Third year, as many will admit, is a stressful one for undergraduates even more so for history students, who must independently research and write a dissertation, whilst doing several other modules and trying to fit in a social life. It was also in my third year I made the intelligent decision to enter a student bodybuilding/physique contest, a very full time commitment.
Bodybuilding as a sport is incredibly different than just turning up occasionally to bench and do bicep curls. The common perception of a bodybuilder is someone plastered in fake tan and baby oil, wearing shiny underwear and doing weird poses; unsurprisingly this has very little appeal to the majority of the population. However, what you see on stage is around 10% of what bodybuilding is comprised of. It’s an incredibly complicated lifestyle that requires complete dedication, meticulous calorie tracking and the ability to pose (this is really hard to do).
I started my third year trying to gain as much weight as possible and as much muscle and size as possible (called a bulk in the fitness world). After Christmas, I began a ‘cut’, where I would gradually taper my calories and begin doing some sort of fasted steady-state cardiovascular exercise - where your heart-rate remains low – the most efficient way to reduce your body fat and retain your muscle mass. I had a supportive coach, was on top of my studies and knew what weak spots I had to work on. Easy right?
It was not easy. Due to a lack of accessible material I had to change my dissertation topic in November, causing a lot of anxiety, something I hadn’t realised I suffered from. I spent a lot of time going to the doctor due to insomnia and before they figured out the main cause of it – considering I was going to the gym 6 times a week, they guessed it wasn’t due to a lack of exercise. I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression and gave me medication to help treat it – a side effect of which is reduced appetite and nausea, ideal symptoms for someone aiming to eat 3000+ calories a day.
By January and at the start of the competition prep cycle I was tired, depressed and not happy with how my history degree was going. But I persevered, mainly because I’d already bought my posing shorts and booked my spray-on tan, which was £40 and non-refundable.
Competition prep, or a cut, is about routine. I dropped my calories to 2500 (the recommended intake for the average male) stopped drinking and started doing fasted cardio – which is best done early in the morning.
So, 5 times a week, I woke up at 5.45 am, cycled 20 minutes to the gym, went on a stair master or a cross trainer for 45 minutes, cycled home, then went to University to study. Then at around 6.30 pm, I would go back to the gym and lift weights, before going home and doing more work (or passing out).
I weighed 88kg at the start of the cut on the 5th January and I was aiming for a 72-75kg stage weight. Due to a falling out with my coach, I was flying solo and learning the poses by myself – easily the most complicated part bodybuilding – and working out my calories to try and not lose all my muscle mass during the cut. This was a trial and error process, I had dropped my calories to around 2250 by mid-January. This was a huge mistake, as by the 5th February I had lost 12 kg (nearly 2 stone) in weight – sadly my contest wasn’t until March 13th.
Without going into any greater detail, the next month in the build-up to the competition comprised of:
- Binge eating (might have been a disorder) – I once ate a whole jar of chocolate peanut butter.
- Doing more cardio to compensate for said eating.
- Experimenting with £1 hair removal cream that resulted in agonisingly severe chemical burns on my nipples – 10/10 cream though as I was hairless.
- Losing all feeling in my left arm.
- Becoming incredibly weak – all my main lifts dropped due to the calorie deficit.
- Managing to fall asleep in the same 3 hour seminar every week.
The week leading up to a contest (known as peak week) is the point at which a competitor ups their carbohydrate intake (so their muscles look ‘full’) and dehydrates themselves to appear more vascular. The importance of a tan also becomes clear. Underneath stage lighting, you would look washed out and all those muscle striations and veins you worked hard to develop wouldn’t be visible.
The contest took place at Bristol’s University and following peak week, I was in an unpleasant but altogether happy state – I had enjoyed the routine of the cut and had been quite productive, even if it meant being sober for 3 months and having a bedtime of 9.30.
Despite the three month build-up, the contest was surprisingly uneventful – posing in front of 100+ people was fun – standing completely naked in a tanning booth aside from an iron man sock (I wasn’t allowed the hulk) and making small talk wasn’t so bad either.
Sadly, I came 4th – I blame the politics – but the experience was well worth it, as was the pint of Guinness afterwards. I think most people that goes to the gym fancies themselves as a bodybuilder, but until you go through the experience of a contest you can’t call yourself one, no matter what hashtags you use on Instagram. Bodybuilding isn’t just a sport, it’s a lifestyle, where a professional truly doesn’t have an off season – they will weigh out food, put it in Tupperware and take it to a restaurant in order to follow their diet plans. They train for hours on end throughout a week put their bodies through immense long term strain and skip family events – Arnold Schwarzenegger skipped his father’s funeral due to an upcoming contest - in order to win a trophy and a disappointingly small cash prize. You can do everything right, but sometimes winning on stage can be impossible, former Mr Olympia Ronnie Coleman won 8 consecutive years, with Jay Cutler being the runner up for 4 of those.
Whether it’s healthy is a different story. Mentally, it’s exhausting. Physically, my blood pressure dropped. I was eating more vegetables and lean protein than ever before, as they’re less calorie dense. I was also eating a greater variety of veggies – butternut squash is delicious! At a pro-level everything is dialled up to 100, with a greater number of supplements, calories and other factors to account for, with mismanagement having deadly results.
The tan took 2 weeks to come off, so I was a good orange colour for my Masters’ interview at Kent.