When I started my career as a personal trainer at the ripe young age of twenty-two (I really can’t believe I’ll be thirty-six this month. Look ma’ I made it! J) one of the very first actions I took was to enter myself into a natural bodybuilding contest. I had wanted to bodybuild ever since I watched Lou Ferrigno as the Incredible Hulk in the mid-eighties television series. Then of course there were the professional wrestlers in the WWF like Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior who became another source of motivation before I started “investing” what little money I earned at thirteen years old on muscle magazines. But I digress.
My reasoning for entering the contest was two-fold. First, I always wanted to look like a bodybuilder so it only made sense to do what bodybuilders do…compete. Second, and the stronger of the two reasons, was to gain experience and knowledge. I reasoned that if people were going to come to me with the expectation of achieving six-pack abs, defined muscles, or to simply get lean and muscular, then I better know and understand all that goes into the process.
After 14 years of competing it is impossible for me to place a value on the lessons I’ve learned from getting up on stage. What I have gained through those experiences cannot be learned in a book or in a classroom. The lessons can be categorized two ways; physique development and self-development. While my initial interest was regarding physique development I quickly learned that self-development works in tandem with physique development—sometime preceding it, sometimes resulting from it, and sometimes working side by side with it.
Here are my top 7 lessons learned from the bodybuilding stage:
- Fat loss takes time but needs to be approached with a sense of urgency. While losing weight slowly is necessary for maintaining a healthy metabolism and ensuring that the weight you shed is fat and not muscle, don’t use this as a reason to get complacent or justify poor decisions about eating or exercise. With few exceptions the metabolism is very slow to get started, often taking 4 or more weeks just to build enough momentum result in consistent weekly fat loss. And that’s if you’re doing everything right!
- Track everything. As the old adage goes, you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. While keeping a food log and keeping track of your calories, carbs, protein and fats might seem like a royal pain in the ass, it is the only way to figure out exactly how much you can or can’t eat without disrupting your fat loss efforts. Don’t try to guess…it doesn’t work.
- Until you change your mind you cannot change your body. The body has a funny way of following what your subconscious believes to be true which is why I can’t stress enough the importance of developing self-belief and having a positive self-image. I have never had a competition season in which I didn’t improve upon my condition from the previous season. I attribute this to first seeing myself better than I once was the previous season and then taking actions on achieving it.
- Have a strong “why”. It’s easy to stay the course and do whatever is necessary to achieve your goal when you have a clear-cut reason for doing so. Getting up in front of a bunch of strangers with less fabric covering you than what you would wear to the beach was, and continues to be, a very big reason “why” I’m so intent on not screwing up my diet or missing workouts. Just wanting to “look better” or “get a little leaner” is not incentive, it’s a wish. Attach it to something bigger that will keep you doing the not so fun stuff and now you have a why.
- This s#%t is hard! Make no mistake about it, you have to work your butt off and be disciplined to make even minimal gains. Showing up is not half the battle it’s about 1/10th of it. You need to constantly outwork yourself in order to make forward progress. Accepting this reality will help minimize frustration when you’re not achieving results at the rate you think you should.
- You are always IN-season. One of the most common traits amongst top competitors is that they focus just as hard on their diet and training in the off-season as they do 3 months before stepping on stage. By living the lifestyle year round it makes getting into competition shape much easier and faster and makes the damage done by an occasional night out on the town or going out to eat almost non-existent.
- Support systems are a necessity. As stated in lesson #5 this stuff is hard, but it can made much easier, and your likelihood of success is greatly increased by having one or more people working towards similar goals alongside you. Conversely nothing can thwart your efforts faster than resistance or ridicule from family members or friends. Be sure that the people surrounding you understand how important your fitness goals are to you and to respect your decisions about the way you eat and how you spend your time.