Alexis Irwin has been a client of mine for some time now. Together, we’ve successfully added hundreds of pounds to her lifts in total and improved technique, but the weight loss end of the bargain was always a little harder for some reason. Fast forward to late January when Alexis approached me about competing in a bikini show. If you’re a faithful Barbell Medicine reader you know this isn’t really my forte’, as I’ve only prepped a handful of clients for this sort of thing. That said, I thought it would be a good way to boost compliance for her from a nutrition standpoint and we’d all learn something in the process. I agreed to help her out to the best of my ability and it ended up being a really cool experience for me as a coach and very rewarding for Alexis, as you’ll read below.
NPC Bikini Show Experience
By Alexis Irwin
I decided to do an NPC Bikini Show in January of 2018. Even though my friends had been encouraging me to do a show for a long time, I didn’t sign up for one because I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it. But I had long had a goal of leaning out, and I was frustrated that I hadn’t achieved that goal yet.
My job as a life coach is to help others set goals and achieve them, so I knew that it would be very important for me to accomplish one of my greatest dreams in life in order to help clients do the same. The most universally applicable lessons that I learned were that when it comes to fat loss, the most important thing is eating; emotional eating habits can easily derail any diet and need to be addressed in order to successfully lean out; good rest and eating properly prior to a training session will lead to dramatic improvements; and in general, bikini shows, etc are not the best gauge of health and strength.
Before I told Jordan that I wanted to do a bikini show, I did a lot of research on YouTube. I noticed that the girls who do these shows regularly meal prep, eat all of their food at home and measure it. They also avoid sugar, dairy, and foods that are highly processed. The foods that competitors typically eat on prep are simple – meat, fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables, grains, whey and BCAA’s. I realized that I would need to be as precise as possible with the macro’s and be consistent to get the most out of the diet. So sticking to a similar dietary regimen as the those of the girls who compete frequently would be the best way to ensure that I was effectively following the macro’s.
When I first started measuring all of my food, I was shocked at how I had been underestimating things like the number of ounces of meat I was eating—which meant I had been way over my macro prescription of protein alone prior to prepping for this competition. When I measured food that I ordered out, a “6-oz” portion was often closer to 9.5-10oz. This is a major difference! Additionally, I realized that food at a restaurant may be cooked with a ton of olive oil or marinated in something I didn’t really want. So I accepted that to control what I was eating, I would have to prepare all of my food myself.
At first, I thought this process of meal prepping and measuring would be intense and hectic, but it actually significantly organized and simplified my life. It even minimized my time in the kitchen and the grocery store. I like to be efficient, and meal prepping is definitely efficient! As I would advise any client, having new rewards for new habits makes them stick—and efficiency was my new reward for the habit of meal prepping and measuring!
Though meal prep and measuring were new habits to integrate in my life, that wasn’t where my real challenge with eating was. I had been trying to lean out since I was twelve years old, but I never felt successful. This made dieting difficult, because I never had incentive to keep the weight off or keep going, because I was never happy with my body. I also knew that if I was working with Jordan, the best person I could find to give me nutritional and programming advice, to get me to my goal but I hadn’t gotten to where I wanted to be yet, I knew that meant I hadn’t been following his advice correctly.
As a life coach, I know that if someone wants something and knows how to get it, yet that person isn’t achieving success, that means that there is a deeper issue. That deeper issue is usually an emotionally-rooted perspective that needs to be processed and reevaluated. I knew that when it came to my dieting history, I had been sabotaging myself and causing my own distress by not sticking to the macro prescription, being inconsistent, and having a negative attitude around eating and my body.
So, when I signed up for this show, I knew I was going to focus most of my energy on changing that and eating right, which would also mean diving into some deeper emotional, psychological stuff. Acceptance of the problem I had with eating and the emotional challenges that would come in the prep (even unforeseen challenges) was the primary reason for my success, because I trusted myself to see the diet through no matter what issues arose! Accepting that unforeseen challenges will arise and having the confidence to meet them is crucial to being successful in any endeavor. Also, as I would recommend to any client diving into deeper issues, I asked for extra support from my significant other, family and friends so that I would be well equipped to tackle any difficulties that came up for me.
During the course of the prep for the show, which lasted from end of January to late May, I can remember coming across an emotional eating issue nearly every other week. When those issues came up, I’d have to feel them. I’d have to ask myself why I wanted a cookie or whatever food I wanted. The answer was never that I was hungry – it was always that I was upset or sad. This often brought up additional emotions—even feeling shame over the fact that I wanted food because I didn’t want to feel something. I also frequently felt frustrated that I had unproductive thought patterns. So I had to process it all.
I had to be OK with being imperfect and having an emotional food craving. Then I’d have to reassure myself that I’d be OK feeling whatever I didn’t want to feel and that it would ultimately help me think better. Then I’d have to sit and feel the upsetting emotion I had, figure out where it came from, and think it through. And by the end, I’d always be proud of myself for not giving in and going for whatever self-medicating food I was craving!!
I also saved hours by not entering the guilt spiral of having detoured from my goal. Jordan was so supportive and encouraging whenever I emailed him about a new emotional eating discovery! Having a great support network from Jordan and others made it safe for me to dive into all of this. If I’ve discovered anything from leaning out, it’s that by working through our inner obstacles, we can achieve our greatest goals!
And so I got through my prep without detouring from my eating regimen. I stuck to the compliance with only a couple of days of being under or over the macro prescription. I successfully built new eating habits and have kept them even after the show. Toward the end of the prep, I struggled with not being able to exert myself as much as I like in the gym and having lower energy than normal. But the last week, Jordan gave me very specific eating and training instructions that showed me how much eating and rest enhance a workout.
On relatively low calories, I was able to significantly improve my training by eating carbs, some protein, sodium and caffeine about an hour prior to working out. I also had BCAA’s during the workout. I was able to lift more weight than I had been able to lift in weeks. I also stopped eating by 9pm on those days, which led to more restful sleep. I know that the reason for those improved workouts was timing of the carbs, protein, caffeine, sodium, BCAA’s and rest. If you do all of those things—or even some of those things—you are guaranteed to have a better training session than if you don’t. And if you’re going to bother following a program, you may as well pregame the workouts right!! Even though building strength is a continuum that happens over an extended period of time in the big picture, that big picture is built on single training sessions. You may as well make the most out of each one.
So I got to show day, did it and felt great! It was very special to be surrounded by those I love in celebration of the new changes I had created for myself during the prep, and I am grateful to all of them, especially my significant other, John. In general, I think that NPC shows or similar events are not as good of a gauge of health and strength as other athletic competitions or measurements. NPC shows like the one I did are largely political and based on aesthetics. They don’t actually take your weight, measurements, calculate your body-fat, BMI or use a DEXA scan, so there are actually no numbers involved.
And the ideal body-fat numbers to be competitive are too thin, I think. I think it’s better to have a little more muscle and actually be healthy than just to be super low body fat—but that’s just me! I also sensed that many of the women who do these shows (though definitely not all of them!) have some body image issues. It was clear that many of them were looking for external validation of how they look, when in reality they will never be truly happy until they are happy with themselves regardless of what other people think. If you feel good in your body, that’s what matters!
When I was about a month out from the show, I knew that I wasn’t going to be lean enough to be in the competitive range unless I spent more time dieting and did a later show. But I was so happy with my body the way it was at that point that I didn’t care! I had already won, because I had established new, healthy habits and a great relationship with my body. For me, the show was a celebration of the primarily internal changes that occurred rather than the external ones.
As I reflected on my experience of doing this competition, I realized that just about everything I “learned” was actually information that Jordan had been telling me all along! (In addition to being an amazing nutrition and programming consultant, super strong, and a brilliant doctor, he is also EXTREMELY PATIENT!) The only reason I didn’t do these things sooner is that for some bizarre reason I didn’t believe I could do it. But once I decided to give up that silly idea that these changes were not possible and instead believe that I COULD do it and make these positive changes permanent changes, I was able to do it! It’s all what we believe is possible for ourselves that determines what we actually do and how successful we are.
Whatever your goal is—to lean out, get stronger, meet the love of your life, or build a successful business—the thing that will be the bridge that connects you to achieving your goal is your own belief that you can do it! And, most of all, I am so happy to be able to bring what I have learned to help others achieve their own dreams!
In total, Alexis lost over 25lbs in a little over 3 months. About 3 weeks out I had contacted her because I was concerned to me that we probably weren’t going to be competitive and I wanted to see what she thought about it. Alexis completely understood and told me she didn’t do this because she wanted to compete, but rather that she wanted to do something that would improve her compliance by having er a goal to work towards. That’s something I often talk about with respect to encouraging folks to compete in powerlifting, CrossFit, Olympic weightlifting, etc. so I was relieved when she parroted that back to me. To be clear, I would encourage anyone to participate in an activity that helps boost their compliance with a healthy intervention – provided it does not result in harmful behaviors or conditions, e.g. anxiety, disordered eating, etc. I would prefer that this activity is a barbell sport of course, but the physique stuff is okay too 😉
After the show Alexis sent me an email telling me how she did, how she felt, and what she learned and a few excerpts stood out to me:
“I truly made eating differently my priority… -Part of that also meant accepting the way my body looked when I finished losing the fat – I was scared I wouldn’t like it. But ultimately I did – I love how my body is shaped – it’s just fine and I look like a human, which is how I should look!”
I also learned that I love being strong, and I want to continue to get stronger (though I’m probably going to need some time to build my strength back up – it certainly took a dip during prep, which was expected.) But building strength is a continuum and takes patience – especially when the weights go down for whatever thing comes up in life.”
And with that, I asked her to write this article. Hope you all enjoyed her story. Thanks for reading.
-Jordan Feigenbaum, MD