Being long, lean, ample-bootied, and X-Men-level muscular is the calling card of a fitness competitor. See them on stage and you might think: What does one have to do to get eight-pack abs? And how come these people have NO cellulite?
Reality check: Though some train responsibly, many bikini competitors got their ripped bods the unhealthy way, often under the guidance of coaches that push them to dangerous extremes.
We talked to Molly Galbraith, 31, who competed in figure competitions from 2006 to 2008, to find out what really goes on behind the scenes. Now a certified strength and conditionist specialist (C.S.C.S.) and the cofounder and owner of Girls Gone Strong, Galbraith reveals what she—and other competitors—were doing to stand out in those sparkly bikinis:
Eating fewer than 1,000 calories a day
At one point, Galbraith restricted herself to eating just 900 calories a day for 16 weeks. At 5’ 11”, she says she should really be eating 2,400 to 2,500 calories a day to maintain her current, healthy weight of 167 pounds.
“Eating such a low number of calories a day, regardless if you’re getting adequate protein or not, will cause weight loss, muscle mass loss, and a likely drop in metabolic rate,” says Lauren Antonucci, R.D.N., a certified sports dietitian and owner of Nutrition Energy in New York City. That may explain why after her competition, Galbraith says she ate “all the things.” Her body rebounded and she packed on 10 to 15 pounds in a couple of weeks.
Limiting to a few “safe” foods
How would you like to live on only five foods: tilapia, asparagus, egg whites, sweet potato, and oatmeal? That's what coaches encouraged her to do, Galbraith says. “[Coaches] want to control their client’s intake as much as possible,” says Galbraith.
As you can imagine, putting a moral label on your eats can lead to an effed up relationship with food. “I remember being done with competition and going grocery shopping. I was so confused about whether or not I could eat chicken with marinade,” she says. That’s right: marinade. It’s also worth mentioning that some women who are prone to disordered eating might be attracted to the idea of bikini competitions because of the extreme restriction they require, says Antonucci.
Galbraith did cardio twice a day and lifted weights once a day, for a total of two to three hours in the gym. While many professional athletes work out two or three times a day, when paired with a 900-calorie-a-day diet, Galbraith was dangerously under-fueled.
While Galbraith admits that sometimes she felt really good in the gym because of the excitement surrounding competition, she also recalls being very run down. “Six weeks before my first competition, I remember my limbs felt like they weighed a million pounds,” she says. “So there’s a mentality of ‘Oh, I don’t feel good, I’ll take caffeine, put headphones in and push myself anyway.' You quit listening to your body’s signals.”
When high levels of exercise are paired with a low calorie intake, it can lead to overtraining, which can cause a weakened immune system, rapid heart rate, sleeplessness, irritability, decreased ability to recover, and injuries, says exercise physiologist Laura Miranda, C.S.C.S., a doctor of physical therapy. What’s more, “excessive fatigue or feeling under the weather are the body’s warning signs that if you don’t rest, you can get sick or injured,” she says.
Here’s the idea: You want to be “dry” for competition to better show off muscle tone. So Galbraith explains that competitors might drink two to three gallons of water a day in the weeks leading up to competition. “When you drink more water, your body up-regulates hormones that make you pee more,” she says. Then, 24 hours before the competition, you stop drinking water. “It takes those hormones 12 to 24 hours to ‘catch up’ and realize you’re not getting water. Your body continues to flush out,” she says. “I lost almost 15 pounds overnight,” she says. Yikes.
That can mess with the balance of electroyltes in your body, make you dizzy, and start to affect your mental function and strength, says Antonucci.
Exercising to the extreme
Think: exercising in a sauna wearing a sweat bag for hours. “Less educated coaches might have clients do this in the belief that the more you sweat, the more fat you’re burning,” says Galbraith. Reality couldn’t be further from the truth, adds Miranda. “Even if you sweat up a storm in the sauna and lose weight, it’s only water weight. You’ll gain it back as soon as you drink water again,” she says. “Old school tactics like these do not work. Run away from any coach that has you do this,” says Miranda.
Galbraith says fellow competitors told her stories about wearing a corset for hours a day—even while sleeping—in an effort to slim down their waists. “This does not spot reduce. If your waist gets smaller, it’s because your ribs are moving and your organs are displaced,” she says. (Um, ouch!)
“Waist trainers make me furious,” says Miranda. “The consensus in the medical community is pretty clear: They are not safe to use during exercise.” Dangers include restricting lung function, weakening your core, and long-term problems like GI issues. So not worth the price of admission.
After Galbraith's last competition in October of 2008, her body rebounded badly. Despite slowly upping her calorie intake, her weight increased rapidly. "A few months later, my body was so exhausted that, at 24 years old, I could hardly get up off the couch to get a glass of water," she says. "...My weight had climbed, I was exhausted, and I felt completely out of control of my body. I knew I had to quit competing so I could focus on getting healthy." She hasn't looked back since.