Bodybuilding FAQs + Lessons Learned

For those of you who don’t know, last month I competed in a bodybuilding show. Well, officially I competed in the Figure division. The show ended up being smaller than anticipated, so with no other bodybuilders entered, I switched to Figure the week of the show. Yes, learning to walk in heels at the last minute was *quite the challenge!

I kept most of the preparation a secret and didn’t make it public knowledge on this blog until I was already several months in. My reasoning for that is because I am not big into the constant selfie-taking culture and obsession with what people look like/are eating that is prevalent in the bodybuilding world. However, since sharing a bit more about my bodybuilding journey I a lot of people have asked me for details about my experience, so here we go with some answers!


1. Why did you want to compete in a bodybuilding show?

A combination of circumstances led me to decide to compete. 1. It has long been on my bucket list. I enjoy lifting and being lean, so it seemed liked something fun to do. 2. After running the Baltimore Marathon in the fall of 2012 I just kept getting hurt! Hip issues, broken ankle, torn ligaments, etc. forced me to take a very long break from running. During that time I spend a lot more time in the weight room and put on some more muscle mass. 3. I like having something to train for! Since running the Blue Ridge Marathon wasn’t going to happen I set my sights on something else. 1st it was a bench press competition. Then I kept feeling the urge to try bodybuilding, so I finally made the decision to just go for it! 4. I had access to a great support system with the bodybuilding know how. 5. Nutrition and exercise are my passions and I want to experience as many aspects of the sports/exercise nutrition field first hand as I can!

2. I could never starve and dehydrate myself like that. Weren’t you so hungry?

Umm….no. Did I have to cut calories back and diet? YES, of course! Did I ever truly starve myself? NO! Did I Dehydrate myself? Not even once! All of these things are common myths and/or practices that are not warranted. There were certainly days where my energy was low and getting through a workout and the work day was a challenge. I certainly missed out on some social events as well because I just didn’t have the energy or desire. However, I never got to the the point of being too aggressive with restricting my caloric intake. I know some people get down to eating less than 50 g of carbs a day during prep, but luckily my low days ended up being ~125 g at their lowest point. Part of the reason for this is because I started in a good place in terms of 1. being lean and 2. having a moderately high caloric intake with which to cut from.

Here’s a little breakdown of how dieting happened. As a Registered Dietitian I know food well enough to know fairly accurately what my caloric and maronutrient intake was leading up to prep. I started with those numbers and made SMALL cuts each week or every other week. For instance, one week I might cut just 10 grams of carbs a day. 10 grams! That’s less than a 1/4 cup of oats. Another week I might cut 2-3 grams of fat, which is the equivalent of ~5 almonds. It was a slow and gradual process so that I could preserve as much lean mass as possible.

Creating my daily meals was pretty simple for me as I just continued to eat the foods I was normally eating but changed the amounts to meet my target levels. I did have to get used to weighing my food out on a food scale, but it became a habit pretty quickly and wasn’t a big challenge for me. I used excel sheets (example below) with equations built in to easily edit my meal plans each day.

Nutrition LogA large food bank sheet in excel organized by “fat, carbs, protein, & high fiber sources” with equations built in allowed me to easily move foods in and out of my daily plan. Traveling so much did present an additional obstacle, but I was able to stay on track and estimate the macronutrient composition when I did eat out.

food bank

3. Are you pigging out now and enjoying all of those foods you couldn’t have before?

NO freaking way! I lost 10 lbs. over the course of ~5 months. I have no interest in putting it back on in a quarter of the time. My diet now is much the same as my diet at the end of contest prep, but I am “reversing” it. As I mentioned in question #2, I cut my calories VERY slowly (i.e. – 5 to 10 grams of carbs or 1-2 grams of fat at a time). Now I am adding back calories at a similar rate. The metabolic adaptations that occur with weight loss (link is a review paper on the topic) have essentially primed my body to regain that weight as fat if I were to all of a sudden “go off my diet” and just start eating whatever I wanted with no attention paid to my total macro nutrient intake. Therefore, my intention now is to stay diligent and slowly increase my caloric intake while keeping weight (specifically fat) gain to a minimum. Certainly I will put body fat back on – and I know I need to – but I am being cautious with my reverse diet to prevent a terrible rebound where I end up at a higher body fat percentage and weight than I was before bodybuilding ever crossed my mind.

4. What did you like the most about the process?

I liked having my workouts switched up from a focus on hitting a certain # of miles or a certain goal pace from my previous focus on training for trail/road races. I also found it REALLY fun and inspiring to see the changes in my physique overtime. Getting my body to a point where I felt I could be my own fitness motivational meme was really awesome! To compare – back muscles in 2012 vs. 2014!

Pull-up Comparison{2012 vs. 2014}

I also enjoyed learning more about myself. Specifically an important lesson about body image that I never truly understood until this experience.

If you’re not happy with your current self, no amount of muscularity or weight loss will magically make you happy.

While I don’t have an eating disorder, I have certainly had my fair share of body image struggles. Even though I know I have never been “fat” (and trust me, I have DXA scans dating back to 2008 which remind me of this), I have “felt fat” and made comments along those lines. I have wished that my thighs were smaller, my hips narrower, and my abs more defined many many times. Often times clients that I have worked with on weight loss endeavors have put a certain body image or weight in their head as the look or number that will result in happiness. While I steer those conversations in a more positive direction, I am also not immune to those thoughts myself. For some reason I often thought, “I’ll be happy with my body when I get to 115#”. Well folks, I finished this bodybuilding contest prep under 110#! While I was very happy with the physique I brought to the stage, I would still look in the mirror some days and find flaws and aspects to critique. Being hard on myself is just part of who I am and is me being realistic. However, I share this story as a cautionary note to those thinking of competing – do not get into this “sport” thinking that physically transforming your body will automatically mentally transform your relationship with your body or lead to ultimate happiness. IT WON’T. If you tie your self-worth to what you see in the mirror you will never be satisfied, no matter how great you look. This all seems common sense and is information I have relayed on to others numerous time. It just took actually going  through this physique sport experience before I truly internalized and understood the truth behind that sentiment.

Finally, as a result of having to hit specific macro nutrient goals each day and the additional challenge of SO MUCH TRAVELING this summer, I learned that I actually enjoy (or maybe I learned TO enjoy, is better wording) the following foods:

  • Black Coffee
  • Plain, 0% Fat Greek Yogurt
  • Egg whites. Mix up a bunch of cinnamon with them before microwaving and you have yourself a pretty tasty little treat!
  • Tuna and Salmon that comes in a pouch or can.
  • Crazy-dessert flavored sugar-free gums. The Extra Dessert Delights line-up = a lifesaver!

5. So, when is your next show?

Who knows! I am really enjoying the training and associated lifestyle and think I would want to compete again. However, it won’t be for quite a while. Physique sports are not like any other sport where you have another game each week. It takes a lot of time to 1. diet down, 2. reverse that progress to get your calories back to where they were before the diet, and 3. make increases in lean mass before another cut. So we’ll see. Until then, I will stay busy with grad school and training hard!

Until next time!



10 thoughts on “Bodybuilding FAQs + Lessons Learned

  1. Ben Williams says:

    Hi Tanya,

    You mentioned a large food bank worksheet that allows you to easily move figures in and out depending on the day’s nutrition. Is that something that you’ve purchased or did you create it for yourself? I think that could be very useful.

    • Tanya says:

      Hi Ben,

      The food bank was acquired from my coach who had put a lot of foods in for himself/previous clients and then I just edited it and added foods I was eating to it because as a vegetarian, a lot of the items in it I wasn’t using!

      • Tom says:

        Hello! I got also very interested in this Excel sheet! Tanya, do you have any idea how one could make that kind of an Excel sheet or any source where to find instructions on how to do it? I’d love to make one for myself but I’m not that good at Excel and have no idea whatsoever how to get nutrition information for, say, cottage cheese, from one sheet to another By simply writing the name of the food item on the first sheet??

  2. Alisa says:

    Hi Tanya, thank you for this post, I enjoy reading nutrition related stuff the most so this was just perfect for me! 🙂 To me it seems like you’ve really already been quite lean and maybe this helped you in shredding the few pounds of fat you wanted to?

    May I ask you how did you get that awesome back muscles? Was it a result of diet or exercise or both? I’ve always wanted to get that kind of muscles just haven’t really known what kind of training I should do to get there. Do you do mainly maximal or hypertrophy strength, and do you think it was because you gained muscle mass or lost fat that your back muscles (and also other muscles) did come so apparent?

    Sorry for any spelling mistakes English is not my mother tongue so not sure if I said everything correctly…

    Good luck to your future adventures, maybe a marathon one day? 🙂


    hypothyroid marathon runner

    • Tanya says:

      Hi Alisa,

      Thank you so much for your comment! I think you are correct in saying that starting lean certainly helped me have a successful contest prep. Primarily, this allowed me to go very slow, never get too aggressive with my caloric deficit, and thus preserve a lot of lean mass while dieting. Obtaining greater musculature (in my back and elsewhere) was primarily achieved through increased training and eating sufficiently to support that training before the diet. Getting my muscles to “pop” and to be more defined was a result of a decreased body fat from the diet, while continuing to train hard to preserve lean mass. My workouts generally include both “hypertrophy” and “power” days each week. I.e. – I would have a leg and upperbody day with lower weight and higher reps and then another day with higher weight and lower reps, working closer to my maxes. There is no one right way to go about it and gains will be made with any set up, so long as total volume is progressively increased overtime.

      I hope this helps! As for the marathon — we’ll see. I did one in 2012 and at some point I imagine I would do a few more! 😉


      • Alisa says:

        Thanks Tanya, appreciate the fast reply! So nice to hear from your experiences as you really seem like an honest lady:) Keep up the great work!

  3. Laura says:

    Gash u look amazing Tanya!!! Gongrats on succeding in a demanding work, whatever the result in the competition was u still are a winner.

    I’m interested in your training, how did u train throughout your preparation for the body building competition? How much did u do cardio (and what type, intensity and duration?) and how much (and what types of) strength training? I myself would love to give it a try as well but have absolutely no idea how to start.

    All the best for the future.


    • Tanya says:

      Thanks Laura! My training for the show was a continuation of what I was doing prior to. I lifted 4-5 days a week with 2 dedicated lower body days, 2 dedicated upper body days, and then a 5th mainly upperbody/accessory type day. I stick mainly to free weights, not machined for that. My cardio was VERY minimal. I did 1-2 sessions a week of some type of interval training that lasted anywhere from 20-40 minutes. Usually hill sprints, a fartlek-type interval run, or sprint intervals on the stationary bike. Then I had another day which I referred to as my “Cardio for the Soul” where I just went out and did whatever I felt like. Either a mountain bike ride, hike, or trail run. Just something I enjoyed and wanted to do, not something I was obsessive about!

      Hope that helps! If you are interested in getting into the sport, I would suggest hiring a coach to help you out. BUT – be cautious about who you higher. Do a lot of homework on the person and ask a lot of questions before hiring them!

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