Dr. Andrew J Chappell, PhD, MSc, BSc (hons)

“People know it’s going to be tough they just don’t realise how tough”

Competitive bodybuilding is a great sport and at ProPrepCoaching we love helping clients prepare for their competitions. We’re all competitors ourselves so we know how important it is for athletes to have a good competitive experience while producing a physique they can be proud of. Now everybody knows the training and diet can be extremely physically taxing and any that every would be competitor should be up to the challenge. Where most first time athletes fall down is that they very often underestimate the mental side of the sport. People know it’s going to be tough, they just don’t realise how tough. If you ask any current or previous competitor they’ll tell you it’s about more than just pumping iron and eating steam broccoli and chicken breast. From a personal point of view I actually find myself spending more and more time focused on athletes well beings and sports psychology than just the nuts and bolts of nutrition and training.

With all that in mind. For the past couple of years I’ve been asking all my competitive clients to complete a survey on how they found their first season in competitive bodybuilding.

Why I ask competitors to complete surveys:

1) To get competitors to reflect on their best practices, and tools that might be helpful in the future

2) To get competitors to reflect on where they may be able to do better for future preps

3) To identify common experiences so we might be able to feedback and help future competitors

Below I’ve compiled the responses of 9 female first time competitors and 4 male competitors following a competitive season. I find it’s much harder to get the men to complete these surveys and I’m sure you’ll agree the women seem to do a lot better when it came to the reflective practice. The data is useful though and hopefully it can be of use to future first time competitors and returning competitors.

There are three tables in total:

1) Female reflections on competition prep

2) Male reflections on competition prep

3) A summary of responses which I felt reflected the female and male athletes as a whole

If you’re considering competing in the future and you’re new to the sport then take the time to read through the table and familiarise yourself with common experiences. I guarantee you’ll have a better understanding of what you may be about to get yourself into and you’ll be better placed to understand the competitive process. Moreover if you’ve competed before, then then the responses can be a useful way of helping you realise you weren’t the only one feeling a certain way and that you might have more in common with your peers than you think. What struck me is seeing how humble these competitors were. That may reflect the way I coached them or their personalities, but there was some seriously good competitors amongst the 13 athletes surveyed. We’re talking multiple British champions, a couple of pro card holders, a world champion and at least three other athletes who competed at that level. Unfortunately though for the sake of anonymity I can’t name any of them.

The final caveat you’ll notice from reading through the athlete experiences is that although there are some common threads, everyone has their own unique experience. I’m not certain theres a clear difference between male and female experiences and prep can effect people in very different ways. Finally if you find this article useful then be sure to share it with your fellow bodybuilders so others might benefit.

Female Pro Prep Athletes Killing It On Show Day

Table 1: Female Athletes Reflections On Their First Competitive Bodybuilding Season

 Female, 20Female, 47Female, 41Female, 31Female, 39Female, 33Female, 39Female, 24Female, 23
Why did you set off on your competitive journey?I wanted a purpose to my training and lifestyle. I’ve always aimed to train like I was an athlete…….I finally felt like my whole purpose for my passion in the gym had meaning when I decided to compete earlier this year.I felt that I needed a brand new challenge, something special that could light that fire in your belly. I had always dream of competing in a physique competition – it was time to see if I could make that dream come true :-).To have a specific goal to work towards and to see if I was capable of achieving what I’d always seen as being out of my reachI wanted to challenge myself and i loved weight training so what better goal to set?I heard lots of stories how mentally difficult competing is and wanted to test myself if i was capable of doing it. And then I wanted to improve and gain more knowledge.I wanted to see what my body could ‘do’, physically, and how it could change aesthetically. I knew it would be a challenge, but I wasn’t prepared for how much of a physical AND mental game it isI wanted to do something I didn’t think id ever be capable of. I wanted to work on my physical and mental health and become a confident assertive individual. I wanted to step out my comfort zone and continue to became the best version of myself. I wanted to learn more about training, diet, nutrition.To see how far I could push my body and to see what I would look like being stage leanI wanted to see if bodybuilding was something I would enjoy. I have seen it for most of my life and was really curious. From a young age I’ve struggled with my weight/body image, I felt like I owed it to myself to give it a go.
Was it an enjoyable experience?Yes! More than words can explain.Yes though having set ambitious goals in the past I didn’t realise at the time just how ambitious it was!!Reflecting back – it’s been worth every second of effort and keeping that final vision in mind has allowed me to dig deeper than I thought I could.It was exciting from start to finish Yes, and it’s set the tone for future goals!I loved every minute of the whole experience. it was incredible rewarding seeing my progress, having the confidence to stand on stage and just enjoy the time up there. I cant wait to do it again.It was enjoyable however very challenging but so rewarding considering the results100%, its not about the trophies/medals. its about seeing yourself do what you never thought you could do.
Was comp prep what you expected?Definitely. I knew coming in that prep is only as hard as one makes it to be. For me, any challenge is enjoyable, no matter how hard it seems to others outside looking inIt was initially, I found it quite easy to follow the diet and I loved the training and seeing the progress. It got harder and it was much harder than I ever expected towards the end.I expected it to be physically demanding but was surprised by how challenging the mental element can be – but I also surprised myself by staying the course 100% even on my wobbly daysAt times it was easier than expected and at times it was harder than expected. I expected the hunger and tiredness but was surprised by the mood changes and sleep disturbances.I did not think the diet is going to be as strict as it was. I thought i will be able to have some refeeds at the beginning, but then i got used to it which proved to be a good thing.Yes and no. Yes in the sense I already had an idea of prep ‘norms’ but no in that it was a lot more ‘managable’ that I had expected/imagined and not at all extremeIt was everything and more, it is a tough challenge and a long process and I understand even more so this year what it takes to bring the condition you need to be successful.Yes and no, I knew it was going to be physically challenging but hadn’t expected how mentally taxing it was as wellyes and no. i knew i was going to be hungry as certain points as the calories went down but what i didnt expect to be so hard was the mental aspect of prep.
Did you have to sacrifice for this goal?
I had to sacrifice some family time but it served me well because my family knows how independent I am and how focused I am on pursuing my own goalsDue to Covid perhaps less in some ways as my social life and work do’s died down. I had to sacrifice family meals towards the end or eating the same as my husband which was hard.Mainly eating out socially – however, I never once questioned this. My end goal was always in mind and there was no doubt that I was fully committed to the process no matter what.Social occasions – sometimes preferred to just avoid them. I also found dating hard during prep with some people not understanding why eating and drinking dates were not on the cards.I did not let myself think that i am losing out on something but this is something choose to follow like not to eat or drink, which in turn made it so much easierNot really. I’d already got rid of one of the people who didn’t like me competing anyway….!Yes, I had to sacrifice time with my family and friends. I had to say no a lot as I didn’t have time or I had things to do. I did feel quite selfish at times.I’d say yes I sacrificed a social life which I didn’t mind too much because I was always busy trying to hit my daily goalsI think what took the biggest knock was my relationship Its really hard to have several things that come first in life and I struggled with that. many times during prep my relationship almost ended and every time the common denominator was prep and my priorities.
What have you learnt about yourself through
this process?
I’ve learned that I can challenge myself mentally as much as I do physically, and my resilience doesn’t have limitsThat I’m very determined and sometimes giving up may not be a sign of weakness.I’m far tougher and focused in the pursuit of a goal than I thought I was. I’ve stuck the course and never made excuses.That I am stronger, more resilient and more determined than I could ever have imagined.I am way stronger than i thought i was. Trust the process, ask questions. I realised how competitive i was.That despite putting far too much emphasis and worry about what other people think, I am a lot more resilient and determined than I give myself credit forIve learned so much about myself. I can do anything I want if I put in the work. Ive learned that I am confident I just need to believe in myself more. Ive learned to be myself and not do things or make decisions based on what other people want or just so that people will like meI’ve learnt that if I put my mind to something it can be achieved and that I’m stronger than I once thought, this prep has given me the confidence to grow and be comfortable with who I ami have learned that i am capable of being competitive in this sport, I have learned that i am head strong and can be disciplined when i need to. i have also learned that i am quite an extreme person, in the sense that if im doing something i really do want the best.
What have been some of the highlights?The highlights have been winning my first bodybuilding show and even winning my pro card! Another one is being able to see the muscle I have at this point in my life. I am very proud of myselfThe sense of performance and progress has been addictive. Turning 47 and feeling the best about the way my body looks was certainly a highlight . Winning Novice FitBody was the icing on the cake!Seeing how amazing the body is and how quickly the adaptations during prep can occur has been such a learning experience for me.Seeing my body transform through my own hard work, learning how to pose which i never thought I would get the hang of and getting glammed up for the stage. Also the thrill of qualifying for the FitX finals.Bi-weekly checkins by far the biggest ‘pick me up’ pill which drove me through the whole processProgress in my body; recomposition, strength…veins! Meeting like minded people. My posing improving. Having people message me – often who i’ve never met – telling me that i’ve inspired them to improve themselves tooThe whole prep, posing. My check ins, learning about myself. Having the confidence to step on that PCA stage and have the time of my life, getting my body into the best shape of my life. meeting new friends, being given some amazing the opportunities that have helped me grow and develop.The highlight for me was the final show and standing on a world championship stageBuilding such a great relationship with my coaches. going through prep with my best friend difficult at times but I am so lucky! winning the PCA overall was just crazy, never ever expected that. coming second to XXX at WNBF UK was humbling and I’m so so glad i came second.
What have you found the
most challenging throughout the process?
The most challenging would be falling ill during peak week, just because I’m very used to eating a variety of things wihout getting sick; so it definitely caught me by surpriseEating all the potatoes during peak week, managing injuries and recovery. Posing was much harder than I excepted too.Initially the increase in output from 3 training sessions & 3 cardio a week was a challenge.Sleep disturbance and mood changes during the later stages of prep. I also found losing my period quite disturbing when it first happened.Getting the steps in whilst working from home on top of cardio.Avoiding comparison and not let my brain play tricks on me!The external factors that I didn’t prepare for….getting unwell, realising I’ve been in a job that’s made me miserable for the last 5 years.The hardest thing was the no snacking especially at work when temptation is always there at least at home there was only clean food in the house but at work the tea trolleys were always a temptationMy mental health. Pattern and routine is something I need day to day…..without a plan I will go off the rails. I struggle to see myself accurately during prep which I’m sure is normal.
How has this journey effected your self esteem and
It’s definitely boosted my confidence. I am always in an “improvement” mood, and I know that I can always do better, but it’s taught me to appreciate the progress I’ve made at every stopping point in my life.Positively! You really can do anything you set your mind to. Competing against younger people was nerve wrecking but great for my self esteem. You can get into the best shape of your life at any age.Exponentially sparked a huge change in me – I’ve gone from feeling like maybe it’s not for someone as average as me to I’m going to make this happen for me no matter what. I know I can be bigger and better in the coming years and I’m truly excited to put in the necessary work.Pushing myself to do something I never thought I’d be brave enough to do has definitely increased my confidenceWork in progress however confidence has gone up.It has boosted it 100 times over. When I started this journey I couldn’t even imagine myself being on stage, and when the day did come it was very, very surreal, but I felt SO empowered and I can’t wait to do it again, BIGGER and BETTER!I cant even begin to explain how much this journey has improved my confidence and the way I feel about myself. I am a new person and despite the goings on. I feel fantastic and I am sooo proud of my progress both mentally and physicallyIt’s helped me feel more confident especially in the gym as I feel I look like I belong there nowI do feel it may have exaggerated issues that I already had such as body image. its difficult to always be judging the way you look. I dont feel it bothered me as much during prep as it has during the two weeks following my last show…….scared that im going to go back to be the girl who couldnt look in the mirror, who felt she couldnt attend social events because she didnt like the way she looked
What key lessons, experiences
have you learnt that you will take into future preps?
my goal in future preps: be honest with any concerns I might have Hugely number one is to believe in myself. Honestly, the realisation that I could have performed better had I not felt so self critical is something I’m taking forwards into the next time I get back up there.1. Aim to compete in shows later in the year so that if I get invited to British finals, it’s not such a long prep
2. Remember that food is always going to be there, no need to binge
3. Don’t social media stock the people I am competing against or compare myself to them
 1. Consistency is key above everything else.
2. trust the process – and coaches.
3. You are not anyone else and no one else is you and never will be, so don’t compare. 4. No sauces during peak week! 5. Rest and recovery is just as important as training and diet. As is an exfoliated moisturised bod!
Tick all the boxes, leave no stone unturned. stick to the plan 100%, trust your coaches, take advice. prepare for life hitting you with unexpected obstacles.To trust the process!! For ages I doubted whether I would be lean enough and struggled to see the end goalI would say to be kind to yourself and to remember that unless this is you full time job, its a hobbie. yes a very extreme hobbie but you should have fun- no one is forcing you to do this. have fun on stage! PRACTICE YOUR POSING!!! Try not to let emotions get the better of you, Lean on your coaches at this point and be open and honest about how you feel.
What does ‘SUCCESS’ look like to you now?Success means putting forth my best efforts every single second of everyday during the process, because that to me means way more than the end goals/stage momentGiving it 100% and feeling proud of what I’ve accomplished. Being able to pat myself on the back.Doing exactly what I set out to do at the beginning of this prep – not allowing anything to derail me and keeping my sights set on my goals at all times.Just stepping on stage, keeping my calm, remembering my poses and not running back off! Now that I’ve had some stage experience I would like to aim for a first place 🥇 in a future competition.Success for me is knowledge and experience and ability to apply that knowledge. I want to become a profeesional athlete, simple as that, i want to be a successful in this field and i think i do have the right attidute for it. Just need patience to make it happen.Developing a positive – healthy – mindset, not just towards competing but everyday life. I read somewhere that ‘success is a system, not a condition, and has to be defined regularly along with failure’, and I now agree with that. Yes validation and being awarded for my prep was amazing, but it’s a small part of a much larger picture.To set out what you planned to do, to get that end goal, winning isn’t success for me but I would like to win in the future. For me success is progress, gains, improvement mentally and physically, success is being better than you were beforeSuccess for me was on a daily basis and hitting those daily goalsBeing proud of what you have accomplished individually.
What advice would you give yourself to set yourself up for
success in future preps?
1. Focus on my goal: never feel bad for missing events, overall, be more sturdy in how I say no.
2.communicate with those around me about concerns.
3. Quality over quantity: Focus on quality training over the amount of what I am lifting, especially during prep.
Don’t be too hard on yourself – celebrate the little wins, Listen to your body to avoid injuries,1) Be patient – you will get there.
2) Focus on one day at a time – as long as you do what you need to do each day the bigger picture will take care of itself.
3) Conquering mindset is key – the body is capable of continuing to perform far beyond where your thoughts stop it.
1. Stay on track and don’t give up no matter what else is going on in life
2. Remember food is always going to be there.
3. Take a long off season. This is to allow me to build more muscle.
1. Train Harder
2. Allow longer time to to prep, if i allowed 4 months before, this time perhaps i need to give myself 6 .
3. Change the mindset and stop being jealous of other competitors better physiques.
1. Reflect regularly. I think we all spend so much time on the ‘going’ that actually stopping and thinking about how far we’ve come.
2. Plan, prepare and review meticulously
3. Don’t beat yourself up if every day isn’t perfect or doesn’t go to plan. Not every training session will be perfect, there will be diet slip ups, but that’s normal and human nature!
Prepare for unexpected things. Life happens and can get in the way just be more prepared for this. Dont beat yourself up, as long as you have done your very best that’s all that matters. Tick every box be strict with yourself because you feel worse if you slip up or make a mistakeSleep eat train repeat as long as these were done to the best of my ability I already considered myself to be successful for that dayPERSEVERE- to persevere when you cant see things coming together. e.g. weight taking time to come off. STAY IN YOUR LANE- don’t compare yourself to others- it’s exhausting and there is literally no gain whatsoever. SET GOALS/SURROUND YOUSELF WITH LIKE-MINDED PEOPLE
Male Prop Athletes Preparing For Comp Day

Table 2: Male Athletes Reflections On A Competitive Bodybuilding Season

 Male 22Male 51Male 45Male 31
Why did you set off on your competitive journey?Yes – it was always the planInitially it was to keep me from feeling that my life was falling apart… Now its to help me achieve my own personal goals . 1 to get my body in the best physical condition it can possibly be in & compete against amateur athletes of the same mindset &standard 2 to also eventually win a pro card & compete with the elite athletes in the natural bodybuilding world.Enjoyed training and clean diet wanted to see what I could do with the body . Had done mini cuts before so had a good idea what it was going to be like.I set off on this journey to compete to challenge myself.
Was it an enjoyable experience? Enjoyable in a lot of respects , as with other athletes COVID has affected the way ive been able to train alot done training alone , at home in a foreign gym were equipment has been substandard . Still been able to accomplish some of the targets i was aiming for . So rewarding yes .In general yes , training was good , food had enough variation although I’m easily pleased as I’m a creature of habit. peek weeks were toughest for me with volume of food although become easier the more we altered it.Yes! I loved the whole experience from start to finish.
Was comp prep what you expected?Yes in terms of the work I had to put in. Mainly No as I had a lot of new challenges to overcome during this prep that tested my mind and body a lot more.The majority yes.Yes just seemed to go on for ever lolI expected prep to be challenging yet rewarding, which it was hard at times.
Did you have to sacrifice for this goal?I had to sacrifice a lot of time. With being injured everything had to be geared around being able to train. Getting up really early to stretch, ice and heat 6 hours before a training session just so I could get it done was tough.Yes family time . Have found that tough going . Worked a lot of time away from home this season to fund this expensive hobby i have . Missed my girls also .Yes had a huge impact on my normal activities, hill walking , camping general going out for meals . Was difficult on my partner and the relationship but to be honest lara has been awsome with it all . looking forward to getting back up mountains and little more relaxed attitude to diet .yes! Sacrificing a lot of my social life i.e going out for food / drinks. which was hard sometimes, But for me my goal of competing was more important and keeping that in mind remined me of the end goal.
What have you learnt about yourself through
this process?
That I actually do like bodybuilding and competing. After feeling so lost at the end of my last prep i didnt know if i actually wanted to do this. I realised my passion for this sport. I realised how determined I can be and how I can manipulate my mindset to be stronger than my physical abilities. I learned that having the right people around me makes a huge difference.That i don’t necessarily need to be surrounded by like minded people to achieve my goals in life although it does help to keep you focused.Don’t have to be stressed out about things out with your control, a little more chill time is always good recovery time and chyro is too under-rated .That i am the type of person that needs to have a goal on life! if i have nothing to work towards i feel i’m simple just going through motions of day to day life.
What have been some of the highlights?It was a rough prep so main highlights were on stage but in particular was the 3rd place classic class at barbarian.The new people i have met on this journey this season from all over Scotland , England to the Middle East & America. Friends for life some of them!Getting more confident with posing, starting to see some progress with it . Stepping on stage for the first time. British finalsHighlights for me where competition days. the atmosphere of it all and that moment on stage! Also the moment in prep when you start to notice your progress! seeing all the hard work coming together!
What have you found the
most challenging throughout the process?
Getting over the injury and the pain that came with it. Not being able to do a lot off movement in the middle of prep because of the pain. We were about 2 days from giving up.Being away from home away from my family ! The dieting this season in particular has been tough . I work with food , consistently my willpower has been tested this season .Volume of training close to show dates , drop in calories for long periods of time. Restrictions it had on other activities relationship , holidays etc . Also very costly average 500 per show if staying away etcFor me ‘peak week’ was the hardest part!
How has this journey effected your self esteem and
Feel more confident in my ability to bodybuild, the reality I might actually be good at something.Self esteem been good highs & lows . Mostly highs a lot of top placing this year . I place far too much emphasis in winning , the flip side is feeling low when i dont hit that target . Never been one for just turning up ,being a number. For me thats not what competing is about. Confidence knocked abit in last com , has me questioning if I’d done all i could do to be the best for that comp in particular. The conclusion i came too is no . Some out of my control to a degree, thats going to take more development physique wise .More confident at posing but I’m pretty humble and reserved person .Yes, I’m already a reasonably confident person at times. But to stand on stage and literally be judged on how you look takes a certain type of confidence if that makes sense. more courage than confidence.
What key lessons, experiences
have you learnt that you will take into future preps?
Don’t give up in your mind before you give up in your body.  To be honest iv learned a lot for next season but the main thing ive learned is that when it gets hard, at the end it’s worth it!!! and that you get out of prep what you put in.
What does ‘SUCCESS’ look like to you now?Presenting a better package every time you get on stage and continuing to enjoy the process more and more,My physique being better developed than the previous season , accomplished . Placings determine what i have done with regards dieting , & training .Winning . I dont put myself through all the training , dieting to finish 2nd or lower although its not an absolute fail .initially it was just a focus its more than that to me now .improving on my last rep , or show or week points .For myself this season success was simply getting on stage! and gaining experience, which i feel i have!
What advice would you give yourself to set yourself up for
success in future preps?
Always be prepared and don’t put things off – I felt like I would always say ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ or ‘I can leave that until later’ just get it done. Found this with meal prep and was always rushing to get meals made in the morning before work. 2 – don’t let one bad week ruin your whole prep – even if you have 1 bad weigh in or check in you need to look at the bigger picture. 3 – be persistent – always strive to be better every week and don’t settle for second best. Get a winning mindset earlier on in prep.Set yourself a target & do everything possible to achieve the possible ! Don’t necessarily listen to to what you’ve been told by outside influences , they don’t always know you best . Remember why you started and never lose sight of that !Plan , need a plan so you know what your doing . 
Female & Male Competitive Experiences

Table 3. Summary of Female and Male Athletes Experience Of A Competitive Bodybuilding Season

QuestionsCommon Female Responses (9 first time athletes)Common Male Responses (4 male athletes)
Why did you set off on your competitive journey?New Challenge, Push myself, See what I’m capable of, To learn about nutrition and trainingWanted to see what I could do with my body and challenge myself, wanting to get in the best shape I could
Was it an enjoyable experience?Yes, it was difficult but 100% worth the effort throughout, I loved seeing my body changeYes, I was very motivated and driven, I enjoyed the process and it kept me focused.
Was contest prep what you expected?Yes and No, I knew it was going to be tough, but didn’t realise how tough towards the end. Mentally it was a major battle, Mood things were an issueYes it was what I expected, although it through up some unexpected issues, it went on for a while but it was rewarding.
Did you have to sacrifice anything?
Bodybuilding is a selfish sport, I had to focus on me and my goals, but it did impact my time with family and personal relationships suffered.Yes, I found the impact on normal social life and family life challenging.
What have you learnt about yourself through this process?Yes I’m far more resilient than I thought I was, I can achieve anything if I put my mind to it.Focus on things you can control, surrounding yourself with people who are liked minded helps, having goals are important. I love bodybuilding and the process!
What have been some of the highlights?Seeing my body change, meeting new people and building new friendships, winning was a highlightMaking friends ,seeing your hard work all come together and competing on the biggest stages.
What have you found the most challenging?Peek week was difficult, managing the amount of activity I had to do. managing my mental health, losing my period, avoiding snacking and being objective with myself.Peak Week, the length of diet and calorie restriction and missing family, dealing with injuries.
How has this journey effected your self esteem and confidence?This has increased my self confidence 100 times! Although I’m struggling with how my body is going to look post show.This has positively effected my self esteem, it’s nice to be good at something.
What key lessons, have you learnt that you will take into future preps?Trust the process, follow the plan, don’t compare yourself to others, lean on your coaches,Don’t give up in your mind before your body, Persevere with your goals.
Given your experience – What does ‘SUCCESS’ look like to you now?Achieving my daily goals, and achieving what I set out to do, Compete, winning is nice but it’s about more than that.Improving on my previous package and getting to the stage and being better. Placings are important to me.
What key tips would you give yourself to set yourself up for future success?Focus on your goal, don’t compare yourself to other people, Persevere and accept your goal will take time.Set goals and targets and don’t put things off, be persistent. You need to plan, remember why you started and be focus on what your coaches say rather than outside influences.

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