My First Bodybuilding Competition

Hungry For Greatness
When you know you’re destined for greatness, your potential haunts you. It keeps you up at night, and you won’t feel complete until you succeed. That potential had been haunting me for 10 years since I started CrossFit, and now it was worse than ever being so close to my version of success  only to have it taken away from me (see previous Blog: “Why I Did It”). Needless to say, I was hungrier than ever and physique bodybuilding was next on my radar.

I decided to give bodybuilding a shot simply because it seemed to be the sport most similar to CrossFit… or at least that’s what I thought. Looking back on it now, I was totally clueless on what I was actually getting myself into. In fact,the person reading this right now probably knows more about bodybuilding than I did. All I knew about this “sport” was that Dana Linn Bailey did it, and she looked freaking amazing. I had seen some online training videos of bodybuilders so I knew they lifted heavy, trained hard and looked at themselves flexing in the mirror a lot, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Regardless of how much I knew about the sport, I was all in— I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of winning a show because I was willing to out-work, out-hustle and out-grind the rest of my competition that had been at this sport for years.

I hired a coach in June 2016 and set out to do my first show in October; that left me 3 months to “prep”. In that 3 months, I had to lose 5% body fat, learn this new style of training, learn how to pose, and put together a 45 second posing routine… oh and move from Colorado to Oregon. No big deal, right?

Twelve weeks out was the start of everything. At this point, nothing was really that hard or stressful, plus I had the excitement of a having a new goal on my side.

The diet was strict but it wasn’t impossible. Of course I was hungry and had your typical cravings and temptations, but overall it wasn’t that bad. My coach basically gave me a list of foods and quantities I could choose from, and the only thing I really liked on there was chicken, cheddar cheese and brown rice, so that’s what I ate 5 meals per day for 12 weeks straight and I absolutely loved it every time. One “cheat meal” was allowed per week as well. Within the first 4 weeks of being on this nutrition plan, my body totally transformed. I lost about 6 pounds of fat in 4-5 weeks, putting me at an all-time “athletic” low bodyweight of 113 pounds. I looked and felt amazing.

The training took some getting used to, switching from moderate intensity, high rep CrossFit-mode to high intensity, heavy weight sets taken to failure. The volume between the two sports is similar but the intensities are extremely different. With CrossFit, you’re taught to move quickly with efficiency and strategy. With bodybuilding, you’re taught to move the weight in the least advantageous way possible and take each set to ultimate failure a.k.a. crying on the inside, and sometimes the outside too. This style of training is no joke; it certainly isn’t for the weak-minded as your results are completely dependent on the effort you put into each rep, set, and session.

For this reason, training was my favorite part about this prep; I genuinely enjoy the grind and mental toughness of any physical challenge. Unlike most bodybuilders out there, I did CrossFit and interval workouts for my “cardio” because it was way more fun than spending an hour on an elliptical or step mill  (FYI: bodybuilders call it cardio, CrossFitters call it “conditioning”or “workouts”; I switch between the two).

Posing, on the other hand, was a nightmare and I hated every single second of it. I tried to teach myself through YouTube videos but I just looked stupid no matter how hard I tried. I figured if I couldn’t get this posing thing down, then my body better look damn good on its own by working my butt off in the gym- something I knew I was really good at.

About six weeks out from the show is when things started to get tough. The better I looked, the worse I started to feel and the more that was asked from me as far as volume goes. While my calorie intake was being cut further each week, the less energy I had and yet the more cardio I was told to do.

Here’s where I went wrong: when I started the prep, I was already doing 4-5 hours of training, with about an hour of that being cardio/CrossFit; that means in order to lose body fat, I had to do more cardio than the base I started with (because you can only take your calorie intake so low). Little did I know, this is why most BB competitors do minimal conditioning in the off-season, so that they can use just the slightest increase in cardio as a tool to drop the body fat.

As far as posing went, I began practicing with a local team once a week but I still continued to look and feel like a very awkward gorilla in a skimpy bathing suit. This whole posing thing has been the most uncomfortable part of this whole process, especially when I have to practice in that gawd-awful suit. Unfortunately, it’s part of the game I chose and will only be of increasing importance the higher I move up the ranks; so I did my best to suck it up and see it as a challenge for me grow and conquer.

Two weeks before the show was when I was at my worst; I was up to 3 workouts per day and 3-4 hours of strength training with only 1300 calories; it was insane! I literally felt like a zombie; I was constantly exhausted, hungry and extremely emotional. I have never been one to cry much, but sure enough I found myself crying nearly every day for the last two weeks because I just had nothing else to give and yet my coach kept demanding more out of me. My daily routine became very robotic, operating on a forced, repetitive 3-hour cycle of eat, train, sleep; taking the day on 1 hour at a time was the only way I could get through my day.

As soon I was done eating one meal, I would start counting down the minutes till I could eat my next one. My weekly cheat meals were no longer an option, and Crystal Light and Jello became my life-savers. My training went from 1 really long session per day to 3-4 short sessions because I was needing longer rest periods in between sets and I would nap 1-2 times per day (either in my car, at the gym or at home) in order to have enough energy to finish my training.

I was literally running myself into the ground; my eyes were bloodshot, my skin was paper thin, there were a lot of days in those last 2 weeks where I wasn’t sure if I was gonna stand up with the bar or just pass out. I had never depleted myself so much, but I did what I had to do. For all I I knew, the emotional and physical battles I was experiencing was part of the sport so I knew i had to stay strong if I wanted to win. Not surprisingly, my posing still sucked but at least my body was looking the part.

One exciting part of this point in time was when my coach told me that I could start thinking about a high carb meal I wanted to have the night before the show. Not only did I constantly think about this momentous meal, I researched the various restaurants I’d be driving past on the way to the show, screen-shotted pictures of my favorite meals and put some seriously detailed thought into what this meal of choice was going to be. It was pretty awesome daydreaming about this meal, and often helped get me through some of the low parts of my day.

Leading up to the show, I felt like shit but I looked great. It was the final home stretch so that was enlightening. I had made it this far, sure enough I could make it one more week.

I was down to just eating chicken and almonds. Veggies, Crystal Light and Jello were all cut from the diet. Cardio remained the same, but weight training became more CrossFit-like with high rep sets of low to moderate weight to keep inflammation down; I only had to train 4 days this week, with Friday being a rest/travel day. Sodium was cut completely out of my diet starting Wednesday and water was cut on Friday; neither of these was hard to handle.

I felt like the worst had been over and now it was just time to shine. On my 3-hour drive to the venue on Friday, I stopped by Red Robin to pick up my ultimate “cheat” meal: The Marco Pollo burger with sweet potato fries (in case you want to see this beauty: Unfortunately, I had to wait another 4 hours till I could even eat it, so it was cold by time I slammed that bad boy down but it was just as good as I imagined it to be.

When I woke up on show day, I looked and felt bloated. I couldn’t believe it, all this sacrifice and hard work only to not look my best on show day?! Obviously the burger and fries was not a good choice, probably because my body was so accustomed to eating the same thing for the past 12 weeks that it didn’t know how to digest such a complex meal. I was pretty frustrated that my coach didn’t guide me better but what could I do at that point.

That morning of, I did my own hair and makeup (pretty sure a child could do a better job than I did), because paying $300 for someone else to do it just sounded absurd. I was pretty nervous headed down to the event area; I didn’t know what to expect or what to do. I totally just relied on watching the other competitors and copying what they did. When I walked into the athlete staging room, I was pretty shocked at how good these girls looked. I was certain that not a single girl or guy could have trained harder than I had, but yet they still looked amazing- how did that happen? Needless to say, I started to think that I did not have this in the bag (especially with my current bloated situation) and realized it was gonna be a challenge rather than a walk in the park as I had hoped.

Almost all the competitors seemed to have a personal coach with them, helping with them whatever needs they had; that didn’t seem to bother me much though, as my CrossFit competition experience trained me well on being independent. Besides, unlike CrossFit, I knew the work was done and all I had to do was walk on stage and smile.

When my class got called up on deck, all the girls grabbed their bands and dumbbells and started “pumping up”, so I just copied what they did- a few pushups here, a few bicep curls there and some lat raises in between. I couldn’t seem to replicate the same pump as I do in the gym but whatever. I did my thing on stage, walked off was called back out for finals and the overall. I walked back on stage, gave my fake, cheesy smile and copied the same stance and pose as my competitor… then I hear, “And the overall winner is “Natalie Newhart”. “Sweet I did it!” I thought to myself. I couldn’t believe it, it was pretty surreal to have my name announced through the speaker system at a competition I really knew nothing about. I had accomplished exactly what I set out to do- to work so damn hard that my the other competitors didn’t stand a chance, despite my horrific posing, hair and makeup. It was quite satisfying.

Unfortunately, the trophy came with a price. The exhilaration was short-lived and I was unaware that the worst was yet to come- the “post-show rebound”. Stay tuned to hear about worst and hardest part of the entire prep, what I wish I knew before I started bodybuilding.

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