The very tan Team Maximus from Bangor Brewer Athletic Club backstage at a bodybuilding show in spring 2014

The very tan Team Maximus from Bangor Brewer Athletic Club backstage at a bodybuilding show in spring 2014

One of the things I specialize in as a personal trainer is getting people ready to compete in physique competitions (bodybuilding, figure, bikini and physique).

It’s kind of ironic that I’m involved in this at all, given that years ago I ruled out competing as something that “other people” did. It’s funny the way life rolls. I’m pretty sure immersing myself in contest prep after losing my mom to cancer and getting divorced a couple months later might have saved me.

I will never forget the first time I saw a physique competition featuring women. I was in my 20s — this was a long time ago — and was flipping through TV channels while eating lunch. I was mesmerized when I happened upon the Ms. Fitness USA competition on ESPN: The routines! The feminine-but-ripped physiques! The challenge!

I thought: one day I want to compete in something like that. And then I thought: that kind of thing is for other people, not me. Fitness competitions happened in a world I knew nothing about and had no access to — because frankly, at the time, I didn’t. I had no idea where to even begin.

Cut forward many years, to the day I stepped onstage for my own figure show. I was 45 years old. I still knew very little about that world. The night before the show, two very good friends slapped my tan on in the hotel room. Even though I had hired a well-known figure coach I was completely unprepared when I stepped onstage for my first round of quarter-turns. In fact, when I think about it, I get embarrassed.

And one thing that really surprised me was that before and after my show people I barely knew said things to me that were not always kind because they didn’t understand the sport — which, admittedly, is very strange.

During the stage walk of my first show.

During the stage walk of my first show.

Seriously: Who in this day and age voluntarily follows a strict diet regimen, puts on a skimpy suit and allows themselves to be judged? Who does that? Quite a few people, turns out. And it’s usually not for the reasons you’d imagine. There is a lot to be gained through the sport that has nothing to do with your outward appearance.

I kept competing until I understood it better. When some other people in my gym decided to compete in natural bodybuilding and asked me to help them, I vowed that no one would ever feel the way I did those first few times I stepped onstage.

We’re heading into the spring competition season and that means several members of the team from my gym (Bangor-Brewer Athletic Club) are getting ready to compete. If you’re friends with these people on social media, chances are you are going to see pictures of them wearing less clothing than normal. You’re going to notice them sharing more motivational quotes than normal. You’ll see pictures of their meals, their meal prep, and maybe they will seem snappish — or as we joke, “hangry” (a combination of hungry and angry) — at times. And then they will be sporting a tan that’s not really a tan but an actual paint job.

I’ve had people complain to me about having to witness all of this. (I also have people complain about the pictures I post of my cats.) Here’s the thing about all that pre-competition social media business: the competitors aren’t showing off. They are posting those things to stay motivated. (However, I am showing off when I post my cat pictures, because my cats are highly advanced and exceptionally beautiful.)

I get a little protective when I hear the complaints. So I decided to share this little rah-rah speech I posted in our team’s Facebook group last year during the height of competition prep that might explain all that social media activity and why they are doing the things that they are doing.

This little sport you’ve chosen is one of the most punishing ever devised. For some of us, that level of challenge is exactly why we’re doing it — we want to do something hard, something that will require discipline, focus and drive.

What makes it so challenging? How is it different than some other sports?

First, it’s subjective. There is no definitive finish line that you can be the first to cross. There is no specific “thing” to beat, no time clock, no runs/hits/errors. Your hard work and genetics are judged against someone else’s hard work and genetics. How do you know when you’re “done”? You don’t … so you never are. You do your best, and you stand on stage, and you let the chips fall where they may, based on what a panel of volunteer judges decides at a specific time on a specific day.

Second, this sport takes over your life as you near show time. It rules when you eat and go to bed and requires daily adherence to a training schedule. It makes it hard to have a “normal” life. Family members, friends and strangers think that it’s OK to comment on your behavior, appearance and diet. Sometimes they aren’t nice. Sometimes they are. Don’t expect them to happily go along for the ride when your behavior starts interfering with their life — and don’t expect them to join you in a meal of broccoli and chicken. YOU decided to do this, they didn’t.

Third, and worst of all, it can beat you up psychologically. If you find yourself looking in the mirror and talking a bunch of crap to yourself about how you don’t (and by extrapolation, never will) measure up, how you suck, etc. tell yourself to shut the heck up. I can hear your inner voice when I watch you during posing practice. STOP TALKING TO YOURSELF LIKE THAT. Get mad. Work harder. Decide that the voice in your head is crazy (cuz it is) and ignore it.

When you stand on stage and accomplish your goal, your life will change. You will see that you can do and be and accomplish far more than you’ve ever imagined. The payoff in overcoming all that challenging stuff spills over into every other area of your life. No joke. It really does.

In the deep recesses of my mind, there’s a bit of me that would still really like to do an actual fitness competition one day — the shows with the routines — but I am a little old for mastering back handsprings (and I’m OK with that). I’m pretty sure I could get back my one-handed pushups, though. What’s that saying? Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance. You never know ….