My good friend Kelly Booth is a NSCA-certified personal trainer and fitness instructor. We met in college (since we had the same major) and worked together as trainers and fitness instructors during school. Kelly has always been fit. She has toned arms, a trim waist, and can kick my butt in the weight room. She even trained for a marathon and ran it all by herself. Obviously, she's dedicated to fitness.
A few years ago, Kelly shocked her friends and family when she decided to compete in a women's figure competition. Unlike female bodybuilding, figure competitors aren't as muscular—they're strong but feminine. But according to most people's standards, they're still pretty ripped. Kelly looked great and was already fit, so I wondered why she wanted to change her body so much. Even though they look like the epitome of fitness, male and female body builders alike do some not-so-healthy things—food restriction, dehydration, overtraining and more. Luckily, Kelly is a smart girl and an experienced trainer. She also had her best friend on board to train with her, as well as an experienced coach to guide her through it.
Over the course of several months, I watched as her body transformed—she developed larger, stronger muscles; reduced her body fat; increased her definition; and suffered through some major dietary restrictions (I've never felt to guilty about eating in front of someone!) to reach her goals. I'll never forget when she told me, "I have abs now; it's kind of disgusting," she laughed. After seven months of hard workouts and diligent dieting, she placed sixth in her class during her very first competition! Go Kelly!
I realize that most of you probably don't want to be body builders or land the cover of a muscle magazine. But most of you DO want to drop body fat, increase muscle tone and look better. I think we often compare ourselves to the women on magazine covers and then lament about our fat thighs or belly rolls in comparison. But what does it really take to look like THEM? And more importantly, is looking like that worth the suffering it takes to get there? I decided to interview Kelly about her experience, and she told me straight up, without sugarcoating it, exactly what how hard it was to stick to her strict diet, what her workouts were like, and how she felt about her body before and after her transformation.
You looked great before you trained for the figure competition. What was your body like "before" and what did your workouts look like?
At 5'2-1/4", (that quarter inch is important!), I weighed about 106 pounds and had 24% body fat. I worked out 5 times a week. I alternated between upper and lower body strength training. I would do cardio at least 4 times a week for 45 minutes or so. I also taught fitness classes: Spinning (2 times a week), toning classes (4 times a week) and Pilates (3 times a week). Although I taught many classes, I never considered them part of my workouts. Including them, I probably exercised more than an hour per day 6-7 days per week. Overall, I was happy with my body. If I wasn't doing competitions, I would have never changed anything.
What was your diet like then? Did you count calories? Did you watch what you ate?
I ate what the average person would think was healthy. Sure, I'd eat ice cream and cookies or whatever, but in moderation. I ate balanced meals, but I didn't count calories or anything. I ate when I was hungry—whatever I felt like eating at the time.
How did you become interested in bodybuilding?
Since I had been in college, I missed competitive sports (like I played in high school). I did run a marathon, but I’m not a runner! I like lifting. My friend said, "Why don't you do a figure bodybuilding show?" I already thought I looked toned, but I didn't realize I wasn't "muscular" enough for figure competition. So, I started to train! I trained for 7 months, trying to gain more muscle.
What specifically is the type of competition that you did?
In female bodybuilding, there are three categories. First is body building (when you get extremely muscular and you do all the poses that the male bodybuilders do). Then there's figure, which is what I did. You're more feminine and you do all the "manly" poses, but you do quarter turns and a "relaxed" modeling pose. Women on the cover of Oxygen magazine—most of those girls are "figure girls" in real life. You stand there and try to look pretty. Then there's a fitness category, which is like a gymnastics routine, but they also have to do the quarter turns too—it's more in depth than figure, but the body shape is similar. Oh, and there's a new category called "bikini," which is a fit-looking girl without being dehydrated or striated. These are more "model" bodies, like on the cover of more mainstream fitness magazines like Shape.
During the first 4 months of your training, you were in a strength-building phase. What was it like?
I lifted weights 5 days a week, but did hardly any cardio (3 times a week for 30 minutes). I worked on one muscle group per day for no longer than an hour. We were lifting extremely heavy weights with low reps (no more than 8). The goal was to gain muscle—as much as possible—and because I'm a female, I can't get extremely bulky. It takes a while. I followed the same routine for 2 months, then changed it for the last 2 months.
During the strength phase, I tried to eat healthy, but I just ate MORE of those healthy foods. I ate more calories to help my body build muscle. I started to eat oatmeal and eggs in the morning (as most bodybuilders do). I got in a routine of eating every 3 hours, so, 5 meals a day and 2 of them were protein shakes. I didn't have to eat a lot more protein because I naturally ate a lot of protein before. But I did become more conscious of measuring things. And I didn't just eat when I was hungry. I had to eat even when I wasn't hungry!
After 4 months, I gained 10 pounds. I probably gained about 3 pounds of fat and seven pounds of muscle. Probably a lot of it was water though because muscles contain so much water.
Are these results typical?
I think it is if you stick with it. The training was a big part—I never missed a day.
What came after the strength phase?
We [Kelly's best friend Kirsten was her training partner] had to maintain our muscle mass and drop our body fat for the show itself. They say it should be 12%-16% for females, which is pretty low, but it all depends on the person. Some people can look like their body fat is 20% and be 30%. I "held my fat" pretty well, in my opinion. I don't hold it in my stomach—I hold it in my legs, like most women tend to.
Our workouts changed focus from building muscle to maintaining muscle and dropping fat. We did more reps (12-15) but we still tried to lift heavy weights for upper body. On legs, we changed completely—high reps to failure (20-30 reps) of leg exercises, because we didn't want to make our legs bigger. We did cardio 4 times a week for 30 minutes, and that gradually increased every 2 weeks until we reached 60 minutes of cardio 6 times a week on top of our strength training.
What was your diet like at that time?
Three months before competition, I stopped eating bread. I limited myself to 1,400 calories a day. I would only eat oatmeal (in the morning), eggs, chicken, protein shakes, sweet potatoes, more chicken, broccoli, some almond butter or avocado (for healthy fats), tuna or fish and salads (spinach, bell peppers, broccoli, and fat-free dressing with less than 6 grams of sugar). I ate like this for 6 weeks straight. You are not supposed to cheat at all—no going out to eat. No sugar. Very few carbs—oatmeal, sweet potato, brown rice—that's it.
It gets worse. Six weeks out, I followed a stricter diet, which was basically no carbs, except on a "carb-load day" twice a week, when I'd have a banana, sweet potato, oatmeal, almond butter, and green beans. The purpose of carb-loading is to give yourself energy until you can carb load again. This is when I saw my body fat start to drop.
I'm bored just thinking about it…
I would try to spice it up a little bit. I came up with different salads and seasonings. I liked to make my own dressings for all the salads. My mom helped me come up with recipes. I like to cook so I came up with creative ways to enjoy what I was allowed to have. If you're not creative with your meals, it's extremely boring. I was always thinking of new ways to make the foods I could eat.
To be honest, I never cheated in that 6 weeks. When I felt low on carbs, I'd eat a Luna bar for carbs (I had like 4 over the course of 6 weeks). That satisfied my chocolate fix and gave me more energy. I never ate ice cream. I never ate a cookie. I kept it fun by changing up my meals. I took expensive vitamins, too.
How did your body change after this phase?
My body fat dropped extremely fast. In 6 weeks, it dropped from 24% to 19.8%. I weighed 112. I did get bigger, according to my measurements. My waist went up to 25-1/2 inches during my strength-building phase, but when I was "cutting," it went down to 22 inches. My overall body proportions didn't change a lot. And I don't have boobs anymore. They went away…and I don't think they're coming back!
1,400 calories is not a lot when you're following such a strenuous workout routine. How did you feel during all of this food restriction and heavy exercising?
On the strict diet, I could tell a difference. I felt really out of it (my brain needs carbs). Once, I lost my phone for 2 hours, and I was talking to myself, looking everywhere for it, and it was right in front of me. I wasn't tired, but I got a lot of sleep. I did drink some black coffee or green tea for energy (and for something other than water, which I drank a gallon of each day). I was really carb-depleted. I felt weak and couldn't work out as hard. And I was moody! Sometimes I wouldn't want to talk to anyone. I could only stand talking to certain people, like my workout partner and my trainer—because they were the only ones who understood how I felt and what I was going through.
Is this healthy?
Well, it's looked at like a sport. It's not something you can maintain. The diet I was on, you should never do more than 6 weeks.
For the average person who just wants to look better, is a nutrition and fitness plan like this realistic? It doesn't seem healthy for the average person.
It's not! And competitors who follow it should never do it for very long. This is not a weight loss diet. This is a competitive body builder's diet. I’m a personal trainer, and I would NEVER put a client on this diet. The first week I was on this diet, I felt like I was going into shock. I felt like my brain was trembling in my skull! I worked with a trainer who is a bodybuilder who could help supervise me, and help me know when it was OK or not.
But to look like that and have that definition and such low body fat, there is no other way than to restrict your diet and work out. It's not one or the other—it's the whole package. You can't look at food as a pleasure. You have to look at it as energy to your body, fueling your body.
I have to ask: What is the first thing you ate after the show was over?
I ate a Reese's Cup, a Rise Krispies treat, LaRosa's pizza [it's a Cincinnati thing]. The next morning I went to a brunch buffet. I had a little bit of everything: waffles, muffin tops, scallops, black raspberry chip ice cream (that ice cream hit the spot!), chocolate chips on my waffle with whipped cream, some vegetables, a lot of fruit, some cookies. I did an extreme carb overload. They recommend not to "binge," but to eat some stuff that you want. Don't go crazy. Eat what you're craving. But then, you have to get back on to your normal diet. You don't want to go all crazy with cookies—your body is so malnourished that it will absorb everything you eat!
Would you do it again?
I did like it. I am doing another one. My next goal is to define my abs more (on stage) and define my legs more and get bigger lats. I liked the competition. All the women I met were like me—they're crazy [laughs]! In between competitions, I am going to go back to a less restrictive diet, though. My goal is to get my "pro" card. I'm going to eat a piece of pizza if I'm not "cutting" to prepare for a competition. For the most part, I'll stick with eating clean. But there's nothing wrong with enjoying other foods like ice cream in moderation.
Special thanks to Kelly Booth for the photos and interview! Congratulations on your accomplishments!
Would you be willing to stick to a diet and workout routine like Kelly's to achieve the fit, defined body of your dreams? Do you think it's worth it?
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