Bikini by Day, Powerlifting by Night

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Bikini by Day, Powerlifting by Night

April 8, 2016

I recently competed in my second powerlifting meet in the USAPL federation on April 2 in Chandler, AZ in the 52kg (114lb) weight class. My first was the 100% Raw meet on May 30, 2015 in Tucson, AZ. Over the past year, I’ve continued to lift heavy, I’ve competed in a bikini competition, and most importantly, I’ve had a ton of fun along the way.

I hope you enjoy reading my wrap-up of the most recent meet below.

Why I Decided to Powerlift Again

Most people think of me as a bikini competitor first and foremost. And I can’t blame them; I’ve got a small frame and I’m not very muscular at all. Plus, I won my IFPA bikini pro card last fall after taking first place in my height class, so there’s that.

OCB Nationals in October 2015

OCB Nationals in October 2015

If I’m (supposedly) more successful as a bikini competitor, then why would I bother still dabbling in powerlifting?

It’s pretty straightforward to me: I love staying sufficiently fueled in the kitchen and chasing strength in the gym. There’s not much more empowering to me than setting a new personal record (PR) in a given exercise. My workouts have more meaning, and my definition of success is not contingent upon how lean my abs look or what the scale reads in the morning. Honing in on the big three lifts also helps to shift the focus away from aesthetics (which, when taken to the extreme, can lead to body dysmorphia and take away from quality of life) and more toward performance.

Not everyone is cut out to be a world-class powerlifter – me, least of all. It’s unlikely that I’ll develop elite strength levels even after several years of dedicated powerlifting. But the pursuit? Ah, the pursuit. That’s what makes my heart flutter.

I decided to compete in my second powerlifting meet because I find joy in the process and I wanted to improve upon my numbers from the previous year.

How I Prepared for the Meet

Training

I started my powerlifting prep in late December of 2015. Under the guidance of my coach Bret Contreras, I trained anywhere from three to four days a week. The first three training days were the most important, with each workout beginning with either the squat, bench, or deadlift. The fourth day was an optional accessory day.

I should note that there are many, many powerlifting programs you can follow to improve upon your big three lifts. We learned from my first powerlifting prep that my hips do not like squatting frequently and cannot handle much volume, so while some athletes can squat heavy up to three, four, or even five days a week, I can only do so once every five to seven days.

We incorporated plenty of accessory movements. For squats: pause squat, front squat, Bulgarian split squat, high step-up, deficit reverse lunge, goblet squat, barbell hip thrust, band hip thrust, single-leg hip thrust. For bench: close grip bench, incline bench, tricep extension, pushup from the floor. For deadlift: speed deadlift, Romanian deadlift, American deadlift, dumbbell stiff-legged deadlift, barbell hip thrust, band hip thrust, bodyweight hip thrust.

Rep ranges varied anywhere between 1 to 5 for the big three lifts depending on where I was at in my training cycle. For the accessory movements, reps were typically at 6 to 30. The higher reps were reserved for glute burnout exercises, such as band hip thrusts, to round out a training session.

Each workout had 4-8 different exercises, and I was typically done within an hour and a half from beginning to end. I would have been done sooner, but I would at times rest up to 8 minutes between working sets of the big lifts so I could get PRs.

Closer to the meet, I threw in heavy sets of barbell hip thrusts (285lbs x 3 for a PR) and band hip thrusts in order to help with my deadlift lockout. As a conventional round back puller, I’m fast off the floor, but my sticking point is right around mid-thigh level, so these movements helped me tremendously.

Feels crummy man ? Glad to get this session out of the way. My deadlift sets felt way heavier than usual, so I pulled back and worked up to 225lbs only. (Contrast this with this past Tuesday's easy 240lbs pull.) I then moved onto hip thrusts and was able to work up to 285lbs x 3 for a PR. I finished with seated cable rows and DB skull crushers, then tucked my tail between my legs and scurried home. ? Physically, I'm beat. Mentally, I'm worn down. I'm 7 days out from my #usapl meet and I'm feeling tapped out – but this is to be expected. It's not easy trying to set PRs every session plus exerting so much mental energy on visualizing sets, picking apart form, and basically becoming obsessive over the big 3 lifts. #phew Looking forward to this taper over the next several days. #girlswhopowerlift

A video posted by Sohee Lee (@soheefit) on

Nutrition

Following the conclusion of my bikini prep last October, I continued to track macros for the first month or so in order to reverse diet back up to maintenance calories. After that, however, I opted to put away my food scale and simply intuitive eat so I wouldn’t have to spend so much thinking about food.

I still consumed ample protein. I still got in plenty of carbs. I still had the occasional donut. I was by no means eating like a glutton, however. I stayed mindful of both my food choices and portion sizes, but otherwise didn’t worry about the exact macronutrient breakdown of any given meal – and I loved it.

It's been nice being able to eat foods like sushi and not have to worry about the exact macronutrient breakdown!

It’s been nice being able to eat foods like sushi and not have to worry about the exact macronutrient breakdown!

Up until about six weeks before the meet, I’d been planning on dropping a few pounds of bodyweight to make the 47kg (103lb) weight class. This seemed to make sense, especially after having spent the majority of the winter in the 108-109lb range. But it only took one week at a caloric deficit to feel weaker in the gym and realize that it would not be worth the strength I would invariably lose just to make the lower weight class. This, in my opinion, was one of the smartest decisions I made during this prep.

My goals as far as nutrition, then, were simply to eat enough to feel good and continue to set PRs in the gym. Everything else, including how my daily fluctuating calorie intake would affect my bodyweight, was secondary. I thankfully did not have to worry about making weight as I had so much wiggle room to play with.

Results on the Big Day

In the USAPL federation, weigh-ins take place two hours before the meet begins. This means that athletes don’t have much time to drop drastic amounts of water weight, and thus must stay closer to their true weight so they can be hydrated and still perform well.

The 100% Raw federation allowed checkins to take place at 5p.m. the day before the meet, so we had much more time to drop weight and then re-hydrate and re-fuel. Last year, I dropped 4lbs of water weight in one day to make weigh-ins, and then woke up 5 glorious pounds heavier the next morning to compete. I ended up squatting 165lbs (but just to parallel), benching 105lbs, and deadlifting 226lbs.

For this year’s meet, I checked in at 6:30a.m. and weighed in at 7:00a.m. After having consumed a big meal of pizza and ice cream the evening before followed by a pre-bedtime snack of jasmine rice with butter and salt alongside several handfuls of Swedish Fish (what? I was nervous!), I clocked in at 50.7kg, or 111.8lbs.

For squats, I went 3/3 with 143lbs as my opener, followed by 160lbs, and then 170lbs for a PR. I’m really happy with the depth I hit, especially on my first attempt. You’ll notice that I went well below parallel there. For my second attempt, I bumped up to 160lbs and figured I’d determine the third attempt afterward. For the last attempt, I could have shot for 175lbs, but based off of how the second attempt had felt, I wasn’t entirely confident I would hit that, so I decided to play it safe and go for something I knew I could pull off.

For bench press, I went 1/3 with 93lbs as my opener and then failed 105lbs twice. This was probably the most shocking moment of the meet for me. I wish you could have seen the look of surprise on both my face and Bret’s after failing miserably at the 105lb bench press, as this was a weight that I’d hit several dozens of times over the past year.

Bret claims that my eyes welled up with tears after that second attempt. I will neither confirm nor deny this.

Interestingly, on March 28, I had practiced my intended attempts without a hitch (93lbs, 105lbs, 110lbs) and hit my all-time PR of 110lbs. And even more curious is the fact that just 4 days after the meet, I hit 105lbs back in the gym again no problem. There are a dozen different variables that could explain why this happened, but more than likely it was the fact that I did not consume sufficient calories in the days leading up to the meet.

For deadlifts, I went 3/3 with 226lbs as my opener, followed by 243lbs, and then 248lbs. I’ll admit that after my mediocre bench press performance, my confidence was temporarily shot. I became nervous and paranoid that I would bomb out of deadlifts for a few minutes until my coach told me to snap out of it and stay positive. I figured I had nothing to lose at this point and decided to give it my all and rip the bar off the floor. Honestly, for the last two attempts (both of which were lifetime PRs for me), my head felt like it was going to explode.

Learning Lessons for the Future

Looking back, I’m almost grateful that I didn’t have another perfect 9/9 performance for this second meet. Going 7/9 was by no means terrible, but it’s certainly made me think long and hard about my strategy.

Setbacks, mistakes, failures – they all build character. And remember growth mindset? I’ve made the active decision to use my failed bench attempts as a valuable learning opportunity to become even more focused in the gym and do better moving forward.

Here’s what I did well for this prep:

  • I never missed a training session and I tracked my workouts diligently. I think if you’re serious about making progress in the gym you have to have a training log to record your weight, sets, and reps for every exercise that you perform. I would spend a few minutes before each workout reviewing the previous weeks’ numbers and comments to determine my next loads.
  • I stayed properly fueled. I touched on this before, but cutting back my calories to drop a weight class would have resulted in a sizable drop in strength, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I had simply matched, or even gone lower than, my numbers from last year’s meet. I would have essentially wasted an entire year’s worth of diligent strength training. How silly would that have been?
  • For squats, I pulled back on weight so I could get better depth. As it turns out, USAPL is pretty strict on squat depth, and I know that last year’s 165lbs that I hit would have been red-lighted this time. So while on paper it looks like I only managed to get stronger by 5lbs in the course of a year, my depth was several inches lower.

Here’s what I can improve upon for next time:

  • Double check the approved gear list for my specific federation. 100% Raw is much more lax with the brand of singlet, socks, wrist wraps, knee sleeves, and belt used, but USAPL has a very strict list of what is and is not allowed. This is something I didn’t even think to look into until 15 days before the meet. It ended up being fine, as everything I had to order came in on time, but I could have done without the extra stress.
  • I didn’t take a deload once during the entire 4 months of prep. Bret and I thought this wouldn’t be a problem, as I had continued to gain strength week after week and felt fine. But Bret thinks this may have contributed to my iffy bench performance, and he also suspects that I actually may have peaked the week before my meet.
  • I didn’t have a proper nutrition strategy for the week of the meet. As I mentioned before, I did not track macros for this prep; I simply kept an eye on scale weight to make sure I stayed within the 52kg weight class. It was the combination of not eating enough calories on the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday before the meet due to stress and nerves, plus lackadaisical nutrient timing (which does matter for performance but not so much for aesthetics) that screwed me up. I should have consumed about 500 more calories per day and weighed in at 113lbs or so to perform my best. Moving forward, I’ll be sure to have a specific set of prescribed macronutrient numbers at least for the week of the meet, and I’ll be better about nutrient timing as well.

Why Should I Powerlift If I’m Not That Strong?

There are no prerequisites for competing in a powerlifting meet other than showing up, completing all three lifts, and having event-sanctioned gear. You don’t have to be at a certain strength level, you don’t have to be with a specific team, and you most certainly don’t have to be any given age. There are people from all walks of life who slap on a singlet and squat, bench, and deadlift away. We cheer everyone on.

I’m well aware that my squat is not that impressive, especially for an individual who’s been lifting for over 8 years (though in my defense, only the past 1.5 years have been spent actively chasing strength). I know that my deadlift, while pretty good, is also horrific for some to watch with my round back pulls.

But strong is relative.

So while my numbers may pale in comparison to some of the world’s most elite powerlifters, that doesn’t matter to me. All I care about is whether or not I’m improving upon my own previous best lifts.

Do you love chasing strength?
Do you enjoy the big three lifts?

Then you might want to try powerlifting.

Bikini or Powerlifting?

This is a question I’ve been asked a number of times, so I figured I’d address it here.

Bikini competitor by day, powerlifter by night... or something like that.

Bikini competitor by day, powerlifter by night… or something like that.

Bikini and powerlifting are understandably two extremely different pursuits. With bikini, the focus is on your physique (overall symmetry, muscle definition) and presentation (tan, makeup, hair, jewelry, posing, facial expression). Powerlifting doesn’t give two hoots about what you look like; all that matters is how much weight you can lift.

For now, I’m enjoying powerlifting far more. I have no interest in launching myself back into fat loss mode anytime soon, as cutting my calories is simply not a priority to me at this time. I have no plans to compete in bikini this year, and may or may not compete next year. I’d rather take the next several months to continue gaining strength with good energy.

In the gym, my next strength goals are to hit a 185lb below-parallel squat, 115lb bench press, and 275lb deadlift. If all goes according to plan, I think I can hit those numbers within the next year, but that remains to be seen.

There will likely come a time when I’m ready to get back into the bikini mindset. That time is not now. I enjoy sharing a bucket of buttery, salty popcorn at the movie theaters without having to worry about macros. I’m loving last-minute late-night trips to the diner for pancakes and bacon. I’m eating well and getting stronger – life is good.

Here’s to strength, food, and badass chicks who aren’t afraid to lift heavy weights.

6 Comments
  1. Kirstin Dragasakis 3 years ago

    Love this! Thanks for sharing. Switching from Figure (did that one show in 2009) to powerlifting and already love the “prep”/training SO much more! It’s empowering to focus on getting stronger and not whether my thighs are too thick!

    • Sohee Lee 3 years ago

      Heck yeah, Kirstin! Excited to see how you do.

      • Kirstin Dragasakis 3 years ago

        Thanks! Me too!

  2. Mimi 3 years ago

    I love that you posted this! Powerlifting is such an inclusive sport that I wish everyone would compete, even if they don’t think they’re very strong (who cares?)! I’m excited to follow along your powerlifting progress! As a fellow former bikini competitor turned powerlifter, I can relate to how exciting strength gains can be (minus the obsession about aesthetics)!

    • Sohee Lee 3 years ago

      Thank you so much, Mimi! A lot of people seem to be under the impression that you need to be at certain strength levels in order to be a powerlifter, and I hope to spread the message that that’s not the case at all!

  3. Cassie 3 years ago

    This is great! It’s important that you always challenge yourself in new ways of fitness. I think that your motives for powerlifting are so inspiring but also healthy. Your approach was really reasonable and realistic–regardless of the results, you should be so proud of yourself!

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