Identifying the right time to compete

trexler5

A picture from my first competition, circa 2011

 

People get into weight training for a variety of reasons. Whether you got into it for sports, to improve your stock on the dating market, or simply as a hobby, you might one day acquire the itch to compete in powerlifting, bodybuilding, or some other iteration of strength/physique sport.

But when is the right time to start?

This is a common question, and a tough one at that. Obviously you need to get some training under your belt to make competing a feasible goal. From that perspective, I understand why so many prospective competitors are often timid about taking the plunge and converting from hobbyist to competitor. However, the majority of individuals take too long to make this transition, myself included.

I knew I wanted to do a bodybuilding show some day, but I just needed to add some more mass. I did, but then I found that I needed some more time to allow my legs to catch up with my upper body development. They did, but then I found that my chest was lagging behind a bit, so I needed a bit more time to focus on added some size to my pecs. You probably see where I’m going with this- if you wait until you feel ready, you may never feel ready.

As I mentioned, I had added a bunch of mass already, and was in the process of building up my chest. And it was working- I was walking around at 195 lbs, which is about 40 lbs over the stage weight I turned pro at. My bench was at 355 (touch and go) and climbing. I was walking home from the gym when I crossed a street that I was pretty sure was a one-way street… Except that it wasn’t.

I got nailed by the car, and it tossed me like a rag doll. Luckily (somehow) I walked away totally unharmed. At that point I decided, unequivocally, it was time to compete. You never know when you’re going to get sick, get into a freak accident, or even just acquire a simple gym-related injury. If you’ve got a decent amount of training under your belt, you’re healthy, and you’ve got the itch to compete, I would urge you to go for it.

Aside from the whole carpe diem justification, getting your feet wet as a competitor will probably improve the effectiveness of your training and facilitate/accelerate your progress. Perhaps you’ll get your butt kicked the first time around- this might be a humbling reality check that sparks some change. Maybe you’ll do well, and obtain a boost in motivation and focus moving forward. Either way, you’ll get submerged into a world that includes seasoned veterans and a more broad collection of knowledgeable perspectives, and you’ll be forced to objectively evaluate how you stack up against some competition. You might even find some friends, colleagues, peers, or mentors in the process who can help you moving forward. People who will keep you accountable, give you ideas, give you something to chase, or even take you under their wing and show you the ropes.

My first bodybuilding competition was, as it should be, my worst showing ever. Not a bad showing, not a bad experience, but a necessary first step. I was actually very happy with how I looked and had a great time. More importantly, I got a good assessment of my strengths and weaknesses, made some mistakes that I learned from, met some great and tremendously helpful people, and got a huge motivation boost. This first competition was a huge stepping stone in accelerating my progress in the gym.

While prepping for my competition, I ended up befriending another competitor who also competed in powerlifting. He got me into the whole powerlifting thing, and we ended up racing to see who would be the first to get an official 500-lb squat at a sanctioned meet. Aside from being really fun and keeping both of us honest, this little “challenge” also basically forced my hand with regard to when I would start competing in powerlifting. As soon as I got near a 500 lb squat, I’d enter a competition, simple enough. My first powerlifting meet was similar to my first bodybuilding meet- I had fun, met some great people, got another huge motivation boost, and learned a ton.

In hindsight, I’d say I probably waited too long to compete in both bodybuilding and powerlifting. Competing is such an invaluable experience when you consider the connections made, the techniques and lessons learned, the motivation gained, and the enjoyment obtained. This combination of factors can really accelerate your progress moving forward, so I’m a big advocate of competing a bit early in the career. This doesn’t mean you have to compete often; just frequently enough to refine your skillset and tactical approach over time and keep your motivational fire stoked.

 

Conclusions

If you’re one of the many people who plan to compete “someday,” go out and make it happen! Whether it’s bodybuilding, powerlifting, or some other strength/physique sport, getting your feet wet with your first competition will be a fun, motivating, and educational experience that is likely to give your progress a boost. More importantly, if you wait to compete until you feel big enough, lean enough, or strong enough, it may never happen. Those goalposts have a way of constantly moving themselves further and further away as we approach them.

Goal setting: The Six Years’ War

trexler4

Time to get serious about my powerlifting goals!

 

The year was 2013. I had just finished my undergraduate degree and was on my way to North Carolina to start grad school. I didn’t really know anybody there, I just knew that Abbie Smith-Ryan was there, she was doing cool stuff, and I wanted to be on her team.

It was around this time that I set four goals, with a six year deadline. It didn’t matter when I accomplished each, or what order they fell in, they just needed to get done by May 2019. They were as follows:

1) To establish myself as a proficient, productive researcher

2) To get my pro card in natural bodybuilding

3) To achieve an elite total in raw powerlifting

4) To earn my PhD

 

Four years in, it’s time for a progress report.

 

Overall, I’d say I can cross off #1, although it is admittedly vague in nature. You could always be more productive, but I’m very proud of the amount of quality research our lab group has completed and published within the last four years. We’re far from done and have plenty more research to do in my remaining time at UNC, but the wheels are absolutely in motion and we’ve accomplished a great deal so far. If you’re interested in seeing what we’ve been up to, much of our work is available at my PubMed and ResearchGate links.

As I recently posted, #2 has also been completed, as I recently took home pro cards in bodybuilding and classic physique, and subsequently made my pro bodybuilding debut. As far as #4 goes, a lot of progress has been made. Completing a PhD takes time, and there isn’t much you can do about that. But, at this point, my coursework has been successfully completed, comprehensive exams are quickly approaching, and I have secured a research grant to fund my dissertation. So, I am still on track to meet the self-imposed deadline for graduation in May 2019.

That leaves #3. I’m so incredibly far from an elite total right now, it’s a joke. But on the bright side, I could have said the exact same thing about #1, 2, and 4 at various times throughout the last four years.

I’m writing this post for a few reasons. First, it’s important to put your goals in writing, and to make them known. This can help reinforce your commitment and accountability, and it makes them feel a lot more “real” and tangible. I’m being facetious with the title of this article- I’ve always found in humor in the duality of strength and physique goals; they mean the world to us, but are so trivial in nature. It’s common to see athletes take themselves way too seriously and drastically inflate the importance of what they’re doing. I’m not one to give unsolicited advice frequently, but I would encourage you to find the middle ground. Let your goals mean a lot to you, pursue them enthusiastically, but don’t lose sight of the relative triviality of pursuing a lean physique or a huge bench press. It’ll help keep you rooted in reality, keep your priorities in line, and make you more robust to the speedbumps along the way.

Second, this post serves as a quick update to contextualize my upcoming focus. After a long, arduous contest prep, it’s time to figure out what the next step or transition is. I’ll be focusing on regaining as much lean mass as possible in the immediate post-competition period, then transition toward a more powerlifting-oriented approach to my training and nutrition. Of course, I’ll be updating this website along the entire way to keep everyone posted with regard to what I’m trying to implement and how it’s going.

But third, and probably most importantly, I want to use this post to reinforce my belief that setting and reaching goals is, more than anything, a battle of attrition. From the outside, it’s easy to look back after someone else accomplishes one of their goals and say, “I knew they’d do it eventually.” I do this all the time when I see others reach their goals, and I think it’s a fairly natural response when we believe in the abilities of our peers. But as I cross one of my goals off the list (pro card) and switch gears towards another (elite total), I want to document my first-person perspective here, and highlight two facts:

The goals I’m currently working on are numerous years in the making, and there have been times that I’ve strongly doubted my ability to complete each and every one of them- including those that have since been accomplished.

Like I said, I’m weak as hell right now. I’m standing at the foot of a very large mountain that I fully intend to climb. Based on my current numbers, it’s a really stupid goal, almost impossibly out of reach. But as I’ve learned from pursuing my other goals over the last four years, where you start isn’t really that important. What really matters is identifying the route to achieving it, putting your head down, and grinding it out. There will be times when the route takes detours, when it’s necessary to slow down the pace, and possibly times when it’s necessary to hit the “pause” button. But like I said, it’s a battle of attrition- I don’t need to be superhuman to finish off the list, I just need to make sure I don’t give up, and I don’t move backwards.

I don’t consider myself “successful” yet, so I’m not the guy to dish out tips on achieving success. I am still working on the climb, and I have a long way to go. I’m happy about the progress I’ve made so far in a variety of pursuits, but I’m a work in progress that has much to prove and achieve. But the more I meet and talk with successful people- academics, physique athletes, business owners, and otherwise- the more I observe the same thing, over and over: These are, typically, very average people. You don’t need to be born with it, made for it, or possess some exceptional talent that no one else has. You just need to identify the goal, focus, and always keep moving. So as I gear up to tackle the rest of these goals by May 2019, I hope you’ll join me in identifying some goals, putting them down in writing, and chasing them like crazy.

Rear-view mirror: A contest season in review

trophies and check july 18 post

Welp, that’ll do it. This season was funny- it started in a pretty unusual fashion. I used to eat a huge, family-sized bag of tortilla chips at work every day because it was convenient to pack and required no preparation. One day I decided that this behavior probably wasn’t an ideal nutrition choice, so I stopped.

I started losing weight. The weight loss was unexpectedly motivating, so I made a couple other tiny, easy changes to my training/nutrition. Before I knew it, I had a pretty solid weight loss trend rolling. Then I looked at the calendar and realized it was my last chance to scrape together a contest prep before starting my dissertation. So, all of a sudden I was prepping for a show, I guess. I’d estimate that about half of my prep occurred without me knowing about it.

But before you explode with envy, rest assured that it eventually got pretty brutal, as contest prep does. I didn’t just stop eating tortilla chips and coast onto stage a few weeks later. The goal was to make a hard push for my pro card, so I dug deep and grinded it out. Below are a few important things I learned and/or want to highlight as I look back at my season.

 

1) You don’t necessarily have to do cardio during prep

Energy balance works. Calories in, calories out, you know the drill. If it isn’t working, you’re messing up part of the equation. Sometimes it gets messy.

Bottom line, you’re free to manipulate whichever side of the equation you prefer. Frankly, I’m pretty willing to starve myself, and I absolutely hate cardio. From my personal perspective, cardio takes time, cuts into recovery, and generally leaves me miserable and hungry. So I opted to go on a super restrictive diet instead. It’s not for everybody, and I’d never make the blanket recommendation that people shouldn’t do cardio during prep. I’m just saying that I picked my poison (dietary restriction), it appears to be a viable and justifiable strategy from a conceptual standpoint, and I achieved my best ever conditioning with this approach while minimizing the “miserableness” of my prep.

 

2) I wish I bulked more aggressively in the off-season

I’ll cut myself a little slack here, since I didn’t really plan on competing this year. Nonetheless, as I look back at the stage photos, I’m very pleased with my conditioning but definitely need some more lean mass. Again, not a blanket statement that everyone should go start a “dreamer bulk.” How tightly or loosely you approach the off-season really depends on your capacity (and desire) to add more lean mass. At this stage in my career, I am confident that I can add plenty of mass to my frame, and I believe I held myself back by being a bit too shy with the calories over the past couple years. Lesson learned!

I’ve posted a few contest pictures below, so feel free to judge for yourself. If you’re interested, there’s a more extensive album of stage photos that is publicly available on my Facebook.

best comp pics july 18

 

3) I’m really stoked

My biggest goal was to get my pro card, and I did! There are always shortcomings, weak areas, and room for improvement, but it’s important to be happy and take the win every now and then. I ended up turning pro in both bodybuilding and classic physique, and I’m incredibly excited and thankful about that.

 

4) I’m really thankful

Not just about reaching the goal- I’m thankful for the support group in my life. Friends, family, lab mates, advisor, the whole gang. Everyone was incredibly supportive throughout my entire prep. They showed interest, shared my joy, understood the times when I was a bit sluggish, and propped me up when I transiently slipped in and out of full-blown zombie-mode toward the end there. So, I want to openly acknowledge how awesome they are and express sincere gratitude for their support.

 

5) I’ve got some work to do!

Making my pro debut was a really fun experience, and I had a great time with it. I also got to compare myself with some pro bodybuilders to see how I stacked up- This was a humbling experience, and it showed me what I need to work on moving forward (more details on the pro debut are available here).

Overall, I was happy with how I looked at the pro debut, and I felt like I held my own on stage. I had the best conditioning in the pro class, but I definitely need to add some muscle mass, particularly from the posterior perspective (rear lat spread, back double bicep, etc.). Adding some mass to my quads, hamstrings, and lats will greatly improve these shots and give me much better chances of placing well moving forward. I also need to improve my posing quite a bit, as the pros tend to display a much more refined style of posing than at the amateur level. Plus, I don’t have the type of physique that’s good enough to overcome subpar posing (few do).

 

Conclusions

Despite very atypical beginnings, this turned out to be a great season for me. I learned a lot, which will certainly influence my preps in the future. Overall, I walk away with great optimism regarding my future in the sport. I’ll focus on adding some mass for a while, continue to work on posing, and I should show up to my next competition with some drastic improvements. In the meantime, I’ll be focusing on building up my strength as I add mass, and potentially competing in powerlifting. More on that in my next post!