The days are long gone when getting muscular was something women feared. Now gyms are full of people inspired by Michelle Obama's well-toned arms and Jennifer Aniston's six-pack abs. So the rising popularity of natural bodybuilding — creating a championship physique without using performance-enhancing drugs like steroids — is no mystery. At the forefront of the movement is Erin Stern, the Tampa woman who won the Olympia Figure championship in Las Vegas last year.
For the uninitiated: Figure competitions are a fairly new category of bodybuilding that place less emphasis on muscle mass and more on muscle symmetry and toning. But as Stern can testify, figure competitions require serious work and dedication.
Stern, 31, has long been an accomplished athlete. She grew up running track and riding horses, and was a track star at the University of Florida, where she earned a degree in environmental policy.
In 2008, Stern missed by just 3 centimeters the chance to try for the U.S. Olympic team as a high jumper and decided to find a new sport.
A friend suggested bodybuilding, and Stern started competing that very year. In March 2009, she made her pro debut at the Arnold Classic (yes, named for that Arnold), and just kept getting better.
Stern travels around the world for competitions and photo shoots — she has graced the covers of magazines such as Oxygen — and motivates others who want to take their fitness goals to the next level.
She recently sat down with Personal Best to share some of her fitness experience and advice.
When did you realize that competitive bodybuilding was for you?
I realized it at my first amateur show just because in high jump I was genetically limited. I had a smaller frame (she is 5 feet 8 and 135 pounds) and had been lifting for 10 years and had good muscle on me already. I realized that, if I wanted to put the work in, I could go far. The Arnold was kind of a setback when I placed 10th since I had won all the shows previous to that. In 2010, I place second at the Arnold and then I won the Orlando Europa, and then I trained and trained hard and then won the Olympia.
How did you train?
My training was kind of cool because it still went along the same lines of training as if I were going to a track meet. I do a hybrid training that is more athletic bodybuilding. .
What is the first thing you do every day?
As soon as I wake up, I have to eat. It's just a half a cup of oatmeal and five egg whites mixed together. I mix it with sugar-free syrup and chipotle pepper. You cook the oats first and then you add the egg whites and it makes this mush. It sounds really gross, but it's so good. You have to make sure you cook the oats completely first in water and then you add your egg whites in.
What's your daily diet?
It's pretty easy. I start off with my egg whites and oatmeal and I eat every three hours. The next meal would be 4 or 5 ounces of chicken and four rice cakes and a salad. The salad is as big as I want it to be. The next meal is pretty similar and I might throw in a half a cup of quinoa (a high-protein grain) or an avocado. At night, it's egg whites and veggies.
How do you deal with the restriction of a competition diet?
You know that the small things you're doing will ultimately lead to your success. I don't put a lot of emphasis on food because I know it's fuel.
What do you eat when you're not competing?
When I'm off-season, I like to have a cheat meal once a week. I like to have pizza, sushi or ice cream. I don't like to go to crazy. You know how people have an alcohol hangover? Well, you can also have a food hangover and then you just don't feel like doing anything.
You are a big advocate of natural bodybuilding. How important is that to you?
I've always wanted to be the best in the world at something. When I realized that the Olympia was something that I could win, I really just worked my butt off.
I devote a lot of time to promoting being healthy and being completely natural; completely meaning no steroids and no banned substances. I'm proof that it can be done. That's why I'm still trying to jump 6 feet on the high jump because I want to prove that you can be an elite bodybuilder and an elite athlete. The natural living is so important.
What goes through your mind before you step out on the stage at a competition?
At that point, when I'm standing on stage, I think about something that makes me really happy and I just try to relax. I also have to think of something that will make me smile a genuine smile instead of a smile of terror. You want your eyes to say, 'I am happy and confident.' I also think of the crowd of people as a crowd of friends and family. You can't think of the crowd as a panel of judges and people critiquing your physique. I'm a shy person and I almost have to disconnect and tell myself that it's a bodybuilding thing and that I can't take it personally.
You're also a trainer. If one of your clients said they were interested in competing, what would you tell them?
If they have a lot of work to do, I would tell them to maybe do a show in 10 months and we would set a series of smaller goals so they can get to that bigger goal. My advice would be for them to pick a show and then pick a division that would be best for them, and then put a plan together to get them to that show when they are looking their absolute best.
What's next for you?
I'm training for the Olympia again and I'm also writing a book that's called Get Fit F.A.S.T. Fast stands for Functionally Aesthetic Strength Training.