Figure Competition Training

Training for a figure competition can improve health and vitality.

By Ryan Halvorson
Feb 1, 2012

Client: Jillian

Personal trainer:Jill Coleman, MS, owner, JillFit Physiques

Location: Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Yearning to compete. More than 3 years ago, Jillian began working as a naturopathic physician at the Naturopathic Health Clinic of North Carolina. While there she met Jill Coleman, owner of JillFit Physiques, who worked with figure competitors in the clinic.

A former high-school track athlete, Jillian was intrigued by what she observed and began to consider a return to her competitive roots. “She saw me and a few of my clients prepping for shows and thought it would be a good goal and something to shoot for herself,” Coleman recalls. “Her original goal was to prep for her first show, complete the process and get her physique to the next level. She had no expectations in terms of placing or going professional at first.”

Building a base. Jillian’s fitness history gave her a leg up on training. “I was lucky because Jillian started with a natural athleticism and had worked out with weights prior to prepping for competition,” Coleman says. The first step was to begin a building phase; Jillian was fit but did not possess the muscle mass necessary to compete. The two trained together three times per week and focused on Jillian’s weak areas: back, deltoids and glutes. “She had great development in her legs and hamstrings, but we had to work to get her glutes to fire during squats, leg presses, etc. Her quads would always take over,” Coleman adds. “Jillian did no cardio at all until about 6 weeks out from her show. We did not want to risk losing muscle as a result of excessive cardio.”

The workouts were brief and focused. “All sessions were 30 minutes long—this may be surprising since many people think that bodybuilding-type workouts need to be long.” The workouts focused on a single muscle group like the deltoids or on synergistic groups like the chest and triceps. “The workouts usually included three to four sets of 10 repetitions of four to eight exercises.”

Eating for growth. Coleman also implemented a solid nutrition plan designed specifically to help build muscle and burn fat. “This meant bumping up protein, vegetables and carbohydrates at the right times and eating regular meals—no fasting or skipping meals,” Coleman says.

To measure progress, Coleman focused on the aesthetics—she regularly snapped pictures of Jillian posing in a swimsuit. “We were not so concerned with body fat percentage, since body fat isn’t measured on stage, and everyone’s ‘best look’ is different. Weekly or biweekly photos in a swimsuit are the most important marker for progress as we get closer to a show.”

Dispelling myths. “Getting below 12%–13% body fat for a women—and staying there—can be harmful,” admits Coleman. “There can be malnutrition issues, loss of menses, bone loss and metabolic damage.” Once competition is over, Coleman focuses on returning to a more sustainable—and healthy—body fat.

“The healthy approach is to slowly add back body fat and weight to a normal/athletic range of about 15%–20%. It is sad that there is a negative connotation attached to doing these shows because the opposite—being obese—is a lot more detrimental to health,” adds Coleman. “Competitors don’t just drink protein shakes and eat meat. In fact, they are eating vegetables more than anything else,” says Jillian.

Having reasons “why.” “My journey began more than 3 years ago, and in that time I have changed physically, mentally and emotionally,” Jillian enthuses. “I actually weigh more now than I did then, but I’m in the same dress size.”

Jillian warns that pursuing figure competitions must be done for the right reasons. “Before starting, make sure you are clear on your motives. If you are doing this for yourself—to have a great goal or to change your physique—that is great. On the other hand, if you decide to do a show to get approval or love from others, then the process is less likely to be rewarding or to go the way you want it to.”

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Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.

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