Shredded to Strong – My Journey from the Stage to the Platform 

This piece is a personal account of my experiences in the competitive sports of bodybuilding and powerlifting. I hope that by sharing my journey and what I have learned over the past few years, with full transparency, I can help others who find themselves in a similar situation and provide some guidance to help them through what is a challenging period of an athlete and physique enthusiasts journey. Additionally,  my insight may also uncover some of the taboo topics related to these sports and how they not only impact the athlete, but the potential effects they have on family, friends and even colleagues.

What initially drew me to the stage was the personal challenge and the interest in seeing just what my body was capable of doing if I really pushed the limits. Before I decided to compete in bodybuilding as a fitness model, I had been a gym goer for almost 8 years and was working as a personal trainer for 4. In this time I had trained for various sports, from netball to half marathons and long distance obstacle courses, there was even this one time I had a crack at a triathlon. So I’m no stranger to competition or challenging myself physically and mentally, and it was only natural that I set out to try something else at this point in my training life.

Over the years of endurance training, I developed numerous wear and tear injuries on my joints, and through the introduction of strength training I was able to overcome most of them. It wasn’t long before I discovered that weights were probably the best way to make the most this ‘mesomorph’ body type I have been genetically blessed with. My body responded extremely well to resistance training from the onset,  a phenomenon known as ‘newbie gains’, and through the changes I saw in my physique and performance I started to develop a love for lifting. Fast forward a couple of years and a few extra kg’s of muscle, heading into the world of physique competition just made a lot of sense and was a the next logical step in my journey.

For me, being a physique competitor was never about the stage day itself, trophies or social media glory. In fact, at times the thought of getting extremely glitzed up in a next to nothing but a glitter filled bikini and prancing around in front of an audience was not only unnatural, but very daunting. However, the urgency of having a set date that I had to work towards and a competition was reason enough to commit to the process beginning to end. The 20 week prep journey to my first comp was actually the first time I had followed a structured training and meal plan set out for me by another coach, I absolutely thrived in the process like most do when tight constraints are placed on their dietary and exercise behaviours – initially. Every week I saw my body change, looking even better than the last. I was learning so much about training for hypertrophy, fat loss and nutrition that my clients were also seeing better progress as I was able to transfer this new knowledge and experience that I was gaining and apply it in their own training/diet.

By the end of the 20 weeks, I was the leanest and strongest I had ever been, the journey had not been easy, but I was so amazed with what I had achieved before I even got to the stage that all those sacrifices and gruelling hours in the gym became a distant memory. My season A campaign was a huge success, I won every category I entered and accepted my Pro Card, despite not actually knowing what it was at the time or what it even meant! The success of my first season exceeded my wildest expectations, and with this Pro Card in hand there was a whole new level of competition that I could progress to and the next challenge in my journey of stepping up against other fitness pro’s, which created an unrelenting hunger to do it all over again. Which led me to my next contest prep soon after…

After my first season, the post comp phase was challenging to say the least, which could be an entire blog post in itself. Long story, short, it was messy AF, I “blew out” with daily binge eating episodes for 6 weeks. Knowing what I know now, I can put my post comp blow out down to the fact that I had followed an extremely restrictive “clean eating” meal plan for 20 weeks and I was left with some very loose guidelines on how to reverse diet with minimal post-comp support. Despite all my best efforts to manage my eating, I really struggled to pull myself together and figured the only way to get control again was to set another solid goal (the stage for my pro-debut) and get back into my previous contest prep regime which consisted of a very rigid meal plan. Hence, I commenced my next contest prep diet leading into season B.

Starting from such a weak position (poor relationship with food, poor relationship with body, excessive and uncontrollable hunger etc), and using another prep as a means to fix my post-comp blow out made for a wildly different experience to the stage second time round.  As rough as it was, and despite the many tears I shed during the prep, I still managed to enjoy ‘most’ of the process and made it to that show with a physique that blew my previous one out of the park. I remember the overwhelming feeling of privilege that came with being on stage with the best in the country of this federation as such a young athlete, it’s something I will forever be grateful for and bodybuilding wasn’t all doom and gloom. I posed my shredded little butt off for 45 minutes that night, and unfortunately walked away without a podium placing. The combination of how proud I was to have gotten to that stage, and the relief that the prep journey was finally over, so I thought, quickly masked the heartbreak of walking away without a placing.

By the end of 2017, I had achieved so much but my journey to the stage had left me completely and utterly burned out physically, emotionally and mentally. I was lucky enough to head straight overseas for a couple of weeks in a seemingly perfect escape from all the pressure and stress that came with competing. Looking back this was probably a bad move, but hey, hindsight is always 20/20, right?

During my overseas get away, I was eating my way through New Zealand, occasionally getting in a full body circuit session in a hotel gym or park to compensate for the gluttony, but oddly enough completely enjoying life. What will shock many, except those who have competed before, is that I returned home an outstanding 10kg heavier on the scales. At the time, I was absolutely disgusted with myself.

The start of my off season came with a whole plethora of different challenges. Despite being more aware of the emotional, physical and mental backlash you experience after a competition my second time around, I was really unprepared for the anticlimax of having no direction nor purpose for my training, I had no desire to compete again at the time, I had no meal plan to follow or any huge goal to works towards. To spend a whole year dedicating what felt like my entire life to my physical appearance and placing so much emphasis on my appearance only to then watch my stage physique very quickly return to my pre-stage condition due to frequent and severe binging episodes, I sunk into a horrific state of poor self-image and found myself purposelessness. Knowing what I do now, I evidently made the mistake of ataching my entire life’s purpose/meaning to my appearance, and once I didn’t have the end goal of stepping on stage,, I found myself not only lost and but detached from reality with no real idea of what ‘normalcy’ was.

About a month or so post comp, I signed up to the Advanced Body Composition workshop at JPS, along with a group of coaches and athletes who had shared similar experiences to mine. I instantly felt connected, and comforted by the fact that I wasn’t the only one struggling through a bad contest prep rebound. I soaked in as much as I could, and was introduced to the world of flexible dieting and the practice of ‘Evidence Based Coaching’. Despite having a Bachelor Degree in nutrition and 4 years as a personal trainer under my belt, the information I received at the workshop opened my eyes as to how naive I actually was when it came to applying nutrition interventions to safely improve body composition.

I knew that I needed to stay on board with these guys so I could learn how to better myself in this sport and my business, so I signed up for the 12 week mentorship program, and mid-way through was offered a position as a coach at JPS (Yes, I literally nearly fell over at the time). After a couple of weeks of deliberation and getting over my own doubts that I wasn’t good enough, I took a huge step out of my comfort zone and accepted the job.

Those who have worked with any one of the incredible team at JPS know of how positively influential the atmosphere is, it’s almost inevitable that you will find your training heading down the direction of being strong AF or becoming a Jacked mofo. Initially being on board as a female coach with competition experience, I put the pressure on myself to step up and live up to my reputation, I decided that it might be a good idea to compete again. I gave myself 5 weeks to ‘pre-prep’ for contest prep, and it didn’t take very long for some cracks to appear. With many social commitments taking priority I began so make little exceptions to fit in a cheeky glass of red wine or live on poverty macro’s so I could indulge in a green curry with coconut rice followed by double scoop of gelato each weekend, because IIFYM, right. Some of my disordered eating patterns of bingeing begun to resurface in this period, and my mindset wasn’t right. I recognised that I wasn’t in the position of strength that I hoped to be in for a strong prep and made difficult the decision to pull out early on the premise that I still wasn’t ready and other demands in life would not allow me to prioritise a contest prep. If I continued I was setting myself up for another disaster.

For a few weeks hereafter, I dropped the expectations I had for myself, I didn’t follow a training program for a couple of weeks, stopped tracking my calories and started to eat more intuitively  – paying attention to my hunger/fullness as opposed to obsessing over numbers – which gave me some time to reconnect with my body, gain back my enjoyment in training and eat without overly restrictive behaviours. One of the things that I always held onto in the previous year, was the challenge of adding weights to the bar each week in a very uncalculated, yet effective use of progressive overload, and the excitement that came with seeing my strength inevitably develop as a result. The combination of some extra muscle gain from bodybuilding, available fuel from being in a calorie surplus and most training and diet fatigue dropped saw a skyrocket in my performance, and I loved it. After some subtle hinting from my coach, I toyed around with the idea of getting into powerlifting but there was a lot of uncertainties and analysis that I needed to address before I was sold. Am I even that strong? Only 4 days of training a week, what do I do on the other 3 days? Will training this way make it harder to stay lean? What will a year of strength training mean for my future in physique sport? Why do I have to wear that ugly one piece on comp day? And the biggest one, what if I lose my booty gains? (Don’t judge!)

Through my first strength block, I quickly learned that although I had a whole lot of muscle, I didn’t actually know how to use it properly. Strength development on the big 3 requires a lot more specificity and skill than building muscle. Inherent to learning a new skill, I needed to take a few steps back, silence the meathead and ego, learn how to lift with precision and accept that in this arena, I was a novice again.

Being the perfectionist that I am, I became obsessed with understanding the intricacies of proper technique, breaking down the big 3 lifts in more detail so I could learn how to perform them properly and master them as quickly as possible. One of the things that I started to appreciate about training for powerlifting was the fact that even the slightest tweak to technique could make or break your lift. Last year when training for physique, small or even quite obvious technical breakdowns didn’t really matter and grinding through reps to ‘get it done’ wasn’t too big a deal – the beauty of building size is that effort trumps all, for the most part. However in transitioning into training for performance and maximal strength, I recognised that I had much less room for technical error and that grinding through reps was a bad practice that would only bottleneck my progress and get me hurt. No longer could I lift weights for the sake of just lifting, as this only instilled poor movement patterns that I was trying to correct.

Not long after making the decision to turn to the darkside that is powerlifting,  I commenced my first strength block doing squats, bench and deadlifts at light to moderate intensities, making sure I treated every rep like it was my best. Initially,  I wasn’t allowed to touch any heavy loads and I realised that in this sport persistence and patience are qualities that will allow for mastery of the big 3.

This became the challenge that I had been looking for in my training. I started to focus more of my attention towards the intrinsic feedback points of how a well executed lift felt, and the importance of monitoring my recovery to nail my next session. With so much focus on training, I naturally started to drift away from caring so much about how I looked and what I ate, it was extremely liberating.

After a couple of months there was a real noticeable shift in my approach to training. Working out and being selective with what I ate to change how I looked were no longer priorities, but training to peak my performance and having my nutrition as fuel and recovery was the drive. I absolutely loved that I could train hard and see results, yet still enjoy the flexibility of having my social life centered around food; the hardest thing to give up in the previous year of prep. Naturally, I saw my weight on the scales come up and my appearance become a little ‘fluffier’.  I would be lying to you if I said it didn’t bother me, because it did, but I knew that continuing to build my strength and increase my muscle mass required being a little on the heavier side of my weight class. Turns out, this would lend a huge advantage in hitting bigger numbers on my lifts.

It was all pretty smooth sailing and wasn’t until about 8 weeks out from the JPS Open when I really started to feel the brute of a powerlifters program. The niggles and aches on my joints from so much repetitive movement started to set in, so the necessity of more frequent deloads became very apparent. Deloads or rest weeks were something that I had previously thought would slow down my progress and I would only take them when my body was in absolute shambles. Powerlifting however, taught me that they are purposeful and powerful tools to manage fatigue, and should be used more often than I initially thought. By dropping the intensity and volume of training, I was able to have a period of true recovery and saw my performance improve the following week from the concept of supercompensation – a phase in the training-recovery cycle where your body quite literally rebounds after a break from high fatigue level to a level of  higher performance.

As I headed into the end of my prep, and the peaking phase was upon me, I had the expectation that I would be attempting crazy numbers across all lifts and feeling extremely motivated to train, but in all honesty it was quite the opposite. For the last couple of weeks, the thought of putting more than 100kg on my shoulders or deadlifting close to 2 x my body weight from the floor was nerve wracking, I doubted the numbers that I was supposed to be hitting and wanted nothing more than to recoil and just do some other exercise that wouldn’t be so threatening, like a leg press or RDL. I guess at this point the aversion towards the big 3 was my body’s way of trying to pull back and stay in it’s safety net. If there’s one thing that my body builder experience taught me, it was discipline and the ability to really get to work when things get beyond hard. So getting out of this little comfort zone didn’t take much and was able to push on – skills that I have always transferred into other areas of my life, not just the gym. Heading up to comp day I needed to drop 2kg to make my class. From spending such a long time at maintenance and not being overly concerned with my weight, it only took a few little tweaks to my macro’s and I came in well under 57kg.

On comp day, I had so much fun and was so proud of what I achieved, making 7/9 lifts. That afternoon I took a moment to draw some parallels of comp day on the body building stage compared to a powerlifting meet. I came up with likening it to a really important presentation. Being on stage as a bodybuilder is like the powerpoint slides, all the time and work has been done behind the scenes in preparation, and all that matters is that everything is presented perfectly for your audience to read. A meet is more like rocking up to the presentation with a speech you have practiced a thousand times and memorised so well you could say it in your sleep, but if your nerves get the better of you on the day or you haven’t woken up rested and fresh, you might mess up your lines at some point and your presentation will be a flunk.

In my case, the latter happened for my final squat attempt, the nerves really got the better of me and I missed a lift which I had previously hit in training. As frustrating as that was, I could only take it on the chin and put it behind me in order to give my best to the other 2 lifts, which I did, and went on hit lifelime PB’s on both. Post competition presented itself with the expected ‘everything hurts and I’m dying’ feels, but it only took me around 2-3 days until I was ready to lift a barbell again. Aside from that, there was no blow-out period and I loved the fact I could walk away from such an accomplishment without the need to come out of a state of semi-starvation in a slow transition back to health.

After now completing both sports, it’s hard to say which one I prefer when they are so different. It’s like comparing apples to tomatoes really…

In this piece, it may seem that my body building experience was a negative one, but that’s not to say that it didn’t teach me a lot about training, nutrition and most importantly what I am capable of achieving when I put my mind to it. I would have to say that the flexibility and higher degree of variation in exercise selection when training for physique made for more interesting and enjoyable training, and that is something I truly love about the sport. That being said, the challenge of competing in a sport that requires a 24/7 commitment made the achieving the end goal a highly rewarding experience, one that I am forever grateful for.

Powerlifting on the other hand was a lot more enjoyable in the sense that it it didn’t consume my life, the work is done in the gym for the most part, and in that respect it was “easier”. However, the repetition in exercise selection and the pressure that comes with performing are challenges in and of themselves, but ones that are manageable with preparation and know how.

I believe there is value in both sports. Both physique and powerlifting help develop core qualities and characteristics which can be drawn on outside of sport and into everyday life; commitment to hard work, self awareness, discipline and delayed gratification. And, if you can take these lessons and use them to better yourself and those around you, it’s a net win in my opinion.

In summary, I can look back and say that powerlifting has been so helpful in helping me find and grow my love for training after a period of aversion after bodybuilding. It has really taught me to appreciate what my body is capable of – some incredible feats of strength. My journey in physique taught me that training for cosmetic improvements won’t necessarily make you happy, and that being grateful for what I can do, not what I look like will lead to inner peace and satisfaction.

Before my transition to powerlifting, I defined myself as Alicia – the ICN Fitness Pro. I had forgotten who I was outside of the sport, and that I was far more than my aesthetics or my pro card – I am a friend, fiance, daughter, sister, coach, a lover of all things health and fitness, avid foodie and all the little life details that add up to make me who I am.

Not only did powerlifting help me broaden my perspective as it related to my identity, but it enabled me to  train without my entire life having to revolve around a sport or my physique, an endeavour that can drain your mental/emotional resources. Fortunately, I’ve been able to use this additional ‘mental energy’  to accomplish some pretty impressive and rewarding life accomplishments – the things that really do contribute to my life’s purpose and my happiness.

My body composition still matters, it always will because it’s something I value both personally and professionally. Aesthetic and physique related goals are a part of my life, and they may find themselves as a bigger priority one day when the time is right. That being said, powerlifting, coaching (alongside some incredibly wise and clever friends at JPS), and life in general have shown me that appearance is not the be all, end all. It does not define you and it’s at times, it is completely ok to disconnect and shift the goal posts to explore other new and exciting endeavours.

I hope this piece was useful to you, and for those of you who have or are currently experiencing similar feelings, emotions and thoughts, fear not. Life is a wonderful thing, so too is the lifting community. Reach out to others, talk about your journey, your struggles and the challenges you face. You don’t need to suffer in silence, and opening up is the first necessary step to making change and improving your circumstances, and life.

author: Alicia Cosoleto