From Runner to Ripped

Before I talk about my bikini contest prep, I should give you some history about my fitness and athletic background…

I started playing volleyball in middle school, and continued through high school and college. Being on the NCAA Division III team of an institution that prized research over athletics – and had torn its former Division I football stadium down to build a library – our training sessions weren’t terribly hard-core. Nonetheless, I always gave it my all and stayed in decent enough shape (after I recovered from gaining the “Freshman 20”).

When my collegiate “career” ended, I started jogging. Slowly. With basketball players whose advanced cardiovascular conditioning meant they would run and talk to each other, thereby distracting me from my own heavy breathing, while I simply listened but didn’t have to respond (not like I could anyway).

I kept it up, and in my own time I grew to like jogging (or dare I call it running? How fast do you need to go for it to count as “running”?) This was peculiar to me, since one of the reasons I stopped playing basketball in high school was because we ran too much. I would get anxiety attacks before the timed mile, and wanted to stay home sick when we had the dreaded “6-lap run”, which is 1.5 miles. But I digress.

Having been an athlete, I was no stranger to the weight room, but sometimes I just didn’t feel like going to the gym, and when crunched for time I figured a cardio session would give me better results than lifting weights. Cardio burns more calories, right? And burning calories burns fat, and then you lose weight. I thought if I ran enough, I could eat whatever I wanted and still control my weight. In my 20’s, this was certainly the case. Once the clock struck 30, however, not so much. Thankfully, this is about the time I met Nate.

Nate’s vocation and his passion for weight training made me more aware of my own workouts, and I asked for his help. In the beginning, he created plans for me with a significant amount of weight training, but also included cardio to make me happy. This made for long sessions at the gym, up to 90 minutes, just so I could get my cardio in at the end.

He tried to get me to curtail my cardio numerous times, but I was always resistant. For a while we compromised by switching from endurance cardio (30-60 minutes) to high-intensity interval training (a.k.a. HIIT, which lasted 20-30 minutes). I could still run, got my heart pounding, and I thought sure, HIIT makes you burn more calories in a shorter period of time! That’s good!

As Nate did more research on diet and exercise and the effects of both on body composition, he became more and more convinced that the extra cardio I was doing was actually hindering my goals of getting/staying lean. When I decided to compete in the bikini contest, he would only train me under the condition that I follow his instructions without question. I was completely in his hands.

Nate designed my training plan with the following goals: (1) build muscle up top (I’m sort of pear-shaped, so this would make me look more proportionate), and (2) create some kind of muscle in my lower half, where I previously had none. When I started training for the competition, I had what I called a “butthigh” (pronounced “buh-THIGH”) – my butt ran right into the back of my thigh, with no distinguishing difference between the two! Even when I tried to flex my glutes, nothing happened. So pathetic. But the only way to make it better was to work it out! Here’s a sample of what my training plan looked like at the end of my contest training:

TUES — BACK, LEGS I

  • Rack pull-ups 3 x max
  • One arm rotating dumbell rows 3 x 10
  • Lat pulldowns 3 x 10
  • Single stiff leg deadlifts 3 x 15
  • Single glute bridges 3 x 15
  • Sumo deadlifts 3 x 15

WED – CHEST, ARMS, ABS

  • Flat dumbell press 3 x 10
  • Push-ups 3 x max
  • Rope extensions superset alternate dumbell curls 3 x 10
  • Skullcrushers superset concentration curls 3 x 10
  • Cable crunch 3 x max
  • Decline crunch 3 x max

SAT — LEGS II

  • Elevated split squats 3 x 15
  • Hyperextensions 3 x 15
  • Hamstring curls 3 x 15
  • Cable glute kickbacks 3 x 15
  • Calf raises 3 x 15
  • Seated calf raises 3 x 15

SUN – SHOULDERS, ARMS

  • Seated dumbell side laterals 3 x 10
  • Seated high rope rows 3 x 10
  • Alternate dumbell front raise 3 x 10
  • Rope extensions superset Alternate dumbell curls 3 x 10
  • Skullcrushers superset hang concentration curls 3 x 10
  • Cable crunch 3 x 15-20
  • Decline crunch 3 x max

It looks like a lot, but by timing my rest periods between sets (40 seconds in between each set), things moved along quite nicely, and I was never in the gym for more than 45-60 minutes. No different than going to a class at your own gym, right?

What’s missing from these workouts? CARDIO!

That’s right, I did no formal cardio during the 12-week period before my contest. Our focus was building lean muscle mass, and using the caloric deficit from my diet to lose fat. You’ve probably heard that muscle burns more calories in your body than fat. Thus, by increasing the amount of lean muscle mass in my body (by weight training), I not only look better and more “toned” (which is the point of training for a bikini contest, right?), but my body then burns more calories throughout the day, which results in more fat loss, which means looking even BETTER. You see the wonderful cycle here?

Were you afraid you’d get too muscular from lifting all those weights?

I was never worried that I’d get huge like a man, because that is physically impossible without using steroids or growth hormones. However, in the past when I trained with both weights and cardio, I did have concerns of getting bigger than I was comfortable with. Each time I started a program (and there were many “new starts”) I would feel my pants get tighter, and I was convinced that I was getting “bulky” from doing lunges, squats, and leg extensions. My ridiculous way of thinking was this: Muscles will just make me look bigger; when you’re wearing pants no one can see your muscles, they just know that your legs are big! RIDICULOUS, RIGHT? My knee-jerk reaction was to cut the weights and increase the cardio.

What I needed to realize, and finally did in time, was that I had to give my body time to adjust. I started to build muscle, and for some period of time I would feel bigger, but that was only until my body actually started losing fat. Until then I’d have my new muscle plus my old fat…I needed to be patient. Nate promised me that if I would just “stick with the plan”, my body would respond just the way we wanted. As always, he was right.

How long did it take to see results?

My upper body responded the fastest, and soon the trainers at his Nate’s gym would see me working out and make comments to him like “Dude, your wife is ripped!” We went to Hawai’i a few weeks after I had started training for the show, and family members commented on my “guns”, which were apparently visible from a balcony four floors up. The comments made me very self-conscious at first. I wasn’t sure if that was the look I wanted…did I really want to be “ripped”? Did that mean I looked like a guy?

After Nate explained to me that these comments were coming from trainers, who know what they are talking about and what their clients aspire to look like, and family members, who are supportive and encouraging, and I became less worried, and more confident. I enjoyed getting stronger and feeling like I was making progress with my training, and that I was making positive gains in some regard. These gains were a sort of positive reinforcement for me, and inspired me to keep working hard.

My lower body took longer to respond. This was expected, but I was still worried. It was slow going at first, but after 2 months I starting losing fat in my lower half. I didn’t even notice it at first, but suddenly my clothes were getting looser, and eventually nearly all of my pants were hanging on me (and looked borderline horrible). It was like a snowball effect, and was actually quite amazing. The last two weeks before the show were the most significant, and the change most noticeable, and the weight just fell off. Surprisingly to me, the “bulky legs” I feared in the beginning never matriculated. In fact, I could have used a little more muscle and definition.

How much weight did you lose? What was your body fat percentage?

To be honest, while I would periodically get on the scale, I never used my weight as a regular gauge of my progress. A person’s bodyweight fluctuates a lot, even over the course of a single day, based on food and water intake, exercise, and hormones, so to track it frequently would mean nothing. It might have been interesting to have taken regular measurements of weight or body fat percentage for data purposes, but when came down to the bikini contest, none of those things really matter. All that matters is how you look on stage, and how you look in person.

What did you learn from this method of training?

I learned first-hand something that Nate has been telling me for years…that when it comes to body composition change, or losing fat, or just trying to look good, weight training trumps cardio every time. From personal experience I can tell you that I was leaner and had a better physique after training for this bikini contest – with no cardio – than I have ever been in my entire life. If you look at my photos, I don’t look overly muscular at all.

Think about it: compare at the body of a marathon runner vs. that of a figure or fitness model. Which one of the two is leaner with more definition in their muscles? Who looks more “fit” or “defined”? The figure or fitness model, who will unequivocally be lifting more weights in their training programs than the distance athlete.

That’s not to say that cardio doesn’t have value. It absolutely does. But you need to be sure you know WHY you are doing the cardio. If it’s because you like it, it feels good to you, you are trying to get your heart rate up for an extended period of time to increase your cardiovascular endurance, etc., then yes, cardio is the answer. But if you simply want to look good – or great – and lose fat and gain some muscle, then get off the treadmill or stairmaster and pick up some weights!