resisting temptation might go out the window. Food is everywhere; it smells good, it tastes good and its hard to say no now that there is no looming deadline of you showing your bits to the world on stage in a bikini.
Or perhaps it won’t, and you keep eating the same amount of calories or only slightly increasing them, yet you’re gaining fat anyway because after a long period of restriction, your metabolism is shot and your body has shifted into survival mode trying to build up those much needed body fat stores just to survive. The result is being able to tolerate a lot less calories than you were able to before you undertook a period of intense dieting.
YOUR DAMAGE CONTROL PLAN:
Neither of the above situations have to happen, and this is how you avoid them:
1. Choose a coach who won’t starve you to stage.
I’ve known girls who are on 700 calories diets leading into a show (this DISGUSTS me). I’ve known girls eating 1000 calories and below for 6 or more weeks leading into the show. Hell, I don’t even put my every day clients on that little calories let alone girls training hard twice a day for a comp! It’s absolutely not on, and you should talk to your coach about expectations leading into a prep. No, they can’t tell you how many calories you will end up on because everyone is different but I personally would pull the pin for a client before they could get anywhere near that low calories and tell them they aren’t ready for stage if I can’t get them lean enough with other methods. Sounds harsh, but I will put a client’s health above all else and there is always another show around the corner that would allow more time to fix their metabolism first.
2. Spend time working your calories UP before you start your prep.
I like to get my girls eating over 2,000 calories before we start the diet phase. This helps to teach their body to handle a lot of food, so that when the calories drop, they will lose fat without having to push calories too low. This is really important, because if you start with a low calorie base then you have nothing to take a way and will end up on ‘starvation calories.’ This is a good way to avoid long term metabolic damage by ensuring your calories don’t go too low in an attempt to get you lean enough for stage.
2. REVERSE DIET after your show.
Increase your calories slowly, with the help of your coach. If your coach doesn’t give you a reverse diet, then find someone who will (and never go back to that coach, because they don’t care about your long term health!). You don’t want to chuck them up too fast, to allow time for your body to adapt. But similarly, if it’s too slow you’re just extending your period of calorie restriction and thus potential for metabolic damage.
5. You might develop disordered eating habits or an unhealthy relationship with food.
If you have had an eating disorder before, competing is highly likely to bring up those feelings again. And even if you haven’t, you can fall into the trap of “post comp blues” and desperately want to stay at that lean level that you were on stage.
Even when you have a strong mindset, it can be hard watching your body gain weight. I struggle with it every time, but objectively I know that I can’t stay comp lean or my health (and my social life!) will suffer long term. It’s really hard at the start but you WILL reach a point where you actually love your body at that slightly curvier weight where your body is healthy and thriving. You’ll train better, you’ll think better, and you’ll have more balance and happiness than you can when you constantly restrict your food intake and choices.
YOUR DAMAGE CONTROL PLAN:
If you already have disordered eating habits, or an eating disorder then don’t compete. Honestly, just wait until your mind has fully recovered.
If you’ve had a past eating disorder, make sure you work with a coach who has an understanding of that mindset. I’ve worked with many girls with eating disorders/ past disorders and I’ve been there myself when I was younger, so I understand the battles they face in their mind and whether or not they are ready for something like comp prep.
Regardless or not of whether you’ve had an eating disorder, find a coach who has competed and understands the mental game that follows so they can coach you PSYCHOLOGICALLY through the weeks after comp. The few weeks after comp are honestly harder than the prep itself, so make sure you have a coach who has been there, and whom you can trust and be extremely open and honest with so they can help you through the aftermath safely.
6. Your performance at work will suffer.
If you work in the corporate world, be prepared for your performance in the office to dwindle. Your concentration will be poor, your alertness impaired and your productivity slowed down. I’m lucky as a Personal Trainer that my clients see how hard I physically work to get ready for stage, so they are understanding when I become a bit forgetful or a bit of a “space cadet” as I like to call it. Your boss might not be so understanding.
YOUR DAMAGE CONTROL PLAN:
Talk to your boss and your colleagues about what you’re doing and the fact that its a temporary thing. Explain that you will be dieting hard and you expect you might not be as switched on as usual. Hopefully, if you’ve been there a while they will be understanding and find your silly little mistakes laughable. If you’ve just started your dream job in a fast paced new company, perhaps you should reconsider competing until you’ve an established rapport in that company. Comp prep will affect everyone differently, but I think its worth making sure it’s not going to have too much impact on your career.
Do I still recommend competing?
To summarise, I still think competing is an incredible experience. Given it’s very tough on your body and your health, I wouldn’t recommend doing it long term but doing a competition or a few can certainly teach you so much about yourself!
I coach girls to compete, and I love doing so; watching them grow and change not just physically but mentally. But I always outline the truths about prep before they commence to decide if it’s really something that they want to do. I’m also very honest with my girls as to if and when they are ready to compete. This includes mentally (their strength of mindset), physically (amount of lean muscle and/or what body fat percentage they are currently holding); and metabolically (how much food they are eating). This is because although competing is inevitably always going to be harsh on your body, I aim to do it in the healthiest way possible for all of my clients. No poverty calories, no extreme levels of cardio, no crazy or unnatural supplement regimes. I prep myself this way and give the same respect and honesty to my girls, even if that means telling them they need a two year plan to get on stage. It’s not worth rushing your body into it when it’s not ready and sacrificing your health to get there.
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