What It’s Really Like Entering A Bodybuilding Competition

Rachel Swim Suit.jpg
Rachel before she started training for her first bodybuilding competition. 

Rachel Nowak, 35, is just your average thirty-something gym enthusiast who works out when she can at her local CrossFit gym. And just like many of us, she tries keep her workouts fun to achieve her fitness goals. She eats healthy most of the time but doesn’t obsess about it. She’s also the kind of girl who tries to live life to the fullest and knows to trust her own journey along the way.

In other words, she is just like you and me, but not really. 

In 2015, she entered her first bodybuilding competition and won The Natural Classic Bodybuilder Competition (located in Menomonie, Wisconsin) in two different categories, Beginner and Novice. She even entered the competition on a whim to help support a friend who really wanted to enter the competition.

It is quite the accomplishment, which is why I had to interview her.

I spoke with her recently about how she went from an average gym enthusiast to becoming a bodybuilding competition champion. I also wanted her to help shed some light on many of the misconceptions about bodybuilding competitions. Are they as superficial as they look? Let’s find out…

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Rachel showing off her hard work on  competition day.

Do you have to have to be in shape to train for a competition?

You can absolutely start from scratch. Just trust the process and find yourself a great coach/dietitian. 

How did you find a coach?

I actually found a coach at my local gym, who is also a boot camp coach. When you start your training, you will also need to work with someone who knows nutrition so they can introduce you to the proper diet. Ask around at your local gym or google someone in your area. Be sure to find a coach that you mesh with, who understands your goals. 

What kind of training and diet plan were you on?

Everyone is different with their training methods. I actually wasn’t on any specific plan. I only worked out for 30 minutes to 1 hour a day, 5 days a week (or as often as I could) in a CrossFit or boot camp style class.

Rachel N
Rachel training for the show.

Seven weeks prior to the competition, my friend and I signed up for a posing seminar that we came across on a flyer. The owner of my gym also helped us prepare for the show.

As far as the diet goes, I started a high protein diet at about 12 weeks out from the competition and did not see any results. Then I got introduced to the keto diet. I started that diet 7 weeks prior to the competition and it just worked for me.  The keto diet completely changed my life.

“I ate 1,800-2,000 calories a day. My diet was based of 75% fat, 5-10% carbohydrates and 10-15% protein.” -Rachel N.

What kind food did you eat on the keto diet?

I ate a lot of fat actually. Somehow my mind and body feels so good when I am burning fat vs. sugar. My diet consisted of mainly eggs, coconut oil, ghee, heavy whipping cream (in my coffee), fat bombs (butter, coconut oil & nuts and seeds), miracle noodles, salads, lots of dressing and cheese. 

Can you have cheat days while you are training?

I had a cheat day once a week. It consisted of 40% fat, 40% carbohydrates and 20% protein.  As long as I was following this ratio, I could pretty much eat whatever I wanted.  My favorite thing to eat on cheat days was actually pretty healthy. It was oatmeal with sweet potatoes, honey and lots of butter.

What was the hardest part of training?

There were a few things that were hard. Not drinking alcohol or being anti-social with food was tough because some of the best times with my family and friends usually are surrounded with food and drinks. It was also very hard having to constantly explain to people why I was eating the way I was.

Did people treat you differently once they realized that you were training for a bodybuilding competition?

I often felt like people wanted to express that they thought I was too skinny or unhealthy. I do have to agree that having such low body fat is unhealthy for long periods of time, but mine was only for short-term, which doesn’t do any harm. Women figure competitors generally are in the 8-12% body fat range and I was no different. 

Tell us about the actual competition.

There are four different categories: bikini, figure, physique and bodybuilding.  I competed in the figure competition. Competition day is a very important day to many competitors. It’s almost like their wedding day. But there were some people who were in it for the journey, like I was.

At the competition, there is a panel of judges who judge contestants based on symmetry, presentation and aesthetic qualities, such as skin tone.

The “x factor” is also important, which is made up of well-formed shoulders, upper back, small waist and glutes/quads. Most of the judges generally have a background in bodybuilding and have judged multiple shows.

Are competitions superficial or are they just misunderstood?

I think that the superficial aspect is a misconception. It is absolutely true to some degree, but not always. Some people just want to see what they can make of their bodies and are interested in a challenge.

At the show, most of the competitors are actually very friendly and supportive of each other. Most people will show a deep appreciation for each other because training is a tough process. In a way, competition day feels like a celebration – no matter how well you end up placing.

I also do think that most people assume that all competitors are strong because of the way they look. Yes, I may have looked strong and my muscle definition was definitely on point, but your diet actually plays the biggest role. It allows your muscles to be seen. I wasn’t necessary stronger, just leaner.

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Rachel’s backside muscle definition during the competition. 

What advice can you give to someone who is thinking about signing up for their first competition?

Do it for the right reasons and make sure you have a goal in mind; otherwise, you can get discouraged when your body goes through periods where you don’t see results or hit a plateau. Just do the best you can.

What most people don’t know is that the last week before the competition is called “peak week.” It is where a lot of key transformation takes place before the show.

During the last week of training, competitors closely monitor their protein, carbohydrate, sodium, water, fat intake and proper training.

“Just work hard, trust the process and remain patient during your training.” -Rachel N. 

Everyone is different and the same thing that works for one person, might not work for another.  Don’t be afraid to dig deep and listen to your body/mind through the process.

Why do you think someone should try a competition at least once in their lifetime?

It’s a great challenge. If you are having confidence issues or soul searching, you will come out knowing and loving yourself more. 

“It’s not about the outcome of the competition, it’s about challenging your body/mind and achieving your goals.” – Rachel N.

For me, the biggest life changing moment was my change in nutrition. I have never committed to eating good for such a long period of time.  It was a life changing moment for me. 

Don’t forget to enjoy the journey.  Training is tough but it should also be enjoyable. So make it fun or do it with a friend if you need to, just don’t be afraid to try one out! 

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