Iowa City bodybuilder provides glimpse into a natural art


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For the past few months, Stephen Taylor, the general manager at the Old Capitol Town Center’s Buffalo Wild Wings, has trained to be a natural bodybuilder — an exercise regimen that prohibits any performance-enhancing drugs.

His passion for the sport began when he was 26 years old and has carried him to competition. The 30-year-old participated in the 2013 Amateur Bodybuilding Association’s Natural Illinois Bodybuilding, Fitness, Figure, Bikini, and Men’s Physique Championships in Darien, Ill., on April 5 and 6, in which he earned fifth place in both the Novice Men’s and Open Men’s competition.

“I wanted to compete on a level playing field in something I was comfortable doing and not take those steps to go the synthetic route,” he said. “At the end of the day, I wanted to say, ‘That was me. I did that naturally. I didn’t take the easy way.’ ”

Although becoming a natural bodybuilder has been rewarding, the decision didn’t come without its challenges. The time, effort, and commitment was a two-person decision.

“The whole bodybuilder decision was probably a weeklong conversation between the two of us to make sure we could handle all that went into it,” said Claire Ryan, Taylor’s fiancée.


Taylor’s life began to change drastically the moment he started his bodybuilding workout. The rush, he recalls, was powerful.

His workouts increased, his diet was strict, but his willpower pulled him through.

In the life of a bodybuilder, any spare moment is spent depriving and restricting; control is paramount. Failure doesn’t exist. Every physical aspect is accounted for and meticulously calculated. From calorie intake to the number of repetitions at the gym, there is no room for error, and once at the gym, there’s no time to rest. His only competitor is himself. He lies across the bench and grips the metal bar suspended above him. As he lifts the bar off its stand, he gains full control of the 250-pound weights. He brings the bar down to his chest and pushes it back up until his arms reach a full extension. He repeats this motion 25 times, consciously controlling every movement.

Pre-bodybuilding workout

Prior to Taylor’s intense training, he had maintained a healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise and a healthy diet.

Before those last 12 weeks, he had a diet of high carbohydrates and high protein to help him gain weight.

At the three-month mark, his new diet and intense workout regimen began. His protein intake dropped to 300, and he curbed his calories from 4,000 to 1,200. His workouts consisted of working different body parts each day of the week.

“Bodybuilding is about training for muscular symmetry and size,” said Adam Means, a co-owner of Iowa City Fitness and Taylor’s personal trainer. “Everything has to be in balance and flow with each body part.”

A Day in the Life of Taylor’s Training

Taylor’s day begins at 6 a.m. with a weigh-in. For competition, the goal is for him to weigh 215 pounds.

Because he is a natural bodybuilder, he is not allowed to take any kind of self-enhancements. Each morning, he takes only a multivitamin and a vitamin C tablet.

Ryan, Taylor’s fiancée, prepares his breakfast of five eggs and four strips of bacon. After breakfast, it’s off to his first session at the gym. The morning session includes 45 minutes of cardio on the treadmill at a moderate pace and on a moderate incline.

Two hours into his workday at Buffalo Wild Wings, Taylor eats 10 ounces of unseasoned chicken breast. Four hours later, he is allowed another 10-ounce unseasoned chicken breast.

Toward the end of his workday, Ryan meets Taylor at work and waits for his shift to end. The couple heads to the gym for his workout. While keeping him company at the gym, Ryan studies for classes. She sits on the gym floor with her books open as he starts another round of cardio and an hour or so of weight training.

For bodybuilders, weight training consists of continuous repetitions of low-weight and high-intensity training. As a competition date gets closer, Taylor dedicates an hour a day to perfecting his posing in front of a mirror, and a tanning regimen is added.

After training, Taylor and Ryan head home to make dinner and relax for three or four hours before Taylor once again heads to the gym for the third and final time. The last session of the day is again spent doing 45 minutes of cardio at a moderate pace and on a moderate incline.

Christina Johnson, a UI lecturer in sport and exercise psychology and health psychology, said strict bodybuilder schedules, such as Taylor’s, often tug at relationships.

“That kind of restriction in your life can be more hurtful then helpful,” she said. “Definitely, their social life suffers.”

However, Ryan said she knew they could get through it.

“It definitely tested [our relationship],  but there was no point where I thought we couldn’t be together because of this,” she said. “My role through it all was trying to be as supportive as I could be and keep our lives going — letting him know how proud I was of him because none of this was easy.”

Competition and the future

The day before the competition, all contestants report for a polygraph test.

Because this is an all-natural competition, measures are taken to ensure no one has used enhancements to gain a leg up on the competition. On the other hand, those who aren’t tan enough to compete are signed up for a spray-on tanning session the night before the competition.

Early Saturday morning, lean, dark contestants start to filter through the doors of Hinsdale South High School in Darien, Ill.

The contestants are welcomed and given a description of how the day is going to proceed. The first morning show is spent showcasing each participant. Each group enters the stage for only a few minutes at a time, and the members line up to present a series of poses called out by the announcer. Each pose is selected to accentuate different muscles.

Before Taylor enters the stage, he does three repetitions of pushups to pump up his physical appearance. On stage, he stands on the left hand side of his five competitors as they simultaneously showcase their poses.

After the Novice Men’s group event, the participants prepare 90 seconds of freestyle posing for the Open Men’s competition, if they choose to compete in both. Taylor performs his routine to the song “Cult of Personality.”

Taylor took fifth place in both the Novice Men’s and Open Men’s competition.

“I hope he walks away proud of all he just went through and accomplished,” Ryan said.

Taylor said he wants to try competing in a Strong Man competition (in which contestants perform feats of strength for judges) as well as compete again in the Natural Illinois Competition next year “and win.”

For weeks after the competition, Taylor spent his time resting — letting his body recuperate after such a strenuous regimen.

But now he’s back at it again.

As of Monday, Taylor is in the gym, beginning training for his next competition.

“I want to continue competing and being active until I am over 50, so that I can be active with my kids when they are older,” he said.

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