I have always been an athletic girl. I grew up playing gymnastics, volleyball, and basketball and then became a cardio bunny during college and thereafter. I ran half marathons, took spin classes, and considered myself a healthy person. I ate salads, and stayed away from junk foods. But I only ate two meals a day, and never really knew what foods would help build muscle or were good for losing weight.
About four years ago, I approached a trainer at New York Sports Club (NYSC) to ask for ankle weights to wear on the stairmaster. He told me they didn’t have any, but offered a free training session instead. The decision to take him up on that offer would change my life in two ways: Not only did it begin an exciting new fitness journey for me, but that trainer, Jay, ended up becoming my husband.
I had always loved seeing long, lean muscles on women. Madonna’s “guns” were something I admired, but thought I could never attain myself. But after lifting a few times with Jay, I became hooked. I loved how sore I felt the next day and how after only a few weeks I could see a change in the tightness of my body—something running and spin could never do. I decided to put my cardio workouts on the back burner and see where weight lifting could take me.
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The very first time I lifted on my own, I was intimidated. I had a pass to all NYSC’s around the city, but any time I went to a new gym, I would have to try and locate the familiar equipment, ask people to share weights, and so forth. It was a bit nerve-wracking. I would lift lighter and for more reps. I still didn’t understand the difference between building muscle, leaning out, and bulking, so I stuck with what I was comfortable lifting and would rarely increase my weight unless Jay was there to spot me.
But I was seeing results—and a lot faster than I had with cardio. I used to do 500 to 1,000 crunches, four times a week, and always had a flat stomach, but it wasn’t until I started lifting that I actually had abs. People would comment on my shoulders, and fellow gym-goers would ask if I was a trainer. It just built so much confidence in who I was. I was always very shy growing up, and while I grew out of that somewhat over the years, there is something so invigorating about people recognizing the changes in your body and your hard work. It makes you want to lift more and lift heavier.
A few months later, I left my job of four years to pursue my own company. I started with a solid plan and loads of motivation to begin my online athletic apparel boutique, Ella’s Sidewalk. But I faced obstacle after obstacle, and it landed me in a low place. I was hitting a wall, and I worried I’d made a huge mistake quitting my job. I had never started something I couldn’t finish, and I was scared that for the first time in my life, I was going to have to quit something.
So I decided to find accomplishment somewhere else: I would enter an amateur bodybuilding competition. It was me saying to myself, “I can do this—and I will.”
My first goal was simply to not fall off the stage while I strutted around in the smallest bikini I had ever seen. My second goal: to place in the top five.
I started training harder than ever and began focusing more on my nutrition. Gone were the days of eating just two meals a day. I started working with a nutritionist who gave me a detailed diet plan. The meal prep alone was like a second job, not just to prepare but to find time to eat six meals a day! I remember Jay telling me nobody was forcing me to compete and if I didn’t want to, I didn’t have to. But I was prepared, determined, and ready. I wanted to push myself to work harder than I had ever worked and I said to myself, “Yes, I absolutely can do this.”
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I had never measured food, did not own a food scale, only ever made chicken cutlets, hated fish, and loved condiments. Overnight, I was eating tilapia, 99 percent lean ground turkey, using only mustard and hot sauce for flavor and had more asparagus in a week than I had had in my entire life. Luckily, following this eating plan was only stressful the first time around. Going into the second season of competing, I could take on prep with my eyes closed.
I was absolutely terrified during my first show, but the high I felt afterwards was amazing—I placed second!
And it turned out that the structure of prep and hard work I put into my workouts really helped me stay structured outside of the gym. It motivated me to build my business and actually get it off the ground.
Now, I’ve competed in six shows in two years, made some of my best friends from competitions, and launched my own business. It’s different than the one I originally planned for, but every show gave me greater confidence that I am capable of anything I put my mind to.
I originally competed just to say I did it. It was a goal that I wanted to check off my list, to push myself, and remind myself I wasn’t a “loser.” I am shocked that two years later, this is such a strong part of my life. I live and breathe it and I have a new goal to become an International Federation of Bodybuilding PRO, which I feel like I am actually capable of achieving.
The thing I love most about my body now is my confidence. I stand taller, walk straighter, and feel empowered. I’m lifting the same, if not more, than most of the men at my gym. And I’m one of the few women who lift there, so I love being approached by other women who feel encouraged by seeing me and want to ask me questions. It isn’t a man’s world and we are proof of that!
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Most people think the strictness of prep is what’s so difficult, but it’s actually off season that’s the hardest—the time when I don’t need to be so restrictive.
Last year, I was in prep for eight months and competed in four National Physique Committee (NPC) bikini competitions. It was the hardest I’ve ever worked. But coming off prep, I ate everything and put on 30 pounds in less than two months. I learned you have to stick to a plan, even in the off season. My new coach put me on a meal plan that helped me regulate back to a healthy off-season weight—one that would help me build muscle but cut fat.
Most gains are made in the off season, so I work out six days a week—two shoulder/triceps days, two leg/glutes days, and two back/biceps days.
It’s important for me to enjoy off season so that prep goes well afterward. I still eat six meals a day, but my meals have larger portions and more carbohydrates and fats than during prep. I make it a priority to enjoy special occasions (holidays, birthdays, brunch) and to let myself have a cheat two to three times a week. I definitely keep in mind it’s a cheat meal, not a cheat day to avoid downward spirals, but it helps me indulge when I can. I do not need to drink alcohol daily, or eat every sweet in sight, but it is important that I know if I want it, that I can have it.
It may be cliche, but love yourself and your body. As we get older, things do get harder—our bodies change and we need to listen. Rest when you feel sick or tired, push harder when you have it in you, and just listen to the feedback your body gives you. We only have one body and one life; make the most of it and be the baddest b*tch you can be, but always love yourself. We are our own worst enemy so the worst thing we can do is put ourselves down.
Follow Ariella’ journey@ella_fit2
Source: Women’s Health Mag