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Lessons from a first-time fitness competitor

Fitness Feature

Written by Haley Shipley

Last year, I did something I never thought I would: I stood on a stage, in front of a whole lot of people, wearing a sparkly bikini and sky-high heels—all while being scrutinized by a panel of judges.

My entry into a bodybuilding competition surprised most people I knew. While I’ve always liked playing sports and setting goals, the super-teased hair, orange-tinged skin, and submitting myself for the approval of others didn’t seem up my alley.

That, however, was the whole point. Pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone is what keeps life interesting. While I’m not sure I’d do it again (more on that later), I’m happy I tried it—there was so much I learned along the way, including these five lessons:

1. Discipline is a Daily Choice

It’s easy to be enthusiastic about new goals—that’s why gyms are always a little more crowded in January after New Year’s resolutions. So the first week of working out twice a day and eating a lot of veggies was fine, even exciting. But as the time wore on and the novelty wore off, my willpower waned. There was no cake at birthday parties, no beverages besides water, and no skipping workouts. While a lot of people around me thought the lifestyle was fascinating and respected its limitations, many didn’t understand how encouraging me to indulge was detrimental to my progress.

I was not perfect during the process, but I got pretty close toward the end. I would ask myself, “When you wake up tomorrow, will you be happy with the effort you put in today?” I didn’t want to disappoint my future self, so I stuck to my guns most of the time—but discipline remained a conscious choice to the end.

2. Routine sets you up for success, and flexibility keeps you sane

Bodybuilders thrive on routine. During the nine months I trained, my days were pretty regimented. There was usually a little cardio in the morning, planned meal times, strength training in the evening, and an absurd amount of water sipped throughout the day.

At first, weighing my food and eating it at a precise time felt strange, but it soon became habit (and now I can tell you what one ounce of almonds looks like without a food scale!). I also started cooking more than I ever had before, which I’ve continued to do. As actions become ingrained as habits, the less of that active discipline from lesson #1 you need.

Stuff happens, though. I couldn’t hermetically seal myself inside a space that included a squat rack and a veggie peeler, so there were times when life interfered. Times when I found myself running errands when I was supposed to be eating meal #3 or waking up early when I hadn’t logged my required hours of sleep for the night. There were challenges, like when I took a work trip to Mexico four weeks before I hit the stage and just had to do my best to make good choices (no tortillas or tequila for me!). The routine had to change, but instead of catastrophizing after a small setback, things went much better when I simply accepted it and got back to my regular routine as soon as feasible.

3. Comparison is the thief of joy

It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others, and when you’re in a sport that’s actually based off of comparing people, it’s even more tempting. But obsessing over why someone else can eat a donut every day and still have abs, while you just sniff a donut and gain a pound, isn’t going to do any good. Admire others and learn from them, but don’t go down the road of fixating on your flaws as compared to anyone else. I still get frustrated sometimes that I didn’t win the genetic lottery, but I remind myself that fretting about it won’t change anything. All those clichés about not comparing your beginning to someone else’s middle are clichés for a reason—because they’re true.

4. Not every girl is every person

I’m glad I tried out bodybuilding, but I don’t necessarily recommend it for everyone. For anyone who’s struggled with issues around food, I would be extremely cautious—restricting your intake as you’re prepping for a show can be triggering. Even if this doesn’t apply to you, activities like the meticulous counting of macros and subsequent pendulum swing to “rewarding” yourself once the show is over by eating way more than you’re used to can cause issues for some that might not have previously existed.

Also consider that unlike a sport like powerlifting, which is all about how much weight you can move, or running, where the person who crosses the finish line first wins, there is often no clear-cut victor on stage. There’s usually an entire lineup of men or women who look like they’ve worked very hard, and distinguishing among them is a tough job—and you might not always agree with the decisions. If you think you’ll have trouble separating how you place with who you are, it’s probably not the best idea to compete.

5. You never know who's watching

The most heartwarming aspect of bodybuilding was something I never expected: A number of people I had no idea were following my journey reached out afterward to say my fitness competition experience inspired them to take up strength training or try something new. It was a good reminder that the people around you notice your actions, even when you think no one’s looking. The idea that I had a small influence on someone picking up a kettlebell or working toward their first pull-up is incredibly humbling.

I don’t know if I’ll ever take to the stage again in those five-inch heels—I tried prepping a second time, but my body wasn’t responding. It’s the only one I have, so I need to respect it. For now, I’m working on my general strength and fitness, waiting for the next challenge that catches my eye the same way the jewels on my bedazzled bikini did.

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