The Struggle is Real: Devoted to Unveiling All Sides of the Fitness Industry
Name: Ashley Sarina Hoffmann
Occupation: Spray Tan Artist, Online Coach
Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Thank you so much for agreeing to share your story Ashley! My blog has always been dedicated to spilling the truth regarding the struggles we go through in this industry and our personal struggles associated with it. I appreciate your willingness to join me in being honest with your struggles, in hopes of helping others. I know you have had your fair shares of ups and downs in this industry which is why I reached out to feature you, and congrats on your success! That being said, can you fill us in on a little background about yourself and where you are at now with your fitness career?
Thank you for asking me to be part of this journey to spread the truth in our industry. I feel like so many athletes hide the truth because they are afraid. Not afraid to speak the truth but are afraid they will be looked down upon if they do, as if there is something wrong with them. Truth is, we all struggle. We share our stories because we want to reach out and let others know that they aren’t alone and that they don’t have to be afraid anymore.
A little about myself; I have always been athletic. I was in sports even before I entered kindergarden. I have always been competitive and loved the reward of doing well in sports. It was fun and rewarding to me. In high school I was involved in varsity track and field. I did every sprinting event, opens and relays. As well as long and triple jump, 100 and 300 hurdles. I was a busy bee for track and field and could get away with eating whatever I wanted since I was so active and only weighed no more than 100lbs. I also rode horses as well but that died out as soon as I graduated high school. After high school, I went to college like most. I wasn’t involved with sports and just focused on school. I didn’t really know what to do sports wise so I just ran 3 miles every day and did abs, never touched the weights. In college I got a little carried away with drinking and going out every night of the week and it lead to me dropping out. I was really unhappy with how much weight I gained. I eventually met a friend that convinced me to start lifting with him. I was addicted instantly and became even more addicted once I started seeing muscle. That was the start of it all for me.
Currently, I have hung up the competition bikini for a bit and am focusing on my health and decided to start powerlifting. I love lifting heavy and always have. The powerlifting community is so welcoming and motivational. I’ve loved every second of it compared to being in the gym with bodybuilders around me. Just a more welcoming environment. Powerlifting is letting me focus on strength compared to working about my abs. It also is giving my body a break because in the past, I was overworking my body too much and resulted in many health issues.
When was your first show and what made you want to compete?
My first show was a local Wisconsin show in April of 2012. I didn’t have any expectations going into the show and just went on stage to have fun. I ended up winning my height class as well as bikini overall. After that, I became addicted to competing. It was a blast to be on stage, as well as placing well. I had so many positive words passed along to me from judges and Pro athletes that were at the show. This gave me fuel to continue competing as well as being naturally competitive. Competing just became something that I did yearly, almost routine like. I enjoyed it a lot.
After your first show, how would you describe the weeks following? How did you handle eating? Working out? Your mental state? How was this different from the way you viewed exercise and diet previous to ever competing?
I had a few months between my first few shows and I was still new to the competing game. So I just did what I was told by an old coach. Then as time went on and more shows under my belt, I felt myself constantly looking at myself in the mirror and becoming more obsessive with my image. I would feel depressed about not being as lean. I would obsess over food as well. I felt guilty eating things and felt lost. Which would cause me want to start a prep so I could do I show. I was obsessed with being lean. I loved the look, I loved seeing definition. After winning my Pro card and reverse dieting the healthy way, I still was unhappy with the fact I was getting ‘fluffy’. I want to stress that the word ‘fluffy” is a word fitness competitors use when we have even a little layer of fat over us. We don’t use it to describe others but we are so used to being lean that the ‘fluff’ that is added is just a light layer of fat that is healthy and is needed. Anyways, I think the biggest struggle mentally, was when I started prep for my Pro debut. I kept comparing myself to my stage look for the year before, which caused a lot of stress for me. I fell into depression because I let my looks determine my happiness. This recent struggle with my health really made me depressed. It was and still is really hard for me to see myself look nothing like I have in my past. I have to remember though, my health isn’t what it was and that I have to get better. My looks do not determine the person I am. I currently switched to powerlifting to give my body a break physically and mentally. It has helped a lot actually. I also have been surrounding myself with more positive people in my life and it also has helped a lot. As far as eating, it was a bit of a struggle this time post show since my body was reacting in a way it never has with gaining weight very rapidly. I currently am being very careful and slowly raising my macros.
How many shows have you done since your first and why do you or didn’t you continue to compete? I have followed your journey for a while and know that you were with a few different coaches in the past- some bringing your calories down to 800 kcal/day! Can you explain to me what this was like and do you regret listening?
I have done two local, national qualifying shows and after that I decided to head to a National stage. I then competed at Jr. Nationals and then Team Universe. After two National shows in the NPC, I decided I was going to switch over and try a Wbff show because I was a bit too muscular for the bikini division in NPC but too small for figure. I competed at Wbff Worlds in the bikini and fitness diva division. I ended up winning my Pro card as a Fitness Diva. I was beyond thrilled and felt I was finally rewarded for all the hard work I put in. Not that I wouldn’t stop working hard if I wasn’t awarded my Pro status.
After, I took 7 months off for my offseason. Wbff doesn’t have many Pro shows, so Worlds was the only show I could really pick from to make my Pro debut. I was in the mindset and routine that I had to compete every year. It was like I didn’t know what I would do if I didn’t compete since I was so used to stepping on stage every year. It wasn’t until this year that I realized that I don’t need to compete to become a leader in the fitness industry and inspire others and teach the proper way of living a healthy lifestyle, mentally and physically. I never regret anything from what I did or listened to in my past. It has just made me grow as an individual and has made me gain more knowledge as far as what’s healthy and what isn’t. I have been though drastically low calories (as little as less than 500 calories), depletion, depression, body dysmorphia, eating disorders, health issues and a few other things. Even though these things haven’t been very positive, I still have grown from them and am stronger from it.
When did you start to notice a difference in yourself and when do you feel you really hit your “rock bottom” in your journey- if you had one? What was that experience like?
I have lost a few very close people to me while I was training for shows. That was always very difficult for me but still made it through. I have been through some very difficult times health wise as well. The biggest set back has been recently. After I won my Pro card in August of 2013, I began reverse dieting. The struggles to accept not being as lean as I was became a big challenge for me. I was eager to start my prep for my Pro debut for Wbff Worlds 2014. My health was slowly coming back from the drastic training and dieting I had went through in my past. So I thought I would be ready to start my prep. This was not the case though.
This past prep for my Pro debut was the biggest challenge of my life. I want to make it known that I was working with Layne Norton, who is an amazing coach. Most people blame their coaches for issues they have during prep, Layne is not the reason I had issues at all. My struggles were that my body did not respond to anything we did at all. We both were very confused as to what was going on but I continued with my prep giving it my all. I would have workouts that I cried and wanted to give up because I was giving it my everything and then some. People that know me and see me workout, know that I am a very hard worker in the gym. So it wasn’t a matter of I wasn’t working hard enough. That was part of my issue though, I was working too hard and my body couldn’t respond. If I didn’t work as hard, my body would be in set back mode. So I had to over work my over training, if that makes sense. I made it to show day. I was happy I made it however I was unhappy with my show physique. I knew something wasn’t right when I hadn’t lost hardly any weight all of prep and I didn’t look anywhere close to my physique from the year before. But, I put those thoughts behind me and stepped on stage. This was the start of the end for me.
After my show, I had only a few meals like any competitor would. I went home and got back to counting my macros and thinking things were fine. A few days after my show, my whole body swelled up. It was to the point I couldn’t even walk without being in pain and feeling like my skin was ripping. I didn’t know what was going on so I went to the doctors. I was afraid because the next month was Olympia and I had a few huge photoshoots planned. My test results said nothing was wrong. It didn’t make sense but just tried my best to try and get my body back to normal and get ready for my shoots and Olympia. I ended up making it, although the look I brought wasn’t my best, but it was the best I could do with what was going on.
After Olympia, my body reacted the same way it did after my show. This time it was even worse. I went to another doctor and had more bloodwork done. This leads me to where I am now. I received my bloodwork back and now know that I have hyperthyroidism, a damaged kidney and liver, dangerously low vitamin d levels, and my reproductive hormones are not what they should be. With gaining a lot of weight since my show in August without having very high of calories, this all made sense as to why my body was reacting and reacted the way it had during prep and post show. It was a HUGE wakeup call for me and something I feel happened for a reason. I was in this constant ‘grind mode’ and never had slowed down and literally burned myself out to the point my body shut down. I currently just started medication and hope that things start to balance out and that my weight comes down slightly so I feel a little more comfortable in my skin. However, I know that I cannot let this determine who I am.
What would you say your strongest and weakest moments or most significant moments in your journey were?
One would think I would say it was when I won my pro card. Yes, I am very happy that I have and very blessed for the opportunities that I have been given from it. However, the strongest and weakest moments in my journey is the fact that I had to struggle with health issues to make me realize to put my health first. It has been a negative situation that will be turned into a positive one. I now can help others realize that the stage is not a necessity in life, your health is. This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t compete. This means that it should be done in a way that doesn’t jeopardize their health. Just because I am hanging up my competition bikini for now, doesn’t mean it will remain that way. For now, my goal is to tell my journey and to help others. What I have been though has happened for a reason and now I can help and inspire others in a way I wouldn’t have been able to if I hadn’t gone through certain struggles.
As stated, this series of interviews are to really develop the underlying issues, physically, mentally, and psychologically that affect us on the inside and are often not seen from the outside. What would you say your biggest “hidden struggle” is today?
My biggest ‘hidden struggle’ has been the way I see myself in the mirror. I have come a long ways from what I used to view myself. In my past I would look at myself in the mirror and constantly compare my current state to what my stage look has been. Feeling I wasn’t good enough or attractive. This is something I have been working on for a while and have made significant progress. I think that a lot of fitness competitors struggle with self image. They are constantly comparing themselves to stage looks or to other competitors.Yes, myself, along with others my not be stage lean currently. I think the fitness community needs to work together to show a healthy side of fitness. We need to show beauty in our offseason looks as well as stage looks. What you see in the mirror should not define who you are. On or off season, we can still become leaders. We can still inspire others. We can still smile and enjoy life.
What advice would you give to someone in your position, what has helped you find some balance?
The best advice I can give someone in my position is to stop obsessing. Stop obsessing over a reflection in the mirror. Stop punishing yourself for living life a little. Just because you went out with friends or a social event and enjoyed some food or drinks, doesn’t mean you need to jump on the treadmill the next morning. This self punishment is not healthy and it is important to find balance. Start slow, go out with friends and have a nice meal and proceed with your normal routine the next day. Notice how you’re still alive and breathing and that once meal didn’t make or break who you are.
I have realized that I would rather live life with balance instead of missing out on what life has to offer just because I was afraid of being in a world outside of the gym or prep mode. For the past few years, I would worry more about my meals and the gym during family time and holidays. Those are times that you can never get back. What if one day you wake up and realize you lost someone close to you and didn’t spend enough time with them because you consumed your time with being in the gym?
Finding balance does take practice. It starts by taking baby steps. I have found balance in little things like not weighing myself anymore. In the past, I would obsess over a number on the scale. I realized that this number didn’t determine who I was. So, I stopped weighing myself and haven’t for months. I’m to the point where I don’t even care what I weigh. I also stopped obsessing with spending too much time in the gym. Before I would spend way too much time in there and would miss out on going out with friends or family. I would finish a workout and feel like I had to do more. This lead to me feeling burnt out and lost as to what to do outside of the gym. To find balance, I started working smarter. I gave myself a time limit and gave my workouts my all and when that time limit was up, I left the gym. Don’t be afraid of breaking a cycle that you’re in. I know that it can be scary at first but it won’t hurt you.
What methods of nutrition have you or do you currently use to help with balance? IIFYM, Intuitive Eating, Fasting, Specific Meal Planning, etc? As you said, you have been working with Layne Norton who is a big advocate of tracking macros and implementing IIFYM, how has your experience been working with him?
In my past, I was the typical ‘bro dieter’. I wasn’t knowledgeable with nutrition at that point. It wasn’t until a few bumps along the way, made me become more knowledgeable with my nutrition. I reached out to Layne Norton, who believes in tracking macros and flexible dieting (also known as IIFYM). This was very new to me at first and a bit scary. I came from being afraid of foods like fruit, bread and some processed items.
After being with Layne, I have gotten over most of my fears of foods. I have learned that flexible dieting makes life a little easier. It isn’t restrictive and doesn’t lead to panicking when you’re in a situation where you might not have a meal at your side. I travel a lot so flexible dieting has really helped me with that as well. Being able to grab a protein bar at the airport and not have to worry that its “not on my meal plan”, has been nothing but a sigh of relief. As long as I hit my protein, carbs and fat intake daily, I don’t have to limit myself to certain foods. I do have times where I will go out with a friend and have a meal that I don’t track. I don’t freak out about it because I know to eat until I am content.
In the past when I was limited to most foods, I would have a ‘cheat meal’ and eat until I couldn’t move. I don’t do this anymore because I never limit myself and I am not afraid I won’t be able to have something I want to eat. Flexible dieting is a great way to start the process of finding balance. I highly recommend watching Layne’s videos on flexible dieting if one is interested.
How has social media/the fitness industry influenced the way you view yourself?
At first, social media was a way that I could compare myself to other athletes that inspired me. I realized that I’m not them and that I had to stop comparing myself and just be me. Once I saw that others followed me because I inspired them by just being myself, it was motivating to me. I am very thankful for those that follow me and have watched my journey. They have seen my struggles and have supported me though them. It truly is an amazing feeling that so many people care. It is an even better feeling when I am able to meet my fans. It is a feeling I cannot describe but leaves me feeling very blessed. This has helped me continue to just be myself on social media. People love realism, truth and honesty and this is something that I give to those that follow me. I feel it is more powerful and more people can connect to someone vs. some fitness icons that portray “a perfect life”.
How has your body image changed over time? I know you have posted about currently struggling with hormonal issues after competing at the WBFF Worlds this summer and gaining weight even on a low calorie plan, how has the mental aspect of that affected you recently?
With my body shutting down after the stress that it has been under for the past 4 years, it has changed in a way I never thought it would. I have gained weight in a very short amount of time on not that high of calories and didn’t understand what was going on until I finally got answers to what was going on.
Being diagnosed with hypothyroidism makes sense as to why I wasn’t able to lose weigh during my prep and why my body shut down after my show. I want to stress that I am my biggest critic and that to the average person, they may see nothing wrong with my current state, image wise. However, to me this is a bit uncomfortable but it is something that I have to be okay with.
I now know the reasons behind it and now can start the process of balancing out my hormones and getting my health back to normal. Cutting way back on my cardio to only 3 times a week and powerlifitng, really has given my body a break that it needs. I know that eventually my body will balance back out and I will be able to step on stage again if thats what I want to do. Health is more important right now because it is something I cannot get back if I neglect it.
What motivates you today? Has that motivation changed since you started?
In the past, it was the results that motivated me and the addictiveness to seeing change. Not that I still don’t love seeing results, but now my motivation comes from a lot of different things instead of one selfish thing. I am constantly motivated by my family, friends, fans and teammates. I follow people in the industry that want to change how we view health, which is a big thing that motivates me. With maturing a lot of the past few years due to struggles, I am my own motivation as well. I want to help others, I want to lead them in the right direction and help them realize that we all struggle and aren’t alone. When I get feedback from others, saying that I have helped them change or motivate them, that is something that is very rewarding and motivating for me.
If you could do it all over again, would you?
Even though I haven’t had the smoothest journey, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. We go through struggles to learn and grow. Without them, we wouldn’t be who we are today. There are things that I wished I would have done differently or paid more attention to, but certain things happen and we cannot change them. Everything happens for a reason.
What are your upcoming career goals, and how do you plan to pursuit your future with incorporating balance in your life?
I currently am in the works of launching my website where I will offer online services. I want to be able to teach others the right way of dieting or living a healthy lifestyle with balance. I also want to share my story and let it be known that we all go through struggles but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I want to inspire others and help in any way possible. As far as competing, the stage doesn’t determine anything for me. I can be a leader in the fitness industry without stepping on stage, just like so many amazing athletes who have realized the same.
If you are interested in following and supporting Ashley’s continued journey to balance, please follow her through the following channels: