Competing in Figure: A Gateway to Health and Happiness

By: Shellie Harshberger
No Nonsense Newsletter Volume 11 #3

As I began to think about the content for this article, my mind was consumed with specifics, “make sure you share ‘this’ about training and ‘that’ about stage presence, etc…”. However, as I reflected upon my own goals in the figure industry, I remembered that the most important one was to be an inspiration to others.

Carpe Diem (Seize the day!!)

Shellie Harshberger Anyone growing up in the 80’s cannot help but remember how inspirational Mr. Keating was in the movie “Dead Poets Society.” When the movie ended, I remember feeling like such a better person just for having watched it. For me, Carpe Diem meant that I had a choice; that I could make life happen to me rather than let life happen to me.

Like many people I had a significantly difficult childhood. I watched my mother become a victim to her own life and the only father figure I knew died at a very young age in an auto accident. Deep within the tragedy of my childhood, I learned that life is what I make of it and that I alone am responsible for my own happiness. I’ve learned that while others may influence my state of mind, I have the final say. My desire is to make life happen and seize the day.

Choosing to live a healthy lifestyle and competing in figure competitions is my way of taking control of my life, and most importantly my happiness. The most profound thing I can tell others is to determine what makes you happy and then do it. True inner happiness is not what is derived from someone else. Your family does not make you happy. Your friends do not make you happy. Oh, they influence your happiness and they most certainly can try to steal your happiness, but only you are the gatekeeper of your happiness.

As the gatekeeper, you must decide if living a healthy lifestyle is something that will enhance your happiness, and if competing in figure or fitness competitions is something you desire to be a part of. For me the answer is a resounding yes and here’s what I have learned so far.

Happiness is reflected from the inside out

When looking at my photos, I am aware that I am not the most muscular woman to grace Beverly’s pages. Despite that, I was awarded the overall title at the NPC Natural Mid-States Muscle Classic and Figure XIX. If you had sat in the audience and studied the whole show, you would have seen what I brought to the stage that made me stand out. It was something that is often overlooked, but it’s significant and makes all the difference. What could be so important that others might forget, you ask? It’s simple... I brought my smile! I was truly happy to be on stage and to have reached that point in my figure career. That euphoria was reflected in my stage presence, my walk, and my posing. When I was on-stage, I was seizing the moment and making it mine. Carpe Diem!

Goals, Goals, Goals

If I could give someone step-by-step instructions on how to get fit and compete in figure, I would say that step number one would be to establish a goal. Not just a simple, easily achievable goal, but rather a big, hairy, audacious goal. Then make it public-tell everyone you know. Research suggests that we are more inclined to reach goals that we make public because we have to answer to our friends and family. Use that to your advantage. After establishing your overall goal, determine what motivates you and then set some short term goals to achieve along the way. It may be getting into your skinny jeans or looking great in a pair of shorts. For me, short term goals have become very intrinsic. My goal might be to increase how much I can squat or bench press or how long I can run on the treadmill. I feel great when I see that I have grown stronger or that my endurance has increased.

Maybe you have always dreamt of competing. If so, you could make a competition your long term goal. Competing is the ultimate goal for a myriad of reasons. Once you pick a competition and have paid the entry fee, you are committed. It is not a deadline that can be pushed out if you are not ready; you simply have to be ready. Competing demonstrates how serious you are to your friends and family who may not be as supportive otherwise. It is also a lifestyle that defines who you are, and once others know that you compete, they keep you honest. I remember one day standing in front of a vending machine when an acquaintance of mine came running up and said, “What are you doing? You can’t eat anything from in there!” Obviously, if I was going to cheat, I certainly would have been put in my place. Fortunately, I was only getting some sugar free gum!

Health and Fitness: One big science experiment

I have a degree in biology and one of the first things you learn when studying science is that it begins with a theory, the theory is tested, the results recorded, and a conclusion is formed. Generally the conclusion then becomes the theory for another experiment and so on. Finding the perfect workout and nutrition plan is much like a science experiment. Whether working with a trainer or going it alone, it is all one big experiment to see what program works best for you. There are thousands of published theories that are based on sound sports science data, but they are often contradictory and it is up to you to decipher what works best for you. To do this you must keep excellent records. Record what exercises you are currently doing in great detail; that means repetitions, sets, and weights. Record the date and time of day you are working out. Record the supplements you take, the quantity, and time of day taking them. Record your mood. How difficult was your workout? What did you eat and when did you eat? These records will give you the customized data to design the ideal workout for you. Here’s an example of a chest and back day for me:

Back

# of Sets

Reps per Set

Weight

Lat Pull-down

4

6-8 on 1st three sets; failure on last set

85#; then 75# for 4th set

Seated Row

4

6-8 on 1st three sets; failure on last set

85#; then 75# for 4th set

Chin-ups

4

6-8 on 1st three sets; failure on last set

N/A

Wide-grip Pull-up

4

6; negatives if I cannot do all 6

N/A

Chest

# of Sets

Sets per Set 

Weight 

Flat Bench Press

4

6-8 on 1st three sets; failure on last set

100#, then 85# for 4th set

Incline Bench Press

4

6-8 on 1st three sets; failure on last set

90#, then 75# for 4th set

Decline Bench Press

4

6-8 on 1st three sets; failure on last set

90#, then 75# for 4th set

Pec-Dec

4

6-8 on 1st three sets; failure on last set

60#, then 50# for 4th set


I am small boned with a fast metabolism and putting on muscle has been a real challenge for me. I have found that the 6-8 rep range is perfect for me to make gains in muscle. If I consistently do more than that, I don’t make gains. I also never do the exact same workout twice. I always make the next workout harder than the one before it. I either increase the weight or increase the repetitions. The increase may be very minimal; it could be as simple as doing one more repetition on the last set. Finding what works for me has been, and continues to be, a challenging and rewarding science experiment.

Diet is a four letter word

Previous to competing, I can honestly say that I didn’t have experience with dieting. If anything, I spent my younger years resembling Popeye’s Olive Oil with my long dangly arms. I must admit that dieting is the hardest part for me. I love buffalo chicken wings and French fries. I also enjoy having a drink or two with my husband. As a result, eating clean everyday has been a difficult experience for me. What keeps me motivated most to eat clean is paying close attention to how I feel when I eat clean versus how I feel when I don’t. If I eat chicken wings and French fries, I feel tired, worn out, and unmotivated. Eating clean and working out gives me a level of energy and euphoria that I don’t have otherwise.

One way that I stay on track with my diet is that I never leave home without a small cooler filled with healthy snacks. I may only be running errands, but I still make sure that I have healthy food with me. That way if I get hungry I am not tempted to stop and get some unhealthy alternative. My cooler generally contains: About 8 weeks out from a contest, I get real strict with my diet. I can honestly say that I don’t cheat at all during this time. I eat VERY clean. I believe that the diet is more crucial than the workout program. While both are important, I would rather have a healthy diet day than a perfect day in the gym. An example of my pre-contest diet is:

  Meal #1 
Protein Drink: 2 Scoops Muscle Provider or Ultimate Muscle Protein (I generally
keep on hand the Crystal Light to-go packages and mix one of them in for a change of flavor)
1 Tbsp of Flax Oil or 3 EFA Gold capsules

  Meal #2
3 oz. turkey breast or chicken (To add a little bit of flavor, I often add a Tbsp of low-sodium salsa)
½ cup vegetables

  Meal #3
5 ounces chicken or turkey
2 cups salad (lettuce, carrot, cucumber, green peppers, etc.)
2 TBS Light Vinegar and Oil dressing

  Meal #4 
(Same as meal #1) or a favorite protein bar

  Meal #5
5 ounces lean meat (chicken, fish and strip sirloin, lean beef, etc.)
1 cup vegetables
1 Tbsp of Flax Oil or 3 EFA Gold

If I am hungry between these meals, I will snack on a small amount of:
Beef Jerky
Hard-boiled eggs (in most cases, removing the yolk)
Sugar-free Jello


As I said earlier, I record everything, including my diet. That way I can assess what I need to improve on for the next competition. I also measure everything. I treat my diet and exercise program just like a science experiment.

Supplements: Fact or Fiction

Shellie's Supplements Having a degree in biology gives me the advantage of having an in-depth understanding of human body systems. In the bodybuilding industry this knowledge makes it easy for me to be critical of product claims and advertisements. Ultimately it causes me to distrust the companies that I feel make false claims. I don’t know how many times I have exclaimed to my husband that it is scientifically impossible for a product to do what it is advertising. When I first began preparing to compete, I was leery of supplements. At my first competition, I met Julie Lohre. She had just become an IFBB Fitness Pro. I began working with Julie and she introduced me to Beverly products. I liked Beverly’s approach right away. Instead of making great and questionable declarations about their products, they let the competitors experiences speak for the products.
Currently I use: As I said before, I struggle with putting on muscle, but since I’ve begun using Beverly products I’ve made more significant gains than I experienced without using them. My favorite Beverly product is 7-Keto MuscLEAN because of the significant energy boost I feel when I take it. It provides a comfortable boost of energy without making me feel jittery. I just feel like I can take on the world!

Being a figure competitor has been a life-altering experience for me. I know that I am the best me that I can be and that inspires me and makes me happy. I challenge you to explore what makes you happy and then make it happen…today. Carpe Diem!

"Everyday is an opportunity to make a new happy ending" ~ Author Unknown.

Figure Finishing Touches

Hair: Stage lights can be unflattering to naturally curly or permed hair. I have found that the best hairstyles on stage are large, soft spiral curls or a smooth and sleek look.

Make-up: Stage make-up is different than the make-up you would wear during a night out on the town. Stage make-up needs to be more dramatic. Stage lighting washes out facial features so your make-up needs to compensate for that. Your eyes and lips need to be vivid. Most of the girls wear false eyelashes which really enhances their eyes on stage. When picking out your foundation make sure to choose a color that will closely match your tanned skin.

Skin: I don’t advocate spending weeks and weeks in the tanning bed, but a couple of visits will give you a nice base to work with. Once you have a base tan, there are a number of artificial tanning products you can use to give you the perfect tan on stage. I generally use ProTan every other day during the week leading up to a show. On competition day, I use Dream Tan. I love Dream Tan. It gives me an incredibly dark and lustrous appearance. For prejudging, I don’t use any oil over the Dream Tan. Dream Tan has a natural sheen to it and oil is not necessary. As a matter of fact, if you choose to use oil, use it sparingly. Too much oil is very reflective on your skin and does not showcase your physique. For the evening show, if the Dream Tan is getting a bit dry, I will spray a small amount of Pam cooking oil on my skin for a refresher. My final thoughts on skin preparation are that you can never be too dark on stage and use oil very sparingly.

Competition suits: My favorite suit designer is the Bikini Guru at http://www.bikiniguru.com/. Tamara is the designer and she is fantastic. She provides you with a lot of choices. You can purchase a suit “off the rack” which is already made and a little less expensive, or you can purchase a custom made suit where you choose from a massive array of fabric selections and suit styles. Tamara even has a few previously owned suits available at times giving you the opportunity to save a little money. I would recommend that you order your suit 4-6 months before your show if you are planning on purchasing a custom made suit. This allows time for Tamara to make the suit and ship it to you.

Shoes: Clear acrylic shoes are the standard for a competition. I actually found mine at DSW, a large shoe retailer in my area. However, you can purchase them on-line at places such as Snaz75 (http://www.snaz75.com/). I believe that my heels are about 3.5” and I am actually shopping for a higher heel, probably about a 4” or 5”. The higher the heel, the more it seems to enhance your calves. However beware, if you cannot walk in 5” heels, buy 3.5” or 4”. Struggling to get across the stage will distract from your physique and then no one will be looking at your calves anyway! Also, I have heard from more than one judge that they do not like the platform type shoes. Apparently when they are looking at you from the ground up, they are not the most flattering shoes. Thus, just purchase the heeled shoes without the bulky platform on the front.

After spending months dieting and working hard in the gym, make sure you apply the finishing touches from head to toe.


    Personal Profile:
Age: 35
Occupation/Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Biology with a minor in Chemistry.
I am currently completing the process to become licensed to teach high school science.
Residence: South Bend, Indiana

Height: 5’8”
Off Season Weight: 130-132
Contest Weight: 126

Favorite Cheat Food: French fries
Favorite Healthy Food: Lean steak

Most Inspiring Competitor: Elaine Goodlad.  I love that she is older than me and
looks fantastic.  It inspires me to not allow my age to be a hindrance.
In my CD player:  Right now in my CD player is Nickelback’s “All the Right Reasons.”
It is one of the few CD’s that I have purchased lately in which I like nearly every
song on it.  If I don’t have Nickelback in the CD player, then it is anything
by Poison.  Hey, I did grow up in the 80’s!

Words to live by: To change one's life:  Start immediately.  Do it flamboyantly.  No exceptions. 
~William James


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