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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.)
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.