How Training for a Bodybuilding Competition Forever Changed Me

As told by Jessica Penley, The Vitamin Shoppe Health Enthusiast

Exercise was a regular part of my life growing up. I played volleyball throughout high school and trained almost every day. But when I started college and no longer had coaches guiding my fitness routine, I hit a major wall. I had no idea what to do at the gym, but I still continued to eat the fast food and macaroni-and-cheese I liked so much.

Discovering Bodybuilding

I had always been intrigued by bodybuilding, so when I found a three-month training plan online, I set out to try it. Most of my new workouts started with strength training (focusing on a different muscle group each day) and ended with 20 minutes or so on a cardio machine.

The training plan also included what a day of typical bodybuilder-style meals looked like, so I got in the routine eating small, frequent meals that consisted of lean protein, veggies, and a starch, like rice. The eating structure helped me cut down on processed foods and sweets, and for the first time I realized that my results in the gym depended on the food I put in my body throughout the rest of the day.

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I lost a few pounds and got into decent shape, but fell into an on-again-off-again pattern with my gym and eating routine for the next few years. It wasn’t until I started seeing a lot of personal fitness accounts pop up on social media that I got the itch to really get serious about my fitness and train for a bodybuilding competition.

A Roller Coaster of Coaches

I knew I needed help in getting my body stage-ready, so I started working with a trainer I’d met at the gym. He removed whatever processed foods, like cereal, were left in my diet, cut down my carbs, and switched up my workouts so that I lifted weights six days a week and hit cardio every day, first thing in the morning. I lost 15 pounds in the first two months, but then my progress plateaued. Not to mention, I felt absolutely exhausted all the time—perhaps because my diet was so devoid of carbs.

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Over the course of the next year, I spent eight months working with a new coach, but eventually fell back on the original guy. Coach number two added carbs back into my diet, and while the extra fuel made me feel stronger and more energetic from the change, my workouts stayed the same for months and months, so I plateaued—again. Totally exasperated, I spent another few months stuck in the same rut with my first coach.

I felt absolutely exhausted all the time—perhaps because my diet was so devoid of carbs.

I hired my current coach a year ago (third time’s a charm), telling myself it’d be my last shot before giving up on bodybuilding. A pro bodybuilder himself, he trained me in the gym three times a week and kept a close eye on my meal plan. I picked a figure competition in April to enter and prepared myself for five months of hard work.

Competition Prep

For the first month of contest prep, I lifted super heavy and spent a half-hour or so on cardio, six days a week. We ramped up my protein to 200 grams a day in hopes that I’d pack on muscle fast.

Eight weeks out from my show, we added more cardio to my routine. I woke up, hit the gym for 30 minutes of cardio, ate my breakfast there, and lifted for an hour before heading to work at my new gig at The Vitamin Shoppe. After my shift, I went back to the gym for another hour of cardio. Did I mention I was also taking exercise science courses at community college on top of work and training? I had a lot going on.

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Around this time, we also started cycling the carbs I ate. I’d have 90 grams one day, 120 grams the next, and then 150 grams on day three. That cycle repeated and repeated as the days and weeks went.

A few weeks before my contest, we cut carbs almost completely. I ate tons of chicken breast and asparagus, started weaning my body off water (a common contest practice to look as lean as possible), and honestly, I felt pretty damn tired. But even in moments of exhaustion or struggle during a long cardio session, I was so excited for competition day—I’d been working my butt off!

The Big Day

I had no idea what to expect when I finally walked into my physique competition, and man, was it a long day. I got my hair and makeup done around five o’clock in the morning, and got my second spray tan in 24 hours. I didn’t take the stage for final judging 9 p.m. But wow, was it incredible to walk out there in front of the judges after grinding for five months.

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For that moment, I’d lost 40 pounds and spent countless hours in the gym and on meal prep. I felt like a total badass for finally competing and accomplishing my goal.

When the show ended, I celebrated with a Hawaiian barbecue pizza, way too many glazed donuts, and about five Diet Cokes. (Many contestants drink zero water on competition day, so I was THIRSTY.)

Forever Changed

After preparing so diligently for that competition, I feel like I can accomplish anything. I challenged myself physically, mentally, and emotionally—and came out stronger for it.

Of course, I cut back on the crazy cardio sessions and reintroduced carbs—oh, how I missed them!—into my daily grub after the contest. I kept consistent with my lifting routine, put some weight back on, and shifted my focus from being uber lean to gaining muscle.

I feel like I can accomplish anything.

My experience instilled so much confidence and drive in me that I decided to go back to school full time and finish my associate’s degree in kinesiology. Soon I’ll be applying to bachelor’s programs in nutrition.

Advice for Others

You have to be patient with yourself and your progress. Don’t quit after a week or two of working out hard and eating clean meals because you don’t see change yet. It takes time! It took me two years to make my dream of competing in a bodybuilding competition happen, but every moment of effort was worth it when I finally did it.

Jessica’s Go-To Products At The Vitamin Shoppe

Even before I became a Health Enthusiast®, I loved the BodyTech® Whey Tech Pro 24 Chocolate Mint whey protein. It tastes exactly like my favorite cookies!

I also take BodyTech’s Critical Aminos. I mix them into my water when I hit the gym.

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