By Eric Trexler, CSCS, CISSN

Former Director of Research and Education, INOV8 Elite Performance

There are very few people who truly make a living from competing in bodybuilding (or physique, figure, etc.). For the rest of us, it’s nothing more than a hobby. Accordingly, bodybuilding should enhance your life, not detract from it. When tallying up sacrifices and rewards, you should get as much, if not more, out of bodybuilding than you put into it.

For too many competitors, their hobby can be more like a burden. They spend way too much time in the kitchen and the gym, plan out their days according to their meal schedule and food availability, and drag a cooler around everywhere they go. If a social event could potentially threaten their meal schedule, training schedule, or tempt them to “cheat” on their diet, some may even choose to forgo that event entirely.

The first time I prepped for a bodybuilding show, I did it the old-fashioned way. I was restricted to a fairly short list of “approved” food sources, and I had fairly high meal frequency, eating around 6-7 meals a day. I’m not a very picky eater, but I absolutely hated eating this way. It wasn’t a taste thing, but rather a convenience issue. I found it incredibly annoying to cook all of the food, haul Tupperware everywhere I went, and to feel as if I constantly needed access to a microwave. I remember being particularly disgruntled one night as I choked down a cold, soggy sweet potato in the library as I pulled an all-nighter in preparation for a biochemistry exam.

When I evaluated my first bodybuilding experience after the show, I thought about my least favorite parts of contest prep. Ultimately I came to a very important realization: None of my least favorite things about bodybuilding had anything to do with bodybuilding. I mean, you can do those things as a bodybuilder, but they are by no means necessary or prerequisite to bodybuilding success. Don’t get me wrong— I am all about making sacrifices, as long as those sacrifices actually bring me closer to my goals. But I’m not going to make unnecessary sacrifices just to convince myself that I’m working hard or doing it the “right” way, and I’ll readily eliminate any sacrifice that doesn’t actually make me better.

So I just stopped doing the unnecessary things that annoyed me. I became more flexible with my food choices and meal frequency. I didn’t have to drag a cooler everywhere I went, and I cut down the time I spent on food prep. I still had a number of protein feedings spaced throughout the day, but I no longer felt compelled to hit meal times with an excessive level of precision.

Instead of planning my day around my diet, I was simply fitting my diet into my day. It might sound stupid, but those small changes were actually pretty liberating, and allowed a much greater level of flexibility in my day to day life. That flexibility allowed me to view bodybuilding in a much different light, and I instantly enjoyed bodybuilding 100 times more than before and felt infinitely more confident in my bodybuilding future. The flexibility and convenience offered by this approach helped to reinforce the fact that bodybuilding is a hobby that enhances my life, not a burden that adds rigid restrictions to my day. Bodybuilding didn’t really influence my daily activities or schedule; I lived a completely normal lifestyle, I just enjoyed working out consistently and was more conscious of my macronutrient intakes than the general population.

That’s not to say that you can’t follow a more “traditional” bodybuilding meal plan. If you want to stick with the old tilapia and asparagus routine, that’s just fine. The important point is to realize that you don’t have to. We’re all picky about different things when it comes to our diet. Some people hate cooking, some have a sweet tooth, some prefer a large volume of food, some completely lack an appetite, and some really enjoy putting a lot of time and effort into their cooking. Hectic schedules may hinder some peoples’ ability to reheat food or keep it refrigerated, while others are able to avoid these obstacles. The bottom line is that as a bodybuilder, you have options. You can tailor your diet to your schedule and preferences— not the other way around. Bodybuilding should never feel like a ball and chain to which you’re tethered.

On a bodybuilding-related Facebook group, I once saw someone pose the following question (paraphrased): Is the act of weighing food and tracking macronutrient intake indicative of disordered eating? IFPA Pro Alberto Nunez offered an excellent response: “Sometimes it’s not the behavior, but how it makes you feel.” I think that very same quote applies to balancing your life as a bodybuilder.

There is nothing inherently “bad” about spending hours on food prep or consistently lugging around stacks of Tupperware. The more important issue is not what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it, and how it makes you feel. If you’re dieting that way because you enjoy it, or it fits your preferences/lifestyle, then that’s great. If you’re doing it that way because you feel confined to it, and you think it’s the only way to successfully diet, then I find that to be problematic. You can live a lifestyle that is entirely centered around bodybuilding if you want to, but you shouldn’t feel as if this is necessary for success.

In bodybuilding, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Some people prefer 2 meals a day, others prefer 8; some like very low-fat diets, while others opt for a full-blown ketogenic diet. In this sport, people have found success using a wide range of dieting strategies. The most critical factor, in my opinion, is adherence, and adherence is significantly impacted by how much you enjoy (or hate) the methods you’re employing.

So if bodybuilding is starting to feel like a burden, or you feel that you’re failing to keep an adequate level of “balance” in your life, sit down and write out the things that you find especially restrictive or intrusive. Some will be unavoidable— body hair removal is a nuisance, and it’s hard to be a bodybuilder if you can’t dedicate the time and effort for a handful of workouts each week. There are some sacrifices that absolutely need to be made to be a successful competitor. You’ll have to grind out some rigorous workouts, push through soreness and fatigue, drudge through some exhausting cardio sessions, and put up with the numerous challenges that accompany an extended contest prep. However, you might be surprised to find that many of the sacrifices you list aren’t 100% necessary to bodybuilding success.

If this is the case, a few small changes can drastically change your perception of bodybuilding and instantly restore a great deal of balance and flexibility to your daily life and schedule. The changes will vary based on your preferences— you might make adjustments based on hunger/satiety, food preparation, taste preferences, food cost, or any number of factors. Ultimately, you will come to find that bodybuilding offers far more options than it does restrictions, and this is a liberating realization. In the long run, a competitor who truly enjoys their approach to the sport will be happier, more adherent, and more successful.