I have never competed. I know what you’re thinking. This chick is just a pudgy, jealous girl who is far too lazy and un-dedicated to get to that level of fitness.
While I have never competed myself, I am qualified to breakdown exactly why “The Look” is not constructive to good overall health–observation is a powerful skill. “The Look” will be defined differently for men & women depending upon his/her competition type. As most competitors I have spoken with compete Bikini or Figure (female), I will primarily discuss my issues with these two competitions and why “The Look” is not the same as “fitness”.
Let’s start by defining our two types of “The Look”. Bikini competitions are about the “female shape” aka hourglass (tiny waist, decent chest & hips/butt). A competitor typically has a body fat percentage that’s below 20% but above 10%. She will have visible muscles & good definition in her butt, abs, arms, and legs but there will be no veins and she is absolutely not bulky. Figure is slightly less about the female shape, however, there still is a great bit of emphasis on looking feminine. Our figure girl, will have a significantly lower body fat percentage (12% or less, but usually less than 10%) and will have much more muscle mass, definition, and separation of the muscles. Her back is wider, shoulders broader, hips smaller with less fat, thighs (quads/hamstrings) have a good amount of mass, and her abs are very, very well defined (many have six packs) In both I’ve noticed Pros tend to be a little more muscular than amateur (my theory is due to time spent building muscle over the years). The two wear different styles of suits and will pose differently–but that’s of little importance to this post.
Now to define “fitness”. Fitness is being able to complete one’s daily activities plus more, having “markers of good health” (well functioning hormonal system, good blood pressure/heart rate, basically, all those tests doctors run on you), and a balanced mental state. For each person fitness will be different, but fitness has nothing to do with appearance. I, for example, run a 9-10 minute mile; but I have friends who are easily 20-30 lbs heavier and run a mile in eight! However, I hate running & they love it. I can go out & dance none stop for 2-3 hours, yet many others can not. I enjoy that, many do not. I like picking up heavy things and putting them down in a gym, others find this ridiculous. For me yoga is the same a taking an AP exam in Spanish; it’s boring & I don’t understand most of it, except that some person wants to turn me into a pretzel. Physically, fitness is about having enough strength, endurance, and flexibility to avoid injury & better our daily lives. Fitness is individual, it is about bettering yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically. It is being able to go to bed most nights satisfied with one’s self & waking the next day to overcome whatever life throws at us. It is having a balanced and healthy relationship with food; primarily feeding the body to work at optimal function, but also enjoying dietary indulgences and not feeling guilt over it.
This is why competitions have nothing to do with actual fitness. Competitions are only about appearance, period.
Let’s break that down even farther.
This study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23412685) shows that a body builder/competitor’s markers of health actually decline at the time of his show. He loses strength, his heart rate & blood pressure drop to near dangerously low levels, and his body fat percentage is much too low to sustain life. But, hey, he has vascularity & hott abs. Following competition these recover to baseline levels after a couple months. HOWEVER, during his competition prep he has also lost strength…say what?! that muscular guy on stage is actually weaker than he was two or three months prior. Not only that it will take him six months to recover that strength loss. That’s half a year! We won’t even discuss the use of steroids and what that can do to someone’s body and since I’m focusing on females in figure/bikini competitions here, steroid use is not quite as rampant in the bikini/figure world–it happens but it is not exceptionally common.
During the prep phase, which will last about 12 weeks for the average competitor (as most are already “in shape” aka healthy (18-25%) or moderately low (mid teens) body fat percentage. Competitors usually already eat pretty healthy, drink lots of water, abstain from excessive alcohol consumption, don’t smoke, and work-out regularly. So what do you do to cut body fat at this point, you ask? Cut caloric intake (particularly carbohydrates) and increase expenditure. Well that’s healthy right? Not so fast. Reducing weight will lead to muscle loss (or active tissue) which leads to a reduction of metabolism. Metabolism is a smart little guy and will also adjust to compensate for the decreased intake by further reducing metabolism (ruh-roh) AND he will also adjust by decreasing caloric burn during activity.. Yep resting metabolism is ever so slowly being eaten away. Which wait, that means intake needs to be reduced to balance the reduced expenditure. Uh-oh, are you seeing a pattern? Before she knows it she’s eating 900 calories & doing two cardio sessions a day and the measurements aren’t budging and her coach is upset with her because she is not “adhering to the diet and fitness routine”
A week before the competition, she will need to basically dehydrate herself. Many will do this with diuretics She will drink significantly less water, avoid gas/bloat producing foods (sodium, dairy, legumes, etc) and continuing her limited diet which at this point contains virtually no carbohydrates beyond vegetables. She suits up and walks on stage and that’s that. With 30 other girls in most classes, there’s a small chance for placing Top Five, even less chance of winning her class and even less of winning overall (for amateurs that can mean “going pro”).
Now with all that being said, metabolism and other markers of health can be recovered, however many girls will go straight into prep after 1-12 weeks for their next competition in 3-6 months. This is where things start to breakdown. Even 12 weeks is NOT enough time to “recover” a metabolism. Dieting & cutting calories does NOT facilitate metabolic recovery. It is IMPOSSIBLE to recover a metabolism and diet down at the same time. It will not happen. Adequate time “off” is absolutely necessary to improve in the competition world.
Post show is an all out binge, nearly all competitors will binge eat, due to the restrictiveness of their diets. In one meal these girls can eat upwards of two days worth of calories on their show prep diet. While one binge will not lead to an eating disorder, it can lead to a disordered relationship with food overtime. Eventually our competitor can be sickly satisfied with her ability to “control” herself and also guilty about her binge/cheat meal post show & even more guilty because she is unable to work-out post show (many are instructed to not work-out for about a week following the show). The thought process is basically Restrict caloric intake/eat healthy ALWAYS: yay! I look good!, oh my gosh that whole pizza/bag of cookies looks amazing: binge, Oh my gosh! I just ate a whole pizza! work it off in the gym later… Restricting, bingeing, and later guilt are indicative of a disordered relationship with food which can develop into a full blown eating disorder like bulimia or EDNOS–I know this from personal experience!. Wait, isn’t true “fitness” having a healthy relationship with food? Silly, I forgot, competitions aren’t about true fitness just looking fit.
Post show many competitors will be come depressed. Their bodies no longer are “fit” (looking) and many feel fat & unattractive. Wait…this sounds a lot like body dismorphia which can also lead to an eating disorder. For many this feeling will not go away until they begin a rigorous fitness routine along with a strict diet again & for some this does not go away really ever. Most competitors will complain of improvements that need to be made to her physique not for fitness reasons (like muscular imbalances that can lead to injuries) but simply to look better on stage for her next show.
Now with all of this being said, a truly good coach will understand how the human body actually functions, monitor clients for disordered habits/mindset, and be there to create the best results with the least amount of damage. A good coach takes care of his clients “fitness” for the other 364 days of the year! She/He wants healthy clients that she/he can work with for many years! Not, a bunch of babes and trophies!
I am NOT “hating” on figure & bikini competitors rather the bad coaches that value trophies and titles over health & general well being and the competitors who believe abs = health/fitness. Abs do NOT equal happiness. If you are interested in competitions, do your research, talk to coaches, talk other competitors, discuss it with a medical professional, and make a decision for yourself that is best for you.
***study on metabolic damage in dieters: http://www.biolayne.com/wp-content/uploads/Metabolic-Slowing-with-Massive-Weight-Loss-despite-Preservation-of-Fat-Free-Mass.pdf
***BioLayne is an amazing resource for information on metabolic damage: http://www.biolayne.com/nutrition/biolayne-video-log-15-metabolic-damage-v2-0-metabolic-capacity/