Bodybuilding recovery into Powerlifting: Weight Gain, Creatine and Amenorreah

Where I’m at now:  Transition away from bodybuilding was end of May, started officially training for powerlifting end of June.

  • Currently training for my first powerlifting meet in December
    • Totals: Deadlift 285  Squat 185 Bench 115
  • Weight between 148-153 depending on the day (normal for me used to be 138ish for ten years.  Bodybuilding was 134 + more muscle mass)
  • Mood: Pretty fucking happy, I feel powerful, motivated, excited, like I’m at the beginning of a new and amazing journey
  • Energy: All the energy!
  • Food obsession: still struggling, but much better
  • Wine: Enjoying it
  • Neuroticism: bout the same
  • Feel a bit heavy and slow
  • Still working on recovering from Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (HA)
  • I eat a lot of avocados

What is different:
The biggest difference is my energy and motivation level.  That is something that I really struggled with during prep.  I have focus throughout the whole day, energy for training, for walking, for reading, for chores..jk..   I eat a shit ton of food and I’m highly aware of it. My training is less volume, higher intensity.  Much more weight on the bar than before, and less focus on secondary lifts.  I feel excited on a daily basis to be training for powerlifting and towards a Strong First Kettlebell Instructor cert in September.  Training is usually the best part of my day.  My podcasting has shifted to focus on powerlifting and strength training programming, in addition to the regular things I like to listen to on nutrition and mindset and anything by Tim Ferriss.   I’m testing out a higher fat diet with whole milk, avocado and lots of eggs.

The Aftermath:
I’ll try to keep this brief because there is soooo much to say, and worthy of an entirely separate entry.  Post quitting the bodybuilding comp, I gained 15lb in about a week and a half and it was extremely uncomfortable to say the least.  I lost my mind and couldn’t stop eating.  Long story short, the rebound was rough. And it’s not like I didn’t know what I was supposed to do to recover, I just couldn’t execute.  I would lay in bed and re-watch “The Recovery Diet” by 3DMJ, and reassure myself that it was ok that I was eating so much,  and that I just needed to gain some more body fat and that would stop the cravings.  This was kind of true, but I think I could have done some damage control and there are many things I would change if I did this over again.   I watched the numbers go up rapidly.. 140, 145…. OMG.. 148.. 152.  Fuck.   As Coach Brad from 3DMJ  said in response to my check in video.. ‘I see you’ve been slaying some food Cassie’. LOL After about a month of ridiculous amounts of bingeing, I got it down to about 1-2x a week where I would eat 3000+ calories a day. And even as recently as a week and a half ago, the longest I had gone was 2 days without eating some kind of treat. Finally, it reaches a point where you just get sick of your shit. So I’m currently on a no treat or added sugar plan for the rest of the month that I adhere to 95% of the time – and have been doing this for two weeks.  Not a long time in the scheme of things, but considering that I hadn’t been able to go more than 48 hours before.. I feel like a success.

Halfway through prep

What the weight gain feels like
When I wrote about prep previously, I observed how people would complement my physique, and that being odd for me.  Because I didn’t feel like my body was at the weight or the look that I felt the best at or aspire to, both for training or with my appearance.  But I have far surpassed what I felt like was ideal for me.  And even for training, that has been a mixed bag.  It’s a tug of war between raw strength and being able to do body weight exercises like pull-ups versus bench press.  I’m back down to 3 pull-ups from 8, and that kind of sucks.   I’m not sure if other people have figured this out and if one necessarily compromises the other, but it has for me.  And actually I’m not even sure being at this weight makes me a better powerlifter, but I do know that trying to diet right now and lose ten pounds is not ideal for muscle-building, and that even though I don’t need to be gaining tons of weight in a gaining phase, I do need to be in a caloric surplus.  Sometimes I find myself thinking, well.. maybe I’m still newbie enough that I can restrict calories and gain muscle at the same time.   Maybe I can. But can I? Is it worth the risk? I’ll restrict for a few days, then decide that no, that’s not the right solution. I’m being stupid. I also feel pretty heavy right now.  I don’t think my body knows how to handle itself at this weight.  I’ve never in my life weighed this much and its uncomfortable both mentally and physically.  My clothes don’t fit.  My hips hurt.  I can’t jump on one leg very well as part of my morning mobility routine.  I’ve been torn as to whether to buy new clothes or not.  Am I going to stay this weight?  I literally ripped my shorts at the gym squatting because my clothes are too small.  That is more amusing to me

than mortifying, but still.  What the hell.  I’m an overall larger person than I used to be, and I feel out of proportion and awkward.  However, despite these challenges, I’m enjoying the amount of energy I have, both for training, for life, and to feel relatively normal and not to feel anxiety during social outings.

I started taking creatine, which also causes weight gain due to water retention and feeling very bloated.  Maybe its my imagination, but it seems like I can literally feel the blood pulsing through my veins and my skin is tingly.  Maybe I was also slipped in some crack with the creatine.  I’m not certain.   Take home point.  Creatine causes water weight gain and bloating, thus making me even heavier than what I was already uncomfortable with.  I’ve experimented with briefly going off it, then back on, and while that’s not enough to clear out my system, I notice pretty drastic weight fluctuations over the course of even just a few days while keeping macronutrients even, –  about 3-4 pounds.  Sometimes I have to look at myself in the mirror and ask.. are you an athlete or not! Take your damn creatine.

Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (HA)
Another topic worthy of an entirely separate post, is my recovery of  hypothalamic amenorrhea, (secondary amenorreah) which is loss of the menstrual cycle (amenorrhea) in a woman who previously had normal cycles.  I knew that this was a normal and probably an inevitable part of prep.  The situation I am in now is in no way because I was naive or was misinformed.  I did think it would be easier to recover, but this was a conscious choice I made when I decided to compete in bodybuilding.  Are all our choices healthy? No.  But as long as you are aware of them, I think that is the most important thing.  The reasons this is problematic is it can impact bone density, and low estrogen in general may have health consequences unknown.  There is a lot a I still don’t know, and that researchers don’t yet know.  I’ve been listening to podcasts, book reading, I even joined a support group (more so out of curiosity than needing true support)  based off of the book “No Period Now What“.  The advice given is that your body needs to recover from stress and the All In approach includes:

1) Reduce mental stress
2) No exercise
3) No restrictive eating
4) more than 2500 calories a day
5) high fat, high glycemic index carbs, and processed food.

It is a misunderstanding that only athletes get HA.  It is a combination of factors – usually in connection with weight loss of over 10 lb, restricted caloric intake, emotional stress,  exercise stress, and genetics.  So some women in the same exact same situation of exercise intensity and calorie restriction may not get HA while others do.  Some women’s bodies are more sensitive to different things.  Even some women who are anorexic and have dangerously low body fat levels and severe caloric restriction still get their menstrual cycles.  There really is no set point on what causes it, but a combination of the multiple factors outlined above put you at higher risk.  Recovery is described like a may take more weight gain and calories and eating unhealthy foods  initially to get it going, but once its back on, then you can go back to normal.   I’m currently not doing an All In approach. I’m curious to see if I can do it through weight gain, some dietary modifications, and stress reduction alone.  I’m eating high fat foods (full fat milk and soy milk contain more estrogen), but not eating a ton of ice-cream and cookies.   I can’t fathom not exercising right now.  Thinking about that makes me sad. For the nutrition part, this is what has been kind of mind fuck for me this last month.  I was trying to get a handle on my sugar habits and addictive food behaviors acquired through prep, and then I would read in this book about HA recovery and the need to eat sugar and fat and processed food.  For your hormonal health!  That even though it’s the opposite of what a long term healthy version of you needs, its healthy for now, and only temporary.  And so I would. I’d eat tons of iceream and pie and I would instantly feel terrible.  It impacts my training because I get major sugar crashes, or I’m too full to exercise well, or I emotionally feel bad that I ate so much and watch my pull-ups continue to decline.  Which increased sharply my anxiety and stress levels.  Which seems like the biggest contributor of all the 5 categories.  So instead I’m focusing on recovering from HA by being happy and training. And continuing to work on reducing obsessive food habits developed during prep and not eating as many cookies.

I signed up to be part of a clinical trial for Cedars Sinai Hospital to test the effect of HA on heart health.  I will get my results soon, so TBD on that.   I’m excited to be a part of this, and to not only go through testing with a doctor that specializes in women’s health and HA, but I’m glad that I can contribute to furthering science and knowledge on this complicated process.

What helps me stay the course with bulking and creatine:

  • Focus on the bigger picture and the goals – I remind myself of my longer term goals and that if strength really is my priority, then it makes it pretty clear what actions I need to take right now and to eat and do the things that optimize my gainz.  Up until relatively recently, – about 8 months ago, I trained without a plan, and was chronically under eating protein,  like 30g of protein a day, on a good day. I was probably under eating calories too, although not intentionally.  I haven’t even owned a scale for most of my adult life.  But I never have gone through a gaining phase before, and this is all very new to me.  Thus, I feel like I have a lot of untapped potential for muscle building and strength gains due to not having trained or eaten properly for it.  What’s the point in spending endless hours on technique videos and so much effort on training, if I don’t complement that with the right nutrition strategy? Makes feeling weight conscious seem kinda silly when I put it in perspective of the far more important goals.
  • Being inspired by other women on instagram and social media.  Social media can be a tool to bring people down or up, but I have found it incredibly inspiring to see what other women are doing in the strength world and to listen and read about their journeys.  Some of my favorites are Amber Abweh   (pictured on the right) Meg SquatsNeghar Fonooni,  Jen Sinkler, among many many others.  Entering into powerlifting ironically has felt much less intimidating for me than nearly every other sport I have done.  In large part because of how accessible it seems because of all the women out there crushing it, and being awesome.  Not all my women inspirations are powerlifters, but what I look for to feel motivated are women who are doing cool things with their training, and give a positive message. Having those images in my brain everyday normalizes it for me that I too can do this, and looking forward one day conquering a 400lb deadlift. rawr!
  • Uncomfortableness is a feeling that I can handle –  life isn’t about eliminating uncomfortable feelings.  I can feel these things, acknowledge it, and still go on with my day.  I try to identify the deeper meaning when I do feel self-conscious.  Like that I sometimes feel I won’t be taken seriously as a personal trainer if I don’t look the part.  Which could very easily be true to some potential clients.  But is that true? Or is that me making stuff up of what other people might think and exaggerating the potential effect.  Probably the latter.  At the end of the day my goal has always been to pursue excellence as a trainer, and it would be a shallow victory look the stereotypical part with no skills.  I aspire to be skillful, knowledgeable, strong, and a great coach, all of which are independent on what I happen to look like at a given moment.
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Chasing Passion: From bodybuilding to powerlifting and kettlebells

Two months ago, I quit my job without another one lined up,was in the middle of trying to start my own fitness business, and was running out of options for making ends meet.  Walking my dog pondering next steps, I thought about.. what wold I do all summer if money wasn’t a factor?  What resonated most for me was.. I wanted to focus on my own training as an athlete and acquire the skills to become a Kettlebell Instructor, and make strength gainz.  And continue in my personal development as a trainer.  I realized that even though eventually it is my dream to have my own business, relying on my passion to make money was not allowing me the space to pursue the essentials and the foundation of it.  I didn’t want to have a business just to have a business.  I want a business in order to help people, to have flexibility and creativity as a trainer and also as a means to an end – to support my own training.  But most of all right now, I crave mentorship and coaching for skill development. I realized I’m not there yet.  I don’t have the skills I need to confidently set this up which would take my time and focus away from what is most important to me right now.  So I quit trying to develop the business, which was still a great experience, albeit a short term one, and focused on my foundation for the long term vision, and what I need to be happy.  I needed a way to support my training and certification, and I needed to be in an environment where I was still learning new coaching skills.

Currently training for my  kettlebell instructor certification through Strong First, and for my first powerlifting meet in December.  I have fallen in love with kettlebells.  The skill needed for a crisp snatch, body tension and core strength for a Turkish getup, and balance and stability for a heavy kettlbell swing.   I’m equally fascinated with powerlifting – improved skill and proper programming has skyrocketed my deadlift numbers.   I’m currently doing an unpaid internship which is two steps forward toward skill development, and one step back for my other goal in life of financial freedom.  But this process is not linear and investment in my future sometimes requires sacrifices in other areas.  I still don’t know yet how I will pay for my certification course in September, but I’m confident I will find a way, and am training for it as if it will happen. The things I have sacrificed for this last year have really driven home to me the idea.. if you want it bad enough you will find a way.  I have spent almost as much on my training and personal development as I do my rent, and although its not ideal,  I’ve also skyrocketed my career through these investments, and its been more than worth it.  I also find these educational opportunities incredibly rewarding and it makes me happy.  Win win.

What training means to me:
I strive to be the best possible version of myself, which to me is in many ways expressed through sport.  It challenges me, I delight in the movement and process of training, and learning about training, and experiencing it.  I enjoy the process, and I especially enjoy competing.  The emotions I felt running my ultra marathon, – both the highs and the low, and getting my deadlift PR recently at 285lb, are not emotions that I feel everyday.  I was devastated to be pulled off my 50 mile race, and elated to crush the next one.  Getting coached through my deadlift PR a few weeks ago took such mental focus, and inside my head I was literally roaring to psych myself up and to pull the weight off the ground.  It was fucking amazing.

I will not be the best in any sport.  In fact, genetically, I am probably more suited for running and endurance sports than strength sports.  But should be always do what we would naturally be better at? That’s silly. In no way does that take away my joy of the sports I do.   My enjoyment is not in comparison to others, but in the ability to learn and acquire new skills and feel powerful in my body.  To feel accomplished.  To delight in the minutiae of improvement.  I spent about 30 minutes yesterday prior to even working on my deadlift just practicing my setup and breathe and brace sequence, and foot positioning.  Adjusting, noticing how it feels, and resetting.  My six month prep for my first powerlifting meet is not near enough time to reach my potential,  but its a fun milestone along the way.   I think I am more than capable of getting a 300lb Deadlift in December. And if not then, perhaps the next time. The journey will be enjoyed regardless, because the intensity of emotions you get at the end of it, mirror the effort and intensity you put into it.

I feel so happy lately everyday that I wake up, and a large part of this is due to enjoyment in my training, skill acquisition as a trainer, and also starting a gratitude journal in which I focus on acknowledging and reflecting on these things on a daily basis.  Hopefully soon I’ll be able  to add in other things important to me like having a yard for my dog, to be able to afford things that are farther down on the list of importance, and to roast my own coffee beans.

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What it feels like to prepare for a physique competition

The last thing I wrote on this topic was before I started prep.  More on that here.   I’m currently 6 weeks out, (competition is June 17th) and have so many thoughts!

Why I wanted to compete in a physique competition:
– I’m fascinated with the process and science behind changing body composition and wanted to experience it rather than read about it
– I’m motivated by competition, and despite the subjective nature of judging, I needed the extra push to have a finite timeline and specific thing to prepare for
– I heard it was extremely difficult by people who had accomplished far more athletically than I have, so I was intrigued.  Basically, it was a challenge and I wanted to see if I could do it too
– Develop food knowledge.   I’ve a never been on a nutrition plan, and I wanted to dive head first into sports nutrition in the best way I know how.  To experience it, test things out.
– Improve food control.  Despite being relatively lean, I have felt that lack of willpower with food intake has impeded my athletic goals.  I can’t count how many times on this blog I swore that I was going to get leaner to better develop my pull-ups, or sometimes ate too much before going on a training run and made myself feel sick. Or just not food prepped in the way that I should.  But competition drives me to a higher standard and I needed that extra drive to help me with something related
– To try something new.  I’ve done a lot of different sports and trying to develop a training plan on my own initially for this led me to stay up late at night reading about protein intake, peak week, optimal training programs for muscle hypertrophy,  and feeling so excited about the idea that I had no idea what I was doing but I wanted to learn and experience this thing that seemed like a mathematical puzzle that I couldn’t figure out.
– Last but not least, I wanted to experience something on a personal level that I would be helping others out as a personal trainer.  If I was helping people lose weight, I wanted to experience this, although for me, that usually means more of an extreme level.  If I’m helping someone run a 5k, I want to be able to run a 50 miler. (box checked!)  If I’m helping someone lose weight and get healthy, I want to know what it feels like to struggle on a diet to achieve your body composition goals.

Main takeaways and things I’ve learned:
– Better understand my metabolism, cravings, and how my body responds to certain foods
– To experience a well setup training and nutritional program has been so beneficial and I will be able to use this knowledge to apply to all my future athletic goals.
– To experience different coaching styles which has been invaluable to me to improve as a coach myself
– Awareness of stress, and how I manage it under different circumstances
– Finding enjoyment through training with different metrics, like a focus on mobility, technique and adherence to the program
– ability to food prep like a boss, better understanding of portion sizes and macronutrient ratio intake that works well for me

Step 1: Getting a coach
It was pretty apparent to me I didn’t know how to go about this.  So I was on the hunt for a coach last summer, and had set a target date of competing in a year.  In the meantime, I would just play around with my nutrition and training as an experiment and see how far it was off.  Even if I did kind of know, having coaches has been such a wonderful experience f for me and takes my athletic abilities to the next level. Going forward, I will have coaching for everything I do, if I can afford it. In addition, restricting calories and getting stage lean was something that I felt like I could have negative health repercussions if I attempted on my own.  During my own experimentation, I was trying to bulk, not cut.  Clinging onto food as long as I could.   I found a great coaching group, 3DMJ by listening to podcasts! I did a lot of research and applied, and feel lucky to be accepted and coached by Brad Loomis.  It was important to me to find a coach that approached training in a holistic way, and that I respect as a human being in addition to be super knowledgeable. Brad has been great.  He’s pushed me just hard to enough, and is attentive to my reasoning behind why I want to do this.  The training / nutrition plan has evolved numerous times to better help me cope with adherence.

What this has felt like: The struggle to be normal
This next part is going to be a brain dump because creating too much structure is going to hamper my thought process.  So apologies in advance if its difficult to follow.  I’m going to start backwards and what I feel like right now, and how I got here.  This process has been a mind fuck.  I don’t know how to describe it in any other way.  I don’t know how people do this as a career.   In my category for bikini, I don’t have to get as lean as the other categories, although I’m still attempting to get as lean as my willpower and timeline allows.  The weeks I have the most success is when I’m able to just be as normal as possible.  What this means is.. to stop trying to figure out gimmicks to feel full.  Or eating things I wouldn’t normally eat.  Not doing activities because I was trying to conserve energy.  Or isolating myself and staying away from friends because I don’t feel like I have the self-control to be around people and to not go off my diet.  Maybe I don’t completely have this figured out yet, but I’m committed to figuring that out and trying to live life as normal as possible because it is emotionally healthy to be normal.

Getting lean means that most of the work is done not in the gym.  I still have a rigorous training schedule, but if my diet goes off the rails, I likely will get stronger, but not getting leaner.  This is completely opposite of every other sport I’ve done.  It matters more what I do outside of training than training itself.  Instead of having to focus for a few hours, or even for very time intensive training, like for my 50 mile ultra, I could still have ‘off hours’ in which I could then not have to think about training and eat a celebratory meal and be detached for a bit.  But now I have to be on point at all hours. So that means when I’m tired, stressed, angry, I need to stay focused.  Not to mention that being in a caloric restriction induces stress and can make me tired to due to insomnia.  It feels kind of like my mobility / flexibility training.  That the harder you want to push things and force your muscles to stretch is actually counterproductive.  The muscles need to relax, not tense up.  Working at being happy, content and less stressed enables me to better adhere to my diet.   I tell myself often.. just be normal. What would normal me do.  Although even that aspect I can’t truly be normal me.  Because normally when I’m stressed I work out.  But I don’t want to be counter productive to my gainz and mess with my training program so I refrain.   I do mobility work instead.  Or bear crawls.  Lightweight stuff that’s not too taxing.  I also don’t have the energy. My workouts often like a struggle most of the time rather than a stress outlet.  I have to be very strategic about what days I train and when I eat to make the most out of them.  Somedays are better than others.  I am often yawning in between sets or space out because I’m mentally unfocused. By the evening I’m in a mental fog and have a hard time concentrating.  I do all my work in the morning.  Capoeira, which normally I really enjoy is in the evening, which means its mentally taxing.  We did up my cardio recently which ironically has made me happier.  Running is the one thing that I can do that doesn’t take a whole lot of brain power that I can do on autopilot, and makes me feel good.  So when I’m tired, I run.

Food Focused
My typical day usually is that I wake up with a ton of energy.  I drink coffee and read and work from home.  I avoid eating much for breakfast so that I can eat more later in the day. I like eating in the evening.  Eating also spurs my appetite for more eating.  So the longer I can delay that, the better.  I’m figuring out so many interesting things about myself.  Like what foods make me full, what are my triggers, what foods I’m low key allergic to.  Eggs fill me up.  I often eat an egg in the morning and in the evening.  I do better on a high carb intake.  Sugar, honey, and peanut butter are triggers for binge eating.  I’ve never eaten sweeteners before, but I resorted to that recently because it helps me curb my cravings.  I get a lot of stomach pain from various things.  Such as too much fiber – both soluble / insoluble. I try to balance eating foods that make me feel full, like pumpkin and mushrooms, with not eating too much so that its hard to digest.  This is a never ending process in figuring out that optimal amount.  Carbonated water I had to cut out, even though it helps me stay hydrated, because there’s that pesky stomach pain again.  The lower calorie I get, the more food variety upsets my stomach.  I initially was enjoying elaborate food prep Sundays and cooking and having so much fun with it.  Then I not only started running out of energy, but also often things I was making did not make me feel good.  Like turkey, beans, cauliflower, apple sausage, too much spinach… this list goes on.  So I’m back to yogurt, cottage cheese, chicken, eggs, plus veggies and fruit for what I eat all day errryday.  The only variety I have is with fruits and vegetables. Which most I can still handle just not in overdose.  I love bananas and blueberries and on my higher calorie days I go a little wild and eat a ton of fruit.   I make a lot of chicken, often eating it without any sides, and change only the sauce I make it in.  So different hot sauces, soy sauce, mustard, and spices.   Black beans make me extra sick.   I also get really weird cravings and have eaten strange things in order to manage it.  Things I have consumed:  bites of uncooked yam.  A jar of mustard.  spoonfuls of sugar.  I remember hearing on a podcast about sugar cravings that people don’t eat spoonfuls of just sugar or honey.  That it’s more about the flavor profile of a food like cookies or cake.  False.  I have held up a jug of honey and drank it.  It made me sad. Strategies I’ve had to employ to prevent binge eating include having to force myself out of the house to go for a walk, completely eliminating trigger foods, sometimes intentionally planning in large amounts of things I crave, like a tub of whipped cream.  I don’t do this a lot, but every once in awhile I get such intense cravings I have to make a plan to fit it into my meal plan – which is macro targets.  I can fit whatever I want into the targets, but 90% of the time I eat healthy, just because good food makes me feel full, and gives me the nutrients I need.  But then again.. sometimes eating a tub of whipped cream or carton of ice-cream is nice too.   I’ve also messed up a lot.  Which has been emotionally hard.  During my 50 miler and even for my training for this, I never missed a single workout. I train 5x a week, do capoeira 2-3times a week, and have now upper my cardio to run 10 ish miles a week (albeit slowly, cause ya know.. energy)  I have a 100% adherence rate and motivation for executing a training plan.  But tell me to eat less?  Hella hard.  I’ve sat in my car crying eating cake.  I’ve stood at the kitchen counter mindless eating 1500 calories in peanut butter, feeling angry the entire time.  I went on a downward spiral for awhile, afraid of losing control again.  Once I realized I was subconsciously sabotaging my progress after that by eating just a little bit more than I should each day, afraid of being hungry and losing control, it helped me be more aware.  Deal with things day my day, and stop anticipating the thing you are dreading.  As coach Brad says.. pop an amnesia pill and keep going.  I try to do that.  Forward focused, not backward.

Sleeping and Stress:
I feel like I have a much lower threshold for stress, which is also why it has become really important to learn to better manage things.  This might have flown under the radar before, but since I”m so sensitive to fluctuations now it has made me aware of things that bring me stress and how I handle it.   It’s hard to overstate how much I feel that being in an underfed state has changed my motivation, energy levels, sleep, willpower, and stress tolerance.  It’s been fascinating to discover this.  I would have considered myself prior to this extremely mentally strong.  When things are hard, you grind through it and get it done. Both for life in general, and with training. I consider myself a doer.  Which is why refraining from doing, refraining from eating, from moving, has been such a challenge.  I spend much less time training compared to what I am used to.  I spend a lot of time thinking about food, and my lack of it.  I’m often tired by 7pm and want to go to bed because my energy levels are crashing.  But then I get super focused and read until 1am and wake up at 6am.  My insomnia is getting better, and I think this has to do with stress. I had read that estrogen, which helps you sleep is stored in body fat.  So contest prep can mess with hormones and induce insomnia.  I had a few weeks where I was sleeping around 3-4 hours a night and losing my mind.  However, my body fat is lower than that now, but I’m sleeping again.  Maybe its because I quit my job spontaneously and am feeling happier.  Happier means less stress, more energy, and less food focused.  I strive to continue to enjoy my training even though I’m tired.  I work on my form, and surprisingly I have gotten quite strong, despite the caloric deficit.  I can bench 115lb now.  Putting on a 25lb plate used to intimidate me and I needed a spotter.  Yesterday I did 105 for reps on my own.  That’s a huge win for me and I think this speaks to the importance of a solid training program.  And while form has certainly improved how much weight I can lift, there are other metrics, like being able to do a weighted pull-up for the first time, that help show me I am getting newbie gainz while dieting.  I also hadn’t realized how newbie I was.  Going to the gym for a decade doesn’t count because I never had a plan.  Which excites me for going forward after this when I’m not dieting. Matching me with a strength plan AND high calories?  Imagine how strong I will be then.   Hoozah.

My perception going in was that all I would have to manage was being hungry a lot.  Which after being fed normal amounts, going a few weeks being hungry isn’t that hard.  But its more than being hungry, its lacking in energy that has been the hardest.  For months on end, it has started to chip away at me.  This is the number one reason why I doubt I will ever attempt to compete again in a physique sport, is that I feel like I have less zest for things that are important to me.  I have no doubt I have become stronger mentally through this process.  I have a newfound appreciation and respect for people that compete in this sport, especially those at a high level.  I’m a subpar novice competitor and struggling hard as fuck.  But ultimately, that is what I wanted to get out of this.  Even though you get judged against others, to me, I am trying to do the best I can. Which means, getting as lean and muscular as I can physically get, and psychologically handle in a 6 month prep.  I’ve considered quitting, and switching to powerlifting.  Or just quitting and not switching to anything.  Just.. being.  I had a heart to heart with myself at the gym thinking.. even though I started down this path I don’t have to finish it.  But my gut reaction against that thought helped me revive my motivation.  I want to see this through.  And in the words of one of the podcasts.. I’m also intrigued to see what my muscles look like.  I’ve been training different sports my entire life and I want to see what that looks like underneath it all.  Things that could not be fixed or changed with such a short training prep to try to even me out with muscular development.

Body perception and reactions
This post would not be complete without including the reaction of others.  Being super intrinsically self motivated, other’s approval has never been a driving factor for me or my goals especially when it comes to body type.  More than at any other time, I’ve come across both complements and mocking as I go through this process. It’s assumed almost always that my reasoning is to do it for personal appearance.  Which is interesting to me, because this is not the body that I feel that I look my best in.  I’m more comfortable at a higher weight and as I mentioned before, not having the energy to do the things I want has been a real struggle.  Even if this was the body that I felt that i look the best in, its not the one that I perform the best in for the activities I enjoy most, and that is most important to me.   I’ve been mocked for how much / little I eat, and comments that it’s shallow to want to get on stage in a bikini.  I try to engage in a conversation for my deeper reasoning, but feel like it is often misunderstood.

So, yes I will be getting on stage in a small piece of cloth, but what that is not showing is how mentally powerful I will feel to have conquered one of the hardest tests of willpower I’ve had to go through.  I hesitate to even try to compare it to running a 50 miler or doing an amateur boxing match in front of hundreds of people because.. its just different.  Instead of building myself up to be my strongest and fastest and most mentally prepared for a competition at the end of the season, it has happened in reverse.  I will be leaner, weaker, and mentally exhausted by the end.  Finding meaning in managing the journey through it is the point, and I look forward to training for a rim to rim to rim run in the Grand Canyon and getting certified as Kettlebell Instructor with SFG not only because it will be fun, but because it will be easier.

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Setting Macronutrient Ratios for Body Composition

If you have ever tried to read up on the internet about the ideal macronutrient ratio, then you know how overwhelming this can be.  There are many different diets out there, paleo, Atkins, high fat / low carb, high carb / low fat, low calorie, high protein. Where does one even start!  Some of the challenges of picking a specific diet is that there are people who subscribe to it and say that it works.  But the underlying principle of things that work are essentially the same.  When you reduce calories, eat less processed food, and exercise  – this will help you lose weight.  Without addressing any diet specifically, I’m going to instead walk through a case study and show how you might rethink some of the fundamentals of setting up a diet and sample exercise prescription for changing body composition – specifically fat loss.   Note, this is different than macronutrient ratios for health, which you would want to more closely analyze your micronutrients and may have many other health factors that would need to be considered.

The theories I subscribe to, and some of the most well written analysis / process I’ve seen on this, is by Eric Helms: Muscle and Strength and Nutrition Pyramids.  Other big influencers for me are: Lyle Macdonald’s “A Guide to Flexible Dieting“, Mike Israetael, Brad Shoenfeld, top names in the field, and all with similar philosophies as to the basic pyramid of importance for nutrition for fat loss and muscle building.  As Danny Lennon from Sigma Nutrition put it during an interview with Mike Israetael about the pyramid priorities..”So I think when you start to see what guys at the top of the game that are actually looking at science have the same approach. Then you can start to see well yeah that is probably the way to go..”

I’m going to use a case study by a friend that we’ll call “Erica” to think through this process.  This may be a bit long, but it help gives context to make following along the analysis better.   Erica’s story:

“My main health goal is to get my body fat percentage back to around 18-20%. I’m not sure what is it right now, but I know that it is significantly higher that what it used to be.  So I have tried several ratios throughout the past 3 or so years. I always notice that when I cut carbs to below 20%, I lose weight, but then I read some other articles that suggested I reduce them even lower to like 10-15%. That is really hard for me because I feel like all I have left to eat is meat, nuts and non-starchy veggies. I’m also not sure about protein because I read differing accounts. One blog I followed (can’t remember the name) suggested that you eat 50% protein which was really hard. On a 1800 calorie diet, that came out to around 225 grams a day. I think the most feasible ratio that I stuck with was 20 carbs, 40 protein, 40 fat.  My biggest struggle is keeping carbs low without getting bored with diet. When I was the most fit, I really really watched what I ate – like obsessively. I am trying now to be gentler with myself, but I am having trouble finding that balance.  I am lightly active plus 3-6 days of weight lifting.   Right now, I work out 5 days a week. 3-4 of those days are lifting. 2 days are cardio. I have been lifting to gain muscle. But at the same time, I am also trying to get back into running. It is more difficult for me to run with extra weight on, so for the past couple of weeks, I’ve switched focus and started to focus on shedding extra weight to get back into running shape. I’m still lifting but I started reducing weight and increasing reps to turn my lifting into more of a cardio/strength training.”


The Pyramids: Understanding Priorities
As you can see, the very bottom the pyramid, before the true pyramid even starts, is behavior and lifestyle.  If you do not create a diet you can stick to, then ultimately it does not matter. Even if you go on a very strict diet and lose 15 pounds, if you do not change some fundamental habits at your maintenance level, your body will naturally go back to its settling point that you were at before you lost the weight.  So this post will be mostly focused on changing body composition for fat loss, but to keep in mind that maintenance at that new level entails long term dietary changes as well, just not as much as to lose the initial fat.

Highlighting some of the things that stick out to me to being tailoring a plan for Erika is:  Erica is not obese, but wants to lose about 15 pounds.  She is weight lifting 3-4 out of the week, but wants to focus more so on fat loss to help her with her running.  She increased her reps, and added cardio to try to help with the weight loss.  She has trouble with finding a diet that is sustainable.

The basics of the plan for Erika

  • Specific fat loss phase coupled with strength training of lower reps, (6-12 range) and higher weights to build muscle, which will help with the fat loss, as muscle is much more ‘metabolically expensive’ to not only maintain, but to build, and to minimize muscle loss during this process
  • Some guidelines for maintenance to allow for flexibility in the diet to make it more sustainable over the long term

Step one:  Energy Balance and Calorie Intake
The first step that Erica needs to do is figure out her energy balance and calorie intake for maintenance level (Energy out and Energy In).   As she describes in her post she was more focused on ratios before best assessing what her total caloric intake was.  Cutting calories too low can negatively affect your workouts, make your body fight back harder and hinder weight loss, or cut into your lean body mass.
To better understand what comprises Energy Out, lets analyze the graph below from the textbook Nutrition for Sports and Exercise 3rd Edition:

Nutrition for Sports and Exercise

You can see here, that a large chunk of your energy expenditure is your resting metabolic rate, (RMR) and the biggest chunk within your control is exercise.  RMR is comprised of:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Body composition (muscle burns more calories than fat)
  • NEAT (Nonexercise activity thermogenesis) which is a fancy way of saying this is all the movements you do throughout the day which often are done subconsciously.  Like twitching, getting up from the couch, walking around, yawning.  This is influenced by both habits but also our diet.  Women tend to respond strongly to low calorie diets by subconsciously saving energy and moving around less when calories are restricted too low or for too many days.  The opposite is true to an extent, that when you go over your calorie balance, you tend to move around more and expend more calories.  This is one of the things that contributes to your settling point.

So how does one go about estimated this complex process?  One good way is to use an electronic device, such as an apple watch, fitbit, Garmin watch, etc.  These are reasonably accurate but not completely.  You can also log and estimate your activity to give you a ballpark estimate, or use an equation, which is highly variable, but can put you within a general range.
To log: Here’s a good website to help you get a ballpark for different sports and exercising.
Equations:  A ballpark equation is to multiply your weight by 10, then multiply by activity.  Also from the Muscle and Strength Nutrition Pyramids Eric Helms, Muscle and Strength Nutrition Pyramids
Erika weighs 160lb, and she has a lightly active job and has 3-4 days of weight lifting.  Because this graph includes ranges for both women and men, we are going to use the low end of the activity multiplier of 1.5 as women burn less calories both while at rest and during activity.  So 160x10x1.5= 2400 on the low end, and 2,880 on the high end.  You can see that’s a pretty big range.  It gives us a good estimate, but tracking the calories and energy expenditure will help zoom in on this.

For calories in:  The best way to figure this out is to suck it up and measure your intake and monitor your weight for 2 weeks.  This means measuring your food with a digital scale, (before its cooked for consistency) and weigh yourself every day at the same time.  While this won’t show changes in muscle mass, its a small enough window that you should be able to track averages, and over a weeklong period of time to subtract for water weight fluctuations.  So track the average for week 1 and 2.  To track your calories:  If after two weeks you are way out of the range given from above you might take a closer look at you measuring skills as it is quite easy to input food wrong, or even the website that is tracking it might even be off.  It is an imperfect science, but should fall within a ballpark.

Whew! Now that we’ve made it through that, you want to figure out what you calorie intake should be depending  on your goals.

For women, recommended about .5-1% of your bodyweight a week.  Since Erika’s main priority is not muscle preservation, we can use the high end of this, at 1%.  Using 160lb, we multiply that by .01 and get 1.6lb a week.  A pound of fat equals roughly 3500 calories, so we multiply 3500x.8 and get 5600 in a week to lose.  Divide this by 7 and we get 800 calories a day to be below maintenance.  Keep in mind this is a very targeted phase, and not to be sustained.  Assuming Erika’s maintenance was 2400, she would be eating 1600 calories a day.  But since she is lifting or doing cardio most days, this increases her food intake.  Lets say she burns 300 calories for a workout, then she would eat 1900.  These numbers are just best guesses that will be modified after she spends her next two weeks tracking to best figure out maintenance level.  Erika has said she wants to lose 15 pounds.  After the first two weeks of figuring out some data, losing about 1.6 pounds a week we can see this will take Erika at least 10 weeks.  Lets extend this to 12-13 to account for fluctuations, life happening,  making it harder to lose weight the leaner you get, and for a diet break halfway through to reset her hormones that will begin fighting the weight loss within 4 days of starting a weight loss plan.

Determining Macronutrient Ratios
Now that you’ve stopped reading, we get to the good stuff.  Lets say Erika has determined that 2400 is correct for maintenance and is going to consume 1600 calories a day to aim to lose .1% of her bodyweight a week which for right now is 1.6lb.  (This number will continue to be modified as you lose weight) And using this as a percentage you can see that for people who have a lot more fat to lose, it is safer to lose more per week than someone who is leaner.
Pre step one:  Erika’s weight in kilograms is 160/2.2= 72.72  You don’t have to do this, but I like to keep posts consistent.

Step One:  Protein intake first.  In order to preserve muscle, increase satiety, number of grams will be determined first.  Protein is one of those things that advice ranges all over the board including from different textbooks.  You can see my musings on this on an earlier post here.  I have decided to find people in the field that I trust and stick with them for consistent recommendations.  So this is based again on Eric Helm’s and validated by other authors I respect who advise 2.3-2.8g/kg while dieting.  This recommendation includes women and men, so women would be on the low end of this, and could get away with being even a bit lower.  For Erika, who weight lifts 2x per week and is not trying to build muscle in the process we will set this barely lower than the range at 2.2g/kg while dieting.  72.72×2.2=160g per day.  160×4=640 calories.  2000 calories – 640 calories = 1360 left to divide between fats and carbs.

Step 2: Fats and Carbs
This is much more subjective, and once you set the minimum values of each, Erika can change the ratios and see how her body responds and also adjust based on preferences.  There is no magic number for any individual.  If you are exercising more, you will need more carbs to fuel your activity.  But beyond general minimal intake, these percentages within your calories limit can and should fluctuate throughout the week.  This makes it not only less stressful, but it takes off your mind something that doesn’t really matter.  This also allows you to figure out if you respond well to either slightly lower fat, or slightly lower carbohydrate intake. There are people out there that might adhere better if they have a target to adhere to, or if someone is diabetic they would need to stick to a stricter and lower carbohydrate intake.  But Erika is not diabetic and has said that sticking to a super low carbohydrate intake made this hard.  There was no reason for her to be doing this to begin with.

A sample range that Erika might chose to divide this up could be
Protein 640 calories (160g)
Fat 540 calories (60g) 27%
Carbs 805 (204g) 40%

But this could also be
Protein 640 calories (160g)
Fat 360 calories (40g) 18%
Carbs 1000 calories (250g) 50%

Within this general macronutrient ratio, Erika can fill up her food intake with a variety of non processed food as much as possible, which will take care of her micronutrients that help keep her healthy. This is operating under the principle of flexible dieting, and sticking to a 80/20 rule.  That if you have cake, or some wine, if it fits within your overall calorie balance, within your macro’s and you are getting in enough micronutrients for healthy living, your goals will not be compromised.  If you end up going over one day, you can “borrow” calories from the next day, or even pre-plan to go over by eating a bit less the day before.   The next post will continue the discussion on having free meals, and also extended planned periods of time (2 weeks or more) where you are back at maintenance calories in the middle of a diet to let your hormones reset and to also not let your body get too used to the lower calorie balance.

As with any nutrition plan, some of it is science, some of it is guessing.  You should stick to a plan for 4-5 weeks before modifying it.  As Andy Morgan from advises when people ask if their macros are setup correctly, a great response is:

 “They could be right, it depends. How are those macros working for you?”

Last but not least:  Exercise prescription is to keep the lifting schedule, but have the weights within an 6-12 range, or even lower.  Higher volume under higher tension is necessary to build muscle which will help Erika lose fat during this process, help prevent against muscle loss which inevitably will happen during a fat loss phase, but better prepare her for maintenance as well.  Increase in the muscular skeletal system is one of the biggest predictors of people keeping off the weight.



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Is a Bikini Competition a Sport? Critical Reflection on Why I Want to Compete

NPC West Coast
Starting training for my first bikini competition, (NPC West Coast)  I’ve come across a number of objections, and good questions for me to ponder.  Below are the things that inspire me to compete in this type of competition, and I included my responses to some of the best objections, including ones that I’ve also been hesitant of myself. First off, I’m consider myself an athlete, and also someone that feminism and equal rights is important to me.  On my bucket list is to do an IronMan, run a 100 mile race, compete in a Crossfit competition, run a sub six minute mile, get to 8 pull-ups, and make it to graduado level in Capoeira.  Why then would I be interested in a beauty pageant esque competition?  Well then.. glad you asked!

The Science Behind Bodybuilding is Fascinating!
This is what I’m so excited about to learn and to start training from a coach who knows their shit.  How you set up a training program for hypertrophy, the nutrition to accompany it, and the not only muscle growth in one areas, but muscle growth through the entire body, including muscles you need to isolate that you have never trained before.   It’s extremely technical.  In addition to a technical program design you need to be highly proficient in the lifts themselves.   Full range of motion and motor neuron activation are needed to increase strength and size of muscles.  A bodybuilder does not need to have the shoulder mobility for an overhead squat, but they will be highly proficient in the squat for example. If you are not doing lifts correctly and with full range of motion, your training is sub par.  There may be some lower level competitors that can get away with poor technique and less optimal nutrition, but high level bodybuilders cannot.  One of the podcasts I was listening to described an exercise he gives his class – if you saw a lineup of people and you could not talk to them, how would you decipher who was the strongest.  Answer.  By how big their muscles are! You don’t have small looking power athletes, and bodybuilders are hella strong.  Large muscles are not a façade of strength.  The training differs of course, but bodybuilding and power lifting are cousins in training, as compared to distant relatives if you were training for other sports.  It’s a very specialized skill, and I don’t understand the comparison to a beauty pageant, which to my understanding does not require advanced level training and preparation. 

Excelling vs Functional:
I hear this one a lot.  That it doesn’t seem like a real sport, and making muscles look bigger isn’t a sport in the same way that powerlifting, gymnastics, running, or other things are.  Lets unpack this a bit.  Is the reason we do sports to make you better at everyday life? Do even any of the sports people typically use as a model for what a real sport is do that?  The answer is no to both of those.  The sports that come the closest to advertising those purpose are Crossfit and MMA style fighting.  Is a broad skill set better than excelling at one sport?    A powerlifter is stronger than a Crossfit athlete, and an Olympic sprinter would kick ass at the Crossfit games for the sprinting category.  Does this make crossfit less than or better than? That is not the point.  They are different.  Both are cool.  Its comparing apples to oranges.  Both serve different purposes, but the intent is that you set up the rules of the sport, and train to excel at the parameters given.  The same is true for MMA fighters.  You must have a  whole arsenal of martial arts skills and cannot just focus on jiu jitsu or boxing.  Is MMA better than boxing?  Does MMA truly prepare you for  ‘real world’? Or would Krav Maga, and weapons disarmament be more useful when there are no refs, and you may have to fight multiple people and someone has a gun.  Is synchronized diving practical?  Is deadlifing 1000lbs functional? Is being a football player healthy?  Which is better – Taekwondo or Capoeira?   Judo or ping pong?  100m sprints or ultra marathons?  Blog article writing versus writing a Dissertation that no one will ever read??  Ok one of the things in this category is not like the other, but my point in bringing up writing a dissertation is that it serves a completely different purpose.  A blog article is more likely to be widely read and reach more people, but it’s just simply different.  The criteria and intent of each is different.  Is the central purpose of any sport designed to make you better at your average everyday life?  If so, what the hell are you doing in your everyday life?!  Sports are designed to go beyond that.   These questions and criticisms are so irrelevant and are not the point of why people do any type of sport.  You train for a purpose.  And I’m willing to bet there is no elite athlete in the entire world who will say they train to be better at their everyday activities.  In fact it’s completely the opposite.  They change their everyday activities to optimize their sport.  You change your nutrition, your stretching and mobility regime, your focus and mindset, even your social life changes, to enhance your training to best excel at your sport of choice.   Better endurance and health certainly contributes to your quality of life.  But that is a side effect, not the main goal, and many sports actually inhibit longterm health like football and boxing.  Many martial arts prioritize self-discipline and body awareness.  Also useful.  Look at the essentials of any sport, and they will have many of the same qualities, and the end goal is always to excel to the best of your genetic abilities within the parameters of the sport. There may be side goals like changing those parameters, which we will get into next.   When people ask, what is the purpose of bodybuilding? The answer is.. the purpose is to get really good at bodybuilding!     To conclude,  I’m excited to compete in bodybuilding to see how advanced I can get in the technical training and nutrition needed to get my body to look a certain way, and for the incredibly high amount of self-discipline required to do things.

Bodybuilding is not Inherently Sexist:
Are there sexist aspects of female bodybuilding? Yes absolutely.  Is the essential idea of what it means to be a bodybuilder – to develop your physique in a symmetrical way and change your body composition to best display that sexist?  I don’t think so.  But I do believe that the accessories and regulations that have been imposed especially on the female categories are.  And this to me is a big difference.  The history of all sports is one of sexism and racism, and its all of the sports. Figure skating, gymnastics, running, cycling, MMA, tennis, soccer!  Every. Single.  Sport.    If we were to dismiss a sport based on sexism within the industry than women would not be competing in anything.  This topic in itself requires an entire dissertation, but to give a few examples:   Wage inequality in US Women’s Soccer – the women’s soccer team gets paid less than the men’s team, despite higher viewership and more wins.  They are forced to play on sub par turf and the treatment of the players and the standards used to judge the actions are different.  Eg Hope Solo getting kicked off the team recently based on her public persona and comments she made during the Olympics.  Running:  Rampant sexism.  Running the NYC Marathon recently, I was reminded how only relatively recently women were allowed onto the course, and running used to be thought to ruin women’s reproductive organs, and they were advised to run less than half a mile.  Theories of ruining women’s baby making capabilities was the number one reason women were barred from most sports.  The women’s marathon was added into the Olympics only in 1976, after much campaigning, and ultra marathons are still being challenged and having to change their criteria for having  different distances for men and women.  Dismantling a legacy and infrastructure of sexism is tough work and it is immense.   Title IX played a huge role in changing the landscape in school and college athletics for women, giving them access to programs and coaches they did not have the opportunity to have before.  Written in 1972, and implemented related to athletics in 1975, this is the beginning of changing widespread lack of opportunity and access for girls and women in sports.  This is only 35 years ago!!  Are soccer and running inherently sexist?  Or do they operate in a sexism environment, that influences the rules of the game, the turf they play on, and their compensation.  And this is in sports traditionally looked at as ‘sports’.  What about sports that are more subjective based on body type, which is the same type of issues that female bodybuilders face.   Misty Copeland, an African American Ballerina discusses many of the challenges she faced not having the ‘traditional’ body type that a ballerina was assumed to have.  ”

[People] hear those words from critics — I’m “too bulky,” I’m “too busty” — and then they meet me in person and they say, “You look like a ballerina, I don’t understand.” And I think it’s just something maybe I will never escape from: those people who are narrow-minded. But my mission, my voice, my story, my message is not for them. I think it’s more important to think of the people I am influencing and helping to see a broader picture of what beauty is. NPR article 2104

Olympic Gymnastics and Figure Skating are sports with a high degree of athleticism but with subjective beauty standards for judging and influenced by geopolitical events.  The code of judging of both was recently changed, and the gymnastics criteria was overhauled as recently as 2006 and placed more of an emphasis on rate of difficulty and criteria in the scoring to make judging more objective.  Only ten years! And even this overhaul is not without its critics.  The criteria and rules will continue to evolve and change with the sport.  Not to even get into the issue of sexism of sponsorships.  Take Maria Sharapova versus Serena Williams.  Is there even any question to who is the better athlete, yet Sharapova makes nearly twice as much in sponsorship money.  Now imagine being a less famous athlete than Serena, and sponsorships can mean the difference between being able to pay for high level coaching and being able to not have a day job, and focus your time on training.  This is connected of course to the prize money for women’s sports and how low it is, but these issues are all intimately connected.

The sexism I see in female bodybuilding is the requirement as new categories began to emerge – bikini, figure, fitness, physique,  (originally there was only one category and that was female bodybuilding)  is that the sport was having an issue with sports enhancement drugs, and the criteria changed to ‘feminize’ the sport, as well as to make it more socially and monetarily appealing. High heels and makeup were added to the criteria for these new categories, but even physique and bodybuilder categories that currently do not wear heels, do often wear makeup and style their hair.  There is also a subjective ‘stage presence’ that is part of the judging criteria, and while it is not explicitly stated, from my reading up it seems like breast implants have become pretty important especially in the bikini competitor category. Like the other sports that used judging based subjective criteria such as figure skating and gymnastics,  things like ‘grace and poise and elegance’ were common elements of judging.  This is part of the massive bias that led to prioritizing certain body types and racial bias into the judgement process.  Like these other sports,  female bodybuilding has extremely problematic criteria that should be reformed.  This includes things like not standing in heels, and making hair and makeup optional.  As well as integrating much more objective criteria for judging.  As a relatively new sport it is evolving constantly I expect we will see a lot of changes over the years.

To wrap this all up: I’m excited about competing in a new sport.  I recognize that in any sport that has a subjective judging criteria that this complicates things and may even differ from what I see as success.   I have images of women of the type of body I’m trying to achieve and I will judge myself closely to those merits rather than judging how I did based on if I place or not.  Success to me will be following my training plan and doing something completely out of my comfort zone and stepping on stage.

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