I’m blessed to be in a circle of smart, generous … and yes, strong women who are always willing to lend a hand. So, not surprising, when I asked my good friend Arlene Lurey if she would share insights gained from her bodybuilding journey, she immediately said yes. Whether you’re male/female, an experienced weight lifter or just starting out, you’ll want to read this as Arlene gets into the details of what bodybuilding is, lifestyle do’s/don’ts, her nutritional mainstays and why every adult can benefit from incorporating bodybuilding methods into their exercise routine. Do you have bodybuilding on your bucket list? Arlene says, "Just go for it." #CountMeIn!
What led you to become a bodybuilder, and what did it teach you about your body? I became a bodybuilder by accident! My husband hired a personal trainer to help me lose my pregnancy weight. After 6 months, I entered a local Ms. Bikini Northern California competition and won. I was hooked! I continued to work on developing muscle and definition and eventually transitioned from Bikini to the Figure Bodybuilding category where I earned my Pro Figure card with the WNBF in 2006. After that, I competed for the next 5 years and earned several Pro Championship titles before finally switching to the Bodybuilding category in 2010. I earned my Bodybuilding Pro card with the IFPA in 2011 and am now a judge on the WNBF circuit.
Regarding the 2nd question, bodybuilding has taught me a lot about commitment, perseverance and self-discipline. Bodybuilding is not just about time in the gym. It's about planning your workouts, nutrition and rest to continually improve. Through trial and error, I learned to incorporate foods that help muscle growth and recovery and avoid foods that lead to inflammation and fatigue. Bodybuilding is not just a sport to me. It’s truly an integrated part of my lifestyle.
Bodybuilding is a very specific form of weightlifting. What makes it different? Muscle power and strength is essential to every sport, but its focus varies depending on the performance goals required. CrossFit focuses on mastering strength and endurance skills for time. Powerlifting is about pursuing your 1 rep max. Bodybuilding is a display of muscle fullness, definition and symmetry through coordinated poses of precision and grace. The upper body must match the lower body in terms of size and fullness. The front of the body must match the back of the body. (Make sure you have excellent glutes to match your six-pack!). Hence, much attention and care is spent creating an individualized strength training plan that results in a balanced muscular physique.
What does it take to get results (aka become competition worthy)? Besides having well developed muscles, a bodybuilder must have low enough body fat to display their muscles…somewhere in the 7-9% range. (You can't show muscles if they're under 3 inches of body fat!) Hence, the amount of time it takes to prepare for a competition (get muscular and lean) depends on your genetics. Each person has unique genetic gifts and challenges. If you are an ectomorph and have a difficult time gaining weight and muscle, you may have to eat more to build and keep muscle. If you are an endomorph and find it difficult to lose body fat without sacrificing hard-earned muscle, you will have to avoid taking in too many carbs per meal that can be stored as fat. I happen to be a mesomorph, which means I can quickly gain muscle while losing fat. In other words, if I’ve done my training correctly, all I need is 8-12 weeks of focused dieting leading up to a competition. Then, in the final month, I incorporate 45 minutes of posing each day to cement the best ways to artistically showcase my muscular physique. The key is knowing your limits. If after 6 weeks of dieting, you hit the wall and go on a pizza binge (because of glycogen depletion), then you know you have to schedule high-carb days along the way to avoid sabotaging yourself.
What does one of your workouts look like during the peak of competition season? Typically, I’d train a different body part 4-5x a week: Chest, legs, back/shoulders, arms, abs and calves. With the chest, for example, it would be some combination of compound and isolation movements, usually no more than 7.
Bench Press – Flat, Incline, Decline w/Varying Grip Widths
Machine Chest Press
Push-up – Elevated Feet or Hands, Weight-Assisted
Fly – Flat, Incline, Decline w/DBs or Cable
Cable Crossovers – High or Low
Pull Overs – DB, EZ Bar or Cable
Pec Deck Machine
When training for a show, I’d increase the intensity and do more mechanical drop sets or slow down the pace of the movement. I really like drop sets because lowering the weight a little each set without rest allows me to fully fatigue the muscle group without compromising good form.
During gym sessions, how do you know you are training hard enough to stimulate muscle growth?
As long as I can feel the pump…feel the muscles filling up with blood and the hormone rush, I know I’m ok. And the more you practice the mind-muscle connection, the better. There would be times I’d be working out and thinking about my ‘to do’ list…mentally drifting. I’d lose the connection to my body. That’s when my coach Johnny would lightly touch the muscle I was supposed to be working and say, "Here…stay focused here.” Then, I’d snap back and focus on my training. It’s really important to mentally think about and feel every centimeter of the movement.
What is your self-talk like, and/or how do you keep yourself motivated? One of the hardest things about being a natural competitor is that you can do all the right things and still not make progress or be competition ready. My coach was very direct with me, and one time he said, “I see 2 inches of back fat.” I was devastated and cried while driving home because I was doing all the right things, and yet it wasn’t enough. It was very discouraging, but after my cry was over, I picked myself up, ate my next meal and chose a show that was farther out so that I could work on getting leaner. That’s why some athletes turn to drugs–to get bigger faster. Natural bodybuilding takes years, not months. That’s why I only participate in drug-tested, natural bodybuilding competitions… to make sure it’s a level playing field.
Many bodybuilders use both steady state cardio and high intensity training (HIIT) in their workouts to increase metabolism and burn fat. What’s your preference and why? During my earlier competition days, we did speed skating as a family, and that worked for me. Now, I like steady state cardio, but low intensity. I know a lot of experts say you need to do 1-2 hours of running, climbing stairs or some sort of high interval circuit several times a week to burn fat. Now that I’m in my 40s, I’ve learned my body likes to chill after weight sessions and to stay balanced throughout the day. So, I walk the dogs…mostly on hills so I’m taking in lots of oxygen. That works for me. HIIT is not for everyone.
What are some of the lifestyle and nutritional mainstays of the natural lifter? What are the “no no’s”? It’s important to enjoy what you’re eating. I’m a gluten-free, dairy-free pescatarian. So, I eat a lot of fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables, plant-based fats, quinoa…and drink 3 liters of water a day. I don’t count calories but instead count macros (e.g., protein, carbs and fats), and I divide my requirements into 5-6 small meals that I eat throughout the day. I eat every 2-3 hours to ensure I’m taking in all the nutrients my body needs. I don’t have cheat days, primarily because I don’t feel good afterwards. Cheating for me means bigger portions, not eating bad foods. As far as “no no’s”, it’s all the basics—no sugar or empty carbs. No alcohol, sodas or juices. I’m addicted to coffee though and use stevia as my sweetener.
What have you’ve learned recently (could be programming, methods, nutrition, supplements, equipment/technology, etc.) that you would have incorporated into your training? Right now, my goals are all about health, longevity and avoiding injury. So, I tend to pick methods that are less risky. I don’t do stuff like standing on a Bosu ball while doing bicep curls, for example. In terms of new methods, my husband and I watch YouTube videos from ex-athlete and trainer Jeff Cavaliere. (AthleanX is his YouTube channel). He’s great at showing modifications to weight lifting exercises that reduce joint stress or prevent aggravating old injuries. We like him a lot because his methods often create a much better sensation in the muscles we’re working.
What makes for a good bodybuilding coach? What are some red flags? Find someone with a proven record for helping clients compete at both the local and national level. Talk with them to make sure he/she is someone you admire, trust and have a rapport with as you’re going to spend many hours with that person. If you pick someone you don’t click with, you’re not going to be focused on the right things. So, do your homework. Find someone who is promoting a natural show and email them. Ask if he/she trains clients or could recommend someone in your area.
As far as red flags, most qualified trainers are very professional, but they need information. Listen to your body. If you’re doing an exercise that hurts you or makes you uncomfortable, or you don’t like a trainer to touch you during the session, communicate with them. If you have a past injury or did 5 hours of gardening yesterday, let them know. Most trainers and coaches want to help you, but you have to be up front with them to get results.
As a WNBF judge, when you’re faced with two finalists with equal muscle development and symmetry, what’s the deciding factor in choosing 1st place? It comes down to two things…posing and muscle development. A lot of people do poses that don’t display their muscles well. You can tell who’s been posing every day because their bodies look like a work of art. That’s what we want to see because bodybuilding is a visual sport. The other factor is muscle size. There’s a reason it’s called bodybuilding, not body dieting. So, if it comes down to 2 contestants with equal symmetry and leanness and one looks like a borderline cadaver, the one with larger more developed muscles will likely win.
What’s something about strength or the human body that you’d like all women to know? Strength and muscles are beautiful. Many women are afraid to get strong. Don’t be afraid. Try weight training…preferably with a whole body focus. When your whole body is strong, you have more energy, sleep better, and you’re less likely to get injured. It helps maintain bone density. Bodybuilding can be incorporated into any sports training. Don’t worry about getting too big or too bulky. Not everyone wants to look like a professional bodybuilder, and that’s ok. Do what feels right for you.
What’s next for Arlene, and how can people get in touch with you? After a 6-year hiatus from competing, I am hitting the stage in 2018. My motto for 2018 is “Count Me In!” I’m not worried about winning every show. I just want to get on stage and be a part of natural women’s bodybuilding. "Friend me on Facebook if you want to hear about upcoming competitions, view past bodybuilding pics, or see pictures of my pugs. Best of luck to everyone!"
And …if you want to see Arlene’s body transformation, click here.