It’s the two-year anniversary of a really important day for me — the day I had the best abs of my life. Full on 6-pack abs. I had achieved my impossible. It was something I had always wanted, always strived for, even as a teenager. Two years ago I achieved that seemingly impossible, lifelong goal. I did so by training for and competing in my first (and only) NPC figure competition. I spent 14 weeks prepping to get on stage in a teeny, green, sparkly bikini and flaunt my muscle. At the time, I really thought I was doing it the healthy way. I was eating all real food with the exception of several protein shakes a day. I was eating lots of veggies, eggs, sweet potatoes, ground turkey, chicken, and even bacon! My workouts were intense. I was working out at least 2 hours a day, incorporating full-body circuit training with body part specific “bodybuilding” movements. But again, I was taking the ‘healthy’ route because I was getting results without having to do the ridiculous amounts of cardio that I had seen most figure competitors do. The healthy way…so I thought. I now know, it was anything but. There isn’t a healthy way. At least not for the majority of us. (To read more about my road to the stage, read this.)
Now that it has been two years, I look back on that time of my life with many different emotions. While I will always have a sense of pride for being able to work so hard to reach a goal, I also feel regret — which I’m NOT proud of. Because with my 6-pack abs came some other serious stuff.
In an effort to turn a negative into a positive, I can say that my rock hard abs were full of lessons.
My 6-pack abs taught me:
1. That women need fat on their body to be truly healthy.
During my 14-week competition prep, I went from 26% body fat down to 15%. Somewhere in that drastic loss, I also lost my period. Honestly, at the time, I was so brainwashed with the whole process that I was actually kind of excited because it meant that I was doing it right. Looking back now, I can’t believe I didn’t take this as a red flag. I now know that it meant that my body fat was so low that I couldn’t maintain normal hormone levels and also wasn’t supplying my body with the proper nutrients to build new hormones. It meant I wasn’t HEALTHY enough to grow, develop, and carry another human being — the main job of the female body. And I couldn’t do it because I was THAT unhealthy.
The amenorrhea (lose of period) went on for months, even after the show. I ended up being without a menstrual cycle for 7 months total. Two things happened to my body to actually get a functioning reproductive system back: 1) my abs disappeared and 2) I developed cellulite. Yes, cellulite meant I was back to being truly HEALTHY! Ladies, it’s OK, normal, and even necessary to have a few dimples in your life! Having a body fat percentage that warrants curves is also a place where we are strong, healthy, and beautiful — where our hormones are balanced, our brains function well, our hair, skin, and nails flourish, and our energy soars. Be proud of that and protect it!
2. That getting abs is stressful.
Getting rock hard abs, even for many men, takes more than just a few tweaks to a diet and exercise program. For women in particular, it is SO far out of the healthy body composition range that much more drastic measures need to be taken to achieve this goal. We’re talking malnourishment and overtraining in the most serious sense. And that’s exactly what I did to myself in order to get to the point where I could lose 12% body fat in 14 weeks.
I can remember, especially as the competition got closer and my calorie intake got lower, that I would wake up several times a night to my stomach growling. I would have trouble falling asleep, often feeling wired once bedtime hit even though I was exhausted, and then be so tired when it was time to wake up that I relied on several cups of coffee to get me going. I would have such terrible energy slumps in the middle of the day that I started scheduling breaks to take a nap. My workouts felt more and more draining, but I had to push through because I had a goal to reach. And this just dug the hole even deeper.
As should be quite easy to understand, when you are in this malnourished/overtrained state for, I don’t know…more than a day or two, you are causing your body to get into and stay in a hyper stressed out state. As this continues, your stress hormone — cortisol — and the organs responsible for it — the adrenals — wind up spinning out of control, eventually fatiguing, and causing a whole host of other potentially very serious issues.
Now, two years and a ton of education on health and nutrition later, I can see that I was dealing with adrenal fatigue and blood sugar disregulation because I was not getting anywhere near the amount of nutrition I needed to keep my body properly functioning. (Don’t know what adrenal fatigue is? Read this and this.) The calorie restriction needed to get the abs of my dreams had become my body’s own worst enemy.
3. That your body will tell you clearly when it’s unhappy, but it’s your job to LISTEN.
If the issues I was having above weren’t enough, I also had my worst and scariest autoimmune flare during these months of competition prep. Years before this, I had been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease where your body attacks your colon. But, it had been a very mild case and I spent most of my time in remission. About 6 weeks in to the 14-week prep, I began experiencing intense pain and other scary UC symptoms that I had never experienced. A trip to the urgent care and a scope from my GI revealed my UC had gotten worse. It had spread and was very active and inflamed. I was devastated.
This flare is actually very bittersweet for me because it was THE flare that changed everything — the life-changing flare. This was the time when I began researching the impact that food could have on putting autoimmune disease into remission. This idea snowballed into not only a new lifestyle for myself — using food as medicine — but a new career path too.
Getting back to the competition prep. I was in so much pain, having such a hard time, and yet I STILL didn’t see this as a sign that I was doing to myself was causing distress. I was so into the prep mindset that I couldn’t hear my body screaming at me. I didn’t want to listen. So, I pushed on to my goal.
Our bodies communicate to us very clearly. They will show us as soon as they’re not happy. When there is something — anything — that isn’t right, we will get the sign. For many, it’s not going to be an autoimmune disease flare (although they are way too common and still on the rise), but could be something as seemingly insignificant as a skin breakout, digestive distress, energy slumps, hair and nail health, or brain fog. It’s our job to LISTEN and REACT. If something is off with your body, don’t ignore it. Really think about what has been going on with your life, your diet, your stress level, your workouts, your sleep…everything. Find the thing that is causing your body to cry out. And change it! Don’t be like me and wait. Because that flare took me almost 2 years to get over. Yes, I just got into full remission only a few months ago. And, in general, my health hasn’t been the same since. I know that if I had listened then and changed what I was doing, I would have saved myself years of health distress.
4. That no matter what your body looks like, it’s never going to be perfect.
Once I created this goal, I had a vision of what I wanted my body to look like by the time I got on stage. I had done my research — mainly via social media — of what a ‘winning’ body was and that became my ‘perfect’ body. Once I had that image set, nothing else would do. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to see the progress I was making on a daily basis. But, every time I looked in the mirror, I would still find parts of my body that I didn’t like. Parts that I thought needed more work, needed to change. Parts that were too fat. I spent hours in front of the mirror, posing, flexing, scrutinizing. Even on THE DAY of the show, when I was so lean, so malnourished, so dehydrated…I STILL found imperfections. I had the abs, the definition, the butt, the arms, the shoulders, I had been working on for months, but I still looked at myself and was annoyed that it wasn’t ‘perfect’.
And that’s just it. My ‘perfect’ was never going to happen. Because it constantly evolved and became even more unachievable as I got closer. No matter what changes my body made — how thin/fit/ripped I got — it was never enough. And now that I think about it, that’s how my whole life has been until now. And, I don’t think I’m alone. I think many of us, both women and men, have an ideal body type that they want to be and are always striving for it. We’re never 100% satisfied, confident, comfortable in the body we do have.
We’re all unique as are our body types. Accept it and appreciate it. Because to have an ‘ideal body’ goal is an endless pursuit that will just keep changing no matter how close you get. Be satisfied with the body you do have, treat it right, eat really awesome whole foods, skip the processed junk, move often and challenge your body physically, and you will find YOUR ideal. And it will probably be different than the image you had in your head. So just get over it now.
5. That happiness and normalcy are more important.
If it isn’t obvious by now, let me drive a point home…the path I had to take to get 6-pack abs was NOT worth all the crappy things it took to get there! The health implications that took years to overcome are reason alone to NEVER do that again. But, there’s another piece to this — the mental piece. I wasn’t happy. Yeah, at the time I was thrilled with the results I was getting and I was proud of myself for the accomplishment. But, I wasn’t truly HAPPY. The obsession of it took over any joy. I had to carefully track and time my meals. I was eating almost every meal out of tupperware. I wasn’t enjoying my food (besides the daily bacon). And I definitely wasn’t eating any of my favorite foods (again, besides the daily bacon). I wasn’t hanging out with friends. I wasn’t having coffee, going to get drinks, or enjoying a nice meal out. All things I absolutely love to do…I wasn’t doing any of it. I had given up pleasure, all for the sake of my physical appearance.
I know there are a lot of images out there of women with rock hard, 6-pack abs. I can’t say for sure that they are going through what I went through to get them, but I can take an educated guess. I would assume their bodies are stressed. That they may be in a state of either overtraining or undernourishing or both. Many of them probably don’t have their periods. Some of this may not seem like a big deal…right now. But, the health implications that will come around later will be. It’s just not worth it. If your body is made to have defined abs, it will…as long as you treat it right. Pushing it beyond its limits to get them is not going to do anything positive for you over the long-term. Trust me on this.
Needless to say, I don’t have a 6-pack or anything close to it anymore, nor do I want one. Instead, I have amazing workouts with tons of energy and way more strength than I’ve ever had. I have the mental clarity and focus to build two of my own businesses from the ground up. I have fun with my friends. I eat the most amazingly delicious real, nutrient-dense foods. I enjoy an occasional glass of wine and bar of chocolate. I am SO happy. And I am truly healthy. That’s what really matters.