Nancy Clark has a workout routine that she makes look almost effortless. She can outperform almost everyone else in the gym, although she likes that the space has a non-judgemental atmosphere. But at 52, the Grand Forks business owner is getting set to compete at the world women’s bodybuilding competition.
Clark, co-owner of Body Edge Fitness with her husband Al, will be jetting off to Scottsdale, Arizona next month to compete as one of the top 19 women in the world at the Wings of Strength Rising Pheonix Championship on September 10.
Clark got into bodybuilding about seven years ago, she said, in part for something to do during the tough winters living at Christina Lake. The goal-oriented aspect of training for a specific show helped her see the finish line.
“I always worked out but never took it really seriously until I got older. I started competing because we lived out at Christina Lake and … it’s pretty secluded so I needed something to keep me going,” Clark said.
The process of going from a fitness enthusiast to a professional bodybuilder is a long one. It took Clark seven years from her first competition to now, and even that is slightly faster than average, she estimates. Competitors start at a novice tier before going through the provincial and national levels, before they earn a “pro card” after placing in the top three at the national level. That allows them to compete with the best in the world, as well as professionally train other bodybuilders. Clark won her pro card in 2012.
When asked about women’s bodybuilding, Clark acknowledges it isn’t all smooth sailing in the traditionally male-dominated sport.
“Men get a lot more respect,” she said. “It is more socially acceptable for a guy to look this way. Like anything, the men get the better end of the stick.” Clark added that imbalance is often evident in the prize money awarded at shows—women are sometimes awarded a mere $5,000 for competing at a level where a winning man might take home $100,000.
Women’s bodybuilding has been around for decades, but has undergone drastic changes in the last several years. It was popularized by women’s magazines in the 1980s, but later dropped off in popularity before resurging, with the trend being towards more muscle and definition on women.
At 52, Clark said she will most certainly be one of the oldest women competing. Many women start to retire in their early 50s, and she pegs the median age as being around 40. Contrary to popular belief, bodybuilding is not a young person’s sport: younger women often haven’t been training long enough in their 20s and 30s to have the muscle density needed to compete at an elite level.
“My husband said, did you ever think that at 52 you would have a six pack and be competing at this level?’” she said.
Judging is based on the symmetry, size and density of the muscles, Clark said. Contestants are asked to perform a set of seven poses to show off their body, then perform a routine of poses to music.
Clark said her typical contest preparations start only a few days after her last competition. They include a strict diet—plenty of healthy calories at the beginning to build muscle, later cutting calories to loose fat—and plenty of workouts. Clark said she works out between five and six days a week, for almost two hours at a time. Her workouts typically include weights and cardio.
The lifestyle of a professional bodybuilder isn’t for everyone, Clark said. Some of her success comes down to a good genetic predisposition for putting on muscle, but much more comes down to pure dedication to a lifestyle that had a lot of downsides.
“You have to have a really good reason for doing it because you’re going to wake up some mornings and say, why am I doing this?” Clark said. “You have to love it, all the prep. You better love the working out, the healthy eating, the cardio.”
The sport is also plagued by misinformation and misconceptions, she said. Competitors need a lot of strength, both inner and physical.
“There is the misconception that all we do is go to the gym and work out,” Clark said. “We do other things but this is our passion. And if you can find something you are passionate about, why wouldn’t you go the extra mile?”
This competition represents the pinnacle of achievement for women’s bodybuilding. Right now Clark said she is focused on training so she can achieve what she wants when she competes next month. After that, she said she’s not sure of what comes next.
“I am so excited about this show and what it means to be in the company of these other women. It is going to be phenomenal,” she said. “This was my goal when I went pro. I never thought I would achieve it, so it has been an awesome year for me.”