Last week I wrote a blog post called, Is being really lean, is it really worth it?”

In that blog post I posed that very question, and gave readers 5 things to consider when trying to answer it for themselves. The truth?  I don’t have the answer for you.  I have it for me, but not you.  And you know what?  My answer may change over the course of time, and that’s OK.

In parts 1 and 2 of this article, I am going to share the experiences that I and several of my good friends had when dieting to extreme levels of leanness.  Some were good, some were bad, and some were downright ugly.

Part 3 will include the lessons were can learn from each of these women – what they did right, what they did wrong, and what they would have done differently, “if they had just known.”

If you do decide that you want to try to achieve extreme levels of leanness, I simply want you to be able to make informed decisions.  Personally, I had no clue the aftermath I would experience from extreme dieting, and some of these women didn’t either.

Here are our stories.


The Good

Julia Ladewski

Competing in figure wasn’t something that ever crossed my mind. I’m more the type of person to be focused on strength and performance goals.  I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want to look good in tight jeans, but the aesthetic side of things was always a side effect of the training I did. When I began the journey back in March, I had 9 weeks to prepare for a show and then I was going to be done.  That figure show turned into a physique show three weeks later, then another physique show two weeks after that.  So 14 weeks of training, cardio, and dieting.


Julia’s “Physique-ready” physique. (The “physique” category generalls rewards leaner and more muscular shapes than the figure category).


 After that last show, I knew I was done. And because I knew I was done, my mind was telling me, “You can eat whatever you want!”  And I did for a couple days. But I also wanted to be smart about it. Not because I didn’t want to get “fat”, but I didn’t want to feel like crap. Overeating and eating the wrong foods generally make you feel terrible. And I didn’t want that. I knew my digestive system would need to be eased into foods that I hadn’t had in awhile. I had gotten advice from my coach (John Meadows) about how to slowly increase my food intake so I wouldn’t have an excessive rebound.

Did I do it perfectly? No. But I was aware of it.

Now let’s be honest here… After the first week, I gained back about 6 pounds (I had only lost about 6-7 over the entire process). My abs felt soft and the bicep vein running down my front delt was disappearing. Truthfully, I had gotten so used to seeing a six pack in the mirror every morning that my psyche was now saying,

“You’re soft. Don’t get soft.”

But then I would think about the days where I felt fatigued and exhausted, tired and run down, oh, and the two months that I missed my period… THAT is not good for me.

Maintaining a 9.5% body fat level is not healthy and it’s dang near impossible to maintain year round without killing yourself. Even though the images of that perfectly lean body were fresh in my mind, I knew that getting back to normal was good for my strength, good for my performance in the gym and good for my health and mind as well.

Staying that lean wasn’t an option… but so far, it’s been easy to stay at my normal level because I was educated on how to reverse diet out of it.

Speaking of performance, slowly increasing my food intake allowed me to get back to lifting heavy objects and keeping my joints healthy. I knew it was good for me. And I’m pretty sure my body appreciated it.  I can tell my leverages are back to normal which make squatting, benching and deadlifting a whole lot better. And in the end, that makes me a happy person.

Competing in figure/physique was a great experience. Doing it the right way made it so much better. Finding the right coach and educating yourself along the way can make or break how you view your body and your relationship with food.

Dieting down and reversing it afterwards can be done to minimize long term metabolic damage. That’s why I’m back to powerlifting, letting my body stabilize where it wants to be, getting stronger and if another figure show comes up in the future, I’ll be healthy as a horse to do it the right way again.



Kellie Davis

My last several shows were a different experience than my first show. I stayed pretty lean after each of them, but my first show I had a hard time normalizing my eating. I was afraid to gain weight and stayed pretty tiny for quite a while. I gained a lot more mental clarity after my second show and was able to normalize my eating for each subsequent show.

August 2011:

Last show, August 2011: 126 lbs.


Even though I no longer compete I’ve been able to stay pretty lean despite my weight being a bit higher than stage weight. I think competing helped me learn how food affected my body and my mood. When I didn’t get enough, my energy and mood reflected it. When I had too much (of the bad stuff), my body would react adversely with skin breakouts, energy spikes and plummets, and sluggishness after a few days.


A more "normal" weight for Kellie: 135 lbs.  She generally hovers between 133-135.

A more “normal” weight for Kellie: 135 lbs. She generally hovers between 133-135.


The most important thing when deciding to compete is to realize that you only get one body. What you do to it today affects your body long-term. Crash dieting, extreme bouts of exercise, and stress over getting on stage may give you the body you want to chase that trophy, but the repercussion may hit you hard afterward.

Kellie Davis is a freelance writer and blogger turned fitness coach living in Northern California.  In addition to writing, Davis helps women all over the world achieve optimum health as a fitness and nutrition coach. She runs MotherFitness, is the co-owner of Get Glutes and the co-author of Strong Curves: A Woman’s Guide to Building a Better Butt and Body



Alli McKee

I competed in a four shows over the course of my figure competitor chapter. As with many firsts, I was most unprepared throughout the first show as far as “how-to’s” and expectations. Each show that passed, post competition got easier with the collection of experience and a great coach by my side. Both of those additions helped transition me through the adjustment period.


Alli competing in the Arnold in 2011.

Alli competing in the Arnold in 2011.


 Coming out of a show can be an emotional rollercoaster. You find that your laser focus and goal oriented training comes to a halt when the competition is over. As a result, routines can soften and or change all together. Your body reverts back to a slightly higher level of body fat sometimes skewing your perception and body image. And last but not least, finding a happy medium between a restrictive competition nutrition program and a more flexible, healthy, lifestyle-oriented nutrition program.

As best as I can remember, I rebounded the most after my first show, but still maintained a leaner body composition than my starting point. By my third show, I had the brainpower and support from my training and nutrition coach. Great coaches make a world of difference.  Also, by my final show, the nutritional choices had become more of a lifestyle but just as we dialed in my nutrition by pulling certain things out towards the final days, my coach wanted to reintroduce things gradually to my system again too.


A more normal "walk-around" weight for Alli.

A more normal “walk-around” weight for Alli.


 My training after shows never really skipped a beat. With hindsight, I’d say it took a long time to redevelop a more relaxed relationship with food after competing.  With that being said, I love the experience and knowledge gained from the process. Most importantly, I’m pleased that we were careful never to cut healthy corners for the sake of the stage or starve me down to a competition physique. As a result, my body never sustained any side effects from competitions.



The Bad 

Stacey Veronica Schaedler

Competing in Figure was a great outlet for me at a time in my life that I needed focus. My mom had just been diagnosed with cancer and my long-term relationship had come to an abrupt end.

Competing in Figure, Bikini, Best Body as well as Fit Body has taught be so many things!

First off, it taught me that nutrition is everything, when it comes to physique goals.

On the same note, everyone is different.  One woman may thrive on a meal plan, while another will suffer on that same plan.


Stacey at her competition weight.

Stacey at her competition weight.


Post shows it was far harder to stay lean than it was before I stepped on stage.  After my 4th show I rebounded HARD. I swear cellulite appeared ON MY ARMS A WEEK after simply reintroducing real whole foods that had been previously restricted.

(Note from Molly: I’ve heard many other women talk about this as well, i.e. storing fat in places where they haven’t stored it before, and the appearance of cellulite in new areas as well).

I NEVER had issues with body image before competing, but for a while after my competitions, I never felt that my body looked good enough.

As a female trainer it was even more difficult when clients would make negative comments about my body. It was as if since I had gotten on stage and bared it all they now felt they had the right to discuss my body. Little did they know that I was struggling on the inside; I almost left the industry because I felt so ashamed I couldn’t even control my own body.

I swear everything happens for a reason and the process I went through competing has lead me to understand others struggles even more, enabling me to help even more people! It all has come full circle for me!

Ladies please remember that listening to your body is so important! It has all the answers.

Loss of sex drive, fatigue, joint pain, hair loss…yeah that stuff is not normal. And pushing through your body’s warning signs is just plain stupid.



Molly Galbraith

If you’ve read my blog or listened to any of my interviews, it’s no secret that I have struggled a lot with my body, body image, and my health post-figure competition.

I competed in 2006, 2007, and 2008 and after each competition, I rebounded badly.  In fact, after my first comeptition, I can remember feeling like every inch of my body had been beaten, and was bruised from head to toe.  Not to mention the fact that I ballooned up in weight very quickly despite following a very reasonable post-competition diet plan.


Before my first competition

Before my first competition. 152 lbs.


After my second competition in 2007, I rebounded pretty badly, but was able to get my body back on track and by Spring of 2008 I was eating a ton of food, and I was the leanest I had ever been able to maintain (only 6-10 lbs. above my previous stage weight).  So what did I decide to do?

Compete again.  Doh!

I competed for the last time in the fall of 2008.  After that show I spent months trying to manage my unexplained weight gain, fatigue, and depression.  It was so weird.  I didn’t feel depressed like I was sad, but rather, my body felt depressed.  Getting off the couch to get a glass of water felt like an insurmountable task that would take 2 hours.  It was awful.

I finally went to the Doctor and I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s (autoimmune hypothyroidism), PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), and Adrenal Dysfunction.  No wonder I felt like garbage.  I had pushed my body too far, too many times.

I’ve spent the last 4+ years trying to repair the havoc that those competitions wreaked on my body.  I feel pretty good most days, but if I don’t get enough sleep, or I let myself get too stressed, I definitely feel the effects more quickly.  My body is more sensitive to everything these days.


A more comfortable "walk-around" weight for me (173 lbs.)

A more comfortable “walk-around” weight for me (173 lbs.)


ADDENDUM (June 2014): This is an updated "walk-around" weight for me that I've maintained for almost a year.  The more I learn about my body, and the better  I am able to manage my stress, the easier it is to effortlessly maintain this size.

ADDENDUM (June 2014): This is an updated “walk-around” weight for me (163-165) that I’ve maintained for almost a year. The more I learn about my body, and the better I am able to manage my stress, the easier it is to effortlessly maintain this size.


In the end, I am glad I competed because it led me to what I believe is my life’s purpose and passion:

I want to help women give themselves GRACE and COMPASSION when it comes to their bodies, and help them discover and accept what their best body looks like, without having to kill themselves to get it.

That being said, knowing what I know now, and recognizing what dieting to levels of extreme leanness has done to me personally, I would never compete again.


P.S.  Most of us don’t even have pictures of ourselves during our “rebound phase” because we were so ashamed of how our bodies looked.  I apologize for not having any to share with you all.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I share the ugly, and downright dangerous stories from other women about dieting to levels of extreme leanness.



18 Responses to Extreme Leanness: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

  1. Such an incredibly honest and necessary post. My god it’s rare to hear this perspective. Yet as a personal trainer and a woman, I’ve always held the belief that competitions are, at their core, unhealthy. People ask me why I don’t compete and I in turn ask why I would (I still don’t understand why people do it -shed light?). Sometimes I do wish for a six pack, and although I look very close, I know that I am NOT close. It would take some serious leaning out which I’m not willing to do. I’ve settled for “roundness,” which in my view is more natural and healthy.

  2. Jessica Jane says:

    Awesome article, Molly! I think a lot of girls need this, and fortunately, I DO think we are slowly moving away from this sort of idea that “leaner is always better.” I was wondering if you still struggle with adrenal issues, and if so, how do you go about training? I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue (very low in the morning, and generally low throughout the day, although not technically “out-of-range”) and (subclinical) hypothyroidism (high reverse T3, low free T3) and I find it really hard to lift weights without feeling crappy or exhausted afterward. It’s REALLY frustrating because I literally dream about weight lifting and feeling awesome in the gym again! I’m kind of at a tough spot, looking for any advice or something that worked for you in a similiar situation. Thanks! You inspire me!

  3. Kate says:

    Thank you for the honesty with this Molly, whilst I am not a competitor like you guys, I have recently been on an extreme diet for 9-10 months and was under extreme stress at the same time. I was actually starving myself, but convinced that it was ok for me, because other people did it. I wasn’t listening to my body, and was grumpy, exhausted and aggressive for the majority of the time. The lesson to listen to your body and find the answers for yourself is liberating, but a sometimes scary task given we, well I am, so blindly led by others when it comes to this. And why? It is my body! I had alsways been so impatient to reach a goal that I wasn’t listening to how my actions were impacting my body. Patience and love of your body is key, but a huge hurdle to make. I appreciate what you do and your honest words. Thank you

  4. Holly Mallery says:

    WoW!!,Thanks so much for this article , I personally am not looking to compete on stage but to lose the last bit of weight off me has been hell . The More I work out more I gain and feel like crap . I take a week off everything starts to work better but I don’t look like I want. I have not found anyone admit yet that 173 lbs is there comfortable walk around weight , I am between 168 and 170 all the time , at 5’9 and was still listening to people say they were over at 150 and I felt I should be there too… ! I am finally making progress toning everything back up and working out when i feel strong and leaving it be when I don’t . The idea has sunk in that it won’t happen in a day and that I can be ok being a tall strong girl . Thanks Molly keep up the good work . From N.B Canada

  5. I can totally relate to this article and I appreciate it more than you know. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I competed for the first time in November of 2012 and I am still struggling with my body, with adrenal fatigue, with so much. I am trying to stay positive, get back to normal and learn as much as possible from my experience to help others.
    Thanks again!

  6. Janelle says:

    Around February i was training for my RKC certification. Originally, there were pretty tigh weight classes for the certification. I am a 5’3” femal who, at the time, had struggled to keep my weight below 123.5 pounds. Anything above that weight required more demanding strength tests, and truth be told. I had let the anxiety and fear of failure get to me to the point where I took it upon myself to cut my weight.

    But…funny thing happened. I found maintaining my weight below 123.5 to be incredibly difficult. I was irritable, my energy was zapped, I was barely eating for the level of demands I was placing on myself, and other said hormonal disregulation ensued. Post RKC, I burned out for basically two months and am now just physically and mentally coming out of it. It was a learning experience though. Sometimes, we need to bare in mind that we cannot fight biology. When you’re adding on muscle, you need to eat more. If your body fat drops too low, there will always be a price to pay for it.

    I’ll never cut my weight again. Before RKC, I was 122 and struggling to stay there. Now I fluctuare between 126-129, and I cam totally ok with that. Sure, the extra body fat is there, but hell. I’d rather be healthy and perform at my peak than allow myself to fret over some obscure number on a scale.

    This article is amazing and I am glad you are showing both sides of the story. I can totally relate to this! Cannot wait for episode two!

  7. Wow, this was very eye opening and I really found comfort in this. I recently competed in my first bikini show through NPC. I was following the “training” of another competitor(a male) who had me on a crazy diet of intermittent fasting and 5 meals consisting of 1/4 chicken breast, 2oz sweet potato and 1 cup spinach daily. My body felt like it was dying, my mood was so volatile my coworkers later confided in me that they were planning to seek counseling for me.

    I have stuggled with body image issues since I was 13, after gaining weight due to leaving competitive gymnastics after 7 years. I ran collegiate track and filed and was never satisfied with the way I looked. Even during this show, I was very lean(not my leanest) but not satisfied. My body was fighting back hard to maintain its sweet spot that it maintained as a performance athlete. I didnt know how to properly reverse diet and gained 10 pounds back within 4 weeks. I had only lost 8 during the whole 9 week process. I was so exhausted and really HAD to let my body recover.

    This post was so great to illuminate how important it is to take care of your health as priority. I am still on my personal journey to make peace with my body and treat myself lovingly, but I stand in solidarity with you and your message! Thank you!!

    • Rachel says:


      I completely relate to you on so many levels!! I too was an athlete and even during the show, was not satisfied with my body!! Right now I’m fighting the battle of the post competition mahem. I have gained 15 lbs in less than a month! I know I SHOULD reverse diet but I couldn’t force myself to continue with my restricted diet. I felt like it was on healthy and my body needed a break. I’ve been killing it with physical activity and diet for as long as I can remember… Always thinking leaner is better. So as I see the scale go up, I can’t but have this awful collision of “wow I am so fat, I need to get back on track” and “you need this! Go ahead relax and enjoy food”. It’s very difficult and humbling! I am supposed to go on spring break trip (bikini!!) and I am so not mentally or physically ready for that! My body needs more time to get back to normal! What worked for you to get back on track?

  8. It’s just so crazy because for so many of us, the day we step on stage we probably still feel like we don’t look good enough! It’s sad.

  9. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again — thank you SO MUCH for writing these posts. It’s really nice to know that other people are thinking about this in a different way than the cover of the fitness magazines or most people (women) assume it “should” be (leaner is better). I blogged about having my body composition tested and what it’s like to know that I could be leaner all the while accepting that my body is healthier and happier than ever at a higher body fat percentage – – a pretty powerful realization for myself but one that took me years (and still requires reminding myself on a regular basis) to arrive at!

    Again, THANK YOU.

  10. Jess Mac says:

    Thanks for writing this and getting all these brave women to share their stories! I often photograph women who are competing so I’ve posted the link to it on my business page. It’s so crazy how one woman’s experience can vary so drastically from another. Common sense and listening to your body is so important! Thank you for pointing out the obvious.

  11. Michelle Percival says:

    Molly, thank you for your honest accounts of competing and showing some stories from both sides. I too am a Figure competitor going on 3 years now. I can not tell you how glad I am that women are finally talking about the ups and downs of competing. They should know this going in!!! I remember in my first year of doing show after show with no real time to recover my metabolism thinking I was crazy for feeling these same things and dealing with these same issues! There was so little information on reverse dieting properly and the emotional toll with seeing yourself “stage ready” every day to loosening up on your diet and training gradually. You fee ashamed and embarrassed you don’t look that way all the time, and develop some really unhealthy relationships with food and binge eating. And I had a couple years of post graduate education in nutrition, was a personal trainer, and have been an athlete all my life!!! And I still was not prepared for everything that comes with competing! You could develop a whole site to this topic I’m sure!:)

    • Rachel says:


      What have you found now that has helped you end those binge eating habits and get back a hold of your life? I just finished my first bikini competition and I have gained 15 lbs in less than a month! My body still feels deprived and I’ve been cherishing carbs a bit too much! My coach told me I need to reverse diet and go back to how I was eating during pre comp but I am just SO sick of draining and torturing my body! I have always ate extremely healthy but I almost think I eat less healthy now just because I have been deprived for so long! It’s also extremely hard because everyone expects me to still have this competition look but that is far from the case! I’m supposed to go to cancun for spring break in like a week and that thought even makes me sick! My body needs more time to balance. I need more time! I almost feel like hiding under a rock until my body gets back on track/if it will! I want to be lean and healthy again- (NOT like comp season but beforehand when I looked AND felt good and aligned to my body)

  12. vanessa says:

    What a much welcomed and needed honest REAL sharing.
    Thank you!

  13. Beatrix says:

    Thanks to all the writers for their honesty. At least now I know what I’m in for.

  14. Mike R says:

    Thanks for the article. I am sharing your website with my 17 year old daughter who has shown interest in lifting and fitness. This site shows her how to do it right from the beginning. Thanks!!

  15. I feel that attractiveness has alot to do with health and longevity. Its fascinating how all the contests have tended to extremes and produce what I believe are unattractive bodies, whether men or women!!! Why can’t we compete at what is attractive and healthy.

    And do we also have to consider sports, especially for our kids and especially for girls? If they are not setting us up for health and femininity. Ofcourse that has to be weighed against the many other benefits of sports.

    Whether its figure competition, sports or gym fitness, we seem to be able to get onto a path that allows us to be happy to leave a balanced ideal.

  16. Jennifer says:

    Excellent and so well written by all the ladies. You are all goddesses and I love the honesty in portraying this struggle.

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