Dangers of Contest Prep: Metabolic Disorders and Health Risks for Women
If you’ve ever competed in a bikini, figure, physique, fitness show or any form of bodybuilding, you’ll know just how physically and mentally draining contest prep can be. Anybody that says contest prep is easy has either never competed before, or they’re not telling the all-inclusive story. Bodybuilding is one of the toughest sports in the entire world. Only a select few individuals will ever have what it takes to diet down, train harder than ever before, and lay it all on the line when stepping on stage.
With the addition of bikini divisions, female bodybuilding has become more popular than ever. Whereas, in a distant past, you’d find men pumping iron and women doing cardio, now there is a shift in balance. The #girlswholift movement has grown exponentially more popular and women are now realizing that you can still look feminine whilst being muscular. But, and this is a biggie, there is a dark undertone associated with female bodybuilding that women need to be aware of. When prepping for a contest, there are various health risks and metabolic disorders that could rear their ugly heads. Here’s a detailed breakdown.
Bulking and cutting
Before we can take a look at some of the health risks associated with prepping for a show, we’re first going to look at the extreme lengths women during prep undergo. In bodybuilding, it is common to follow two phases. These are:
When bulking (improvement season), the idea is to create a slight caloric surplus and to train hard, intensely, and to lift relatively heavy in order to stimulate your muscles into growing. The idea is to literally ‘bulk up’. As a bodybuilder, bulking is considered much easier than cutting because you consume more calories than you need for maintenance, so you’re not shy of energy and you’re certainly not hungry. The hard part of prep life comes during the cut. When cutting, competitors will begin reducing their caloric intake several weeks out from a contest. The idea behind a cut is to create a caloric deficit
and to burn fat in order to reveal the lean muscle tissue that was built during a bulk. With a cut, you’ll consume fewer calories than your body needs to maintain itself in its current form so that you lose fat in order to look leaner and more defined. Female competitors will diet down, continue to lift weights, and include more cardio so that, when they put their competition suit on, they hopefully look as lean on stage as possible.
The dark side of contest prep
Bodybuilding is an extreme sport. During the final weeks of prep, competitors will diet down to low levels of body fat, while depleting their bodies of water, which can take a toll on their bodies. A woman’s body is not designed to be maintain the leanness of a competitor. To give you a rough idea of what we mean, a healthy body fat percentage for women is between 22% and 30% body fat. Many female bodybuilders will diet down so that their body fat percentages fall as low as 8% in some cases. Now, according to the American Council on Exercise, a woman’s bodyfat percentage should never drop below 10%. Becoming this lean is not healthy and it puts a woman at risk for all kinds of health concerns. Some common risks associated with competition prep include:
There are many other risks associated with dieting down for a contest, but these are generally considered to be the most common. Metabolic disorders and health risks associated with female bodybuilding. Now it’s time for us to take a closer look at some of the most common health risks and disorders associated with female bodybuilding and the extreme lengths these women go to in order to look their best when competing on stage.
Adrenal fatigue – First up we’re going to take a look at adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue is a collective term given to a wide variety of disorders often caused by extreme dieting and exercise during contest prep. Now, each condition associated with adrenal fatigue is non-specific. Common symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:
Muscle aches and weakness
Disrupted sleep patterns
Low blood pressure
Slight hair loss
Discoloration of the skin
Basically, because you are placing your body and major internal organs under such extreme stress and pressure, your adrenal glands suffer and they fail to function as they should. Your adrenal glands produce a number of hormones responsible for countless physiological processes in the body. If your adrenal glands are affected, they can’t produce sufficient amounts of adrenal hormones and your health suffers as a result. Adrenal fatigue for a bodybuilder is one of the worst things to suffer from, as it will affect your motivation levels and performance in the gym.
Metabolic damage – A common metabolic disorder associated with female bodybuilding, particularly during contest prep, is metabolic damage. Metabolic damage is a term used to describe a physiological term called ‘adaptive thermogenesis. Basically, when you place your body into a caloric deficit, it will respond in two ways. The first response is what bodybuilders want, because its response is to use stored body fat for energy, so you literally fuel your body with your own body fat and get leaner in the process. The second response is where things get less appealing. Its second response is to suppress its metabolism in order for it to cope with the stress of the reduction in calories caused via the deficit. In simple terms, your body panics as it is lacking energy from calories and so it attempts to preserve what energy it has left. This means that it slows down your metabolism in order to burn off fewer calories. The body tries to hold onto body fat, and it does what it can to cling onto energy sources available, so it slows down your metabolism, making it even harder to lose weight. With energy levels plummeting, it may appear difficult to lose weight, as a result, motivation drops drastically, and some may consider throwing in the towel. This is the reality of metabolic damage caused by extreme caloric deficits and intense physical exertion.
Exercise-induced amenorrhea – Exercise-induced amenorrhea is a term used to describe the absence of menstrual cycles during contest prep. Because of the extreme trauma associated with intense exercise, dieting, various supplements, dehydration, and the stress and anxiety commonly associated with contest prep, hormones responsible for your menstrual cycle are disrupted. As a result, this can lead to a loss of menstrual cycles, or very sporadic and irregular menstrual periods. This also means that there is an increased risk of infertility. It could make conceiving a child far harder than in women with regular menstrual cycles.
Dehydration – Manipulating water intake is a common practice in the industry. When you compete, the goal is to step on stage looking as lean, muscular, and defined as possible. Water-retention can cause muscles to look washed out, it can hide definition and give competitors a bloated look. This is the last thing anyone wants! There is a process during peak week with water manipulation. As show day approaches, dehydration is imperative. Many bodybuilders struggle mentally with this concept and so to help prevent water-retention, they restrict their water intake and drink far less water each day than they should. Dehydration can lead to muscle cramps, headaches, digestive issues, it’s bad for the brain, it can cause fatigue, and ironically, it can cause water-retention because just like your body fat via metabolic damage, your body will try to hold onto what little water it has so as to avoid suffering any further dehydration.
Wrapping things up
As you can see, despite competitors looking fantastic on stage, the extreme lengths they go to in search of the perfect physique will almost certainly take a toll on your body. It’s not only about the glam on show day! There are many health risks and dangers associated with extreme diet and exercise during contest prep, which is why you should always seek professional medical advice before you begin your journey to the stage. It’s critical you seek the guidance of an experienced contest prep coach to avoid these health issues.