By: Rob Riches, America's Fittest Model, Junior World Musclemania Champion
From 2005 though to 2006, I had competed in 13 competitions, winning 5 of them, and never placing outside the top 4. After only one fitness show in 2007, I wanted to repeat in 2008 for modeling what I had achieved in 2006 in natural bodybuilding.
Since moving to LA last year, I have been surrounded by a medley of different organizations, offering different competitions, almost every week. Yet one thing was clear to me, and that was I only wanted to compete in natural shows. There were a number of natural competitions throughout California, although some I seriously doubted their definition of natural. For me, natural means a lifetime, 100% drug-free, lifestyle, and one that I am proud to have followed from day one.
When I first came to LA, I was introduced to a great man who I had admired since I first picked up a fitness magazine back when I barely knew what a dumbbell was. His name was Clark Bartram, and he is America's Most Trusted Fitness Professional. Having previously competed in natural bodybuilding shows, and helping define the term 'Fitness Model' over a very successful and 20 year career, which is still thriving, he has appeared on the covers of over 130 magazines, and has had success in front of the camera with his own fitness TV show, written best-selling books and speaks in seminars all over the world. This was a man that if I could achieve only half of what he has, I would be in a very good place.
When Clark told me that he was involved in organizing 'Americas Fittest Model' competition, and that I should enter, I had total trust that it would be a natural one and signed up straight away.
The show was to be held in San Diego over the first weekend in April, and consisted of 3 rounds, one of which was a new concept and one that made a lot of sense. Every show I have previously competed in, be it a body building show or a fitness model show, I have only been judged on stage. The purpose of Clarks show is to find Americas fittest model, and expose them to the magazine publishers and photographers that had helped shaped his career. "People may appear great on stage, but it's not stage presence that magazine editors are looking for" Says Clark. "It's the ability to take a great photo that will sell their magazine".
The first round to be judged by a panel of experienced professionals, including figure champions and top-professional photographers to name a few, was a photography round, which showed the competitors 'Best Cover Shot'. Each of the 30 or so competitors (with an even match of males and females), could use props such as dumbbells or medicine balls - the usual cover shot apparatus, and was professionally photographed against a white back drop. As I was oiling up in the changing rooms, which helps to show up the definition against the flash of the camera, I realized to myself that this was the first time in almost 18 months that I had done this familiar routine. I stepped back and looked at myself in the mirror, thinking about everything that had happened in that time, and how my physique had changed. In nearly all of my competitions I had given myself 10 weeks or so to train and diet for it, yet for this competition, I had only 4 weeks to prepare for it. I thought back to how I looked after dieting for so long, and then looked at my reflection in the mirror. I looked thicker, harder, and even more defined. I was still very lean thanks to my intense training and clean nutrition between shows. As Clark is always telling me - "you've got to be ready to go", and so I was always prepared for 'that phone call' whereby I may not have been the first choice for a shoot, but I was the person that they called, and if they did I wanted to be sure that I was indeed - ready to go.
I walked into the conference room of the hotel where a studio had been set up and picked up a pair of dumbbells. I had learnt from a number of fitness shoots that I had been fortunate enough to have had with some of the top photographers in the industry, and from observing other models, such as Clark - who I was able to go with to an Ironman cover shoot, how to best present my physique to get a great shot. I stood at an almost right angle to the camera and then twisted my shoulders round so that they were square on to the camera. This gave me the appearance of a much tighter waist, and showed off the width of my shoulders and chest, while at the same time showing my obliques and the sweep in my quads and hamstrings. I exhaled and kept my abs tight, keeping a squeeze in my arms and legs without flexing my chest, which unlike in a bodybuilding show you don't want as it wrinkles the pecs and doesn't look natural. Not for a shoot anyway. Perhaps one of the hardest things is to keep certain muscle groups tensed, with other areas relaxed, while all the time keeping a relaxed face so that it appears effortless. This takes time and practice, and it was only now that I was grateful for all the times I had had to repeat shot after shot in earlier photo shoots to try and get the one picture I wanted.
After the photography round was over, I had more than 24 hours to wait until I would be judged on stage. Most competitions happen on the same day, as any longer proves harder for the competitor to hold their condition, and further stress's their body. Fortunately I had been in a similar position before at the Musclemania World Finals in 2006 when it was a 2-day event, and so knew that to keep my condition, I had to keep my water intake to a minimum, otherwise I would start to hold water and look soft and smooth up on stage under the bright lights.
I hadn't yet started to carb load, and although I hadn't fully depleted my carbs in the prior days to the show, I had reduced them, so I could look forward to enjoying foods like white potato and grains again, which had been largely absent from my diet for the past few weeks. I had 24 hours to full my muscle cells with glycogen enabling them to fill out, giving me an even further 'tighter appearance' on stage. For the next 24 hours, my food intake consisted of lean turkey with a handful of almonds every few hours (to continue to help draw water out of my cells), with a white baked potato the size of my fist, between each protein-rich meal, plus one half of a banana, which other than the simple sugars, helps keep my potassium levels up, as flushing water out of my body will severely deplete my potassium levels. Only really prior to a competition do I get to enjoy nothing but relaxing and eating - pretty much all day long. It's something that I know not everyone feels comfortable doing, but when done right, the results are noticeable.
A few hours before the main show, I drove to the theatre, for the group meet. I got their about 15 minutes early to meet everyone back stage, and to make sure I knew them and they knew who I was. It always helps introducing yourself to everyone at a show, even if you think they have nothing to do with the show. Once everyone arrived, and we were given a run through of what was expected on stage, I went back stage with the other guy's competing. I already had my tan on, which was not as dark as in past competitions when I was competing in bodybuilding, as for a model competition, they want you more natural looking. I would normally start pumping up with weights or stretch bands, but for this show they did not want to see any vascularity or striations, so for once I didn't do anything. No push-ups, no arm curls, no lat raises. Nothing. Instead, I went out of the changing rooms and watched from behind the curtains the fitness girls dazzle the audience with their gymnastic routines. As I'm normally preparing myself backstage, I never really get a chance to watch the other competitors on stage. It's a great experience to see these girls before they go on stage, and feel their excitement and energy before watching them do what they do better than any other fitness competitor - and that's entertain the crowd.
It was a very relaxed and chilled atmosphere backstage. Most of the guy's were hanging around behind the curtain too, although that may have had something to do with all the girls being there in their bikini's! Everyone was chatting to each other, and taking pictures with each other, even right up until when they were called out on stage.
I was in the second group of males to be called out on stage, and unlike other competitions where we are compared next to each other, it was a nice change to be called forward, away from the group, and given the stage to myself.
There were only two rounds in the fitness model category on stage, and they were 'Theme' and 'Swimwear'. I decided to keep it simple, and having learnt from past experiences that elaborate and imaginative costumes do not always mean extra points. Plus, I had been working really hard to sculpt a lean waist without losing too much muscle mass, as had been the case in past competitions, and so just wore plain black board shorts with a hint of color. Board shorts are always a safe option to go for in a fitness model competition, just make sure they are not to colorful with a strong design pattern, as they will pull the judges attention away from your physique.
I wanted to create a different look between the two different rounds, and whilst some people wore caps and tops to change their appearance from the swimwear, round, I decided to not put any oil on. I felt that by changing from a matt look on stage, to a glossy look with use of competition oil, it would prove enough of a contrast to make me stand out, especially under the strong stage lighting. The difference between whether you should use oil or not can make a huge difference. Too much oil, and you'll just reflect all the lighting, and look like a giant mirror. Not using any, or too little may make you appear flat on stage and not allow the judges to see your conditioning. Just enough and you can appear hard and cut on stage, and maximize your stage presence.
Again, whilst the other competitors used props for their theme round, with some using footballs, boxing gloves, one even had a full fighter pilot suit, I kept it simple again, and used stretch bands that could allow me to use them in a variety of ways, including being able to flew my upper body as I stretched them above my head before holding them around my neck like you would a sweat towel.
As we all walked off stage to prepare for the swimsuit round, I felt happy with my performance, and with the other competitors who were already backstage telling me I did a good job, it reinforced to me why I spent all those hours in the gym, going above and beyond my normal routine, and sacrificing certain foods that I like to enjoy every now and again. Since signing up for the competition only 4 weeks earlier, my contest prep had been faultless, and if it were only for this single moment of feeling totally satisfied with people congratulating me, it was all worth it.
I had about 30 minutes before I was due to go on stage again for the swimwear round. Instead of going to the changing room to change, pump up and put some shine on, I stayed backstage and supported the other competitors on stage. These are some of my happiest memories I have - backstage at competitions, as the atmosphere, the energy, the excitement is like nothing I've ever experienced before. It's the pin-point moment of everything that I had been working for, and to see everyone else in the same place feeling the same is quite a special thing.
After only every other competitor had gone on stage did I go back to the changing rooms to get ready for the next round. I changed into some trunk-style shorts and started to apply competition shine all over me, really focusing it around my abs and shoulders to bring out maximum definition. Although it wasn't a bodybuilding competition, I still wanted to highlight what I think are my best features, and as long as I didn't flex every muscle, I wouldn't look like I was in a bodybuilding show either.
The second round ran much in the same order as the first, and I was once again in the second group of male models to be called out. By now I was buzzing with excitement and couldn't wait to get back out on stage. After all, it had been over a year since I had last been on stage competing, and it felt great to be back on it.
Still keeping the poses away from bodybuilding, I kept every muscle group tight, and managed to get a few flexed poses in by making sure one arm was always relaxed, or that my stance was more relaxed. Little changes like this can really transform how you appear on stage (or in photo's).
I could hear all my friends cheering for me from within the crowd, which gave me even more energy on stage. There's no feeling better than being in shape, on stage, with everyone who you love and is close to you cheering you on! Especially when your up their against others who are already at the top of their game. It's a real sense of accomplishment to be even sharing the stage with these guys.
Even though it was a competition, everyone was supporting each other, and genuinely wanted every one else to do well. Unlike many other shows that I've competed in, where the winner is the winner, and then everyone goes home and moves on, this show was just the beginning. The concept behind this show was to give the models a stage for all the photographers, publishers and model scouts to see them.
I made sure that I stayed still long enough in each pose to be photographed, and although, because of the lights, couldn't see where each of the photographers were sat, I made certain that I focused on certain points within the audience, keeping a big smile and each muscle group tight. I wanted to know that if I were photographed at any point on stage, that anyone seeing the picture would see a true representation of me, not one where I had my head down, not smiling, and relaxing all my muscles. It may seem effortless on stage, but it's actually quite a workout, and especially with all the hot lights, it can be very draining.
As I walked off the stage again, I felt ecstatic and a real sense of pride, having come back from what was quite a difficult time for me after my last competition in 2006, to be being back on stage and feeling like I was in my best shape.
At that point, I didn't care where I had placed, I was just happy that I had pulled everything back together and was in quite possibly the best shape I've ever been in, with a good mix of muscle and conditioning. Inside I felt a winner!
As the judges collaborated their scores, I thought to myself how much had changed since my last competition. Here I was in LA, amongst some of the top fitness models in the World, hanging out with them, and having them admire my condition and asking how I trained. It was very satisfactory to hear these guy's whom I had admired and respected for years, telling me that I was going to be big in the fitness industry. It just goes to show that if you want something enough, you can get it. You just have to be consistent, determined and focused. If you say you're going to do something, do it! It's those who put their dreams into actions that achieve the greatest things in life.
As I stood their feeling very happy with myself, and what I felt I had achieved, I heard my name being called out on stage. "and winner of best body award goes to…… Rob Riches!"
I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts that I hadn't even seen what was going on on stage. I was the first to be awarded, and so all eyes were on me as I walked out on stage.
This was a big award for this competition, and I felt honored to have won it, especially against competitors who were already cover models and appeared in fitness magazines.
All my hard work had been worth it, and was being recognized.
The award was given to me by Dr Howard Flaks, who is well known within the fitness industry as introducing many of the top fitness models to their first magazine cover. Dusty Moss, one of the top fitness cover models, presented me with the award and told me how great I looked on stage. It was a very special moment for me.
There were other awards presented, such as 'most promising fitness model', but for me, I had won the one award that I had wanted. I train to be a physique model, and whether that means being shot demonstrating an exercise within a magazine, or on the cover, I want to become known for 'the guy that's always in shape and ready to go'. In this industry you may not be the magazines first choice to shoot, but if the first choice is not ready to be shot, often with only a few days notice, or is unavailable, they will go for someone who is going to be ready to shot, in great shape, and available. I may not be the magazine's first choice, but if I get that call, I want to be sure that they're not going to be calling anyone else after me.
This couldn't prove more true than after the contest. Whilst everyone went out to enjoy a big meal, and enjoy all the foods that they had had to refrain from eating whilst preparing for the show, I had arranged a shoot for the following day with one of the female fitness models, and wanted to be sure that I kept my condition, and did not start to hold water or lose my abs because of one big meal, so I said my goodbyes and left the show straight after to head back to the hotel to sleep to make sure I was well rested, and looked fresh for the shoot the next day. I would have liked to enjoy everyone's company after the show, but I knew that that moment would come again. With everything in place for a great shoot, I didn't want to sacrifice anything for getting the best picture.
Quite often, providing you don't let go and eat too much after a contest, you look better the following day, as you continue to flush water out, and so look tighter and fuller from the post-show meal. Rarely do competitors get completely dialed in and nail their condition at the time when they're on stage being judged, and so book photo sessions before or after the show to capture them at their best. After all, why get in the best shape of you life to do a show, if you don't have any 'professional' pictures taken at the same time. This is the time to be making use of the opportunity that you have. You're in great shape, you're surrounded by top photographers, and have the option to work with other models all at the same time. This kind of thing just doesn't happen unless you're at a contest, and have enquired as to which photographers will be there, whether or not you can book time with them, and if there are any other models that you would like to work with. Preparation really does count if you want to succeed.
Kelly Corson was the model who I would be working with, and Mike Byerly was the photographer. None of us had worked together before, and we were all excited about the type of images we could get together. Kelly had caught my eye as soon as I had seen her at the competition. Other than being very good looking, and physically stunning, I felt she had a look that complemented mine well.
We drove to La Jolla Beach, which was about a 20-minute drive form the hotel we had been staying at. The weather was hot, the sand was golden, and the sea a clear blue. It was a very idyllic scene, and I knew it would make a great location for the shoot.
I had remembered what Clark Bartram had told us in the seminar before the competition about 'not crossing the line', which meant making sure that the shots that were taken were all tasteful and showed us both to be fitness professionals, looking like we could be on the cover of a magazine together. Not looking like I was some beach bum, and Kelly was hanging off me giving all the wrong impressions.
I thought back to the covers I had seen couple's on, and how they were positioned together. After a few test shots, we had found what seemed to work best for us both, which was me stood at a 45 degree angle with one hand on my waist, and Kelly stood just off-set in front of me, with her back to the camera, looking over her shoulder. This showed just enough chemistry between us, which is important for any shot, whether it be on your own, showing chemistry and emotion to the camera, or with another person. You want the image to convey an emotion to the person who's looking at it. For Kelly and I, we wanted to show a fit, healthy pair of bodies that would not look out of place on the cover of a fitness magazine, that would invite people to come and pick up the magazine to find out more.
Mike took some great photo's of us both, and we were all impressed with how they looked on camera. As I thanked Kelly and Mike for their time, I left them to continue shooting just Kelly, and drove back to the hotel. That was all I wanted - one shot, that would get Kelly and myself noticed. I was still feeling tired from the competition, and didn't want to try for further photos when I wasn't feeling at my best. One photo was enough for me, and one would be all it would take to get us noticed if marketed right.
On the drive home I got a call from Renee, my talent manager who was at the show the day before. Muscle and Fitness wanted me for a training series in their next magazine to be published in a few months. That's how quickly things can happen in this industry. It goes to show that what first seemed like a competition to motivate me to getting back into my best shape ever, acted as a catalyst to put me on a stage in front of all the key people in this industry. My journey had not ended with the competition. It was only just getting started.
Proof that if you have a dream, whatever it may be, you can achieve it. Look at all the successful people that you admire. How did they get to where they are today. I'm sure it wasn't just handed to them. They had to work for it, and probably encountered many obstacles and rejection along the way. Stay true to you dreams and go above and beyond what is necessary. Aim for the sky and although you may never quite get there, when you look back, you'll be amazed at how far you've come!
Natural Physique Champion
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