Picture a scientist. If you don’t know many scientists, you might picture a man with glasses wearing a white coat, perhaps with grey hair in disarray, holding a microscope or a flask of green liquid, like most children do. But when introduced to real scientists, a child’s picture changes – now there are women, people of color, very few white coats, and more holey jeans and t-shirts. And if these kids met the aptly named Alex Paine, PhD candidate in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, they’d draw another type of scientist – one with grapefruit sized calves and a back rippled with muscles: a body builder.
Alex has spent the past year seriously dedicated to building her body’s muscles, and the results are pretty miraculous. In her very first competition last spring, the Denver Mile High show, Alex won first place in two categories while rocking “theme-wear” as a botanist. She continued to rock the competition two weeks ago, placing first and third in the Colorado Pro Qualifier.
Although she’s only been training for competition for a year, Alex has been serious about fitness for some time. Motivated by a particularly unhealthy freshman year of college, Alex committed to a regular fitness routine, which we all know is a key part of beating stress and staying healthy. But what motivated Alex to take her training to the next level?
Alex’s foray into body building actually isn’t that surprising – both of her parents were body builders. When she was ten her parents quit competing, but were still dedicated to the healthy diet body builders maintain. “I hated the food,” Alex recalls. “You’re seven. You don’t want chicken and potatoes and these low calorie dressings!” But Alex’s parents had given her the exposure to the diet and training needed to be successful. And when Alex moved to Colorado for graduate school, she decided to branch out into the sport her parents both loved.
Alex started with some casual weight training, just three times a week. But by a year into grad school she set goals to push to heavier weights. She started putting on muscle fast, so she decided to prepare for a competition. She changed her diet for 6 months to promote building muscle and losing fat, and the results were pretty incredible.
“Seeing the progress is addicting,” Alex explains, “It’s really cool to see how your body can change, how even though you might be the exact same weight you were two years ago, you look so much different.”
Although body-building is primarily associated with lifting heavy weights, the huge, defined muscles you see are just as much the result of a carefully tailored diet. This is where Alex’s training in biology comes in particularly handy – she can discuss the effects of different diets, in combination with different types of exercise, with the ease of a seasoned expert.
My first lesson is that while losing fat is important to show muscle definition, it can be really hard to burn fat without burning muscle. In order to accomplish this, your body must go into “ketosis,” which basically means you need to eat very few carbs while working out intensely, rather than doing “steady state” cardio exercises. High intensity interval training (HIIT) actually activates your flight-or-fight response, which prevents your body from burning the muscle you may need to escape an attacker.
Alex discusses the difficult diet very honestly, recognizing that plenty of competitors can develop an unhealthy relationship with food. There are plenty of foods allowed on a body-builder’s diet, but they have to balance their “macros,” or the exact number of carbs, fat, and protein, very carefully. Alex explains that slipping up on the diet can lead to a lot of guilt, on top of the frustration of denying your cravings. However, when Alex frames it in terms of her goals, her cravings lesson and she can allow herself a treat as long as she adjusts her macros in other meals.
“Understanding that when you develop a problem that it is a problem and then actually taking active steps to fix it is something I’ve learned and struggled with, but I’m a lot better with now,” explains Alex.
Alex’s goals for the next year are ambitious. She wants to become a professional body builder in her organization (Fitness Universe), as well as the head “promoter” for Colorado. A promoter is the person who organizes the shows –arranging the venue and making sure everything runs smoothly from backstage. After winning her first show Alex became one of many promoters in Colorado, leading to a wonderful experience as the backstage organizer at a local show in the spring, and now she’s hooked.
Alex also plans to build her business, Xela’s Customs, designing and making bikinis and theme-wear for the shows. She notes that compared to other organizations, Fitness Universe emphasizes the pageantry of events, so contestants are scored on their stage presence and costuming (aka theme-wear) in addition to their impressive muscles. The organization is also completely natural – no steroids or other drugs allowed – and they test at every show.
Alex knows her ability to gain muscle quickly will start to wane – gaining 10 lbs. of muscle in the first year of dedicated training is normal, but especially for women, building muscle is hard and can slow to 1-2 lbs. per year. Within about 5 years Alex hopes to compete in the more muscular categories that her mom competed in, called “figure” and “physique” these days.
This fall Alex has been diving deep into her graduate research in biology education. She is asking fascinating questions about how advanced science students use higher level cognitive thinking to solve really complex problems – a skill graduating seniors should have acquired. She’s already presented her initial work at two conferences, with another lined up in January.
When asked how she balances 2-3 hours of weight training per day with graduate school, Alex responds “very carefully,” before laughing out loud. Her passion for her research shines just as bright as her passion for meeting her fitness goals, and clearly when Alex is determined to change something about her life, she can do it.
By Amanda Grennell