The bikini, the high heels, the posing, and of course the stage: All this can make a woman's figure competition look like just another beauty pageant. Not so, says Ashley Toms, 27, a national figure competitor and former beauty pageant queen. "Doing pageants was fun, " says the petite blond, "but figure competitions challenge me emotionally, spiritually, physical, and intellectually in a way that pageants never did."
For the uninitiated, women's bodybuilding can be a confusing and intimidating sport, but with thousands of women competing everyyear, it's one of the fasting growing athletic events in the country. There are four main categories of female bodybuilding, says Steve Toms, Ashley's coach and husband (the two met in the LifeTime Fitness gym where she was training for her first competition!):
1. Bikini: "A softer look" that's more focused on the traditional female body shape.
2. Figure: "Still looks very feminine but emphasizes muscle definition and symmetry, " Steve says.
3. Physique: This category is more about muscle size and development.
4. Body Building: This is the heavily muscled/low body fat look most people usually think of.
"Ashley chose to compete in figure because "it's the best of both worlds—strong and glamorous" Steve says.
What makes bodybuilding so appealing to women? "Lots of women come into this to get strong, to say they accomplished something, or even to overcome something from their past, " Steve says. But it's not about the past for Ashley, it's about the future. "I'm a very positive, optimistic person, and if I can inspire people to make little changes in their own life, it's like a domino effect: You're able to do things you didn't even think were possible, " she says.
Training for a figure competition definitely isn't easy. "I train twice a day. I have to eat very clean meals every three hours. I have to prepare meals for several days at a time and measure out my portions so I know exactly what I'm putting in my body, " Ashley says. (See a typical day in Ashley's training and nutrition plan on the next page.) Steve adds, "It takes a tremendous amount of willpower. You can't "cheat" or it will show on your body. And you have to keep it up for the 12-18 weeks it takes to prep for a show."
It doesn't feel like deprivation to Ashley, who loves the whole transformation process. Over the next 12 weeks she will drop about 8 percent body fat and gain considerable muscle. "The body is like a machine. It's amazing how when you give it exactly what it needs, it will do exactly what it's designed to do!" she says.
Knowing what her body needs can be tricky, so the elementary school gym teacher turned to science for help. "The best tip I can give women who are interested in this is to get your metabolic testing done. It takes all the guesswork out of aerobic training. Once you know how your body burns fat, you know how long and how intense your cardio needs to be. You don't have to slog away for hours on the treadmill to see results!"
Ashley is also very careful to avoid overtraining. "My body is a temple. I'm not the kind of person who wants to win so badly that I'll compromise my health and vitality to do it."
There's more to it than just looking good, cautions Steve. "A successful figure competitor has a great body but even more importantly, a great stage presence and personality." In the end, it's all about showmanship—an aspect Ashley relishes.
"My favorite part is that first moment stepping out onto the stage and knowing that all my hard work, dedication, and training paid off." (Her least favorite part? Having to sleep in full sweats so her carefully layered spray tan doesn't stain the hotel sheets!)
Ashley is hoping to make the top 15 at Nationals this fall and bring home another trophy or two. We'll be checking back in with her in a couple of months to see how her body has changed and if she accomplished her goal!