From Liberation To Self-Discovery
Discovering that oftentimes it is the growth you experience during the journey that matters far more than the achievement itself.
In, From Fat Kid To Fitness Competitor, I wrote about the liberation of an obese kid from his past struggles with weight loss and low self-esteem. This story is the sequel to that journey—a journey of self-discovery.
The Reality Of “Happily Ever After”
It’s been a year and a half since the conclusion of my first show. While the first show was an amazing experience, what I wasn’t prepared for was the aftermath. Preparing for these shows takes a toll on your body: a result of the rigor required in both dieting and exercise. Your energy levels plummet, your sleep is negatively affected, and your hormones fall out of balance.
Some of the hormones that are affected are your ghrelin and leptin levels. These are the hormones responsible for making you feel hungry and full, respectively. During show prep, you restrict your eating immensely—you cut calories dramatically and your food choices become ultra-rigid. It is a feat in self-control all its own. There is a goal and there is a finish line; light at the end of the tunnel that makes it all possible. Yet, once the show ends you lose the reason to maintain that level of restriction and self-control (understandably so). Coupled with a slowed metabolism and affected hormone levels, and you have a recipe for rapid weight regain.
For a little more than a month I literally could not feel full. I either ran out of food or ate to the point of sickness. With no goal to keep me accountable, I had no reason not to indulge these cravings. An entire package of cookies? Sure, why not. A full jar of peanut butter in one sitting? Seems reasonable, I earned it. Over the course of the eight weeks that immediately followed my first show, I gained thirty pounds. Now, this by no means put me in the category of being overweight, but that amount of weight gain in that short a time isn’t healthy in any scenario.
I took the next year merely fixing the damage to my metabolism that the first show had caused. I completed another (more reasonable) fat loss diet to eliminate some of the weight gain, and then went through a structured reverse diet that lasted me almost six months. During this time I took the advice from the judges to make improvements to my physique in the hopes of a potential future show.
The beautiful part of this post-show struggle is that it fundamentally changed my relationship with food. I can say that I no longer have food cravings (while I’m not extreme dieting, anyways). I no longer feel the pull to consume certain foods simply for the pleasure of taste. I can still enjoy these flavors, but I don’t feel the need to indulge in them often. I can enjoy the simplest of meals as if it were a gourmet meal. This has been a huge benefit in my life.
Stress + Rest = Growth
I decided to officially participate in my second physique show twelve weeks prior to the show date. I had freshly concluded my reverse diet and had three months to prep for the second show. I was excited, I was determined, but most importantly, I was prepared. This time I knew what to expect, both in terms of what would be required and how it would affect my body. The twelve weeks of prep seemed to fly by. My first show left me perpetually starving, but I had better strategies and never felt that intense hunger during my second prep. Sure, I had some cravings, but they were never uncontrollable. Additionally, the low energy levels and affected hormones were present, but it wasn’t a surprise the second time around, so I was better able to anticipate and adjust.
I do have to take the moment to thank all the people who supported me during this process: My friends who understood why I wasn’t around for a few weeks. My clients who put up with lower energy levels and much less-animated sessions. And most importantly, my amazing girlfriend who had to sacrifice almost just as much as me during this time—without signing up for it. I essentially made the choice for her and she was amazing through it all. Needless to say, she was probably the most excited when it was over too.
That was the biggest eye-opener for me during this process—how normal everything felt. From the preparation, to the show tan, to the actual show itself. The first time around was novel, anxiety-provoking and nerve-racking. The second time around everything felt familiar, further evidence that we adapt to the stresses we place on ourselves. I had been through this process before and the second time my mind and body were better equipped to deal with the stress and stimulus of it all.
Sometimes The Sequel Is Better
I took 4th in my novice class at the show, and was beat out by my good friend, training partner, and co-competitor Adam Son for a place in the top five of our open class. (I barely beat him out during our first show, so perhaps we need a tie-breaker?)
Did I want to win? Absolutely. Was I disappointed in my placing immediately afterwards? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. I have a competitive drive and I wanted to be the best. Now that I’ve had some time to introspect, I am quite proud of how everything turned out. A few reasons for this despite my lack of accolades:
The promoter of the show came up to me and personally told me how I looked great on stage, remembering my performance from the first show, and that the competition was much tougher this time. He was right, the competition was better than in my previous show—and I still technically placed better.
The feedback from the judges was, “[your] conditioning was good, presentation was good, [you] need to add more size to [your] shoulders and arms, and tighten up the waist.” This made me extremely happy. Why? The two variables I could control in the short-term during prep—my conditioning (leanness) and presentation (posing)—were judged as good. The other stuff requires months of effort in the gym, time that’s not available in the three months leading up to the show. The things I could possibly have any control over changing I did a great job with. I can’t ask for anything better than that.
After comparing my show pictures to the first time I stepped on stage, it became abundantly clear just how much progress I actually made. The interesting thing about bodybuilding is that the real competition is rarely standing across from you on stage. The real competition stands across from you in the mirror. When I compare my physique from the first show to the second, I made an unbelievable amount of progress—it’s almost unreal to me. I looked better on that stage than I ever have in my life.
The truth is, I had won before I ever stepped in front of the judges on the stage that day.
A Great Metaphor For Life
Bodybuilding is a highly subjective sport, which means you are at the mercy of the judges. While there is some criteria they look for, you never really know what they are looking for in competitors. In this manner it is a much different sport than something like football or basketball, where there are clear rules for who wins and loses. There isn’t much interpretation needed for who has scored more points. You either have or you haven’t. Many people might say that’s the negative side of bodybuilding. I’d actually argue the opposite—that’s what makes it so awesome.
A common mistake many people make is that there is a formula for happiness in life. If you follow these rules: get a good education, a well paying job, settle down and start a family in a nice suburban neighborhood, then you are going to be happy. That simply isn’t true. There is no formula for happiness, no rules that guarantee you get there. Finding happiness is a journey of self-discovery, convoluted by subjectivity, and so individualistic that you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who can really help you figure it out. Similarly, in bodybuilding there are parameters, but very few rules. For that reason I think it translates amazingly well to life.
The question I’m often asked now, will I compete in another show? I don’t have an answer.
I admit I enjoy the suffering and sacrifice that is required to prepare for a fitness show. It sheds light on just how awesome regular daily life is: being able to go out to eat with friends on occasion or getting an actual good night’s sleep. However, the preparation for a fitness show requires that it be your number one priority, and I’m not sure how my life will look in the next couple of years—and whether I will want to or have the ability to put as much time and effort into something like this again.
Which raises the second question I often get from people, what now? This is the most beautiful part of it all. I realized for many of the other competitors on that stage, this show and competing in general was their “thing.” It’s what they focused on, and it was a huge part of their life. Many people, once they’ve reached a big milestone goal, feel lost. The question “What am I supposed to do now?” often arises at the finish line.
I am happy to say this isn’t my “thing,” but just one of many activities I have going on in my life. This allows me to avoid feeling lost and needing to search for the next goal now that it’s over. I already have a long list of things to put my attention toward: jumping back into building my business, putting more effort into practicing and refining my salsa dancing, preparing myself to run with the bulls and visit Spain in July, to name a few.
I can’t say I’ll never compete again, but I can also say it wouldn’t make me sad if I didn’t. I don’t need the deadline of a physique show in the future to keep me accountable to my diet or workouts, because I can recognize all the other benefits they provide to me in pursuit of these other goals. The normalcy of the second show proves this to me. Competing in these two shows has pushed me to grow in many ways, and now that I have seen that growth I can comfortably move on to other things. After all, it wouldn’t make sense for Frodo to keep making the same trek to Mordor every year even after he destroyed the ring, would it? To put it another way, I’m not sure what more I can get from competing in the way of personal growth, physically or mentally. Thus, the challenge of competing in a physique show has served its purpose.
And while my first physique show liberated me from my past struggles with low self-esteem and obesity, my second show illuminated the growth I’ve experienced in the months since. It has proved to me that I am ready for the next installment in the adventurous, crazy life I am forging for myself.
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