Slip backstage at a bodybuilding competition and you’ll find a mirrored metropolis behind the scenes. Each competitor will have staked out their own area and populated it with bejewelled bikini-shaped cases, high heels and snacks.
The snacks are body hacks. Coca-Cola or port wine dilates the veins and makes them pop pleasingly because of the high sugar content. Potato chips provide a burst of carbs, the intake of which will have been carefully rationed over the past months, and salt, which dehydrates. Similarly, black coffee, a diuretic, draws water away from the skin surface to make muscle more defined.
Women wearing silk robes and thongs flit between the hair and makeup stations for touch-ups, or take their place at a tanning tent. There’s a lot of “pumping up” going on — getting blood flowing to the muscle by using weights — and the last-minute run-through of posing routines.
Some women are as young as teenagers. Others are in their 40s, 50s, or 60s — though you’d be hard pressed to tell the age difference in the line-up onstage. The interest in the sport from older women only seems to be growing.
“We have a lot of women over 40,” says Angela Eriksen, director of International Natural Bodybuilding Association Australia. According to the federation’s 2019 data, 60 out of 150 women who competed across all states were over the age of 40 — a proportion that would be unheard of in most sports.
It seems that the transformative nature of bodybuilding is particularly appealing to those already going through a transition period. And in middle-age, women can potentially find their role changing, perhaps through their children gaining independence, or a long-strained relationships coming to an end, or retirement.
Eriksen herself competes at the age of 51, and has won the Australasian Natural Bodybuilding Association’s Over-40 Miss Queensland title. She owns a debt-collection agency in Brisbane and has three children aged between 12 and 24. She’s very much on top of her life, yet six years ago she felt like she’d lost herself, having disappeared into the role of wife and mother.
“If my husband and I were going to go out somewhere I’d change about 20 times and then say to him I wasn’t going out because I had nothing to wear,” she says, “but really it was because I hated myself.”
One day she tagged along with her husband to watch one of the many competitions held in Queensland. “I remember I looked at my husband and said, ‘You will never see me up on stage doing that.’ Lo and behold, 25 weeks later I was on stage doing it.”
‘I was shaking like a leaf’
When competing in the different divisions — such as bikini, figure, physique and fitness — women might enter under a “masters” category, which indicates an older competitor and is split into age brackets such as 40-plus, 50-plus and 60-plus. Or, they can perform “open”, against the younger competitors.
The judges are usually lined up at a table directly in front of the stage, with the competitor’s supporters at tables behind them. They are looking for qualities such as symmetry, presentation and visible muscle presentation, depending on the category. Competitors can be on stage for around 20 minutes, doing their quarter turns and freestyle poses, fighting off cramps from flexing in unnatural positions.
“I can’t remember my moment on stage because I was shaking like a leaf,” says Eriksen. “My mouth was wobbling, everything was wobbling, but there was this sense of euphoria. It was the best thing I’ve ever done
“What appealed to me most was how I looked and how I felt,” she says. “It was one of those moments in my life when I actually liked myself again. Now I love going out.”
If Eriksen is prepping for a comp she trains twice a day, six days a week. She’s lost 20 kilos since first starting out — not surprising, since a bodybuilder’s prep diet tends to revolve around protein powder, oats, banana, chicken and broccoli. But just as rewarding, her pursuit has become a family affair.
“My husband and I both compete so we like to take turns — when he’s doing his prep I help him with his prep and with the kids, and vice versa,” she says. “My daughter, who’s 12, won the Kids’ Fitness division in Las Vegas two years ago, so she’s inspired by it. My youngest son sells merchandise at the competitions.”
Eriksen’s next competition won’t be until 2021 in New York. She’s taking a break because she’s going through menopause. Giving herself permission to wind back her training and rebalance her body has been one of her biggest challenges so far. Her solution is to set herself a much longer prep-period than usual.
“My metabolism has slowed down quite a bit and I feel tired and get hot flashes,” she says. “It’s an emotional period for me so I’ve mentally had to get back on track again, too. It will just mean I’ve got to work a bit harder.”
Menopause takes a toll
Perth-based Stephen Arnold is a training and nutrition coach with a history of training clients competing for bodybuilding comps. He has a different view of menopause.
“Women always think that being menopausal or postmenopausal is a disadvantage to them in the physical context,” he says, “but in terms of bodybuilding it’s actually the opposite: your hormonal profile is more favourable for performance.
“Obviously with age we do slow down — our type-one muscle fibre turns into type two — but for a woman, her estrogen levels reduce in relation to testosterone as she goes through menopause, which means less fat retention in the lower extremities.”
That gives a post-menopausal woman the advantage over younger women, he says, in that she might get leaner legs from fat loss. And while ageing does increase sarcopenia — the loss of muscle tissue — he argues that if someone has been regularly working out throughout their life, they have a headstart on building muscle in the first place.
Sometimes bodybuilding is just the perfect sport for an older woman with an athletic background to move into. Brad Turnball is a strength and conditioning coach — and former bodybuilder — also based in Perth. He says that sometimes women who take up bodyboarding later in life have already been athletic in other fields.
“It often comes down to injuries,” he says. “Most track and field athletes will already have a certain amount of physical presence. They might bung a knee but at least they can now do physique competitions.”
Discipline comes with age
Turnball recently coached Karen Adigos, who won the Women’s Figure category at International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness WA in March. Adigos is turning 40 this year and thinks that older women have one definite advantage.
“It’s harder for younger women to have the same sense of discipline,” she says. “They might feel like they’re missing out on partying.”
As Adigos knows well, the life of a competing bodybuilder is mercilessly structured into hourly segments; calorie counted and spreadsheet-controlled: Getting up before it’s light. Cardio. Tiny Tupperware tubs of steamed chicken and broccoli. Leg days. Protein shakes. Wearing waist trainers. Water manipulation.
But the sport’s very emphasis on structure brings order to life’s chaos, and that can be its greatest appeal. Adigos woke up one morning eight years ago and made the snap decision that things needed to change. Her background of child sexual abuse had played havoc on her wellbeing in terms of her relationship choices, self-medication, and suicidal feelings.
“I realised I needed to do something to fight,” she says. “I needed to create some victory for myself. When I looked at bodybuilding and saw how hard it is I thought I would do that, because the only way to get through it would be to really change my mindset and habits.”
Now, if she’s prepping, she gets up at 3am to do cardio, then sees her own personal training clients through the day, slotting in time with her coaches when she can, and weight training for two hours — finally getting home at around 8.30pm. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve found peace in going to the gym,” she says. “It releases endorphins and it’s become my medicine.”
Rebuilding confidence, fibre by fibre
Kay Wiseman is also a personal trainer. She works from World Gym in Maroochydore on the Sunshine Coast. She’s been competing as a bodybuilder since she was 47 — she’s now 61.
“It became personal growth for me,” she says. “I originally only started training to change my body; I never thought I would compete because I’m quite introverted.
“I was looking for something to focus on that would improve my confidence and self-esteem because I’d spent a lot of time in a couple of bad relationships that were very controlling — and you try to please everybody else rather than please yourself. It was my time to start doing things for me.”
One such relationship ended just after she started competing, which she puts down in part to her ex-partner feeling put out that he was no longer receiving all her attention. Her children were grown up and with that came the realisation that she needed something in her life that was her own.
“I had to rediscover myself because I had to transition to being independent and single,” she says.
Wiseman had a good base to work from, as she’d been weight-training since her 30s and had served in the Air Force for decades, which meant that she had to be fit — and so she found that she was barely affected by menopause.
“But being fit was nothing like that next step of competing,” she says. “For the first couple of years I was terrified. And you could tell, because the majority of people who do this sport are much more extroverted than me so they looked confident and they looked like they were up there having fun. I looked like I was thinking ‘What am I doing up here?'”
Wiseman’s friends and family were hugely supportive of her journey, and her oldest daughter now competes, so the two women often train together. For Wiseman, as with Eriksen and Adigos, bodybuilding is more than a sport, it’s a job and a lifestyle.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it,” she says. “You really do have to be committed to be successful — you can’t do it half-hearted and expect to see the results — and I had never really committed to anything that wholeheartedly, or not for a long time. So I really dug deep to find that within myself.”