By: Claire Allison
Edited by: Miya Stewart
To bring more perspective on the topic of female bodybuilding, I interviewed four amazing women. I asked them about their experiences during competitions, what their lifestyle is like during competition and off-season, as well as how their mental, emotional, and social health are affected.
How do you handle the critiques and feedback from the judges (mentally, emotionally)? If this was difficult for you, or still is, how do you stay positive?
Lauren First: “I won’t lie, your placing can easily affect your mindset when it comes to competing. You put weeks of hard work, dieting, cardio, etc. and if the judges don’t place you top 5, it’s easy to not feel good enough! One thing I learned over the past 4 years of competing is that if I am beating my physique from the previous show or season, then that is all that matters regardless of the placings!”
Adison Barnhart: “Critiques and feedback from judges are helpful. When it comes to little things like hair, tan, makeup, posing, suit, etc. those are quick fixes so it’s easy to changes. In the moment, those things are a little upsetting. For example, I went to California for a regional show and lost overall because my makeup was too light and my face looked like a ghost. I couldn’t help that issue because I wasn’t the one who did my makeup, so I got over it pretty fast. When they critique my actual physique, I know there is nothing I can do to make myself grow faster, so I do not allow myself to get upset. I do not think it is hard mentally or emotionally because I know bodybuilding isn’t something that happens quickly. Critiques motivate me to become better and work harder. The judges want to see the athletes succeed, so telling us what they want us to change is a good thing.
Honestly, I love my body at every stage. Confidence is key. If you go up there thinking you aren’t what they are looking for, that shows on stage. If you got feedback saying, “your upper body needs to grow and fill out more” and you go up on stage with the attitude that it’s small – you’re not going to win. Competing has probably given me more confidence in my body and a better body image both on stage and during off-season.”
Liza Goedde: “I’ve found it especially helpful to try and detach emotion from the critiques, and just view it objectively. I know I will need to improve certain things, so I use the feedback as a way to get a better understanding of what it is that I need to focus on either in my off-season or in the few weeks before my next show.”
Amber Spurlock: “Although I have never competed and received feedback from judges, I still get opinions from others about my physique. I have had many people say I look too masculine or ask why I would ever want to look the way I do. I enjoy feedback from people who are in the sport and are trying to be constructive, but I pay zero attention to the people who put me down. I know that my physique is not easily achieved so most of the people giving their opinion couldn’t look the way I do even if they tried. I take a lot of pride in the years of work I have put in and I do this sport for myself and no one else.”
Given that this is a women empowerment magazine, how has bodybuilding empowered you? Why do you love this sport?
Lauren First: “Bodybuilding has empowered me on so many levels. Not only do I feel amazing about myself as I lean down and get closer to the show, but the hard work that I put in has an effect on others, as well! With the use of social media, I am able to empower and inspire other women out there who are on their own fitness journey. I love this sport because it challenges me. Although the process can be difficult at times, I love reaching that final product, getting glammed up, and showing it all off on stage!”
Adison Barnhart: “Bodybuilding has completely changed my life. I used to be dependent on other people and followed what everyone else did. Now I do whatever I want, whenever I want, and I’ve learned that if I take a step in a different direction than other people, it is probably going to work in my favor. I wouldn’t call it selfish but putting a greater focus on myself has improved my life and happiness more than I ever thought it would. Besides show day being the most fun day ever, I love this sport because it challenges me, allows me to motivate and inspire others, builds my confidence and gives my life structure.”
Liza Goedde: “The community within bodybuilding has empowered me greatly. I formed a lot of relationships with various people that I have met through this sport, and they have become some of my closest friends. The amount of support I have received from others on my team and from those at campus gyms has been extremely exciting (and somewhat surprising?) for me. Everyone is so supportive and tries to build one another up – it’s really a community of amazing people dedicated to doing something that they love. Honestly, my favorite thing about this sport is the passion. Whether from other competitors, my coach, or friends, seeing others’ passion for this sport warms my heart and never ceases to remind me why I do it. Bodybuilding is more than just trying to look ‘aesthetically pleasing.’ It’s about bettering yourself and being dedicated to doing so day in and day out, regardless of how hard it may get.”
Amber Spurlock: “I have always liked exercise and I value taking care of my body. When I started bodybuilding, I realized that I had a lot of potential between my genetics and work ethic. My competitive nature took over and I fell in love with the sport. It’s a way for me to challenge myself and the gym is where my friends are, too. I feel really strong and confident in who I am, and bodybuilding has given that to me!”
What are things you have learned while competing or things you wish someone would have told you?
Lauren First: “I have learned a lot when it comes to competing. I have learned that there are so many coaches out there that should not be coaching. Unfortunately, some coaches do not take their client’s health into consideration and follow approaches that do not look at the client’s overall health. In 2014-2015, I followed a very strict meal plan that caused me to form a poor relationship with food after my shows. I wish someone told me about flexible dieting (the current approach I use) when I first started competing! With flexible dieting, I can enjoy the foods I love and lose weight while doing it!”
Adison Barnhart: “Competing has taught me so many things – it’s honestly shaped who I am and I am so thankful for it. It’s allowed me to find my true self and realize my passion! I do wish someone told me that it’s not normal for people to compete at my age. I was usually the youngest competitor. I feel like I was well prepared going into competitions because of my coach – so get a bomb coach and you’ll be fine (aka Dylan Bair). When it comes to the lifestyle aspect I’m honestly thankful people didn’t tell me how hard it really is because I don’t think I would have started, so I’m just going to leave it at that.”
Liza Goedde: “I wish I would’ve known that you sometimes need to put your blinders on and focus on yourself. It’s extremely easy (both in bodybuilding and in life) to fall into a cycle of comparing yourself to others and getting down on yourself for not looking or acting like someone, and it is important to be able to block that out and do what you need to do to get where you want to be. I was once told to avoid comparing my chapter 3 to someone else’s chapter 10, and I think that advice really applies here.”
Amber Spurlock: “I wish someone would have told me about the plateaus. When I first started, I was making a lot of gains quickly, but then I reached a point in my powerlifting movements where I was lifting the same weight for months. It was really frustrating, but I just had to keep pushing and be consistent, and eventually, I got stronger. I also learned that I am a lot stronger than I think I am. I’m no longer afraid or hesitant to go after a new max!”
How would you describe the lifestyle of a competitive bodybuilder? How is it different during competition season versus the off-season?
Lauren First: “I feel like my lifestyle is very different compared to some competitors. I am a Registered Nurse in the NICU and work night shift. For me, I will work 7p-7a, sleep 8:30am- 2pm, train and get my cardio done 3p-5p, then get ready for work to do it all over again! During prep, I am a lot more on top of hitting my macros and sticking to a schedule! During my off-season, I still track my macros but allow myself to be a little more relaxed and enjoy the things I want in moderation. I usually don’t stress as much if I don’t make it to the gym either.”
Adison Barnhart: “The lifestyle isn’t easy. It’s also not easy for non-bodybuilders to understand. Your friend group will become very small and you will lose many “friends” in the process. People will judge you for everything you do – drinking water, weighing food, ordering like an asshole at restaurants, going to bed early, making the gym your first priority, taking selfies. Your family will think you’re psycho…until you start winning, then they will support you. It’s difficult but finding friends in the bodybuilding world who understand makes everything worth it. These friends are the reason you will stick to the lifestyle.
Competition season is STRICT. You eat, sleep, train, repeat. Going out isn’t a thing unless you’re drinking water. Events, parties, holidays are HARD, especially around family. You will want to quit, but it is so rewarding in the end. Off-season is a little easier. You can go out with friends, go on dates and not stress about holidays but in a way, I find it harder because you know you need to stay on top of your diet and workouts to grow and become better. Mentally, off-season is a lot harder for me. It takes a few months to realize eating like an asshole and not being on top of your protocols is not okay.”
Liza Goedde: “The lifestyle of a competitive bodybuilder is very regimented. To progress in the sport, you must properly nourish and exercise your body. These changes do not happen overnight, so it requires a great deal of dedication to be able to follow a diet, training program, day in and day out.”
In your opinion, what are the negative aspects of competing (if any)? What sacrifices have you had to make?
Lauren First: “To me, the negative part of competing is the lack of energy as the show gets closer. To lean down to the judges’ standards, there are lots of macro cuts and cardio session increases. Sometimes it felt like I was living on the stair climber! I am a pretty energetic person, so seeing the energy disappear is really hard for me!”
Adison Barnhart: “I’ve lost friends, my family didn’t support me at first, I’ll never look at food the same again, my college career isn’t going out/having fun/getting drunk, and building relationships is hard because it’s not my main focus at this point in life.”
Liza Goedde: “Sometimes it can be very difficult to have a social life while competing. You have to be very deliberate in what/how much you are consuming and in the execution of your workouts. Additionally, the closer you get to a show, it’s pretty common to just be exhausted alllllll the time. This can make it really difficult to find time to be able to hang out with friends, especially in college when late night events are common. Add being a student and having a job to that, and it can be really easy for prepping for a show to get really overwhelming. Having a good support system in place is really important to keep you grounded.”
Amber Spurlock: “I have lost a lot of friends because many of them just didn’t understand or weren’t willing to try to understand. Between working and going to the gym, I also don’t have a lot of time. It really makes you prioritize what is most important, and especially who is most important to you.”
Girls often have a difficult time adjusting to their off-season physique after achieving stage leanness. Is this something you have ever struggled with? If so, how did you get through it?
Lauren First: “YES YES YES! I can’t stress enough how hard it is to get used to the off-season physique! It’s funny to think about that though because my “off-season” is still probably someone else’s goal. We have to get SO lean to step on stage, so it’s hard to see this disappear over time! Being comfortable with the off-season body is one thing that takes time and practice. Each year it gets easier for me. This year, I followed a more appropriate reverse diet and can accept that sometimes you have to feel a bit uncomfortable to make the needed changes for next year’s season!”
Adison Barnhart: “Oh yes. Nobody EVER likes going from stage lean then gaining 20 lbs in less than 4 months and feeling like a whale all the time. But I know that to become better than I was last season, I need to grow and the only way to grow is to step out of my comfort zone. I also just remember that my off-season body is still more fit and health than most normal people. There is a time and a place for being 10% body fat, but it’s not all the time because it is very unhealthy to hold that year-round! Also, the booty gains are fun haha!”
Liza Goedde: “Yes, I definitely struggled a lot with that this past summer. I felt very uncomfortable in my own skin and can recall getting upset with myself numerous times because I was no longer competition lean. Off-season requires a change in mindset that can be difficult to wrap your head around at first. However, once you can get to a place where you are able to see the off-season as an integral part in getting better, I have found it to be a lot easier to accept my off-season body.”
Amber Spurlock: “I really don’t care. I know that putting on size is what I need to do to be competitive and ultimately step on stage as a physique competitor. My confidence is really just as high in my off-season and it’s not something that I struggle with. There is no point in competing if you aren’t willing to actually improve!”
Do you ever feel like your relationships with others or even yourself are put to the test?
Lauren First: “To be 100% honest, NO! I have always been that person that doesn’t use prep as an excuse. I think so many people hype prep up for no reason and use it as an excuse to be grouchy or rude to others. I never let prep affect my relationships because I was the one that chose to diet and do it in the first place!”
Adison Barnhart: “You will only have relationships with people who support you and also body build. ‘Friends’ will be lost. People don’t like seeing you succeed. My relationship with myself is a lot stronger and that is what really matters.”
Liza Goedde: “Without a doubt! Competing can be extremely hard on relationships with friends, family, and significant others. Preparing for a competition requires a lot of energy and sacrifice, and not everyone understands that, which is totally fine! It can just put a lot of strain on relationships when you are unable to find something to do that doesn’t compromise competition prep, especially considering how common it is to spend quality time with others over a meal.”
Amber Spurlock: “Most of my friends are in the gym, so they really do understand why I do what I do and just how necessary it is for me to hit the gym almost every day. It can be difficult to maintain relationships with my friends who are non-bodybuilders because I may not always be able to hang out or go do things because I need to train. I am able to keep these friendships if we both work at it and there is respect on both ends!”
What is your best advice for someone wanting to compete for the first time or get involved with bodybuilding?
Lauren First: “My biggest piece of advice is to do your research before starting! I highly advise everyone to look for a coach with the credentials, results, and knowledge! I have had my fair share of horrible coaches and once I found the coach that looked at my success as a whole, both physically and mentally, it made my experience that much better!”
Adison Barnhart: “You just have to do it. Don’t second guess anything, you have to just dive right in and start. Everybody starts somewhere. This sport is more challenging mentally than physically, and that is something you need to remember. You will lose friends, but I promise the friendships you build along the way are so much more meaningful.”
Liza Goedde: “The best advice I could give someone is to really analyze WHY they want to, and to make sure it is for a healthy reason. I see a lot of people competing for the wrong reasons (i.e. rationalizing an eating disorder), and it can really wind up hurting them in the end. Also, I would try to make sure that your finances are in the right spot. Competing is expensive! The stage will always be there, so there is no reason to go broke for it right now when you have your whole life ahead of you to do it!”
Amber Spurlock: “Consistency really is key. You can’t just go through the motions. To get that muscular maturity, you have to lift heavy ass weight and realize that doing so doesn’t make you less feminine. You want to think about the exercises that you are doing and have a reason why you are doing that exercise. What you do in the gym should be intense and very intentional!”
These women have provided some valuable insight into the life of a competitive bodybuilder. I think their beauty shines most through their work ethic, confidence, and positivity! As women, we all face challenges with our body image, whether it be in the gym, the workplace, family events, having children, or just simply aging. It’s important that we empower each other and focus on things that are in our control, such as attitude and energy. Find things that challenge you, make you grow, light a fire inside of you, and fill you with confidence. For me and these four women, competitive bodybuilding does all of these things and more!