Some of my readers might already know that I recently competed in another NPC bikini competition in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is the hub for the NPC and IFBB organizations and home to the NPC gym, an invite-only competitors gym on the south side of the city. I also lived in Pittsburgh for 4 years and loved my experience there. I wanted to compete in my “home city” before I left, and I had a blast doing it.
This show was much bigger than my last, and I got to see fitness icons like Dr. Sunny Andrews, Lauralie Chapados and the return of Janet Layug. I knew I had little chance of placing and wasn’t as lean as I wanted to be, but decided to show up and show out anyway.
Here’s what I learned this time around.
Bikini masters: Working the age category
This year, I turned 35, which means I can now compete in the masters categories at each competition. Sometimes, this means you’re competing against a smaller lineup of competitors, none of which have the advantage of youth over you. Sometimes, everyone has the same thought and the masters classes are just as stacked as the open classes.
I competed in both the bikini open and masters 35+ class. I placed 6th in the masters and I’m pretty sure I placed last in the open class (no shame, haha). There were 14 competitors in the open class for my height group.
To make a long story short, there’s not always a competitive advantage to the masters classes, unless you’re at a much smaller show. The most important thing was that I got to have the experience of competing. There is no replacement for stage time when trying to learn and do well in the sport, and that’s where you get the only feedback that really matters: the judges’.
Body-building competitions and body image
I will openly admit that right now, in this moment, throughout this morning and this week and this year of competition prep and cycling, I am struggling with body image. While there’s nothing more fulfilling for me than watching my body transform and perform at its absolute limit while growing and developing, a lot comes with that.
During prep, athletes work hard and commit to strict schedules, eating habits, diets, sleep schedules and stress management/self-care routines to achieve the results they need. Every day you wake up in a slightly different body. Sometimes it’s less noticeable, but sometimes it’s obvious, especially over time.
Sometimes that new body has new definition, new curves, new vascularity, or growth. But some of us experience other changes when dialing body fat down to stage-ready levels. In the weeks right before a competition, I look great. But I feel skinny, like my face is sunken and my hands are bony and my skin is hanging off of my body.
I also always feel like it takes my brain a week or so to acknowledge the physical changes that my eyes can clearly see. It feels a little like a slow body dysmorphia. The image I have in my mind of what I think I look like rarely matches what the mirror is telling me, partly because of pre-existing body image issues.
Post-competition, you experience the opposite.
After a competition, I give my body a period of rest and growth. I might take 6 weeks up to a few months to build muscle mass and gain weight. Athletes look incredible on stage, but the body fat percentages of bikini and other aesthetic athletes is usually unsustainable, unless they are genetically gifted and happen to naturally store fat in places where the judges like to see mass.
What this means is now, I wake up in a body that’s a little softer everyday. I have a little more jiggle every time I go for a run lately. The places where I recently had some strong definition are losing that definition, and that’s part of the process.
In order to build muscle, you need to be willing to eat. Eating in a caloric surplus means gaining muscle and sometimes gaining fat too. Everyday I remind myself to be patient, trust the process, and remember to practice gratitude for the privilege to compete and nourish my body this way. My favorite personal affirmation lately has been this:
“It is a privilege to inhabit this body and it requires daily maintenance”
My contest prep process: Exercise routine, diet, and more
I learned soooo much about nutrition and my personal mind-muscle connection in this prep cycle. I was actually able to build some glute mass, a bit in the triceps and rear delts, while eating in a caloric deficit for a period of 16 weeks.
My most important lesson-learned in the realm of nutrition and exercise is that taking the time to do an intentional, mindful warmup helps build the mind-muscle connection early, giving you much more engagement throughout the workout.
But I should’ve known this, right?
Warm ups help us start firing signals through the neuromuscular pathways that we’ll use during exercise. The more muscle fibers we recruit, the more effective the movement for building strength and muscle, and the better our athletic performance. So it only makes sense to take the time to establish those neuromuscular pathways before giving all of our effort to the exercise.
I had to reprogram my brain to consider the function of an effective warmup, because years and years of performing 10 repetitions of cadenced, generalized movements in a mass Army formation still haunted me into 2022. I dismissed that training and started targeting the specific muscles I wanted to train, in the planes I needed to train them in.
I also incorporated specific movements using both long and short bands to correct postural deviations, asymmetries, and weaknesses in my skeletal/connective tissue anatomy. That meant that some days I was using focused-yoga to warm up, others I was using glute activation exercises with bands and body weight, and other days I was warming up with shoulder mobility movements to prepare my (weaker) right side to put in some work. This all translated to a more well-rounded figure, added strength, confidence, and comfort in exercise.
I’m still working out in my home gym, and in nature (running/hiking). I haven’t been to a gym in a couple of years, except when on the road for the Army. I’m really proud of what I’ve built with so few resources available, and hope to inspire others to ditch their gym memberships and do the same. It’s all marketing! You can workout at home and be successful, and I can show you how.
I learned so many new recipes this prep and really got creative in the kitchen! Once again, yogurt and egg whites were my protein staples and I did have to supplement with vegan protein throughout. I am hoping to continue bodybuilding (and maybe, yes, make it to the bodybuilding category) while migrating toward a more vegan diet.
Will this be possible? Well, to be honest, I doubt it. Not that it’s not possible, I'm just not sure it’s important enough to me in the grand scheme of things to dedicate the time and intention it would take to get there. But stay tuned! I’ve done crazier things.
Here are some vegan athletes that have done what I hope to do, and are absolutely legendary for that:
Finding the right competition bikini
Competition bikinis are super serious, friends. While some athletes reuse the same bikini for every competition, those bikinis are still often $600 dollars or more.
If I choose to continue competing, I’ll need to get a new bikini. My body has changed enough from the first competition to today that the fit is now imperfect. I also need a smaller cut on my bikini bottoms, because they cover much more of my glutes than most other bikini competitors’ suits. I think for my body type and to smooth out my inevitable loose belly skin from pregnancy, a suit that sits higher on the hips will be more flattering and more comfortable on stage.
For a hobby (I’ll likely never be able to go pro, due to the aforementioned mom-body features), this is a hard expense to justify. Remember, there are costs to compete in every show, even for the professionals. If I decide to keep competing, I’ll likely need to be refitted for a new bikini. My favorite competition bikinis are by BB Custom Suits (also my posing coach) and Toxic Angel Bikinis.
What does the ideal competitor look like?
Do you have a body for competition? Guess what… we all do. Anyone can compete, but there are a few competitive advantages that might mean you should definitely compete. Ultimately I encourage anyone who wants to compete to do so.
First and foremost, the judges are always looking for a foundation of muscle. In the bikini category they’re looking for a foundation of muscle that contributes to a traditionally feminine form. That means a well-conditioned torso, rounded glutes, and a natural stage presence.
If you’re a well conditioned regular gym-goer and like to “perform” femininity (getting dressed up, full glam makeup and hair, spray tans, manicures and pedicures, sparkly jewelry, heels, and the feminine walk to match them) you might be a great competitor.
I find that those who start skinny and work hard to build muscle have an advantage over those that lose any significant amount of weight to reach a certain level of leanness. This is mostly due to skin elasticity and how difficult it can be to lose body fat you’ve been storing your whole life. This of course does not apply to all athletes.
Some athletes are also genetically gifted with things like great skin, hair, and smiles. For women, these competitions are, at the end of the day, very traditional “beauty pageants” that incorporate and center the athletic physique. Some might argue the same for the men’s categories. While it’s not explicit, I believe it goes without saying that those offered professional contracts are not only extremely impressive athletes, they’re generally just good looking, charismatic folks who don’t mind performing some (arguably archaic) gender norms for the NPC/IFBB’s media marketing and future competitions.
Either way, the ideal bikini or other fitness athlete is the one that wants it the most. The individual who embraces and faces their fears, doesn’t flinch at extreme hard work and dedication, and is already in love with fitness (especially strength training). The ideal competitor also has a well-conditioned mind, can be mindful about self-care, limits, failures, and mental health, and understands nutrition on at least a basic level so she can properly nourish both her body and mind throughout prep and post-competition. Competitors must also be open to very blunt critique throughout the process, with a constant willingness to humble themselves, learn, and trust the process.
If you know and love yourself, feel comfortable with your understanding of exercise science and basic nutrition, and are ready to truly challenge your mind and body to continue to learn and grow, a competition might be in your future.
Breaking into the bodybuilding scene
If you’re ready to break into the NPC, here are a few tips I would offer:
Hire an experienced coach for your programming. I learned so much this prep cycle and I have been a personal trainer and Army Master Fitness Trainer for like… almost a decade. I train clients every day and am still learning more and more about my body every time I compete. Coaches need coaches too.
Research show dates and choose a window of potential shows, not a specific show. That way you can adjust your timeline if needed as the show approaches.
If you don’t want to hire a coach, at least try to get some free feedback or free programming as a suggestion. Let your coach know your plan when you sign up.
Research the criteria that judges are looking for in each category. Bodybuilding muscles look a lot different from the muscular development of a wellness, bikini, or physique athlete. This should help you decide which category you should shoot for for your first show. (A good coach will know this).
Research the criteria for the stage bikini/outfit for the category you intend to compete in. There are different suits for different categories.
Order your stage bikini early. I recommend BB Custom Suits (Becca is a former competitor who is very well networked in the NPC and IFBB) or Toxic Angel Bikinis. You might also want to order a posing suit as well to practice at home without damaging your stage suit. If you’re broke like me, any string bikini will give you a good idea what you’re working with; bonus if it’s thong-like. (“Thongs” are prohibited and there’s a pre-screening for them at pre-judging, though it’s unclear to me what the NPC thinks a thong is, because our bikini bottoms are definitely thongs).
Start posing practice early, and do it everywhere you can. This competition actually had turf and duct tape on the stage surface and was pretty wobbly. The female competitors backstage were shook. The stage surface might look/feel very different under your heels than you expect it to, thus inhibiting your ability to pivot, drag your toe in tight to the body, or balance while trying to move gracefully.
Hire a posing coach. YouTube is not a substitute, trust me.
Choose a 3-4 week window during which you think you’ll be ready to compete, but don’t commit to a show or announce that you’re planning to compete until that window approaches. If you feel you’re stage ready at 2-3 weeks out, register for the show and dial that stage-ready physique in even more with good peak week nutrition. Plan to rest or do active recovery in the few days (1-7, depending on your body) prior to your show. This will not be the time to cram in intense training because your body isn’t ready to peak! Don’t shortchange yourself. Plan ahead. Most competitors take a 12 or 16 week prep cycle (cutting, training for aesthetics), but every body performs differently. You may need more or less time to prep, and both are natural and acceptable.
Things like stress management, your sleep schedule, your mental health, and your inner dialogue matter. All of these things affect your body and the way it gains or loses body fat and muscle. Learn to regulate your emotional responses to things, prioritize your self-care and training over things like socializing when necessary, and stay present in the sensations of exercise. These sensations are your body’s way of sending you information, which you can use to learn, grow and adapt.
Special notes for female competitors
Ladies, if you are not currently “stage lean” and plan to lose any significant amount of body fat to get there, you might lose some parts of you that you love, too.
I’m mostly talking about your boobs. Mine shrivel up and disappear in the couple of weeks before my stage appearance. Why am I telling you this? Because you’re probably practicing your posing routine with your normal boobs, or expect to have the boobs you’ve always had on stage day. Be prepared that this might not be the case (depending mostly on the composition of your breast tissue).
Most bikinis come with obnoxiously thick pads and can be pulled really tight to create the illusion of boobs on stage. Let your bikini designer know if you have natural breasts and expect they could change as you lose body fat. This is the reason many competitors have breast implants (I recently talked to my favorite wellness athlete, Bruna Seredich about this).
Good news! They’ll probably come back post-show as you gain weight.
One more note about periods. If you get to a level of leanness, or are exercising to the point that your period stops, you have gone too far. Hormonal balances are super important, and not only for the metabolic system and the way you build muscle/store fat. Loss of menses due to extreme dieting or exercise can quickly lead to bone loss, especially as we age, Remember to frame your competition prep with self-love and respect for the body! No competition is worth your longevity and health in middle age and late life.
A bikini competition training program custom built for you
If you made it to the end of this article, you might be ready to get started on your next fitness adventure. If you’re ready to start working toward your first show, I’m pumped for you!!
I have so many more lessons learned and tips for you to be successful on stage, and love helping my clients frame their fitness journeys with self-love. There’s no better way to learn about yourself, body and mind, than through pushing yourself to your absolute limits, learning to humble yourself and stand proud and confident on stage. Competing continues to be one of the most challenging and rewarding accomplishments of my life.
I currently offer free programming (get started here) for all site visitors, regardless of your fitness goals, equipment or setting. If you want to make today day 1 in your journey to the stage, or simply transform your health and change your mindset about exercise, I’ve got you. Get your free program today or get in touch with me for any/all fitness-related questions.
Thanks for reading. Happy training!