That these sentences don’t make any freaking sense doesn’t make them totally untrue. They represent the crazy unhealthy reality behind the photo shoots and stage competitions of many of the world’s elite fitness models—the folks whose glistening, vascular, all-but-fat-free bodies adorn billboards, bikini commercials, and magazine ads for the latest Nitro-Jacked Xtreme Shr3dd3d supplements. (You know, the ones that the model usually doesn’t use.)
In their day-to-day lives, these individuals are fit at an elite level, absolutely. But the process used to take them from fit to “photo-ready” is dangerous, and perhaps worst of all, deceptive. This just isn’t how these people look.
“Most fitness models are at least five to ten pounds heavier than they are in the photos,” says Jill Coleman, a former fitness and figure model who now runs the body-positive blog Jillfit.com. “It’s definitely important to mention there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.”
“It makes a mockery of [the health and fitness industry] that to get into that condition you have to be incredibly unhealthy,” adds Seb Gale, a personal trainer and writer who recently ”dried out” (i.e. lost as much "water weight" as possible so that he could look more muscular) for a shoot at his gym. “You’re just really overloading your body. People have ended up in the hospital preparing for shoots.”
The Pre-Shoot Process
One Week to Shoot
Buh-bye, carbs. Until the day before the shoot, all of Gale’s carbohydrates came from green vegetables, served with meat or eggs for protein, of course. According to him, this was to increase his body’s sensitivity to the hormone insulin, which may promote leanness. He also began taking 20 fish oil capsules per day for the same reason—but a week of fish breath was the least of his concerns. Concurrent physical activity modifies the association between n3 long-chain fatty acids and cardiometabolic risk in midlife adults. Muldoon MF, Erickson KI, Goodpaster BH. The Journal of Nutrition, 2013, Jul.;143(9):1541-6100. Effect of dietary fish oil on insulin sensitivity and metabolic fate of glucose in the skeletal muscle of normal rats. D'Alessandro ME, Lombardo YB, Chicco A. Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism, 2002, Nov.;46(3-4):0250-6807.
Four Days to Shoot
After so long with so little carbs, the body typically starts burning fat for fuel in their absence. This state is known as ketosis, and although it was first prescribed to (effectively!) control the symptoms of epilepsy, a lot of bodybuilders use it to speed up their fat-loss efforts. The downside?
“For the first few days of so little carbs, you feel like you have the flu,” Gale says. “My mental clarity came back once ketosis kicked in, but everything felt really heavy. I was lifting 30 or 40 percent less weight during my workouts.” That’s right: He was still performing high-intensity workouts throughout this Week of Carblessness.
We should note that while plenty of folks successfully maintain a “ketogenic” diet without losing strength or mental clarity, Gale was also manipulating a lot of other variables.
For one, he cut down his normal calorie intake for the week by about 40 percent and began taking magnesium pills and drinking dandelion tea four times per day in order to speed the dehydration process. In his own words: “You basically need to be within 10 minutes of a toilet at all times.”
The Day Before the Shoot
Coleman makes sure to note that not everybody follows the same preparation process, but the primary goal is to pull the subcutaneous water—better known as “water weight”—from underneath the skin and into the muscle cells. Fuller muscles and less water under the skin give that lean, “shrink-wrapped” appearance that’s coveted by marketing teams.
To achieve that, fitness models tend to manipulate their carb and water intake. Gale drank four gallons per day until the day before his shoot, when he cut out water completely. In her competition days, Coleman preferred to slowly taper her water intake over four days: half a gallon, then a quarter gallon, a liter of water the day before the shoot, and very little on the big day. (Remember, most folks are still exercising regularly throughout their prep!)
“Some people go to dry saunas as well,” Coleman says. “Or they’ll do a full-body caffeine wrap, which can dehydrate locally. A lot of women drink wine the night before.” That's because, as those of us who have experienced hangovers can attest, alcohol has the ability to dehydrate the human body. Bodybuilders also like to sip on vino because it can boost vascularity (or “veiny-ness”).
At this point, the night before the shoot, carbs are back on the table. Models devour potatoes, wine, candy bars, cheesecake, or, if they really want to stay as dry as possible: oatmeal, rice cakes, or toast with peanut butter. This swells the muscles with glycogen, the stored sugar that you use for energy.
It seems that everyone has their own ritual in the final hours. The usual goal for men is to walk the fine line between looking “pumped” and bloated: Ingest enough carbs, protein, salt, and water to swell the muscles while keeping the skin lean and dry. (Gale settled on one meal of salty meat and greasy eggs for breakfast and he lifted light weights throughout the shoot.)
But as a female figure model, Coleman wasn’t necessarily chasing big, pumped-up muscles, and exercise usually decreased in the days before a competition. “A lot of women won’t train legs at all,” she says. “They’ll do light cardio, upper-body exercises, but nothing that gets a ton of blood flowing.”
When they finally stepped onstage, their bodies ticked every box for “physical perfection,” but they probably couldn’t have felt further from healthy.
“I had no energy, I was really dehydrated, I felt very close to cramping, and it was basically very uncomfortable,” Gale says. “It wasn’t tiredness exactly. I just really wanted to sit down and eat food. I came home afterwards and ate whatever I could find: nachos, cheesecake, chocolate bars, everything we had.”
The Real Breakdown
PSA time: Dehydration is a serious health risk that can lead to fainting, exhaustion, swelling of the brain, and even kidney damage. Doing it on purpose is something doctors don’t usually have to advise against, but for fitness models, it can be complicated.
Although they are quick to emphasize the maddening thirst, the complete lack of energy, and the unrelenting crankiness, both Gale and Coleman have to admit: Being at that level of fitness feels good. Not literally—literally they kind of felt like crap—but they like the way they look in those photos, even though they know it’s an illusion, a trap.
As Gale puts it, “It destroys your social life, you start to have an incredibly bad relationship with food, but it’s a satisfying achievement once the photos turn out and you see all your hard work captured in that moment in time.”
Every time these human statues are thrust at us in the media, there’s an implicit message: You should look like this too.
Yes, bodies like these are used to persuade us to try the newest gym on the block or the latest iteration of weight-loss supplements. And every time these human statues are thrust at us in the media, there’s an implicit message: This is what we're striving toward. No doubt, images like these can cause a lot of body image issues for both men and women, but Coleman sees a silver lining.
“The ‘1.0’ response is to feel insecure, not fit enough, that sort of stuff,” she says. “But the ‘2.0’ response—the next level up—is to ask, ‘Why is that making me feel that way?’ That initial reaction is a good opportunity for you to ask what you need to do to feel more secure in your own skin and how you’re going to learn to love your body.”
Being strong and healthy is something that should be celebrated, but desperate leanness isn’t. It’s a difference we all need to learn, so the next time you happen upon a flawless six-pack in a magazine, don’t wonder why you can’t look like that—be glad that you don’t.