I nearly tripped over the two women sitting on the stoop of the nondescript building I’d just exited onto Reed St. One of the women promptly asked me if I had a light; all in all, a very South Philly experience.
It was my second visit to Matt Godfrey‘s photography studio in as many days. I was only supposed to go once, but at our first session, the prospect of taking flexing photos wearing a bikini in front of a near-stranger had suddenly seemed like a much better idea in theory than in practice.
It had been my idea to begin with, so I reasoned that I could change my mind. I’d opted instead for a shorts-and-sports-bra combo, only to arrive home later that day filled with regret about the cavalier way I’d squandered an opportunity to stretch my comfort zone and gather more useful and informative photos. (Matt is a consummate professional, by the way, and my discomfort was no reflection on him.)
So, I called him back. Booked and paid for a second session. All of this to get “before” pictures, mind you.
The back story: I recently dove glutes first into a new muscle-building program written by fabulous St. Louis–based trainer Kourtney Thomas (more on our upcoming collaboration at the very end of the post), and I want to see objectively how my body changes over the next 12 weeks.
Training primarily for aesthetics is new territory for me, personally. All of my own major fitness goals to this point have been more “do focused” than “looks focused.” Competing in the realm of figure and bodybuilding (as in being on stage in a bikini) has simply never appealed to me. So, I’ve haven’t sought hypertrophy—an increase in muscle size—as a goal. Historically, I’ve instead learned and honed various strength skills (in the realm of kettlebells, steel clubs, or with bodyweight), or I’ve competed in a new sport (such as powerlifting, weightlifting, and strongman). My existing muscle mass is a function of that training, or the accessory work performed in support of that training.
Now, a freshly minted 38, simply because fitness is a grand experiment and I like to learn by doing, I want to see what a hypertrophy focus for the next three months looks like on me. Even though I still have no desire to take the stage, I want photographic evidence of the process.
But frankly, most “before” pictures are a real downer. The slouchy posture, sad facial expressions, bellies pushed out and low backs swayed exaggeratedly, all photos snapped from low angles under unflattering lighting—it’s pure Eeyore. Ideally, the thinking goes, this will create a most stunning and dramatic visual transformation into the person featured in radiant, happy, perfectly-lit-and-posed-just-so “after” pics (which could often feasibly be taken the same day).
But: I don’t live a slouchy, sad-faced life, regardless of what my body-fat percentage or state of muscularity is. Right now or ever.
I’m all for better fitness, but I don’t condone selling the notion that getting leaner or more muscular means complete happiness and the eradication of all problems. (I would, however, argue that a rock-solid regimen of self-care that includes weight-training and an array of cardiovascular activities leads to greater physical, mental, and emotional health, and that those activities do have a way of helping to maintain healthy body fat levels and increase lean, metabolically active tissue. But it’s so much more complicated than muscles equal happiness that I can’t even begin.)
What if—on the rare occasion “before” photos were called for—we took them in a way that showcased our own personal flair? What if we took them in good lighting and did whatever we personally like to do in order to feel cute first? And then hit a handful of reproducible poses so that we could have another data point for evaluating our program down the road. Without vilifying where it is that we’ve come from. Wouldn’t that be more…enjoyable?
A happy, purposeful life, it seems to me, is a delicate balance of playing the lead in the movie of your life while also accepting certain unassailable, unemotional truths.
As such, I decided I wanted my “befores” to reflect the work I’ve already put into my fitness, my current relationship of appreciation I have with my body—right now—as well as tell the truth about my areas for improvement in terms of muscular development in the future. I’m willing to bet that my “afters” will reflect an equal level of satisfaction…but if the program works (and it will, it already has), I’ll also be more muscular.
Here’s how the shoot went. (It goes without saying, I’m sure, but none of these images have been altered in any way.)
Still filled with the bravado of having arranged a second shoot specifically to capture bikini photos, I arrive on set with Kourtney’s shot list in hand, determined to toss off the towel and get straight to work. Just like last time, but with fewer clothes. I am fine. Everything is fine.
Witness the doubt creep into my eyes, the momentary falter where I consider running away, the towel my cape flapping behind me. Was this such a good idea?
Never one for ripping the bandaid off, nonetheless, I toss the towel off to one side in what I hope appears to be a bold move and hit a “double bi,” a term short for “double biceps.” I’ve heard various figure competitor friends sling this term around, but it has no real meaning in my life. Almost immediately, a hot pain sears from the vicinity of a tendon in the back of my left hand. “Did I just injure myself flexing?” I wonder. I knew I should have watched Chase Erwin’s “Learn to Flex” tutorial more than once. Too late now.
Oww, I definitely injured my hand and now there’s also a needling sensation in the middle of my back. The next shot on the my assigned list is called a “Front Flared.” I have no earthly idea what I’m doing but I do know that I’m starting to sweat already. Am I the Hulk? I used to love the Hulk as a kid. Yes. I’ll definitely pretend to be the Hulk.
The “Relaxed Front.” Hulking has me hype, though. I don’t want to stand still.
The next shot on my list says “Side Flexed.” In the small reference photo next to those words, a well-muscled man is pretzeled into a pose I’m not certain I can emulate. But by god I will try, again and again. I am now completely sheathed in sweat. I tip my wrist…up? Also, does it kind of look like I’m humping something?
The “Relaxed Side” looks like a poolside mug shot: “I’m afraid you’ve had too many piña coladas, ma’am.”
I love piña coladas.
And getting caught in the…wait, what am I supposed to do with this arm? Do I still look relaxed?
When I turn and hit double-bi for a second time, the pain again blossoms in the back of my left hand. Of all the possibilities for injury, I never saw this one coming. I wonder if I’ll have to get surgery. I hope not. I am happy the back of my head is being photographed now, though, because my husband, David Dellanave, braided my hair, and I am proud of his work. (So is he.)
“Back Flared” is my next assignment. I have flashbacks to my friend Jill Coleman, a former figure competitor, teaching me to flare my lats like she used to on stage. As I would struggle to make the mind-lat connection, she would slap my curled, stiffened fingers and yell, “Claw hands! Get rid of those claw hands! RELAX!” But the reference photo shows the hands positioned on the front of the hips. I experience a moment of panic, but it’s fine: I will simply channel a bodyguard on a yacht. I am on lookout for sharks. I don’t see any right now, but I shall remain vigilant. Also, I just noticed that I haven’t exhaled in at least two minutes. I fear I am turning purple. My fears, it turns out, are not unfounded.
Most casual shot of the day. I wish they could all be “Back Relaxed.” I made a face here, just because I was drunk with power and I knew I would not be caught.
But, all good things must come to an end. “Can you kind of…look back at it again, like you just did?” asks Matt. We both laugh. This is ridiculous. What are we even doing here in this room. On this planet.
“Is there anything else you wanna shoot?” asks Matt. “Yeah!” I say. “One that sums up the idea of embracing your bigness.”
I’m collaborating with hypertrophy specialist Kourtney Thomas to publish this program, called the Bigness Project, in January 2017.
If more muscle sounds like the right New Year’s Resolution for you, make sure you’re signed up to be the first to get the deets when it’s released: Bigness Project Early Bird List
[All photos by Matt Godfrey Photography]