When West Virginia University senior Nikole Eisenhart craves a sweet treat, she opts for a sweet potato with a little brown sugar instead of reaching for the package of Oreos.
In addition to studying accounting and working part-time, Eisenhart trains for National Physique Committee bikini competitions. Strict diets and daily muscle-specific exercises prepare Eisenhart in the 12 weeks before she takes the stage in Baltimore. But, during her time away from stage preparations, Eisenhart, who has been training for three years now, still remains extremely focused and passionate about her craft.
At NPC bikini competitions, women in two-piece swimsuits and high heel shoes are judged first based on their “Model Walk,” where they “walk to the center of the stage, stop and do a front stance, then a full turn and a back stance, then turn to the front again and face the judges as directed then proceed to the side of the stage”—in 10 seconds or less, according to NPCnewsonline.com.
During the second round, also known as the comparison round, of an NPC bikini competition, the women take the stage in groups so that the judges can compare their physiques in both front and back stances. The women are judged on their balance, shape and overall physical appearance, which includes complexion, skin tone, poise and overall presentation.
Through her fitness journey, Eisenhart has been undoubtedly rewarded countless times. Although she has achieved a stronger, more toned figure while simultaneously learning more about healthy (and not-so-healthy) lifestyles, Eisenhart claims that the greatest payoffs are not always the most tangible ones.
“The biggest reward is just the satisfaction of going into [the competition] and not knowing anyone, and knowing I put my heart and soul into it; I did everything I could. That, and proving to myself I could do it, was amazing,” says Eisenhart regarding her first competition one year ago.
There are also the bonds created through these events. Eisenhart now has a close friend Cynthia, who was her fellow competitor on the stage in 2016.
“All of the girls [at my first competition] were so inspirational, and they all had different backgrounds. There were a lot of girls that struggled with eating disorders and a lot of other different problems, who turned their lives around and became healthy. Meeting all those people was probably one of the best aspects of the completion,” says Eisenhart.
Eisenhart placed third in her open class, second in the collegiate class and second in novice (a novice is a competitor who has never won an overall title) at her first competition in March 2016. Of course, bringing home all this hardware was a huge bonus for the first-time competitor.
During competition preparation, Eisenhart followed what she and many other fitness gurus call a flexible diet, which consists only of counting macronutrients (i.e., proteins, fats and carbohydrates, or “macros”) determined by an individual’s needs and goals.
“I did more of the clean eating; I wasn’t eating cake and ice cream all the time. I ate more of the vegetables and chicken, like the ‘bro diet,’ but I also added in the foods that I wanted to eat, instead of following a meal plan,” says Eisenhart.
A major misconception when it comes to flexible dieting is that if an individual consumes junk foods, as long as they fit into her macros, she will reap the same benefits as someone who eats clean.
“Your body is obviously going to react to [junk food] differently. The more vegetables that you’re getting, the better it is going to be for your energy and alertness. When you’re lowering your calories, you want to be able to get the most nutrients,” says Eisenhart.
While flexible diet plans involve all three of the macronutrients, supplementation of these macros in addition to a flexible diet plan can be very risky, according to WVU sports nutritionist and adjunct professor Nettie Freshour, who has worked with WVU athletes for 13 years.
“I encourage food first; that is one of the biggest things to keep in mind. Individuals will try to supplement their diets with protein powders, weight gainers, mass gainers,” says Freshour.
“But, the problem with supplementation is that it is not FDA-regulated, so pretty much anything can be in a supplement that does not have to be listed on the label.”
Popular supplements like NOS, Jack3d and C4 contain high levels of synthetic caffeine, and when that is mixed with other stimulants, it can cause life-threating health problems, including increased heart rate, dehydration and even comas. Because of the FDA’s lack of involvement, many of the other potentially harmful stimulants are not listed on the packaging.
“If you are taking prescription medication or have an underlying health condition that hasn’t been identified yet, and you’re taking a stimulant that you did not realize you were taking, that can be extremely detrimental,” says Freshour.
The strain this lifestyle puts on an individual’s body can also be a serious risk factor when not done correctly or taken care of correctly, because both the diet and the exercise regimens are extremely restrictive and precise.
“If you gain an amount of mass, the mass doesn’t go away, and it doesn’t always stay as muscle. You have to consider long-term effects,” says Freshour.
“A 5’5” female ideally should weigh 125 pounds to 145 pounds, but if she weighs 185 pounds because of the muscle density, and she is not able to maintain that muscle mass, that could lead to a lot of negative health effects such as obesity, heart disease and kidney disease.”
Proper diet and exercise techniques are equally important, according to Freshour. The 50-50 split is something with which she and the athletes she trains work very closely. Yo-yo dieting, when an individual goes through repeated periods of overeating and under-eating in attempts to achieve or maintain a certain aesthetic, is a particularly harmful, yet relatively common risk they work together to avoid.
“Yo-yo dieting is pretty hard on the metabolism because your body and your brain get tricked; they don’t know quite what to do,” says Freshour.
“When you are below the minimum amount of calories your body needs daily to stay awake and alive, it stores fat in response. The more you yo-yo, the harder it will be to maintain weight later on in life.”
When training, especially when bulking, many bodybuilders will regularly consume large amounts of protein to gain weight. While this may seem perfectly fine to a young person with healthy kidneys, it begins to do the body more harm than good as soon as the level of consumption crosses a certain threshold. This threshold differs from person to person, but once it is reached, it can lead to serious kidney damage.
“A lot of times people believe that you only need protein to gain weight, well, in fact you need everything to gain weight because protein is the nutrient that your body has to work the hardest to break down,” says Freshour.
“So, carbohydrates are better for weight gain than protein; protein is the building blocks, but there is a cap on which your body will actually use that protein to gain mass.”
While Eisenhart has a healthy diet and proper heavy lifting and cardio techniques down to a T, she plans to focus more on mental health for her upcoming competitions in 2017.
“I wasn’t ready for the mental part of it; I thought it was going to be really easy and straightforward,” says Eisenhart.
“A couple weeks before [the competition] it gets really difficult. Your hormones are changing and there is a lot going on, so I would get emotional for no reason. I would question why I was doing it. Going into my next prep period, I know the satisfaction and I know why I’m doing it. I will know that it’s all worth it in the end.”
In retrospect, Eisenhart sees that the process may be tough, but knows that she is much tougher. As a matter of fact, she has very little trouble limiting junk food consumption, including the treat that was once her guilty pleasure: Oreos.
“It gets easier. Halfway [to the competition] it feels like life is over; everything is horrible. Then, once you get past that little bit, you’re like, ‘okay, this food isn’t bad.’ You find what you like, and you eat that,” says Eisenhart.
“If you’re eating chicken, rice and broccoli every day, you’re going to hate your life. But, if you start including something like a sweet potato with a little bit of brown sugar, you have that sweetness, and you don’t feel guilty after eating it.”
Training has benefitted Eisenhart offstage, as well. Before starting, she says that her life lacked structure. A few short years ago, Eisenhart was unsure of her career path; now she hopes to help other women by creating her own line of diet and exercise plans.
Eisenhart, who graduates from WVU in May 2017, has a meaningful personal goal that also helps her relieve stress, manage and prioritize time and be productive in all aspects of her life.
“If bodybuilding is done right, and done in a smart manner with the right intentions, it can be perfectly fine for anybody,” says Freshour.