Health & WellbeingLifestyle & Culture

Newcastle bodybuilders set the bar-bell high

We all struggle to get motivated sometimes, whether at Uni, work or in our health regimes. Lauren Freemantle gets inspired by three young women who have found their passion and motivation in the sport of bodybuilding.

To the uninitiated, bodybuilding conjures up images of bulging muscles, protein shakes and heavy restrictions on lifestyle. But delve a little deeper, and you will find a sport founded in nutrition, science and community.

Bodybuilding is defined as the use of progressive resistance exercise to control and develop one’s muscles by muscle hypertrophy for aesthetic purposes. But the real trophies are those won in competitions (tbh usually medals, but you have to admire the segue).

Bodybuilding competitions are organised by ‘federations’ ranging in size and seriousness – from the amateur levels all the way to the holy grail weekend of bodybuilding, the Olympia titles held in the US.

Competitive natural bodybuilder Celeste Whetton, 22, explains amateur-level bodybuilders like herself are free to compete in various federation events, with exclusivity in the higher leagues.

“If you get a pro card that becomes trickier, so you sometimes have to ask for permission if you want to compete with another federation. But once you get good enough to hit the pro level you want to be in one federation, because each federation likes different things, the same as every judge likes different things,” Celeste said.

“Some federations value someone coming in extraordinarily lean and some like a heavier muscle mass and not quite as lean, so it’s a bit of a disservice to yourself and your physique if you are trying to fit all these boxes all at once.”

For Newcastle woman, Laura Chapman, it’s the rigidity and structure of training which attracts her to natural bodybuilding. She has been preparing for competitions since early 2020, with her Season A event scheduled for April cancelled during the first wave of COVID.

Laura made it onto the stage in October 2020 for her first Australian Bodybuilding

Laura (right) celebrating a first place win in her very first comp.

Federation comp, and says preparation gave her immense drive to succeed.

“I enjoy it because you have a very firm goal that you have to reach and that goal is set by you.

“Sure, you are up on stage competing against other people, but you need your physique to be basically perfect to win. I also like that it’s so goal driven, and you have a specified date that you are aiming for.”

Like any good fitness regime, Laura’s foray into bodybuilding began after a 2017 breakup.

“One of my good friends was powerlifting, so I started going to the gym with him and got really into that, but about 7 months in I did a disc in my spine.”

Laura switched gyms to Plus Fitness where a PT helped her with her recovery and suggested she might enjoy bodybuilding. Three years on, it’s a major aspect of her life outside of work as an economics teacher at USYD.

Josie on stage at the ICN Nationals.

For Josie Saunders, who has just moved back to Newcastle from Quirindi, the motivation she gains from bodybuilding translates into other aspects of life.

“When you are rigid with your diet and your training, that also transfers into your study and your work, and your overall work ethic is impacted on,” she said.

Josie credits strength training and walking for helping her unwind from the stresses of a desk job and studying a law degree.

In terms of what’s involved, Laura and Josie agreed the lead up to a competition is usually a 10-to-15-week phase. During this time, they walk to a step-count goal everyday (to keep the metabolism firing) and hit the gym five or six days a week.

For Josie, nutrition involved a structured macros plan, with daily targets for protein, carbs and fat intake.

Laura said the first five weeks of her comp prep was a build phase, where she would increase her daily calories by 100 calories each week and do exercises specifically targeting certain body parts, such as delts or glutes. Closer to the competition, cardio is introduced, calories are reduced by 100 per week and the daily step count is lowered to balance it out.

“Before I decided to do it, I watched so many Instagram influencers who were like ‘yeah if you follow my posts you can do a competition’ but when I finally got an actual coach I realised, no, you definitely need somebody to guide you and make the calls for you,” Laura said.

For Celeste, who works in Newcastle as a public servant, having a support network is an essential element of competition prep. She said without the right checks and balances in place, bodybuilding can be risky for competitors’ mental health.

Celeste posing for the NBA competition in Sydney.

“It’s a very big rabbit hole, and if you’re not doing it for the right reason you find out very quickly,” Celeste said.

“There’s a lot of women who will start competing because it is very glamourous. You see all the stage pictures and the bikinis and all the camaraderie at the shows – it’s a very big pull card to see these women with amazing physiques and all of the confidence they exude on social media, and I think it can be a trap.”

She said people who go into bodybuilding for the purpose of bettering the way they feel about themselves can be vulnerable to developing eating disorders or body dysmorphia. Celeste combats the risk by checking in with herself and her support network.

“When I’m deep into prep, my boyfriend and my GP both know as well as my coach so I’ve got eyes on me at all times. I always say to my boyfriend, ‘if I’m giving you weird vibes or starting to be weird about food I need you to say something to me, straight away we need to get it sorted.’

“The stage is always going to be there and there is always going to be another prep, but if you do irreversible damage to the thought process that you have around food and the way that you look, then that takes 10 times longer to fix than it does to reverse out of a prep and start again when you are ready.”

Laura also had an experience with negative body thoughts following her first competition.

“I wouldn’t say body dysmorphia to that extent but just being way too bodily aware of what I was eating and my calories, intake and exercise,” she said, “Looking back on that now, that’s exactly not what you should be focusing on in the sport – it definitely should be your own long-term goals.”

Celeste said the secret is to make sure you truly enjoy training.

“It doesn’t have to be dangerous and it doesn’t have to be restrictive…I think a lot of people take it too far when they don’t have the passion for it. If you don’t want to get up at 5am and train twice a day, if you don’t want to do those things it’s a lot harder to make yourself do those things, and that’s how extreme stuff happens.

“If you don’t want to train that means you would have to eat less and then you’re robbing yourself of that so anything can be extreme if you make it extreme.”

For Celeste, the community aspect of bodybuilding and the friendships made through competing provides inspiration to get up in the morning and train.

But with Hunter gyms closed during COVID lockdown, bodybuilders are having to adapt and workout from home, posing unique challenges.

Back into it: lockdown won’t keep Laura away from the gains.

“I was doing resistance band training for like 3 days into lockdown thinking ‘this is great’ and then I did a pull up and had the resistance band whip up and whack me in the face. So that was the end of that,” Laura said.

She looked on Facebook Marketplace for a pre-owned set of weights, finding people were price gouging due to the huge demand and low supply of gym equipment on the market.

“It is insane what people do during lockdown with their gym equipment. Like a barbell and 60kg worth of weights for $1000,” Laura said, “So I went onto the Rebel sport website and got a set of weights for $170 click and collect and it’s been so good, I feel much more like myself now.”

With competitions on hold until mass gathering events make a comeback, the three women are now taking it easy, focusing on strength maintenance and mental health.

Laura says she won’t be dieting or training very hard during this, her Honours year at the University of Sydney. Josie is also keeping busy with online learning, while Celeste is taking a relaxed approach and will assess in future what competitions to do and what build style to strive for.


Feature image by Yak Designer, Callum Pull. All other images supplied. 

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