Like many women of her generation, Casey Kelly grew up playing sports. She played soccer and ran track in high school and went on to play four years of soccer at Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y. But once her final game for the Wildcats ended, so did her competitive athletic career.
Kelly had spent most of her life playing sports, finding a path to physical and emotional health through physical activity. But there was something important in the competition too. Suddenly, that component was gone.
To fill the void, Kelly first tried distance running, completing a half marathon and training for a sprint triathlon.
Then Kelly's friend, Wendy Sanacore, introduced her to figure competitions — an event in bodybuilding competitions designed specifically for women. Kelly found a new motivation to get to the gym, a new goal and a new focus not just for her fitness but also for her competitive spirit.
Traditional bodybuilding requires building as much muscle mass as possible while maintaining low body fat to showcase muscle striations to judges, and competitions involve a series of mandatory poses. The combination is often unappealing to women.
So the sport evolved to add other categories. First came "fitness," which involved displaying a healthy, toned body and intricate aerobics-style routines. As the routines became more complicated, the division known as "figure" evolved. It has women striking a few poses while doing quarter turns in front of a panel of judges. In figure competitions, women wear bikinis, high-heeled shoes and have a full complement of hair, makeup, nails and tanning to accentuate their aesthetics.
"I tell (women) it's like bodybuilding, but they look for more aesthetics and proportion than muscle definition and size," said Sanacore, who trained Kelly for her first show in the spring. "When you think bodybuilding, you think automatically big muscles. Figure, I think, doesn't scare women as much, because it's 'figure.' It's a prettier name. It's prettier presentation."
For some, like Kelly, it's about finding a new competitive outlet. For others, it's about weight loss and improved health. For women older than 35, it's about getting to compete for the first time after years of working out for themselves.
Sanacore had participated in the sport for nine years. As Kelly looked for new sports to try, figure became intriguing.
"I graduated from college two years ago, so every year in the spring I like to train for something," Kelly said. "Seeing Wendy's pictures inspired me. I wondered if I could work that hard to look like that. I kinda needed something to fill that competitive void, since I haven't been playing soccer at the college level."
For Heather O'Connoll, training for her first figure competition last spring was a way to help her lose weight. Working out at Southtowns Fitness, O'Connoll wanted to lose weight for the Buffalo, N.Y., firefighters exam. She successfully completed that but still had some pounds to drop and continued working out, particularly continuing weight training.
Men at her gym encouraged her to enter a figure competition, and she took the better part of a year to prepare.
"At the time of the show I did in April, I had lost 155 pounds," O'Connoll said. "Because I was already working out, I thought (competing in figure) was a possibility. I started training about a year ago, because I still had weight to lose. For me it was very much a solo project and a long road, but I knew my ultimate goal was to lose weight for myself. The competition was just part of the bigger goal."
Diet for competition: Use caution
Aside from working out, often twice a day, the key component to figure competition involves diet.
Competition diets typically start 12 to 14 weeks before the event. The diets include increasing protein, honing the types of carbohydrates consumed and restricting calories. The goal is to eliminate as much fat from the body as possible to show off the muscle mass that's been built.
The diet for amateurs, when followed correctly, is rather healthy, and calorie restriction is limited to times around competition — which usually is just one show a year. There are dangers of falling into year-round dieting or entering too many competitions.
"It's not a healthy type of diet to be on year-round," said Dr. David Geier, director of sports medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. "People in bodybuilding can restrict carbohydrates too much, and that causes problems because after you lose fat, the body will start burning tissue and muscle. They also tend to restrict fluids around competition, which is always something that's potentially dangerous."
But figure competitions, when proper training is paired with moderate dieting, can be a healthy avenue toward overall fitness, experts say.
"In general, I think figure offers a healthier approach than traditional bodybuilding," Geier said. "It has less emphasis on building bulk and a bit more emphasis on overall fitness. We often talk about three main components of fitness — muscle building, cardiovascular and flexibility. Working on all three are especially important for women, and figure tends to be a more well-rounded type of competition and training."