Just You and the Bar: A Bikini Pro Reflects on Her First Powerlifting Meet

Today’s blog is a guest post from my client Jenny Leonard. Jenny joined the #eatliftthrive community back in May fresh off of competing in an NANBF show. She wanted to reverse diet, so she joined my group coaching program for a few months before deciding that she wanted to train for a powerlifting meet. We’ve been working together closely 1-on-1 since the summer to help her prepare for the big day. I’ve asked her to whip together a write-up sharing her experience with you all. Hope you like it! – Sohee

Hi Jenny, congratulations on your first powerlifting meet! To begin, can you tell us more about how you got involved in the world of lifting weights and fitness?

I used to be a runner. Big time. I’m talking half marathons and at least three runs a week. I’d do push-ups and “lift” weights and use machines to tone. Then I had babies. I stayed active, but when they are young and you are nursing, it’s hard to go for a run. They got older I did some more running, but it was hard to balance.
A friend convinced me to “lift heavy” in May 2013. I followed his food quantity and bodybuilding advice for a month for a trip, and I was hooked. I mean, I could eating ample food and and work out in my basement while my babies slept? WIN! One thing led to another, and a year later, I found myself on the natural bodybuilding competition stage in the bikini division, and in June 2014, I won a pro card. What? Me, a bikini pro?! This after I was just going “to try” lifting heavy.

Competing in a NANBF show in May 2015 – front shot

Back shot

A year after that, and I’m competing again, get Precision Nutrition certified, and I’m coaching nutrition. How cool!

Why did you decide to train for a powerlifting meet?

One day, my coaching peer and great friend said to me, “I think you should try powerlifting.” So, after reverse dieting out of my show for a few months, I signed up for a November meet and consulted with Coach Sohee. We decided that the best thing to do was to train 1-on-1 with her for this meet because anything worth doing, is worth doing well, and I didn’t want to just “kind of” train for my first powerlifting meet. I wanted to give it my all.

When I workout, it’s a very personal thing for me – it’s spiritual. I find pieces of myself I didn’t know existed. So the thought of moving heavy weights on a stage platform with lots of people around me scared the heck out of me! But if my goals don’t scare me, what’s the point? The magic happens outside the comfort zone. I’d been on the stage before for bodybuilding competitions (also scary for me), but this was different. This was personal.

As I reflect on my journey from August to November, checking in with Sohee weekly, sharing all my form videos for big lifts with her and letting her guide me on this journey, along with sharing this journey with my very good friend and coaching peer, Bridget, I have learned that even though I’m a very independent and hard working woman and single parent, I do not need to do everything alone, and I shouldn’t. Life is about real fellowship. We’re made for it, and that means letting yourself be yourself and being vulnerable with others you can trust. Powerlifting lets you do that.

You’re currently an NGA bikini pro with a powerlifting meet now under your belt. How did you find the two experiences differed?

Preparing for a bodybuilding competition is a long journey of pushing your body, fighting your mental urges, and dialing in your body fat. You peak and hopefully fill those hungry muscles out properly and in time for your stage moment. Depending on the competition, you’re on stage one or two times for a few minutes – and then it’s over. You get stronger and work those tempo lift workouts to build those glutes and shoulders for that coveted hourglass physique of female bikini competitors.

Don’t get me wrong: Preparing for a bodybuilding competition is its own journey. It’s so mental; your prep plan pushing you to perform more with fewer and fewer calories while your body screams and begs for more food. And the final product is your physique on a stage judged by others. Anyone should be darn proud of that. Darn proud. But at the end of the day, it’s your physique against someone else’s. It’s genetics, it’s opinion, and it’s pushing your body below its preferred body fat levels. You may place, you may not, you may win, you may not.

Powerlifting, though, is a different journey and a different final product. While it’s mental, it’s way more of a physical challenge. It’s about feeding your body so you can get stronger. It’s about perfecting your technique so you can push more weight. And while the final product is you on a stage, it’s you and the bar. Just you and the bar. You either push or pull that weight or you don’t, and you either pump your fist in victory, or know you pushed yourself as hard as you could that day but the weight didn’t move. So you perfect the technique, you push yourself more, and next time you strive to do more. Every lift and PR is a win. And there is no limit to those victories. You choose how many more times you push or pull that bar and win.

Preparing for a powerlifting meet is just part of an indefinite journey, in my opinion. You make sure you’re eating enough to maintain mass and support strength gains. You live in an “everyday” body and don’t typically fight hunger; you feed it to support those strength gains. You train heavy, you focus on increasing 1RMs, and you incorporate planned deload weeks to give your body some extra rest so you can hit it hard and heavy again for another cycle. You celebrate the whole journey with every gain in numbers and every tweak in technique.

You hone in on macros the week of the meet to make your weight class, and you take it easy that week, resting, so you are ready to hit a new 1RM PR on the platform. And the day before and the day of, you eat and eat and eat. For me, that was 75%-90% more calories than any given day to make sure I was fueled to perform and throw heavy weight around. And then you take a full day to do each big lift three times! You’re warming up, you’re hitting 1RM PRs (hopefully or at least hitting good numbers for yourself like I did on bench), and you are cheering other lifters in between.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you did for your nutrition in the months leading up to the big day, plus how you made weigh-ins?
Before deciding to prepare for my first powerlifting meet, I had been reverse dieting with Sohee for the three months prior, immediately following my latest bikini bodybuilding competition. She did an amazing job increasing my calories from about 1,425 to about 2,080 (17x my body weight!), increasing my weight to 121-124lbs on any given day from my stage weight of approximately 115lbs. The amazing thing was that my body composition wasn’t much different — just a nice supple, lean look! And my strength gains in the gym and muscle mass gains were coming along nicely.

With powerlifting, you do need to commit to a weight class, though. There was a 114lb class and a 123lb class. I had no desire to cut to 114 lbs because I was in bikini offseason and wanted to keep chasing muscle gains (gotta eat surplus for that!) and I was in love with my strength gains in reverse dieting. The 123lb class seemed reasonable as I typically weighed in under that every morning.

Note from Sohee: The 123lb weight class was perfect for Jenny because her offseason weight hovered right around there. I didn’t want her to have to stress out about having to drop water weight; I simply wanted her to train hard and enjoy the overall experience.

That being said, the goal was to maintain bodyweight (more or less) while increasing strength, so once we reversed my macros up to a healthy intake, we kept them constant for several months.

Here’s what’s intriguing, though: I was pushing strength gains every time in the gym and cycling programs about every 3-5 weeks with a deload week, and I was hungry! This was crazy because I wasn’t dieting down like in bikini prep to push limits in leanness. I was eating a lot! But my as my PRs continued in training, my body wanted more to eat.

So what happened? I had to mentally push through it some days and really respect deload weeks to recharge. And as an unplanned side benefit, I got major lean muscle mass benefit and physique improvement — more than I have ever been able to achieve by focusing on bodybuilding alone. By the end of prep, without trying and without mental fog like what occurs when pushing body fat of 10%-11% like in bikini bodybuilding prep, I got some major upper body gains to better balance out my genetically blessed glutes.

Upper body progress, from December 2014 to November 2015

This is a major feat for a lanky, narrow hard gainer like myself. And the beauty of it all was I really coasted into weigh-in pretty effortlessly and did not stress at all about it.

To make weigh-ins, I did two days of slightly reduced calories and mostly liquid shakes, and without really trying, I dropped about 5lbs and came in well under the 123lb weight limit. Those liquid days were tough, but really nothing in comparison to “dialing” in you do for weeks with bodybuilding prep.

Chowing down on donuts after successfully making weigh-ins!

Then after eating almost twice as much as I usually do both Saturday and Sunday to fuel my performance, I still was only around 121 lbs the morning of the meet.

How did you do at your first meet? What were the results? What are your overall thoughts on the sport?

I clocked in at 119.5lbs at weigh-ins for the 123lb weight class at the UPA powerlifting meet on November 14, 2015.

Even though I was quite sick in the two weeks leading up to the meet (ear and sinus infections, it turns out), I hit all my squat attempts and reached a new PR of 198.2 pounds, was 1/3 on bench just hitting my warm up of 93.5 pounds and missing my 1RM match of 115 pounds (probably the result of being ill), and hit all my deadlifts with a new PR of 232.2 pounds!

Note from Sohee: I’m really pleased with how Jenny performed, especially considering that she really wasn’t feeling well starting from about two weeks before the meet. We didn’t learn until the week after she’d competed that she’d had a double ear and sinus infection. Had she been in optimal health, I have no doubt that she would have gone 9/9 for her lifts. Still, 7/9 for her very first meet is not shabby at all!

Dropping it like it’s hot! 198.2lb squat PR

At the end of the day, I’m thankful I decided to try powerlifting. It has blessed me. It’s changed me for the better. It is a sport that celebrates everyone’s victories…every lift, every session, every PR. But more importantly, it celebrates strength while letting you be vulnerable. Not every lift is what you want it to be, your vulnerabilities on any given day are exposed, but that’s not the end. It’s a journey. You take stock, consult with a coach and/or good friend, you tweak, and it’s you and that bar again, and you can beat it. You are provided the opportunity over and over again to use your vulnerabilities to grow, not hold you back, but make you better, and that carries over into every aspect of your life.

Failure doesn’t stop you; failure grows you.

Jenny feeling the love at the conclusion of her powerlifting meet!

Powerlifting gives you meaningful fellowship with others because if you aren’t exposing your vulnerabilities, you’re not growing in this sport. You open yourself up to all you are for yourself, which in turns open you up for those you are sharing the journey with: training partners, coaches, best friends, and in my case, my children.

And in the end, anything worth doing is worth doing well, and if it’s worth doing well, it is well worth sharing with those you care about — or what’s the point?

I can’t say I’ve found anything like powerlifting that has opened me up and consistently grown me so I can really be better than who I was yesterday for my personal biggest why: my children. When you find something like that — something that lights you up over and over and lets you let go and let live — it’s really indescribable. I can’t do it justice.

But I can tell you one thing: The bar and I have an indefinite number of dates, and I’m sure my life journey will be the better for it.

Connect with Jenny by following her on Instagram.