Identifying the right time to compete

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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

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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!

 

Quick update: Pro debut results

pro debut medal pic

Just giving a very brief update here, not a full “season in review.” I turned pro about 3 weeks ago, and I decided that I wanted to go ahead and make my pro debut immediately. I figured it would be fun to hop on stage since I was still in shape, and I felt it’d be a great learning experience that might dish me a well-deserved dose of humility and highlight what I need to work on moving forward. I was correct across the board.

To make things easy, I’ll split this into 3 sections: My placement, Positives, and Areas for Improvement.

 

My Placement

As the picture indicates, I took 3rd place. But before you get too excited, there were only 3 pros in the bodybuilding division, so 3rd place = last place. I’ll need to see stage pictures to verify, but I’m fairly certain that I was the leanest competitor in the class, and I was very pleased with my conditioning. Unfortunately the two other competitors were seasoned veterans with a TON of muscle. My leanness simply was not enough to make up for the difference in muscularity, and I wholeheartedly agree with how the judges placed us.

So, cliff notes: 3rd place out of 3, probably the best conditioning, not enough muscle. I had three weeks to prepare for the jump to the pro level, so there wasn’t much I could do in terms of gaining size. As a result, I’m pretty happy with my look and my ability to maintain the conditioning I achieved in my first show a few weeks ago.

 

Positives

  • I’m pretty sure I had the best conditioning in my class
  • I didn’t win, but I certainly didn’t feel out of place on the pro stage
  • I had a ton of fun
  • Standing up on the pro stage really helped highlight my weaknesses, which is always both humbling and informative
  • I learned a lot about my strengths, my weaknesses, some different peak week strategies, and approaches to maintaining shape for multiple weeks between shows (including the additional curveball of traveling for a conference in-between shows). As a result, this ended up being an extremely valuable and educational experience

 

Areas for Improvement

  • My posing has been good enough to slide by at the amateur level, but it needs to get better
  • I need to add a whole bunch of muscle
  • I look way better from the front and the side than I do from the back. Part of this can be alleviated by posing improvements, but most of it is going to require some deadlift therapy

 

In conclusion, I had a great time and learned a lot. I have a ton of work to do, but this show brought a very comfortable mix of positives and areas for improvement. My season is now over, and I walk away happy about the look I achieved and the goals I reached, and motivated to work on my weaknesses and hit the pro stage with a drastically improved physique in the future.

I want to extend some serious gratitude to Alfonso Gillon and Kent Bierly. This was the perfect show for my pro debut- competitive, well-run, and tremendously fun. I highly recommend this show, and the ANBF in general, to all competitors. I also want to thank my parents, who came out to support as they always do. It was very cool to have them at my shows to share all the memories this season.

Time to apply the lessons learned and start making some improvements!

Do you need to compete to coach physique athletes?

 

This question gets brought up in fitness circles all the time. In fact, I was presenting a research poster at the 2017 ISSN conference this afternoon, and it came up again during a great conversation with my friend Jay Woith, who was kind enough to stop by. I am currently two weeks out, and both Jay and his wife are competitive physique athletes, so we were discussing some of the “weird” side effects of prep that only competitors (and their spouses) really know about. I suppose we should have been talking about the content of my poster, which compared the validity of a variety of body composition testing methods, but the ISSN crowd sure loves to talk bodybuilding. Anyway, I figured I would put my two cents down in writing, since this topic is so commonly discussed.

I tend to lean libertarian in all matters regarding the trade of goods and services, so my first thought is, you don’t need to do anything- your value as a prep coach is exactly what someone will pay you to prep them for a show, whether you’re a seasoned veteran or you’ve never stepped foot on stage. Having said that, it’s common to see people jump into prepping athletes very, very quickly. Some people seem to become a coach the second they step off stage for the first time, and others begin prepping athletes having never done a prep themselves. On the surface, I’d say this probably isn’t ideal, and I would be very hesitant to trust them with my prep (and my money).

Nonetheless, I think categorizing an individual as “has competed” or “has not competed” is overly reductionist. For example, let’s not ignore the obvious: Just because an individual has competed, doesn’t mean they’ve competed well. If they technically have competed, but have never showed up in great shape, that’s not helping me hire them. On the flip side, just because they have a great physique and have had great showings on stage, doesn’t mean they can take you to that level, or even maximize your potential. There are some genetic unicorns out there who get in really great shape doing some really stupid things.

There are a lot of factors to consider when evaluating a potential coach. Do they have the basic “textbook knowledge” in exercise, nutrition, and physiology? A degree or certification in a relevant field can be reassuring here, but isn’t necessarily a must. Do they stay on top of the relevant research as it emerges? Do they have the practical experience? This could mean personally, as a competitor, or this could refer to their previous track record as a coach. Are they prompt, organized, and responsive? Are they passionate about teaching you the process as you go? Do they have an appropriate client load that will allow them to devote sufficient time to your prep? Is their personality and communication style compatible with yours?

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider, and the relative importance of each factor will vary from client to client. There are coaches who have never competed that check off plenty of these boxes, and there are seasoned competitors that check off very few of them.

Having said that, contest prep can bring you to some strange places, both psychologically and physiologically. It’s a unique experience with unique challenges, and there is tremendous benefit in having “been there” if you’re hoping to coach others through it. Personally experiencing the rigors of contest prep equips the coach with a level of knowledge, understanding, and empathy that, in my opinion, cannot be obtained by any other route. I would never claim that a coach must have competed prior to prepping others, but this is one of the primary reasons that I would never personally hire a coach that had never driven themselves to obtain a stage-ready level of conditioning and put it all on the line in a competitive setting.

I have always planned to coach some physique athletes one day. However, I intend to wait until I have accomplished some things that my future clients will appreciate, just so they can be certain that they’re in good hands. A few years ago I was thinking about when it would be the “right time” for me to begin coaching, and I decided that I wanted to conduct laboratory research in the bodybuilding population, prep myself through a few full competition seasons, earn my pro card, and finish up my PhD in a related field before I thought about bringing on clients. Admittedly, these are excessive barriers to entry and by no means represent necessary coaching prerequisites; this is just the path I chose for myself. But with all the highly qualified prep coaches that are out there at this point, I think consumers deserve to hire someone who has put in the effort to acquire both the educational background and the practical experience to support an effective coaching service.

So, bottom line, hire whoever you want. Just remember that you are the employer in that relationship, and the coach is your employee. As such, you’re well within your rights to demand that the prospective coach has put in the work necessary to develop a strong skill set and continuously makes an effort to provide an acceptable level of service. And if people want to hire you to prep them, more power to you, whatever your background may be. But, if you’re thinking about getting into coaching or want to take your coaching skills to the next level, I do believe that there is tremendous value in the experience of competing.

Post-show update

Trophy picture

I’ll write a more in-depth summary of this contest prep/competition soon, but I wanted to provide a quick update while the emotions were still fresh. The show went remarkably well last night, and I won the men’s bodybuilding overall, the men’s classic physique overall, and pro cards for each.

There were some amazing competitors at the show, and I want to congratulate them for their effort and success. I also want to thank Kent Bierly and the ANBF for an incredibly positive experience. Their shows are a lot of fun for the spectators, very athlete-oriented, and they run smoothly and quickly. I really support the format of their shows, and I’m excited to continue competing with the ANBF at the pro level.

It’s impossible to separate my bodybuilding interests from my academic interests- I love learning, teaching, and applying the convergence of physiology, exercise, and nutrition. Frankly, that’s a big part of why I recently started this website- I was tired of feeling the need to categorize my activities or assign them to independent “silos,” when I consider my pursuits as a bodybuilder, student, researcher, and teacher to be inherently interconnected. This website is the outlet where I can put them all together in a big, delicious stew. Anyway, I want to extend a big, open “thank you” to all the people who have directly or indirectly inspired, motivated, or supported me in my endeavors as a bodybuilder, student, and researcher.

Finally, I want to thank my family and friends for their continuous support. Contest prep is rigorous for the athlete, but these rigors also tend to impact the friends, families, and colleagues of the competitor as well. Ideally, the athlete does their very best to minimize this impact, and the athlete’s social circle does their best to accommodate and support (within reason). I am incredibly fortunate to have a group of friends, colleagues, lab mates, and family members that are unbelievably supportive, and I am very thankful for all of you.

In a nutshell: I’m thrilled about how the show went, I’m surrounded by supportive, motivating, and inspiring people, and I’m pumped to make some big time improvements and start my journey as an ANBF pro!

Pre-Competition reflections on show night’s eve

My first competition of the season is tomorrow, so I figured it’d be a good time to jot down some pre-competition reflections while I’m “in the moment.” Here goes.

1) There’s never a perfect time for contest prep

The last few months have been wild. I don’t even know how many weeks I technically prepped, because it just kind of happened over time. I was in the middle of a whirlwind of teaching, research, and taking courses simultaneously, and I decided I wanted to clean up my diet a little bit. Then a little bit more. All of a sudden, I accidentally slid into a contest prep- still not really sure how that happened.

Anyway, the time felt right, so I went for it, and I’m glad I did. All things considered, I feel good about what I’ve accomplished over the last few months. Academically things have been fantastic, and I achieved my best conditioning ever this prep. I also learned a ton from this contest prep, mostly by breaking a bunch of my own rules out of necessity. I’ll write a more thorough article in the future discussing some of those rules, and what breaking them taught me, but that’s for another time.

In hindsight, I would’ve loved to have a more focused “bulk” prior to cutting so I could bring a little more lean mass onto the stage tomorrow. But conditions for prep are never perfect, and sometimes you just kind of roll with it, even if you don’t feel “100% ready” for it. All in all, I’m really excited to hit the stage, and very content with the process and the results of this particular contest prep.

 

2) You don’t necessarily need cardio for contest prep

I didn’t do any formal, structured cardio this prep. At all. The reason? I kind of hate doing it, and with all my current academic responsibilities, I found it unrealistic to set aside the time for it. Overall, I think the decision was great. I achieved my best conditioning ever without the need for cardio, and it came with the benefits of less gym time and better recovery from resistance training. There are no hard rules in contest prep- there’s plenty of freedom to “pick your poison” when it comes to creating a caloric deficit.

 

3) It’s really important to practice good sleep hygiene, especially during contest prep

I had to slash my calories really low to get away with abstaining from cardio. Oddly enough, this prep was fairly smooth with regards to hunger and food cravings. Aside from a lingering back issue, my primary adversity to deal with was disrupted sleep.

I was very able to fall asleep, but staying asleep was next to impossible. However, I did find that a focused effort on “sleep hygiene,” or proper pre-sleep habits, helped out to a meaningful degree. This topic may end up yielding an in-depth article down the road, but there are some quick tips that are generally suggested (see a few resources for further reading here, here, here, and here). The habits that were particularly helpful for me were:

  • Blocking out all light and sound at night (sleeping mask, ear plugs)
  • Trying to maintain consistent times for going to sleep and waking up each day
  • Minimizing artificial light/screen time before bed
  • Finding ways to relax and unwind before bed
  • Restricting caffeine intake to the morning hours

The worst part about sleep issues during prep is that they exacerbate the “usual” prep problems. Prep tends to make you lethargic, sluggish, hungry, and stressed, and sleep issues just turn these problems up a few notches. So I highly recommend paying attention to sleep hygiene during prep- it’s not magic, but a few minor changes to your daily routine can go a long way.

 

4) You need to find ways to enjoy prep

I had a football coach that always stressed the fact that we played 10, 48-minute games per season. This meant that our overall time commitment was virtually all training and practice, with actual competition making up a comparatively tiny fraction of the season. Bottom line: You better find a way to enjoy practice!

Bodybuilding is an even larger discrepancy. I’ll spend less than an hour on stage tomorrow, and it’s been four years since I last dusted off the old posing trunks. Parts of contest prep are just awful, and there’s no avoiding that. Hunger, lethargy, and sleep issues certainly come to mind. But it’s really important to find ways to enjoy the process, despite your body’s generally unpleasant physiological state.

It’s really cool to watch your body change, and to give yourself some credit for making it happen. When you wake up and check your weight changes and take a look in the mirror, you should enjoy the small, daily “wins” comprised of incremental improvements. As a physiology student, I find joy in simply observing the changes, both good and bad, and connecting them to the biological basis behind them.

I’ve also found a lot of joy in the support component of this contest prep. It’s been fantastic to have friends check in to ask about my progress, how things are going, how I’m feeling. Most importantly, my family will be with me at the show, and their support means the world to me. Win, lose, or draw, it’s going to be a really exciting day that I can share with family, and that’s priceless. On that note, I’m going to relax and enjoy some family time tonight, and tomorrow it’s game time! Stay tuned for post-competition updates and reflections.