Today marks one year to the day since I stepped on the bikini stage at OCB Nationals in Laurel, Maryland and won my IFPA pro card. That was an exciting weekend, no doubt, and probably one of my prouder accomplishments to date.
It's now been 365 days, and a lot has changed since then. I figured it would be appropriate to write a follow-up post detailing what I've been up to - with my physique, with my training goals, and general fitness-related updates. Moreover, I wanted to reflect on my overall journey with my mindset and attitude toward diet and exercise over the past 12 years.
But First, a Recap
As a refresher, I won first place at the OCB West Coast Classic in Tampa, Florida on November 2014 and took almost a full year off to prepare for the next step. It was my first time back on stage in three and a half years after competing once in the NPC federation. Here's a post that I wrote right after my comeback discussing why I decided to compete again.
I switched gears to prepare for my first powerlifting meet and, after four months of dedicated training, competed in the 100% Raw federation in Tucson, Arizona in the 105lb weight class. I squatted 165lbs, benched 105lbs, and deadlifted 226lbs. I wrote up two guest posts for my trainer Bret Contreras pertaining to this journey: one during my prep, Switching Focus from Bikini to Powerlifting, and Post Powerlifting Meet Reflections, written immediately after.
After that, I coasted for a bit. I continued to train hard and eat mostly well, but I didn't actively diet throughout the summer. This is because I'd made a concerted effort to stay leaner in my offseason rather than fluctuating upwards of 20lbs as I'd previously done before, and therefore there was no need to start the fat loss process so soon.
Though I'd been eyeing OCB Nationals for a while, I didn't want to jump the gun. I wanted to ensure that I was ready both physically and mentally and that I'd have the bandwidth to make another contest prep the top priority in my life for a few months. I knew my mindset would have to be in the right place to bring my best package, and it wouldn't be worth it to me to compete again if I hadn't improved.
Towards the end of the summer, I decided to go for it. My workouts were fun, my calories were at a healthy intake, and most importantly, I felt the itch to step up on the bikini stage. I wanted to do this.
My prep ended up being rather unconventional, and it went a little like this:
- I dieted for six short weeks followed a macros-based approach - I had set grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats to hit per day, but it was ultimately up to me to figure out what and how much to eat to fit those numbers. Most of my food choices were nutrient-dense, but I made room for a small portion of treats in my diet to increase enjoyment of the program and keep dietary adherence high. This is a concept known as flexible dieting. Below is an example of a full day's worth of eats for me.
- More specifically, I decided to eat a Snickers bar. Every day. For 70 days straight. While in a caloric deficit. I did this for a number of reasons, but mainly, I wanted to demonstrate that junk food was not inherently fattening so long as you were smart about your nutrition strategy. I wrote A Snickers a Day Keeps the Cravings Away: A Case for Flexible Dieting divulging all the juicy (and sugary!) details about that experiment.
- My workout regimen consisted of four days of full-body lifting sessions and four 10-minute glute circuits per week under the watchful eye of my coach Bret Contreras. I didn't do any formal cardio, and my sessions rarely ever extended beyond an hour. Rather than running myself into the ground in the gym, I let my diet do the majority of the work in helping to shed body fat.
- Because I hadn't ballooned up in weight in my offseason, I didn't have to lean out all that much more. I started my prep at 5'2" 110lbs and ended the dieting stint six weeks later at 105lbs, which meant that I lost approximately 0.83lbs of bodyweight per week. This was in stark contrast to my 20-week prep the year prior. Mentally, this was far more tolerable for me and afforded me the rest of my time and energy to devote to other areas of my life.
OCB Nationals ended up being an incredible experience for me. I flew out to the east coast with no expectations. All I knew was that I had polished my posing and overall presentation big time (thanks to Karey Northington!) and that this was the best my physique had looked (thanks to joint efforts between myself and Bret).
On the big day, I won my height class and, after passing a drug test, was awarded my IFPA bikini pro card.
What I've Been Up to Since Then
Despite an incredibly short prep, I was still very much mentally fatigued by the end. There was no way I'd be able (or willing) to continue to give my all for another show, and I knew that my physique would need work to be competitive in the professional ranks. I therefore made the decision to dive into the offseason. And boy, was it fun!
The majority of that winter was spent increasing my calorie intake back up to my pre-dieting levels, and of course, with more food came better energy levels, which then made for some pretty fun training sessions. Within three weeks, I stopped weighing my food, and instead switched to a more intuitive style of eating. As I became more lax with my nutrition, my energy returned and the old Sohee came back.
As far as my physique, I experienced zero rebound whatsoever. This is something I'm particularly proud of, as with my very first show in May of 2011, I piled on 15lbs in a matter of two months. I attribute my recent success to a number of factors:
- a flexible dieting, no foods-off-limits approach to my nutrition
- dieting calories kept as high as possible while still seeing progress, dropping only when necessary
- an incredibly moderate and sustainable workout regimen (four days of lifting and four ten-minute glute circuits per week)
- the right mindset - understanding that stepping on stage was not the be-all-end-all and that there was still a life to be lived outside of competing
Oh yes, and in the early spring, I did prep for and compete in my second powerlifting meet, this time in the USAPL federation. I competed in the 52kg weight class and went 7/9 with a 170lb squat, 93lbs bench press, and a 248lb deadlift. You can read more about that whole experience here: Bikini by Day, Powerlifting by Night.
My priorities have shifted big time. Earlier this year, I was accepted to grad school and I signed a book deal with Human Kinetics. I spent the entire summer hammering away at this book (titled Eat. Lift. Thrive. and scheduled to launch next spring) and scaling back my business to make room for academics.
I'm now over halfway through my first semester of my psychology master's program. Currently, most of my energies are spent reading research papers, poring over homework assignments, wrestling with SPSS (a statistical analysis software), and looking after my online fitness clients. I've intentionally taken a step back from blogging and creating YouTube videos as frequently as I used to in order to save more mental bandwidth for academics. In short, I've hit the PAUSE button on cranking out quality fitness-related content for the next year and a half, just until I'm done with school.
I'm still in the gym anywhere between three to five days per week. That's a constant that will likely never change, no matter how busy or overwhelmed I get. Lifting weights is my respite - a therapy of sorts. To keep myself from falling into a rut, I've set some recent training goals for myself: a 115lb bench press (my current max is 110lbs) and a 2.5xBW deadlift of 265lbs (my current max is 248lbs) by my 27th birthday on December 25. That gives me two months to ramp things up and knock things out of the (training) park.
My best approximation of my current macronutrient breakdown - sans food scale and macro tracking app - would be 110g protein, 200g carbs, and 60g fat per day. That yields a total of 1780 calories, which is 16.3 times my bodyweight - a very healthy level and considered to be slightly above average for maintenance purposes. I never, ever stress out about my nutrition anymore, and that is a monumental mental win for me.
In any case, there's no doubt that my personal fitness has taken somewhat of a backseat in my life, and I'm okay with that for now. School and work are my top priority at this time, which necessarily leaves less room for fussing over my physique.
I'm currently maintaining within five pounds of stage weight. Most days I'm right around the 109lb mark, though of course on the mornings after I indulge, I'm a smidge heavier, and I come in a little lighter when I undereat. I don't worry about the day-to-day fluctuations and instead ensure that I'm eating well and feeling good.
To give you a visual, here's what I look like as of this morning:
Notice how I don't look that different from how I did a year ago. This is no accident! For me personally, I'd rather stay leaner year-round and keep my bodyweight fluctuating within a small window rather than bulking and cutting upwards of 20+ pounds throughout the year. Been there, done that - no thanks. While this does mean that physique and strength gains will be slower to come by, I gladly accept the trade-off.
This is Actually a Really, Really Big Deal to Me
Those of you who have followed my journey over the years are familiar with my previous struggles with eating, body image, and generally finding balance.
After dropping 20lbs off my 5'2" frame in 2004 to teeter at a mere 80lbs from a steady regimen of zero calories and three hours of exercise per day, I was trapped in my own personal hell. I didn't know how to isolate my self-worth from the number on the scale, and I most certainly didn't know the first thing about proper nutrition or lifting weights. I battled anorexia - and with that, depression.
I've since tried it all and I've put my body through quite the wringer. I wasn't anorexic for long, but bulimia took over my everyday life for years. So while my bodyweight eventually normalized at a healthy 110lbs, it was only through extreme caloric restriction, binging, purging, and excess exercise.
I discovered strength training and "clean eating" in 2008 (just under nine years ago), and quickly swung from one extreme to another. Under the guise of living a healthy lifestyle, I became orthorexic, avoiding social outings so I could stay home, get in my workouts, and stick to my meal plan.
Until recently, I don't remember a time when I ever felt at peace with my body. There was always something that needed to be changed. My nutrition always needed to be better, I needed to workout longer, and I needed to be leaner in order to feel happy with myself. Ironically, the harder I was on myself, the more I struggled.
I never allowed myself to be good enough.
It wasn't until I reached a breaking point with myself in 2014 that things started to finally fall into place. After following a restrictive diet program, I had rebounded 25lbs and sat at 124lbs for five years straight. This may not seem like much, but it wasn't about the weight; it was a reflection of my inability to get my eating behaviors under control. I was still binging every few days and beating myself up over my seeming incompetence and "not enough"-ness.
When I let go of my unrealistic expectations, the bodyweight melted off. I finally stopped swinging from one extreme to another (because honestly, it was really freakin' exhausting) and settled in with moderation. And that's when it all started to click.
Why does there always need to be something to be fixed?
Putting my fitness on autopilot has by no means derailed my progress. I never in a million years would have thought this would be possible. I'd always believed that fitness had to feel hard in order to look good.
The fact that I've mastered my unique nutrition strategy to stay lean year-round - and effortlessly so - is quite the accomplishment. My ability to step on the scale and not let the number blinking back at me determine my self-worth, to get in workouts when I can without feeling the need to run myself into the ground - this speaks volumes as to how far I've come since my days of anxiety-ridden anorexia and bulimia.
I'm finally at a place now where I've mastered my own training, nutrition, and mindset journey. I no longer dread my workouts - in fact, they're the highlight of my day. I don't stress out about my nutrition. And I'm very much content with my physical self.
As of now, I have no plans to compete - in bikini or in powerlifting. I've been very careful about managing my stress levels and not putting more on my plate than I can handle.
There doesn't always need to be another show or another meet on the horizon. Sometimes, just getting in your training sessions, working up a good sweat, and eating well enough in the kitchen simply have to suffice.
I've never been more lax with my fitness. My nutrition is by no means perfect, but I've long since learned that it doesn't need to be. By focusing on the big rocks of nutrition and letting good enough be good enough, I've been able to auto-regulate my eating while staying away from extremes and avoiding neurosis.
I don't define success by my physique or by my physical strength. There's more to life than lifting; there's more to life than abs.
Eventually, there will come a time when I'm itching to compete again. That time is not now, and it won't be anytime soon. I'm focused on learning how to think like a scientist, and I'm investing in my education so I can come back and really step up my game as a professional in the fitness industry.
My goal has been to enjoy what I'm doing, both inside and outside the gym, and the way to do that is not always to up the ante, but rather, find a way to coast. And I've made it - I've finally, finally made it. So excuse me for not going balls to the wall, but I'm going to relish where I am right now for a while.
That's some good stuff right there.