Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Q&A With Fern

Fern Assard, 41, of Uncasville, took top prize in the Classic Figure portion of the 2009 National Physique Committee’s Jay Cutler Bodybuilding, Fitness, Figure & Bikini Classic this spring in Boston.

Assard is the accounts manager at Waterford Dental Health and spends her evenings working out and helping her children with homework.

Dissatisfied with what she described as her “skinny fat” body, Assard started working out in 2006. She will take part in one of the first local competitions scheduled for Oct. 17 at New London High School. She also writes a blog for where she shares her workout videos.

Q How did you get involved in the bodybuilding scene?

A I just wasn’t satisfied with myself. I was dieting, starving myself and anorexic for a while. I got to 98 pounds at one point. I needed to do something to make myself feel better. You look at models and think, “I must be fat. If I diet and diet and diet, I’ll look better.” Everybody thinks, “If I starve myself for a month, I can look like a Victoria’s Secret model.” You can lose weight, but stuff still ends up just hanging in puddles. I wanted to look healthier. I needed to feel better, be more positive so I could like myself more. I joined (Work Out World in Waterford) with my daughter.

Q And all of a sudden you become a first-rate competitor?

A I was really shy before I started doing this. I was afraid to go to the gym by myself. I was like the other women going into the gym. They come in, look at the machine, look around, use one machine and leave. The machines look like medieval torture devices. Nobody knows what to do. I was afraid to go into the weight room with the men. I was reading a Muscle and Fitness magazine one day and saw a professional fitness competitor. She was a mother of three. I thought, “If she can do it, I can do it ...” I knew that’s what I wanted. I did it. I’m 13 pounds heavier since I joined the gym and wear the same size.

Q What is the competition all about?

A It’s called Figure. The women are more feminine, but still have more muscle. I equate it to a muscle beauty pageant, not the traditional skinny model types. I’m on stage in front of hundreds of people in a bikini. We’re not big people or overly lean. You’re not supposed to be overly muscular.

Q And what’s it like to be a winner?

A At my first competition, I went with my daughter. I didn’t have a lot of people backing me up. They didn’t know what I was doing. It was nerve-wracking. It doesn’t really get much easier on stage. People scrutinizing you under the hot lights in nothing but a rhinestone bikini and high heels. They’re looking at everything. They’re comparing skin, muscle tone and overall beauty. I felt like I had accomplished something — totally the opposite than I’ve always been. When you try something, you’re so scared to try it, and then you say, “I did it.” It’s like jumping out of an airplane. My favorite part is when they announce me, they usually throw in “she has four kids.” That usually gets an applause.

ROCK HARD: on being a female bodybuilder

ROCK HARD: on being a female bodybuilder

NEW YORK — For Tennille Ray, maintaining her sculpted arms, 12-pack abs and muscled legs is a full-time job.

Ray is a professional bodybuilder in the figure division — which means she has eye-popping muscles but is still expected to be curvy and feminine. She has been competing in the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation for about a year, winning her debut and going on to be named Miss Universe at a competition held in Barbados earlier this year against more seasoned professionals.

Ray was fit before — she has been a personal trainer in New York since 2001 — but she didn't consider a career in bodybuilding until a friend at her gym suggested it. Then, an overweight girl told Ray she was so pretty she wanted to see her in magazines — and that if Ray did it, the girl would get in shape, too.

"It really appealed to me, the idea that I could inspire this little girl," said Ray, who hopes eventually to use her winnings for a wellness center for children. So far she's earned more than $5,000.

Last spring, she signed up for a retreat held by a pro bodybuilder that taught some diet and exercise basics. But Ray had to refine her strategy as she went along.

The transformation was difficult. It took her about four months of intense, two-hour workouts and a serious amount of dietary restraint. Bodybuilders eat constantly, but it's a very specific formula, heavy on protein and vegetables and light on sodium and fats, Ray said. She was often cranky and exhausted. She turned down dinner invitations with friends because it would be hard finding something that fit her diet. Giving up cheese was particularly tough.

"I thought, I eat healthy, this should be fine," she said. "I was so wrong. It's a totally different way of thinking. You're eating to feed your muscles, not for enjoyment."

Slowly she noticed her body changing, becoming more sculpted, and her energy returning. Her hard work paid off: She won her amateur debut in September 2008 and turned pro.

"Tennille came in and kicked butt right off the bat," said Charlie Carollo, vice president of the WNBF. "She's really disciplined, but she's also got God-given genetics that really help her out."

Ray, who won't tell her age, works out regularly and brings food everywhere she goes, munching on salad with mushrooms, broccoli and fresh fish during a recent interview. She says she relies mostly on fresh vegetables and natural nutritional supplements.

Other bodybuilders have turned to steroids to make their muscles bulge. The WNBF bans controlled substances and drug tests, and gives polygraph tests before each show to combat drug use.

But even without drugs, women can harm their bodies by becoming so lean, said Meaghan Murphy, features director for fitness at Self magazine.

"You have to have fat on your body," she said. "The nutritional aspects of body building scare me. There are not enough carbs, there are supplements not monitored by the FDA, perhaps they're toying with hormone cocktails. ... It's risky."

Ray is often asked by strangers on the street how she got so fit.

"You don't have to go as extreme as me to be fit," she said. "You still feel good and successful just working toward your own goals."

Here she mentions five proven ways to help keep fit, whether you're on the road to competition or just want to squeeze into a smaller size:

PORTION CONTROL: Step away from that super-size drink. Half the battle of being in shape is knowing when to put down the fork, Ray says. Eat five small meals a day instead of two or three larger ones, and keep in mind that a serving of meat is about the size of your palm. Pastas and other carbohydrates are about a handful, or an ice-cream scoop, and bread is one slice. Veggies and fruits are best raw.

DON'T FEAR WEIGHTS: Weight training is good for you, Ray says, and there's no way the average person will bulk up like a bodybuilder. Bicep curls with more reps and less weight will help you achieve a more sculpted look. Murphy says strength training is essential. "After 35, if you're not doing weight-bearing exercises you're at risk for osteoporoses," she said. "Just two days a week. Light dumbbells to keep bone density in check."

DISCIPLINE: Being fit is a distance event, not a sprint. It's OK to have that slice of pizza or an ice cream sundae, but then get right back on the health horse, Ray says. Bring food from home when you're at work to avoid hidden calories in takeout food, and save the eating out for special nights.

BACK TO BASICS: Calisthenics, such as lunges, squats and push-ups, are some of the best ways to get in shape, but often are sidelined for more exotic exercises. They require no weights, and can be done anywhere. Ray suggests alternating two different exercises, in two or three sets of 15, to tone and strengthen.

DRINK WATER: Ray drinks more than a gallon of water a day, and it's possible you should too, depending on how much sodium you ingest, she said. If you're at work, keep a bottle of water at your desk and refill it at least four times a day. If you're home, refill your glass at least six times, she says.