I'd never dreamed of doing a bodybuilding show.
I considered myself primarily a musician at that point, and such things rarely overlap. For years I led two distinct lives: one comprised of the rehearsing, performing, and partying that goes with playing live music; the other spent training clients, researching strength and nutrition articles, and generally just trying to get physically better. Neither persona seemed like a decent candidate for the competitive stage.
Then everything changed.
I had a client who entered the Texas Shredder Classic in April of 2009. This is a local, natural (or, at least, five years natural) contest that seems to attract a lot of first-time bodybuilders. As I watched the show--which, if you’ve never seen one, is a singular experience--it occurred to me that a) the subculture is peculiar, b) no one had calves, c) most people pose to really corny music, and d) I could probably compete with the guys who were middle to light-heavyweights.
While this may seem a bit bold, remember that this show is ostensibly, at least, natural. And for the uninitiated, truly natural bodybuilders, at least at the local level, rarely look like IFBB pros--in contest shape they look closer to triathletes.
Something about attending the show solidified my resolve--I don’t think I would have chosen to put the necessary work into the contest preparation without seeing it first-hand. My advice for anyone considering doing a show is that they should attend one first.
Can you picture yourself up there, flexing and posing to music, being subjectively compared to a bunch of other men or women wearing a postage stamp and floss, with nothing but a trophy (or a sword, or whatever) to symbolize your months (or years) of hard work?
If that causes you to recoil at the weirdness, or judgey-ness, or “gayness” or whatever, it probably isn’t for you. I think it's totally weird... but a badass kind of weird.
Ultimately, it came down to: Why not? Life is a very short adventure, and you don’t want to get caught guessing as you look back over it. Win or lose, if you never play you will always wonder.
But there were some things I had to consider.
Why am i doing this?
Do you need to win in order to be validated? Are you only mildly interested in coming in at your best? Do you give in easily to the temptation to break from a diet plan, skip training sessions, or make excuses? If any of these describe you, you might be disappointed at your show. You can choose to take the diet and training very seriously, or you can limit yourself like I did for so long and experience limited results.
From what I can tell, everyone who prepares for a bodybuilding show as if it’s their job has excellent results, regardless of the outcome. They also learn a lot about themselves in the process.
I liked the idea of the discipline to gain the necessary weight, the discipline to lose the fat afterwards, the training—the struggle. It sounded good in a masochistic way, something to which you can give absolute focus and devotion.
As a trainer, I would gain necessary experience and understanding of what one has to do late at night in order to avoid bingeing on doughnuts. I would develop the fortitude to psyche myself up 14 weeks into the diet to do 2 hours plus of cardio. When dieting, I would be guided by one of the best names in the field, and grow to understand why—on a physiological level—my body was changing.
The experience would be invaluable, and knowing that helped me push through when the process seemed interminable.
The monetary concern is palpable: food, supplements, prep coach, posing trunks, bodybuilding federation fees, food, posing classes, tanning supplies, entry fees, and more food will add up. But consider that if you are very strict with diet and training and rest you will probably offset those costs by saving money on the party—whatever that means to you. I no longer had $150 bar tabs, cigarette expenses, the odd illicit drug purchase, dinners out, going to shows (I lived in Austin, TX), etc.
I actually ended up saving money during my 16 weeks of prep (although I missed SXSW that year… Wah!).
The biggest strain is on your time. Depending on how out of shape you are, you may have to do marathon cardio sessions like I did. You will also have regular weight training, and plenty of posing practice leading up to the show. Some days this meant about 5 hours of exercise, which, while holding down a full-time job, is outrageous.
You'll be consumed with your endeavor, but you will be rewarded with your best possible physique.
Prepare for the World of Change
Normal people don’t just go from partying balls 4 or 5 nights a week to living a monk-like existence of cardio, training, cooking, and cleaning (again and again and again). But then, normal people don’t care to do bodybuilding shows.
Who wants to be normal, anyway?
My best advice here is to be as prepared as possible. Get everything in order so that you can get all your meals, training, and cardio in without any problems. I usually prepped food a few days in advance so that I could just pack my cooler for the day and go.
Order all of the necessary supplements at the beginning so that you don’t have to worry about running out, or when to reorder, etc. Don’t wait until the last minute to schedule your tanning sessions, get your NPC card, buy posing trunks, schedule your polygraph test (if necessary), hotel accommodations (if necessary), etc.
As in most things in life, being well prepared will help to ease the entire process when the stress levels skyrocket.
Manage Your Expectations
You probably aren’t going to win your first show. And that’s okay.
All I cared about was winning for the first 8 or so weeks. And somewhere along the way I realized that I was going to win no matter what. I was going to get on stage and do something I had put a whole year of my life into preparing for. Just getting to the end was the real victory.
And trust me, by the end of the prep, if you have done it right, there will be many, many times that you just don’t give a shit either way.
Have Someone Close to You in your Corner
Everyone has their own problems to deal with during a contest prep, but unless you have done it before, you are generally unaware of the stress you will be under when something doesn’t go as planned.
I watched a business I had been building for a year start to crumble about halfway through my prep. As if the physical demands on my body weren’t enough, my disappointment when this happened would have been very difficult to manage if I didn’t have my closest friend in the world to vent to. She was there on so many occasions just to listen, encourage me to keep going when I was ready to be done, or slap me down if my hunger was turning me into an asshole.
Perhaps you have a bunch of supportive friends who will look upon your quest to do a show as something to be admired. For me that certainly wasn’t the case, but having at least one person to help you move forward is crucial.
This is awkward at first, without a doubt.
Finding a good place to practice isn’t exactly as easy as flexing between sets at your local Gold’s (unless you live in Venice Beach) like Arnold recommends. You will inevitably feel and look like an ass. However, you need to do whatever it takes to find a place where you can feel comfortable enough to practice as much as possible.
I generally rolled into my training studio around 11pm, when everyone had gone home. I worked on my mandatory poses first, then experimented with music for my actual routine. The posing round was 90 seconds at this particular show, but choosing music is still challenging.
As I mentioned, you see so much corny shit that you want to avoid being a satire of yourself while posing, but at the same time you need to find music that somehow enhances your performance. Good luck with that.
I am a fan of the golden era of bodybuilding, and I did a lot toward making my posing decent by emulating the poses of all the greats in The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. I am tall, long-limbed, and have a long torso, so I worked on twisting and sweeping poses to take advantage of that.
You will need to know what poses best show off your physique, and work on many different variations of each. Also, it can’t be overstated how much you should practice the mandatory poses. You don’t want to be that guy who came in better shape than everyone else but can’t do a lat spread.
Finally, if you can, find an experienced bodybuilder to help you go over your posing. The Texas Shredder himself, Dave Goodin, offered a class every Saturday at Hyde Park Gym and was invaluable in helping me hone my poses. You might not be as lucky, but having someone who knows what to look for and correct will be a tremendous boon to this absolutely crucial aspect of the sport.
Trunks and Tanning
Bodybuilding trunks are small. I mean, you know they’re going to be small, but them shits is small.
I got the French cut trunks, and I was wishing for a bigger cover for my ass, but that’s what there was at the time. I waited until the last minute on the tanning and trunks, and I wish I would have figured this out much earlier. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I say, the trunks are smaller than you think.
You have been warned.
The tanning was pretty painless, but get ready to let go of your inhibitions. You can paint the tanning solution on, or you can go the route that I did and get it sprayed on. If you choose this method, you will be asked to strip, stand in a tent, and get sprayed with a cold, brown, misty liquid. The girl spraying me said, “Turn around, arch your back, and turn your heels outward.”
I’m thinking, “What kind of spray tan is this? Are you a doctor?”
To make things more awkward, there was a guy (another sprayer) eating a cheeseburger and sort of staring over at me absently while I was getting sprayed. “Dude,” I said, “can you not eat your cheeseburger at me while I’m so vulnerable?” It was weird, but then I saw immediate separation in my quads. I thought, “Shit, I have a chance!”
Diet: The Gain
I decided that if I wanted to step on stage at 195-ish (how naïve I was!), I would have to blow up to about 225. This number was so important to me that I wrote it, along with many other very specific goals (For example: “Neck, calves, upper arms 17 inches by Dec 31, 2009”), on a piece of butcher paper and hung it on the wall next to my bed so that I would see it every night before going to sleep, and every morning when I woke up. I remember reading a post by a bodybuilder on some forum stating that chasing numbers would make you fat.
I ignored this.
I knew that the pre-contest diet would be sixteen weeks, and I’d be starting around the beginning of January. Therefore, I realistically had about eight months to put on thirty or so pounds (I was around 190-195-ish). I was eating more from May to July, but not enough to make significant gains. I did what many undisciplined bodybuilders do: I would have a couple of great days of eating, then go have drinks with friends, eat one or two hangover-cure meals the next day, then start the process over again.
Just about all of the athletes/trainers/aspiring bodybuilders I meet in their twenties are in decent shape and have moderate amounts of muscle. But they are afraid of losing their abs. They think that if they creep over 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, or have a slice of pizza here or there, that they are going to compromise their physique. They aren't willing to do the work to add 20 or 30 pounds of mass.
I was guilty of the same, but I had a decent excuse throughout my twenties: I was modeling and doing the odd acting job here and there, and because of this, I never allowed myself to really get after the eating like I knew I would need to if I wanted to make serious gains.
But when I decided to do the bodybuilding contest, I made a conscious decision to say, “Screw the castings and auditions, I’m going to get as big as possible.”
It’s a very hard move to make psychologically, and takes a great deal of discipline—just as much if not more than the diet phase. After bombing out in a powerlifting meet in the 198 lb. class down in Corpus Christi, I decided to get serious about my food intake.
I ate clean at first.
But when my progress began to stall, I started adding in some junk in order to keep growing. By the time I began a food journal on October 16, I was up 10 pounds. A month later I had gained another 12 pounds.
I have reproduced a couple of days below:
October 16, 2009 Weight: 208.4
Meal 1: 1 cup oats, 50 g protein, ½ cup milk, ½ cup blueberries
Meal 2: 50 g protein shake
Meal 3: ½ lb. steak, 2 cups rice
Meal 4: 50 g protein shake, 1 scoop waxy maize
Meal 5: ½ lb. steak, 2 cups rice
Meal 6: 1 double cheeseburger, large onion rings, hash browns, breakfast sandwich w/ sausage
November 3, 2009
Meal 1: Double cheeseburger, 1 breakfast sandwich with sausage
Meal 2: 3 Loaded Chicken Wraps from Popeye’s
Meal 3: Carnitas sandwich w/ 4 oz pork
Meal 4: 50 g protein shake, 1 scoop waxy maize
Meal 5: 6 oz pork, 5 oz catfish, 3 oz potato salad, 3 oz coleslaw
Meal 6: 50 g protein shake
November 16, 2009 Weight: 220.4
Meal 1: 50 g protein, 1 cup oats
Meal 2: 4 oz steak, 1 cup rice
Meal 3: 50 g protein shake, 1 scoop waxy maize
Meal 4: 8 oz steak, 2 cups rice
Meal 5: 8 oz steak, 4 oz Brussels sprouts
Meal 6: 50 g protein shake
And so I gained. During this time I did absolutely zero cardio. I knew that it would be a daily fact of life during the diet, so I skipped it completely. This was NOT a smart move or advisable. My consumption of food on a daily basis has never been higher, and I drank more alcohol and smoked more cigarettes than ever, too.
I secretly feared the end of the bacchanalian lifestyle, the endless party. I was drinking heavily (until I passed out or worse) four to six nights a week. I was eating to painful discomfort, often needing multiple naps throughout the day--all in the name of “putting on size.”
When you see junk in my food journal, this is usually an indication of me being drunk and getting late-night food, or being hung-over and going for the easy grease. It was not without its price, as I would soon discover. And if you take anything away from my story, I hope that you realize that a clean bulk will make everything more productive in the end.
But that’s not what I did.
Link to Part 2 below...
PS--Thanks so much for reading! It takes a lot of effort to write posts like this, so if you enjoyed it would you mind sharing?