Bodybuilder, what does that mean? Do you need to step on stage to be one? Does it matter?
To me it did. I’ve wanted to do a bodybuilding show for the last 10 years. I can remember going into the gym psyched to hit the weights time and time again only to flex without seeing much definition in the mirror. It was now or never, I thought, as January 2016 approached.
I typically fluctuate between 178 and 185lbs. I don’t always track my weight, but I have to keep an eye on it. I’m a little prone to over-indulge on delicious food and craft beer. This can result in me creeping up in weight over time, especially holidays.
I decided in Fall of 2015 to try my first “lean bulk”. I started in October at 182lbs then slowly worked my way up. My goal was to put on quality muscle mass without too much fat. I didn’t track my macros, instead I used my best judgement. I worked my ass off in the gym. I hit PRs in bench, squat and dead with a combined increase of 110lbs. However, I found myself a little too fluffy. I found that my lean bulk had turned into a rather dirty one.
January 1st of 2016
I started a modest diet to get back down to my normal body weight before my bodybuilding prep. I also wanted to track my body very closely, so I scheduled a DEXA scan at one of the local doctor’s office. It was $45, so it was well worth it. Here are the results:
As I looked at my results I was shocked. I had creeped up to 23.3% body fat. Granted, DEXAs are known to show a bit higher % body fat than other measurements. Looking at the image on the right you can see where my fat was stored. Mainly in the mid-section / hips. I blame it on the cookies.
By the end of the month I was down to 183lbs. I started looking for online bodybuilding coaches because I knew I couldn’t complete the journey alone. I soon found the coaching team that best fit me, which was the 3DMJ team. I needed someone to show me the ropes. I was assigned coach Jeff Alberts, who has been competing for ~30 years. Little did I know he was the perfect coach for me.
We dove right in. I knew it was going to be slow, but I had no idea it would take us almost 30 weeks to prep for my first show. The goal was to keep as much muscle mass as possible while dieting. That meant going at a snail’s pace for weight loss. You can see the body weight graph from February to August on the right. I started at ~183lbs and ended weighing 157lbs a few days before my first show. The average loss was about 1.2lbs/week - I no longer fit in any of my clothes.
I went back for another DEXA a few days before my first show. I wasn’t as lean as I wanted to be, but it was the last chance I would have before I moved to a new city. I tried to keep everything consistent between the first and second scan – water intake, food, time of day, etc. If you look at the prep pictures you can tell I lost fat. That was the main goal. If you talk to most coaches they’ll tell you that fat loss will come with muscle loss. Again, this makes sense because I was in a caloric deficit for 7 months. I consistently trained five days per week so I was hoping I could hold onto my beloved muscle.
I lost ~15kg (33lbs) of fat. I also gained 3.2kg (7lbs) of lean tissue. My jaw dropped when I saw it. Even if we account for the DEXA error rate (+/- 5%), I still ended up gaining lean mass.
I wasn’t on some insane workout program because I didn’t have the energy for it. My focus was on dieting. I think the increase in lean mass was due to the consistency of training. Although I’m no newbie, I’ve been working out for the past decade. I even train people online and in person. However, this was 7 months straight of workouts/nutrition, carefully planned and monitored. The accountability from my coach definitely helped. I encourage everyone to have a fitness coach, even those who are personal trainers.
As the competition day approached I was nervous as hell. I had no idea how it would go. The night before my show I forgot to set my alarm. Luckily, I woke up at 6:30am anyway. This was slightly behind my first scheduled meal. I scarfed it down then proceeded to get everything else ready. I thought I looked decent, but once I applied the dream tan everything started to come together.
I headed over to the athlete meeting. It was now 9:30am, still some time before prejudge at 11am. I continued eating, prepping and reapplied my tan.
My first class was the “debut” class. Only people who were first time competitors could enter. I felt flat at this point. I ended up winning the class, but during my time on stage I wasn’t comfortable. Posing was much harder than I anticipated. It takes a lot of concentration to activate multiple muscles in certain position (i.e. rear lat spread = calf, glutes, hamstring, back, biceps activation simultaneously). It was very difficult to smile and flex at the same time! My stage presence suffered.
My next class was ~90 minutes later: middleweight bodybuilding (156-172lbs). By this time, I wasn’t nervous. I had slowly filled out during the day. However, this class was much larger. I was up against several bodybuilders who had competed before. They made us pose for about ~10 minutes, by which point everyone was soaked in sweat and shaking. As I walked off stage I already knew I could improve. I didn’t care where I placed. I had completed the experience. I was now a bodybuilder.
My next show will be October 1, 2016 – check back for an update!
Questions? Email me firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Brandon Roberts is a strength and physique scientist. He has a PhD in muscle biology as well as a Master's in human performance, both from the University of Florida. He works with athletes of all ages and backgrounds using an evidence-based approach.
He has published multiple articles in relation to muscle wasting during diseases. His research focus is on the molecular mechanisms of muscle growth and loss. He also writes for websites such as STACK, Muscle & Strength, TrainHeroic, and Strengtheory.