My Reasons and Thought Process for Jumping into Bodybuilding.
I began training in earnest for the 2017 Crossfit Open in May of 2016. Five days per week, with no missed days for nearly a year. It was a serious commitment. Following Misfit Athletics programming, I was putting in 3 hour training sessions almost every time I stepped in the gym. This was in combination with nightly ROMWODs for recovery, weekly trips to the chiropractor, and a careful eye on my diet. It’s not that I believed I was going to regionals (although one can always hope) but I wanted to see what kind of progress I could make with a year of solid training. How would I do if I lived the lifestyle of a Crossfit athlete?
By the end of March 2017 I had my answer. I was 2232nd in my region out of over 20,000 competitors, I was 374th in my age group and I was the 4th fittest school teacher in the region. My improvement over the prior year was massive. In 2016 I ranked 4721 in the region. In one year I had jumped 2489 spots! Not only that, but I enjoyed the journey. I felt like I was living my best life. Not every day felt good, but every day felt like an opportunity to get better.
Unfortunately this kind of lifestyle does take it’s toll. Despite the nightly yoga sessions, the clean diet, early bedtimes, and weekly visits to Mobility Chiro Therapy (thank you Dr Hall for keeping me together for as long as you did) my body was starting to break down. It’s simply not possible to keep up that level of training volume indefinitely. By the time The Open was done I had accumulated a laundry list of nagging soft tissue injuries. My left wrist was constantly sore, making it excruciating to work handstand push ups. It was taking forever to warm up for back squats because my right knee would get wonky if I didn’t take it slow. Finally, every part of my back; cervical, thoracic, and lumbar had at least one issue. It was clearly time to give my body a break from competitive Crossfit training.
Enter bodybuilding. It’s not like I was going to sit around for three months and watch my gains disappear while I healed. Don’t get me wrong, that’s still a better idea than continuously training until you do permanent damage, but I still wanted to pursue a fitness goal while I healed. Doing a bodybuilding show (men’s physique to be exact) seemed like the perfect solution. The training volume for bodybuilding is less, the workouts are relatively low impact compared to the gymnastics and Oly lifting required by Crossfit, and the diet is extremely rigid. That was about all the thought I gave to it before committing whole hog.
What I Learned: The Good
The biggest shock for me was how much my cardiovascular endurance improved. There was no time to do a “bulking” phase for this show. We went directly from competing in The Crossfit Open into a twelve week “cutting” phase. For this my coach prescribed morning fasted cardio sessions 4 days per week in addition to strength workouts in the evening. I chose to join Orangetheory Fitness for my morning cardio out of convenience. They have a 5AM class and I wouldn’t have to overthink the workout since it’s already programmed and led by an instructor. Orangetheory classes involve running on a treadmill at varied intensities paired with some light dumbbell and bodyweight movements for a one hour class. You are moving the entire hour. This is a longer time domain than we normally see in Crossfit and the result was that it expanded my aerobic base. Lacking a strong aerobic base was something that had been a major weakness for me in Crossfit but I couldn’t “see” or recognize it as such. I always knew that cardio was an area that needed improvement but I thought cardio was cardio and if I just worked on running 800 meter repeats it would eventually improve. Through Misfit training my 800 meter runs and 500 meter repeats on the rower had improved, but creating an aerobic base is something different. Because Orangetheory forces you to move consistently for an hour your overall aerobic output gets more efficient. So my 800 meter runs aren’t necessarily faster, but I can do more of them at the same pace as before without getting tired. This translates to every other Crossfit movement as well. Everything is just less taxing. That’s what I mean when I say that I expanded my “aerobic base”. This was most evident during my Saturday morning Crossfit workouts with my fellow coaches (I used Saturday morning Crossfit as one of my fasted cardio workouts, it was the only Crossfit training I did during the prep). I was able to continue to train Crossfit on Saturdays as a cardio substitute because on those particular days the coaches were working longer duration 20-30 minute WODs with lighter weights. These are exactly the type of WODs I used to suck at. I was always stronger than everyone, but as soon as you gave me a cardio intensive workout that was over or approaching 15 minutes I would get passed by everyone. Sometimes lapped. Within a few weeks of changing my training to the longer duration Orangetheory workouts I started beating everyone at Crossfit. Everyone. Mind you I was working out with my fellow coaches who are all killers when it comes to Crossfit. It didn’t even matter most of the time if they scaled and I didn’t, I was still passing them. Trust me when I say it was as much of a shock to me as it was to them. So bodybuilding helped me stumble into a solution for an aerobic issue that was more important than I realized until I’d already solved it.
The next thing my foray into the world of bodybuilding taught me is that I can operate and even excel with a much lower carbohydrate intake than I thought. I used to believe that because Crossfit is such a glycolytic intensive form of exercise I needed to consume carbohydrates every day around workout times to fuel and replenish. This was proven false on a weekly basis. Immediately after The Open, my diet changed from eating carbs in the form of four large sweet potatoes per day plus a pound of blueberries down to one sweet potato per week and only 4 ounces of blueberries in the morning. Calories were cut also. Yet somehow I was still able to beast workouts despite being carb and calorie depleted across the majority of the twelve weeks. This tells me that while I wouldn’t want to keep carbs as low as I did for the contest prep, I definitely don’t need them to be as high as they were before the contest prep either. Crossfit still requires carbs, but at least in my case it doesn’t require them in the large amounts I thought.
Finally, my overall understanding of nutrition has improved. As many of you know, I’ve written diets for dozens of clients over the past five years. I’ve helped them lose weight, get off meds, lower blood pressure, and even helped a couple type 2 diabetics who were being mismanaged by their doctors get their A1C down to below pre-diabetic levels. It’s perfectly in my wheelhouse to take an obese person (over 25% body fat) and get them down to a slim and healthy 12-17% bf (or 14-20% for females). I am extremely comfortable working with clients in these ranges. However, I was already at 9% bf when I started my cut. Taking someone from 9% to 3% is a totally different animal and not one that I had much experience with really. My coaches Sean and Heather Smith from Sparta Fitness expertly led me through the process of dieting down to what is considered extremely low body fat levels. They’re both competitors themselves and have coached multiple title winners in bodybuilding, figure, and bikini competitions. Achieving extreme body composition goals is their area of expertise. Being led through the process by them was extremely informative. I don’t yet consider myself qualified to coach anyone for a bodybuilding show, but I now have a much better understanding of how it works.
What I Learned: The Bad.
Speaking of extremely low body fat levels, shit starts going sideways when your body fat drops below 5%. Or at least it does in my case. First of all, you’re going to be hungry ALL. THE. TIME. Eating a meal provides about 10-15 minutes of relief before you go back to being hungry and pissed off. This is a constant feeling for at minimum the last 6 weeks of your prep. That’s a long time to be hungry.
I learned that hunger is more a state of mind than it is the little hunger pangs you feel when you skip a meal. True hunger doesn’t kick in until your body senses that you don’t have enough energy stored to survive a major or even a minor food crisis. Now you’re fighting against evolution. Once this occurs all kinds of little safety mechanisms go off to try to get you to eat more and move less. In these later stages my motivation to work out dropped to almost zero. Even standing up after being seated for a while required “psyching” myself up. At that point in the prep I would’ve chosen a direct punch to the scrotum over having to climb a flight of stairs. Remember, you still have to do your morning cardio sessions and weight workouts in the evening while all this is going on. You also start obsessing about food. I’m pretty good about not letting myself fantasize about junk food, but in my case it just led to obsessing about eating larger portions of healthy food.
Within the first week of changing the diet my blood pressure went down and stayed down. This resulted in dizzy spells every time I stood up from sitting. I would also get dizzy from getting out of my vehicle, bending down to tie my shoes, bending down to pick up or pet my dogs, and getting out of bed. We’ve all experienced dizziness on occasion from standing up too fast but three months of that shit gets old. Real old.
Finally, there’s the depression. I learned that I don’t experience depression as feeling sad or bursting into tears for no reason. My patience was the first thing to go, then my empathy. Then I just sort of lost interest in everything that used to make me happy. This includes Netflix and video games. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love those two things. Before school let out for summer I found myself wishing the school year would last another few weeks just to keep me busy until the contest. Anyone else in the teaching profession will tell you that’s crazy talk and I should be hospitalized for thinking that way but it’s honestly how I felt. It sucks to sit around obsessing about food all day with no interest in any of your usual activities.
I live my life by one simple rule: enjoy the journey. Training competitive Crossfit religiously for a year? Enjoy the journey. Teaching a new group of kids for nine months? Enjoy the journey. Being a dad? Enjoy the journey. Visiting a new country? Enjoy the journey from boarding the aircraft to the flight home, just enjoy the journey. Having never competed in bodybuilding before I approached it the same way. Unfortunately it was impossible to enjoy a journey that left me vacillating between hangry and soulless for months. That doesn’t mean I regret doing it. In fact, I’m a better, wiser person for having done it. Would I compete again? Probably not without a really good reason. That doesn’t mean I would never incorporate a 12 week “bodybuilding phase” into my training again. I fully intend to next off-season when I’m once again physically beat up from competitive Crossfit. It’s just that this time my goals will be different. This time I’ll be more focused on health and recovery. I’ll still adhere to a strict diet, but stop short of getting into those extremely low body fat ranges that lead to undesirable side effects like depression. As an athlete Crossfit is my main focus, but bodybuilding definitely has it’s place. It allows me to continue working toward a fitness goal while I recover from the more intense Crossfit training cycles. It’s also helps me bring up some weaknesses and some lagging body parts. Competitive bodybuilding takes it just a little too far for me though. Don’t read this as me knocking the sport. I have a ton of respect for all the physique competitors out there. The mental toughness required to get a stage ready body is right up there with what Crossfit athletes experience trying to PR on Fran or a 2000 meter row. Both sports are beautiful and there’s a lot to gain from each. For me personally, it just makes more sense to compete in the sport I love while enjoying the benefits of a non-competitive bodybuilding cycle in the off season.