3 Lessons I Learned From Competitive Bodybuilding

What happens behind the scenes of a bodybuilding competition? When the glitz, glam, and perfect physiques are put away, a few important lessons remain.

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It takes nothing more than a quick scroll through Instagram’s “Explore” page to find a steady stream of women confidently flaunting their hard-earned muscles. We approve! Of course, this comes as no surprise considering the consistent growth across the sphere of bodybuilding and weightlifting in recent years. That said, as a woman who dedicated three years of her life to competitive bodybuilding and grew a strong social media following in doing so, I know all too well that the realities and lessons of the body-building community go far beyond those carefully curated images. Read on for a few lessons I wish someone had shared with me at the start—the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you’ve ever thought about pursuing bodybuilding, this may be your guide in making your best decision yet!

Taking My First Steps

I leapt into the world of bodybuilding feet first without a trace of hesitation. After several years spent working through an eating disorder, an abusive relationship, and a sexual assault, weights offered me a gleaming chance at empowerment. The gym symbolized strength in both its figurative and literal senses. Figuratively, I was healing and slowly moving toward wholeness. Literally, I was gaining muscle and growing more attuned to my body. I walked over to the weights day in and day out, choosing to show up for the personal evolution I was witnessing. As the weight of the dumbbells and barbells I worked with increased, I appreciated having tangible proof of my expansion. I took that and RAN. I harnessed those feelings of competency, power, and self-assurance, then actively worked to replicate them in other areas of my life. In a world that I thought had condemned me, weightlifting taught me to take up (and revel in) more space.

My First Lesson

There’s a noticeable shift in energy—both individual and communal—when a woman becomes an advanced bodybuilder. While thousands upon thousands of women are successfully changing the dynamic, weightlifting has long been a man’s sport. There have been countless times when I’ve been the only woman in the gym bellying up to a rack, and just as many times when I’ve received sideways glances and lingering stares. Although intimidation may be a common response for others faced with this energy, it triggered quite the opposite response in me.

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As the months and years passed, I had chiseled away a conditioning routine that I was exceedingly proud of. My internal strength mirrored the lines of separation in my shoulders, back, and legs. When I walked into the gym, every ounce of reservation melted away. I was in my space, in my territory, and on my stomping grounds. I looked in the mirror and watched as a scarred woman suddenly transformed into someone untouchable. I moved the weight just as I had moved my emotional mountains. I welcomed the looks of surprise and gladly fed my ego—allowing myself to become my own Wonder Woman incarnate.

My Second Lesson

What I didn’t realize at that time was how deeply this sense of empowerment was tied to my physical image. Bodybuilding is an interesting sport. As competitors, we spend thousands of hours meticulously crafting our bodies in hopes of acquiring the stamp of approval (and the win) from a panel of judges. In reality, we have nothing more than 30 seconds to contort, contract, and convince. As a bikini competitor, there are additional layers that, unfortunately, are not widely shared. I retired my bedazzled suit in the fall of 2016 after completing my first run through the NPC national circuit. My body fat was sitting at 8 percent, my muscles were crisp, and my angles were strong, yet there was so much more to nailing the overall package. To be a contender, you need the perfect makeup, hairstyle, jewelry, shoes, bikini cut, bikini color, bikini connectors, tan, breast size, posing, politics, and on it goes. Each judge has their own set of opinions on each of these matters, and every competitor invests every ounce of energy they have into swaying them. By the time I had made the decision to walk away from the competitive world of bodybuilding, I had realized that much of my life existed in contradiction. I spoke of self-love, body positivity, and fluidity, however I simultaneously tied my worth to receiving accolades solely determined by how “good” my body looked under wildly unnatural circumstances. Not only that—I soon felt the inevitable hit to my self-confidence. No longer sporting what we refer to as “stage lean” conditioning and publicly stepping away from bodybuilding shows, my body image suffered. Drastically. The hard truth is, the mind grows accustomed to what it sees toward the end of competition prep, which warps reality for the bodybuilder. I was no longer striving for a healthy look. I aimed for the impossible and unsustainable, believing that it was the only path to enoughness. Imagine if your worth was tied to one image of yourself, and suddenly that image started to change. The mental obstacles of working away from that all-or-nothing thinking are unavoidable. This is something most competitors face post-show and it takes considerable time to overcome.

My Third Lesson

Let’s shuffle back in time just a bit and talk about achieving the perfect package (or look for those new to the terminology). Nailing it takes unwavering devotion and thick blinders. Many onlookers watch bodybuilders strut their end results, but are unaware of the level of investment and repercussions the competitors have accepted to get there. Bodybuilding is truly an extreme sport and, in many cases, a dangerous one. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize this until they experience it first-hand. This was the case for me. When I decided to compete in the national circuit and push for an IFBB pro card, my initial dedication morphed into shrinking tunnel vision. In an effort to control all the variables that might threatening a less-than-victorious outcome, my relationships, engagements, and responsibilities suffered. Everything in my life was dictated by my training and meal schedules. Over time, my flawed prioritization of my focus resulted in me pulling away altogether. This went far beyond giving up a flourishing social life. Sadly, I wasn’t there for those I care about most. This is one aspect of my bodybuilding journey that I so badly wish I could change.

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My need to be considered “the best” resulted in me attaching my entire identity to success in a sport that rested solely on physical appearance. When the internal dialogue of chasing a physical outcome is paralleled by compliments from friends and strangers alike, it’s understandable how this distortion develops. We’re human, and it’s easy to see how quickly someone can spiral toward determining their worth as a human being by something as temporary as their outer shell alone. This is something we’ve all experienced to some degree or another. Unfortunately, I was altogether consumed. Even as I began untangling the mess I was living, I remained far too lean for far too long in an effort to protect what I had spent so much time building. I wrestled with the conceptual change involved with transitioning from bodybuilding to body-living. My self-love, self-image, and hormones took a major hit. Now, coming up on two years later, I’m still dealing with the health-related aftermath. Looking back on my life’s bodybuilding chapters, I realize my current body is just as different as it is perfect. In fact, I love it far more now than I ever have before. Why? Simple–it’s mine. It’s a shame it took me so long to appreciate this.

Your Takeaway

Competing in bodybuilding shows was entirely my choice. To this day, I can say it was done without an ounce of regret. I am who I am today because of it. I’ll always have a passion for weightlifting, but the love has shifted drastically. Now, I move my body purely for myself. What a revolution! With a sprinkling of both light and heavy notes, these are my lessons and experiences. Mine. They aren’t destined to be yours, nor are they applicable to the population of athletes at large. Whatever you choose to pursue, I hope you allow yourself to make a fully informed, heart-guided decision.

Lauren Bondi
Lauren is your average (not-so-average) multipotentialite with a drive for anything authentic. Her passion for elevating the lives of others has steered her toward serving up lessons on self-love and wholesome living. Mixing this fire with a desire to understand the science behind her passions, we have a woman who’s comfortable nerding out to explain why love is so crucial to our existence as human beings and why superfoods are truly pretty super. As she gears up to start pursuing her doctoral degree in clinical psychology, she—of course—is happily juggling a few more things. She’s one of our contributing writers whose free spirit calls her to some time spent blogging, personal training, nutrition counseling, and relentlessly light-working. Boxes? Those don’t exist with this one.