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Competitive fitness: Building up bodies, businesses as sport's popularity grows

The growing sport of fitness competitions sees participants focus on nutrition and weight-training as a way to change their bodies. It’s months of work for a few minutes on stage.

Sport sees people follow rigorous training regime to get their bodies into best shape possible before judging

Winners of the 2015 UFE World Pro Championship are shown in this undated image. Competitive fitness is a growing sport that sees people follow a rigorous training regime — getting their bodies into the best shape possible — before being judged on stage for their physique. (Provided)

It's months of work for a few minutes on stage.

Always athletic, Katharine Millar only recently started focusing more on nutrition and weight-training as a way to change her body.

The 36-year-old business owner and mother of three is new to the world of fitness competitions, a growing sport that sees people follow a rigorous training regime — getting their bodies into the best shape possible — before being judged on stage for their physique.

Fitness competitions were always a goal in the back of her mind, Millar says, though she only entered her first one last September.
Katharine Millar, a 36-year-old business owner and mother of three, is shown in a before-and-after photo. Left: Just ahead of her first fitness competition in September 2015. Right: One year before her first competition. (Provided)

"It was kind of like now or never," the London, Ont., resident says. "When I joined a fitness organization, I met more people who were competing. Just being exposed to that side of it … My friends changed."

When it comes to fitness competitions, the hard work comes into the lead up to the main event.

Diet is about 80 per cent responsible for changes to your physique. Though it varies based on the person, a competitor's diet often consists of four meals per day including healthy fats, lean protein (20 oz. daily), complex carbs (4 oz. daily) and vegetables. Closer to the competition, this changes to six meals a day of lean protein, healthy fats and vegetables.

 "I weighed all of my food except for green vegetables," says Millar, adding she ate around 1,300-1,500 calories a day in the lead-up to her first competition.

Training is the other half of the equation. Again schedules vary, but at seven weeks out, a fitness competitor may be training up two times a day, seven days a week, targeting different muscle groups each day.

Trainers should be involved from the beginning. "If you want to train optimally for [competition], you need someone with experience and a reputable certification," says Sean Everingham, a fitness trainer and president of Ultimate Fitness Events (UFE).

Finalists at a competition put on by the Ontario Physique Association (OPA) are shown in this undated image. The OPA is Canada's largest physique association and the group has seen its participant numbers grow exponentially over the last few years. (Provided/Tiffany Bateman)

Exponential growth

Despite the strict routine involved, the field of fitness is exploding. The Ontario Physique Association (OPA) is the largest physique association in Canada. In 2012, it held approximately 13 competitions with 693 competitors. By 2015, it was up to 25 competitions with 2,450 competitors.

Both men and women can compete in fitness competitions, which are typically organized into categories. Female categories include fitness, bikini and figure, among others, while some of the men's include physique and bodybuilding. 

While all contestants are judged on physique, the criteria differ for each category. Bikini competitors should have a fit, athletic appearance, for example, but not be too muscular or shredded. Hair and makeup and tan are factors in all categories, as is posing and transitions — the movement between poses.

Participants pose, showing off their backs, during a competition in Shaoxing, China in April 2013. Posing helps competitors score points with the judges. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Posing helps you score points with the judges; competitors know that you can have the best physique backstage, but if you can't shine on stage, you'll lose.

While the top three contestants win a trophy, most competitors say it's the journey and what you learn about yourself during training that's the real reward.

"I had a lot of fun. Now that I've done it, you know the dedication. You're competing with yourself," says Millar.

'Anything to win' can lead to risks

But fitness competitions don't come without risk. People can severely overtrain and overdiet, leading to injuries and eating disorders. And some get involved with drugs, trying to get to that next level.

"People are just willing to do anything to win these shows," Everingham says. "Rather than doing them more for fun and as something to motivate them to stay healthy."

Winners in the figure category of the 2014 UFE Halloween Mayhem competition are shown in this undated image. Most fitness competitions are broken down into various categories, with different judging criteria for each. (Provided/Tiffany Bateman)
He started UFE in 2007, specializing in natural fitness competitions where participants are randomly drug-tested. But he is disappointed to see some people move toward non-drug-tested organizations, he says, with the sport's growing popularity partially to blame.

Transitioning to the off-season can also be a complex process. It's exciting as foods are re-introduced and workouts ease up.

For many competitors, healthy eating and regular exercise becomes a lifestyle. But post-competition can also lead to bad habits, such as binge-eating, purging and stopping training altogether. Some end up quickly putting on body fat. 

Still, the post-competition meal is a well-planned luxury everyone looks forward to. "All I wanted was nachos and a caesar," says Millar. "But I was in the U.S. and they didn't have nachos and don't make caesars."

Erica Willick entered her first competition in 2011, getting involved, she says, because she wasn't feeling good about her body after having a baby.

But fitness also improved her mental strength, the 34-year-old adds.

"The power of the barbell to shape a body, mind and soul is unmatched," says Willick, who is now a three-time world pro-bikini champion. She also started her own business, coaching other women on fitness and nutrition.

Booming business

Small businesses are booming in this extremely expensive sport, where a participant can pay up to $10,000 for a single competition.

One major expense is competition suits — those dental-floss bikinis you see on the fitness stage. These are not regular bathing suits.

When Colleen McConnell started her company, the Crystal Suit, in 2010, she had 30 clients. By 2014, she had 550. The cost per suit ranges from $350 to $1,400, and the company's profits have increased by 600 per cent since 2010.

McConnell says her company makes 45 to 65 suits by hand every month, depending on how many Swarovski crystals and embellishments are needed. Crystals and sheen catch the light when you're on stage, attracting the judge's attention.

"We've had two suits this month already booked for over $1,000 each. Because of the amount of crystals they want on them."

Women stand on stage during a competition in Tel Aviv, Israel in August 2015. Competitive fitness can be expensive and participants can pay up to $10,000 to get ready for a single competition. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

Two Chicks and Some Lipstick, a company considered makeup and hair "magicians" in the fitness competition industry, has also experienced rapid growth. Valeria Nova and Lori Fabrizio started the Toronto-based business in 2012.

In 2005, Fabrizio did makeup and hair for five competitors. By 2012, when Two Chicks launched, it was glamourizing 50 to 150 competitors. And in 2015, it had 300 customers, with company profits doubling. The average application costs about $350.

"It literally exploded. I feel like once things like Instagram [and Facebook] started to become a lot more popular … fitness has become more popular. Now fitness is mainstream," said Fabrizio.

Everingham agrees.

"I think anyone can compete," he says. "Because if you're doing it for the right reasons, anyone can get in the right shape."

Tiffany Bateman is a public health expert, a fitness competitor and a fellow in journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Follow Tiffany on Twitter: @TiffanyBBateman

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