I literally stumbled upon this world—essentially beauty pageants for muscles—by accident. I’ll tell you how I transformed my physique and got down to 13 percent body fat, but first a little background to help give some context.
I come from very humble beginnings. Growing up in Cameroon in central Africa, I didn’t have dolls or toys so I played football, jumped rope, and was very active. I came to New York City when I was 15 and I wanted to play soccer and run track but my parents were afraid it would take away from my studies.
When I went to City College in Harlem (where I got my BS in biochemistry) I would train with the track team, though my parents wouldn’t let me officially join. The coach was like my very first trainer; he taught me how to squat and gave me workout routines. Then, a friend gave me an illegally-burned copy of [workout DVD] Insanity and I started doing it in my living room. It was so hot in my apartment and I would sweat so much. But somehow all that sweat made me so happy. I created an Instagram account (@Love_Fitness1) and I started following others in the space. I kept seeing these girls in brightly-colored bikinis—and they didn't look like Victoria Secret models, they were fit. I thought to myself, ‘I could probably push it up a notch and look like that.’ Bikini competitions, I learned, involve standing in your bathing suit in front of a panel of judges who rate you solely on your looks: your physique, your presentation, your smile, hair, makeup, and even your tan.
I didn't have money for any kind of gym membership but I had a friend from City College who did. His name is Sam Baker and he’s a firefighter. My new routine became this: I would roll out of bed and do an Insanity DVD. Then, go to my lab, go to class or work (teaching math and science at an after-school program) after which Sam would sneak me into the gym. After about four months of this, I befriended the manager and he introduced me to my current coach, Tennille Ray. She showed me how to pose on stage and she cleaned up my diet. Three weeks later, in Otober 2013, I placed in the top five in my first bikini competition.
Meanwhile, people started asking me if I could train them and I said to myself, ‘You know what, I'm going to give it a shot.’ Fast-forward and I became a trainer at Equinox in February 2014.
I competed again in 2014 and 2015. This year, at 29, I set my sights on two back-to-back competitions: the NPC Mid Atlantic Natural Classic 2017 on May 13th and the NPC Bev Francis Atlantic States Championships on June 3rd. The latter was my “goal” competition and the former would serve as “practice.”
I started training in January because I wanted to build a little more muscle in my legs but I started my diet in February. Normally I stay around 140 pounds and 18 to 20 percent body fat. For this competition, I lost a few pounds but the real difference was my body fat percentage which dropped to 13 percent. Here’s how I did it.
There are three phases to my diet but during each, I eat five to six meals a day. I don’t count calories (I don’t even know how many calories are in a cup of rice off the top of my head) but instead focus on macros—fat, protein, and carbs—and get a certain amount of each in my meals. It’s super precise because I weigh my food.
A point of contention amongst the super-fit is alcohol (and whether you can compete at this level and still imbibe on occasion) but I’m lucky in that I don’t drink at all. I prefer eating my calories. If you put ice cream down in front of me, it would be so hard for me to say no. I cheated on my diet a few times during this training cycle but you have to keep that under control because when we’re talking about this low of a body fat percentage, what you do in private shows in public. The judges are going to know if I have been eating cookies. When you get on stage under all those lights in a tiny bikini, you see all your choices.
This is when I had the most food because I needed it to build muscle. My protein came from eggs and egg whites, chicken, ground beef, or turkey. I’d eat a ton of leafy greens like spinach and kale. I’d also eat asparagus which has a lot of vitamin C and is a natural diuretic which helps you not to hold excess water. I’d also get a little healthy fat from avocado or coconut oil. In the first two or three meals of the day, I’d eat fruit or good carbs like quinoa or sweet potatoes. Then, I start weaning off the carbs because food is fuel so you want it when you need it. It’s not like rice is bad but if you eat rice and go to sleep it just sits in your stomach. If you eat it before you go to work out, you need all that fuel. During this phase, I’d also drink one gallon to 1.5 gallons of water a day.
At this point, my workouts peaked and I was lifting lighter weights for more reps than I was in phase one. So, I ate fewer carbs because I didn’t need them as much. I ate about the same amount of protein as in phase one but the type shifted—I ate more fish, which is leaner than chicken and turkey. I also got rid of all sugar. So, I cut fruit (the five strawberries I used to eat with breakfast—banished). The fat and water stayed about the same.
At this point, I could have no complex carbs at all except on leg training days. I would have a little carb before those workouts because I needed it to lift all that weight. I didn’t eat that much chicken or other meat because leaning out was my focus so I needed to eat the leanest foods possible. Chicken and salmon are not lean enough. I won’t even eat black cod—only white cod. For five to six meals a day I was literally eating some combination of egg whites, white fish, and greens. Sometimes I’d cook my egg whites with a little coconut oil. I’d drink two gallons of water a day to help flush out my system.
My boyfriend, Oliver Williams, created my workout program for me. It was nice to just be handed a plan and execute on it rather than overthinking it. He split my lifting routine up by muscle groups. I had a leg day during which I mostly focused on my front (i.e. back squat and front squat) and another leg day where I focused on the muscle groups on my posterior chain (i.e. deadlifts, hip thrusts). My weakest links are my legs so I put more focus on them. I had two upper-body push days (i.e. push-ups, barbell bench press, shoulder press) and two upper-body pull days (i.e. pull-ups, bent-over rows, lat pull-downs). I don’t do abs. When you’re squatting and deadlifting, you’re using your core plenty. Each of these workouts would take me about two hours. Sunday was off.
During phase one, I was lifting very heavy. Every week, I was bringing up the weight a little bit. For example, I started at 95 pounds on the back squat (five sets of eight reps) in January and peaked in early March at 180 pounds. Then, I started going back down because the changes in my diet wouldn’t allow me to lift as heavy. It was important for me to be steady and safe with my training.
In the beginning, I barely did any cardio, maybe 20 minutes if I wanted to. Then, around the end of February, I would do 30 minutes on the StairMaster or bike in the morning or at night three times a week. Cardio causes you to lose fat as well as muscle so if you’re trying to preserve the latter you don’t want to do too much. Two weeks before competition, though, when I was trying to become the leanest possible, I was doing one hour a day five to six days a week. The cardio really depends how well you stick to your diet and how much you need to cut. If you eat a certain way, you really don’t need to do much at all.
When you work out, you're destroying the muscle and you need to repair it when you're sleeping. As a trainer, it's hard to get enough sleep because you have a session at 5:30 a.m. I try to get about six to six and a half hours of sleep a night. But if I was getting eight or nine hours of sleep, it would be different. You perform better if you're not tired.
The cardio really depends on how well you stick to your diet and how much you need to cut. If you eat a certain way, you really don’t need to do much at all.
At 7:30 a.m. on the day of the second competition I rolled out of the hotel bed and met with my coach. My tanning appointment was around 8:45 a.m. Then I had my makeup done and my wig curled and put on. I cannot go out there with my natural hair. Nobody's going to tell you, "Oh, you can't have your hair out." But, I'm not going to score as well. You have to look good enough that if they want to put you in a magazine, somebody would pick up the magazine.
Next, I put on my jewelry and press-on nails and finally, I put on my bikini and high heels. I practiced walking in my heels (with my coach and also in a group) from the moment I chose a date to compete. You have to walk effortlessly in your heels on stage; you can go from first place to third place if you don't present yourself in flawless way.
In the May competition, I did really well. I won my class and overall. But it was the June competition that I had really set my sights on.
At 2 p.m., I walked on stage and did my solo routine. I flexed and presented my body for about 30 seconds. The judging is not just about your look, it’s also about how you present it—from your smile to your walk.
It felt nice, but I was on my period which makes you retain more water. So, that really messed me up. Still, my coach has been good at instilling confidence in me. I don't get too scared anymore. Plus, I knew I looked the best I’ve ever looked. I've never had as much definition on my legs. I've never stuck with a workout program as much as I did—and I trained safely.
Then, I lined up on the stage with the eight other women in my class (I was in class D which was women who are five foot six to five foot seven). I was up there for about five minutes while six male judges and one woman asked me to turn around, walk the length of the stage, turn to profile, and more. They compared the nine of us from the front and then the back. Then they shuffled us around. They call you by number saying, “Number seven switch places with number five.” Then they called out five numbers who are the top five which is pre-judging. My number was not called and I knew I had not won.
I went to my hotel and had a burger before coming back at 6 p.m. for the awards. Some people may not bother coming if they knew they hadn’t placed. But good sportsmanship is important to me and I support what the judges chose. They introduced me and I went and posed on stage and then they called out the winners. I was disappointed that I didn’t win because I worked so hard and, objectively speaking as a trainer, I think I was in better shape than some of the women who placed.
The judging is not just about your look, it’s also about how you present it—from your smile to your walk
But, it's not necessarily about winning because this sport is actually so subjective. Also, some athletes take supplements. There are some organizations that test for certain substances but I've never been tested. Personally, I'm not a big fan of taking anything—not even protein powder, BCAAs, or caffeine. I don’t think you need it, but you might have to work a little harder than everybody else. It doesn't make me angry because I chose to go this way.
After the awards, my boyfriend and I went to the Cheesecake Factory and had fried calamari. Unfortunately that night there was no cheesecake. There were a lot of body builders there (their part of the competition ended before ours) and I think they ate it all. So, I settled with cookies and cream ice cream for dessert. I also did some reflecting on the day and on the process.
During the leaning out process (phase three), you don't feel healthy. You feel tired and mentally depleted. I also hurt my left knee in the process. I was just really banged up by the end. I don’t want to do this again. I don't work out to compete. I compete because I already work out. I don’t want anything to take away the joy of exercise. Also, there are so many things in terms of the way they judge that I don't agree with. I also I hate the cutting phase and I hate being that small. There are other challenges in life that I want to tackle.
I might change my mind, who knows?
When I started this journey, I was alone but along the way, I got lucky. I met people who don't necessarily do the same thing but they support it. People would say, "You got it, Simone!" Even somebody passing by, tapping you on the shoulder, it keeps you going. I never felt I'd have this support. People feed off your energy but they don’t realize that you feed off their energy as well. But it really comes from yourself—and if you really, really want it. Because to be honest, this body is not sustainable. And that’s all good. It was just an experiment in how far I could push myself.