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  • Writer's pictureTrae

Competition Life Continued: Lessons After The Pittsburgh Pro Fitness Competition

Updated: Jan 22

Some readers might already know I recently competed in another NPC bikini competition in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Pro Fitness is the hub for the NPC and IFBB organizations and home to the NPC gym, an invite-only competitor gym on the city's south side. 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 saw 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 thoughts and the master classes are just as stacked as the open classes.

I competed in both the bikini open and masters 35+ class. You might be curious about Lauralie Chapado's age, Janet Layug's age, Lauralie Chapados's height, or how tall is Lauralie Chapados. 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.

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 experience 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 matters: the judges’.

Body Building Competitions Pittsburgh Pro Fitness and Body Image

I will openly admit that right now, at this moment, throughout this morning this week and this year of competition prep and cycling, I am struggling with body image. While nothing is 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 desired results. 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 a new definition, curves, vascularity, or growth. But some of us experience other changes when dialling 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, my hands are bony, and my skin hangs off my body.

I also always feel like it takes my brain a week or so to acknowledge the physical changes my eyes can see. It feels a little like 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 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 are 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 I wake up with a body that’s a little softer every day. I have a little more jiggle every time I go for a run lately. The places where I recently had some strong definitions are losing that definition, and that’s part of the process.

To build muscle, you need to be willing to eat. Eating in a caloric surplus means gaining muscle and sometimes gaining fat too. Every day, 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 favourite personal affirmation lately has been this:

“It is a privilege to inhabit this body and it requires daily maintenance”

Sam in bodybuilding competition pittsburgh pro fitness show
Sam in Bodybuilding Show Pittsburgh

My Contest Prep Process: Exercise Routine, Diet, and More

I learned so much about nutrition and my personal mind-muscle connection in this prep cycle. I was 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 we use during exercise. The more muscle fibres 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 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 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 proud of what I’ve built with so few resources available and I hope to inspire others to ditch their gym memberships and do the same. It’s all marketing! You can work out at home and be successful, and I can show you how.

I learned many new recipes this prep and got creative in the kitchen! Once again, yoghurt and egg whites were my protein staples, and I had to supplement them with vegan protein. I hope to continue bodybuilding (and maybe reach 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 impossible, I'm just not sure it’s important enough to me 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. 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 comfortable on stage.

This is a hard expense to justify for a hobby (I’ll likely never be able to go pro due to the aforementioned mom-body features). 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 favourite competition bikinis are by BB Custom Suits (also my posing coach) and Toxic Angel Bikinis.

pittsburgh pro fitness show bikini competition
Pittsburgh Pro Fitness Bikini Competition

What Does the Ideal Competitor Look Like?

Do you have a body for competition? Guess what… we all do. Anyone can compete, but a few competitive advantages 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 jewellery, heels, and the feminine walk to match them), you might be a great competitor.

Those who start skinny and work hard to build muscle have an advantage over those who lose significant weight to reach a certain level of leanness. This is mostly due to skin elasticity, and how difficult it can be to lose the body fat you’ve been storing your whole life. This, of course, does not apply to all athletes.

Some athletes are genetically gifted with great skin, hair, and smiles. For women, these competitions are, at the end of the day, very traditional “beauty pageants” that incorporate and centre 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, but 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 and can be mindful of self-care, limits, failures, and mental health. She also understands nutrition at least a basic level so she can properly nourish her body and mind throughout prep and post-competition. Competitors must also be open to blunt critique throughout the process, constantly willing 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:

  1. 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 daily and am still learning more and more about my body every time I compete. Coaches need coaches too.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Research the criteria that judges are looking for in each category. Bodybuilding muscles look very different from the muscular development of a wellness, bikini, or physique athlete. This should help you decide which category to shoot for for your first show. (A good coach will know this).

  5. Research the criteria for the stage bikini/outfit for the category you intend to compete in. There are different suits for different categories.

  6. Order your stage bikini early. I recommend BB Custom Suits (Becca is a former competitor who is well-networked in the NPC and IFBB) or Toxic Angel Bikinis. You might also want to order a posing suit to practice at home without damaging your stage suit. If you’re broke like me, any string bikini will give you a good idea of 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).

  7. Start posing practice early, and do it everywhere you can. This competition 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.

  8. Hire a posing coach. YouTube is not a substitute, trust me.

  9. 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 plan 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 actively recover in the few days (1-7, depending on your body) before 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 everybody performs differently. You may need more or less time to prep, and both are natural and acceptable.

  10. Things like stress management, your sleep schedule, your mental health, and your inner dialogue matter. All these things affect your body and how 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.

body building pittsburgh pro ifbb bikini competition show, tips for female competitors
Tips for Bodybuilding Show Pittsburgh Pro

Special Notes for Female Competitors

Ladies, if you are not currently “stage lean” and plan to lose significant body fat to get there, you might lose some parts of yourself that you love, too.

I’m mostly talking about your boobs. Mine shrivelled up and disappeared a couple of weeks before my stage appearance. Why am I telling you this? Because you’re probably practising 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 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 favourite 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 exercise to the point that your period stops, you have gone too far. Hormonal balances are super important, not only for the metabolic system and how 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 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 start 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 success on stage, and I love helping my clients frame their fitness journeys with self-love. There’s no better way to learn about yourself, body and mind, than by pushing yourself to your absolute limits, learning to humble yourself, and standing proud and confident on stage. Competing continues to be one of my life's most challenging and rewarding accomplishments.

I am currently offering free training programs and consultations for all visitors to this site, 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 mindset about exercise, I’ve got you. Get your free program today or get in touch with me for any or all fitness-related questions.

Thanks for reading. Happy training and stay inspired!

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