Trans Bodybuilding Competition: My Experience as a Non-Binary Competitor
Bodybuilding. Sounds interesting. Building one’s body. Training hard in the gym and eating right. Seeing some results. Work a bit harder. Consider competing. Realize one’s options as a non-binary person are 1) Compete in stilettos and a glittery bikini or 2) Sign up for a mens competition. Neither option feels like a good fit. Get discouraged. Lose focus on weightlifting and nutrition. Feel yucky in own body. Start going to gym again and eating right. See some results. Consider competing. You can see how this becomes a frustrating and not-very-gender-affirming-cycle.
Enter Trangender (trans) bodybuilding competitions. When I saw the trailer for the film “Manmade” that was screening at this years Frameline Film Festival in the Bay Area, I was shocked! I had no idea that this type of space had opened up in the bodybuilding arena. But it was really just a passing thought in my mind that I would ever be a part of of something like that. I’d never felt like I was lean enough to be a “real” bodybuilder. But then months later, I saw a facebook post for the International Association of Trans Bodybuilders event that was coming up in Atlanta in October. I thought “yeah, maybe if I lived in Georgia I would go try that, but that would be crazy to fly in from the Oakland Bay Area just to go flex my muscles on a stage! But I couldn’t shake the idea from my mind over the next few days. I peeked into my calendar just to check whether I was free that weekend. I texted my mom to see if she happened to be available to watch our kids for a long weekend. I told her it wasn’t for certain, just considering making a trip to Georgia for what I thought at the time was a self-indulgent and frivolous reason. And sure enough my calendar was blank and my mom was free. I asked my spouse what they were doing that weekend. Hmm, they were free as well. And my brother and his family had just moved to Georgia a few months prior so I would have a place to stay and could also spend some quality time with them if I made the trip.
The cards seemed to be lining up. But I had one HUGE lingering doubt. And that is, “Would I be lean enough?” By the time I saw the event posted, I would have exactly eight weeks to prepare to step onstage. I didn’t want to embarrass myself by showing up too fluffy. I’d been making some great progress with my workouts and had been consistent with tracking my nutrition since I started working with a new personal trainer (Emmet Logan of YesBodies, they/them pronouns) in February of this year. I was generally feeling pretty great in my body, but I wanted to get leaner and continue to appear more masculine. I ran the idea by my personal trainer. A long rambling stream of words tumbled out of my mouth….”So there’s a trans powerlifting and bodybuilding competition coming up in eight weeks and I’m thinking of doing one or the other or maybe both and I know I’m not super-lean but I’m getting there and what do you think? Is it crazy or is there a chance I could be ready in time?”
My trainer gave some very thoughtful answers to my question and helped me clarify my goals in terms of focusing on the bodybuilding competition over the powerlifting competition. The main thing that I took away from our conversation was that I might as well try my best and go for it, and even if I didn’t meet all my aesthetic goals, that I would still come out of the competition knowing if it’s something I’d want to pursue further or just something that was fun and interesting for a one-time experience,
So Emmet designed an 8-week strength-training routine for me with the goals of putting on as much muscle as possible in as little time as possible and torching off as much body fat as possible while keeping me healthy and strong. It included some new (to me) tortuous techniques such as German Volume Training (10 sets of 10 reps of compound exercises at 70% of your max with only one-minute rest periods) and Muscle Flushing (Multiple drop sets that run so much blood through a muscle that you think you’re going to puke with the aim of pumping up the muscle with nutrients and stimulating growth). And then I think there was a variation of the German Volume Training thrown in there for one of the four-week cycles of muscle building. But my trainer is smart and sneaky so they didn’t call it that by name. They just wrote down the reps and sets of the exercises I needed to complete and I methodically worked through four intense weight-room workouts on my own each week and then Emmet pushed me on Fridays when I trained with them.
I experience a variety of emotions throughout this training cycle. Strong bursts of rage, anxiety, sadness, and excitement punctuated longer periods of focus and empowerment and fatigue. The first time we did German Volume Training, my quads were in shock from doing so much volume (total of all sets x reps) of front squats. They were twitching and fiery and, despite doing variations of back squats and front squats for years, I finally felt them working and growing. I swear I watched them grow a whole inch in circumference as I was driving home from the workout. But around my sixth set I’d really settled into my front squat form in a really comfortable way. I’d struggled with that particular lift before and just the repetition of having to pick the bar right back up every minute felt really amazing to lock in that form. And it was also really hard. And Emmet said something like “get into position, elbows up, and let’s go…picture yourself walking onstage!” And at that moment I just felt so much anger. I wanted to stop and rest and all the anxiety I had about whether I’d be “ready” for the competition had already melted away under the weight of the barbell and I don’t even know where the anger came from or where it was directed but I experienced anger in my quad muscles, anger in my back, anger in my blood. And I got through the set, and the emotion passed as soon as my quads were no longer under mechanical tension. I was exhausted after that workout of deadlifts and squats, but was surprised by what happened next.
Two days later, I was foam-rolling my quad muscles to try to release some of the tension and soreness that had built-up from the squats. It was painful. Really painful. Painful, but necessary. It’s the kind of pain I could push-through while keeping my leg muscles mostly relaxed and not having to hold my breath. I guess birthing a baby prepares you well for foam-rolling! So I was mentally prepared to get through this necessary evil, so that the post-workout soreness wouldn’t last more days than necessary. But just moments into rolling out my right quad, I felt that quick fiery flash of anger jabbing into my brain and electrifying my whole body. And as soon as I recognized that emotion as anger, it crashed into sadness. Waves of sorrow and sadness flooded my body with every breath. If I’d stopped foam-rolling and distracted myself by scrolling through Facebook on my phone, I think it would have rolled to a stop. But I kept going and kept breathing and kept feeling whatever this was that was coursing through me. And crying uncontrollably face down on a mat at the gym. As a healthcare provider who releases built-up tensions in people’s bodies all day long, I recognized this as trauma leaving the body. All the what-ifs and am-I-good-enoughs and do-I-look-a-certain ways that had entered my quads during the vigorous muscle building were now being processed and healed and remodeled and repaired through this self-muscle work. I tell my clients all the time that foam-rolling is good for their muscles, but I’ve never told anyone (yet) that it can be a spiritual experience if you keep breathing and lean into the discomfort.
I didn’t tell many people that I was preparing for a bodybuilding competition. I guess I was afraid that if people responded with a surprised “I didn’t know you were into that?!” then I would take that as “Wow, you don’t look like a bodybuilder” or “You don’t look very lean”. I knew I looked strong. But not necessarily lean. That was my insecurity. I wasn’t afraid of being in the spotlight on stage and forgetting my poses. I wasn’t stressed-out about wearing a sports-bra on my chest when everyone else would be bare-chested. (The sports-bra selection process was mentally-consuming because I wanted to get it perfect. Minimalist in the back to show my back muscles but not feminine or strappy, etc.) But really, my whole eight-week preparation was plagued by the worry that I wouldn’t get lean enough. I was professional-archery-competitor-accurate about weighing and measuring all my meals. I didn’t eat at a restaurant for eight weeks. I prepared an egg-white scramble with spinach every morning to eat with my gluten-free toast. In total, I shook-up sixty protein shakes in my blender bottle, one each morning to have it prepared for the day. I prepared 180 boring but not unpalatable protein-rich healthy meals in portable containers so I could eat my other meals spaced out at approximately 11am, 3pm, and then 7pm. I took my own food to a wedding. I took my own food on a camping trip. I mixed up electrolyte powders, creatine powders, BCAA concoctions stirred into pre-workout drinks, and post-workout and evening recovery supplements. Everything was very organized and dialed in. And it took a lot of my mental energy to track my macros (food intake) and check off all the boxes.
I applied a self-tanner. Oh yes, that was a whole experience just by itself. It required five coats and lots of stained towels and sheets and several patient helping hands. I am naturally a very pale person and it was shocking to see the difference a tanner made in seeing my muscle definition. I realized that I was closer to my leanness goals then I had realized. And it made me mad to realize that probably every fitness model who has every been on the front cover of a magazine had great lighting and a tan and that they don’t naturally look like they do in those pictures if you were to see them in the offseason. And so much crap is marketed towards us with the messaging that you aren’t good enough.
So I arrived to the Seven Stages Theater on a warm afternoon in Georgia. I was thankful that we didn’t have to stand around outside for too long because the sun was hot and my tanner was temporary (the top-coat layers tend to drip off when you sweat). Six of us contestants gathered and shook hands and started talking about where we were from and how we heard about the competition. I instantly felt at home with these guys. We all have many similarities in our life-stories even though we are at different points in our transitions or in our fitness journeys. I met two people at this event who had lost over 100 pounds. Two other people had competed as women (butches) earlier in their bodybuilding careers and were now reuniting to compete as men in this trans bodybuilding event. It was a friendly competition. I got some tips on how to pump-up before the show. Other guys were sharing tips on when to carb-up and how to pose.
We had a lot of waiting around time while they set-up the weigh-in area. It felt like catching up with old friends even though I’d never met these fellows before. We all had a good bonding moment when Wes (the overall winner of the competition) walked in. He strutted in wearing a bright red stringer-style tank top. His traps and lats were popping out all over the place and he looked amazing and it was so clear that none of us stood a change against him! Someone joked about trying to run off a pound to get into a lower weight class so they wouldn’t have to compete against him. Another wondered what could they quickly eat before the weigh-in so that they could move up to heavy-weight class to avoid competing against him. We greeted him not with, “Hi man, how are you?” but “How much do you weigh?” It was all in good fun and I felt very supported by this community as I dealt with the nerves of getting out there to do my posing routine.
The organizer and the stage/theater-manager were both very conscientious with checking in about the use of pronouns. I was also offered a choice to go onstage with the other trans-men or have my own category (non-binary gender). I opted to go onstage with the other guys because I was too nervous to go up there all by myself. No one made any comments about what I was wearing. There was a lot of general banter about top-surgeries and transition-related topics. When the time came, we were all called up onto stage by the order of our numbers (there were a total of eight contestants). The judges called for some quarter turns, which from what I can tell are called relaxed poses but you don’t look or feel very relaxed in them because you are semi-flexing and trying to remember to smile). And then they introduced each of us and had us do our favorite pose. The crowd was super-supportive and high-energy and it felt very empowering and celebratory as we went through our poses. Then we walked off stage and then came back separated by weigh-class.
I had spent a lot of time debating whether I was going to try to make the lightweight class. I was really close to the cutoff of 145 pounds. After weighing over 205 at the end of my pregnancy, and then 185 after delivery, I’d gotten down to 175 by February. Between February and July I’d come down to 155 or 160. And I knew that it would be tight having only eight weeks to get to 145, so I set it as my goal and decided to see how close I was a week out from the competition before deciding if I wanted to do all the water loading and cutting and carb manipulation and sweating and spitting that can be common in weight-class competitions.
I was weighing in at 148 or 149 the day before I hopped on the airplane to Atlanta, so I decided that I would probably be holding water from traveling anyway and I decided not to do all that stuff and just get out there and look the best that I can and show off my hard work and not worry about weight classes. Even though moving down into the lightweight division would have meant getting a third-place trophy, I think I made the right decision to not add that extra layer of stress to my experience. I ate a bunch of jelly beans the night before as I alternated between coats of tanner and practicing my poses (which is actually more work than you might think it is to hold all those muscle contractions). I didn’t weigh or measure my meals that weekend and only loosely followed the rubric of what my meal plan had looked like the months prior.
And I felt fantastic. I felt energized. I felt masculine. I felt powerful and strong. And I had a lot of fun. Everyone’s first question to me now is “would I do this again?” And it’s a really hard question to answer. Yes I definitely would do a trans bodybuilding competition again. I felt like there was such a nice mix of body types and body fat levels and throughout this whole prep I’ve focused in on the fact that this is allowing me to redefine what bodybuilding means to me. It doesn’t have to mean sparkly swimsuits and booty poses and high heels. And it doesn’t have to mean starvation diets and extreme dehydration techniques. In every way I have been celebrating this body that I have built and it was an amazing experience to participate with a group of athletes who are also redefining and rebuilding their own bodies.
But traveling to Atlanta isn’t something that I can likely do every year. It wasn’t cheap and it took a long time to get there. On the other hand, to my knowledge, there are currently not other opportunities to compete as a non-binary person. I can still do my thing in the gym and stay on top of my nutrition, but in terms of a community event, I really hope that the IATB can grow and expand their vision and bring trans bodybuilding to the Oakland and SF Bay Area! We have a growing community of LGBT focused gyms and trainers and I would think a trans bodybuilding community would be a natural extension of that. Maybe by 2020?