I was a pro bodybuilder – it damaged my heart, made it hard to breathe and I was pressured to take 'fat burner' pills | The Sun

AFTER reaching staggering heights as a professional bodybuilder, Lauren Irick left the sport when alarming bodily changes left her feeling out of control.

Now, she's speaking up about her experience, including the dangerous expectations women face in an industry dominated by men.

When Irick, now 34, first entered the world of competitive bodybuilding, she was already fit, but looking for a challenge.

Like many newbies to the sport, she'd been an athlete for years and was no stranger to the gym.

Since Irick stood at 5'2 and around 120 pounds, most outsiders probably wouldn't expect her to go to great lengths bodybuilders go to to get "lean."

But Irick said like many bodybuilders, she became fixated on the idea of cutting weight, and made choices she never anticipated.

The first time Irick had real concerns about her health was early in her career, following a promotional photoshoot in Las Vegas.

"I went to the emergency department and they told me, 'You're so severely dehydrated, your heart is misfiring,'" she remembered.

Many bodybuilders don't drink water on the day of competition, in order to dehydrate their bodies and make muscles look more pronounced.

Irick said most competitors use diuretics to drain their bodies of "excess" fluid before stepping onstage – a dangerous and uncomfortable choice.

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In the early days of competing, Irick said no to diuretics and fat burners, despite pressure from coaches.

When she had her first brush with cardiac health issues, she was just 28, and hadn't even been trying to cut weight for a competition.

But Irick was dehydrated, and she knew she had to do something different.

"I ended up learning a new protocol and actually drinking water, which did blow a lot of people's minds," she said.

As her training intensified, Irick cut countless foods out of her diet in order to lose and maintain weight.

It didn't take long for evidence of her efforts to show.

"I remember being so proud when I lost my period," she remembered. "It meant that I was lean enough, right?"

"This is how disordered you start to get, something that is a warning sign is now like a badge of honor," she warned.

From the moment she began training, Irick wanted to get onstage at the prestigious Olympia, an annual contest by the International Federation of BodyBuilding and Fitness (IFBB).

After a stellar pro debut, Irick's career skyrocketed. After appearing and placing at nine shows, she qualified for the Olympia.

Backstage at the 2016 Olympia competition, her fellow competitors couldn't believe Irick was still drinking water.

The other bodybuilders were jealous – several hadn't had any water in the last 24 hours.

"They said, 'What? Oh my God, I'm so thirsty. My head hurts,'" Irick remembered.

Irick said the 2016 Olympia was one of the last times she had fun onstage, even if she was already "a little bats**t crazy."

"My body felt good. I was working really hard, and you know, the harder I worked, the luckier I'd get."

"Things were great" in 2016, Irick said. "The next year was a completely different story."

Once the competition was over, Irick was determined to leave the 2017 Olympia stage with a new title – by any means necessary.

She intensified her training and her diet to a point where nothing else mattered. "I really wasn't present for my own life," she said.

But while she kept eating fewer calories and extending her training sessions, Irick "lost control" of her body.

Her weight and her appearance fluctuated on a daily basis – regardless of what, or how much, she ate.

While Irick started out with an all-natural body, she eventually started using over-the-counter fat burners to compensate for the uncontrollable bloating.

Then, Irick tried Clenbuterol, known colloquially as clen.

Clenbuterol is a fat-burning drug that many bodybuilders rely on – despite the fact it's not approved for human use in the US.

A new coach had suggested it as part of a broader regimen, and while Irick ditched the coach, she did end up trying clenbuterol.

Though she only used clenbuterol during the last few weeks of her career, Irick said the physical and mental toll was enormous.

"That was a line I didn't think I would cross," she explained. "You're like, 'Oh, I'll never do that. There's no reason.' And then pretty soon you're feeling all this pressure."

Since she had already qualified for the Olympia, Irick said she felt pressure to do "whatever it takes" to perform well on the stage.

It was a direct contrast to 2016, when Irick could still push back when coaches and fellow competitors encouraged her to supplement her training with substances.

She placed 12th in the world at the Olympia. Then, Irick said, her body "completely gave out."

Along with the frightening weight changes, her blood pressure started fluctuating, too. Irick said her limbs went numb and breathing became difficult.

"There was nothing I could do about it," she said.

"That's when I exited the scene and started to do the internal work that I had basically been using bodybuilding as a coping mechanism for."

At her lowest weight, during her most intensive training period, Irick weighed as little as 102 pounds.

She was at a dangerously low level of body fat, too: around 11 percent.

But she couldn't keep her weight down, and it could fluctuate as much as 10 pounds in a day.

As Irick began slowly working toward recovery, her starved body continued bloating every time she ate.

Her blood pressure was still difficult to control, and on most days, she had terrible brain fog.

Irick tried to eat "normally," with bouts of training mixed in, but at her highest weight, she was around 145 pounds.

It took years for her weight to stabilize after leaving bodybuilding, and even longer to feel "at home" in her own skin.

"I always say, you know, it's a dimmer, it's not a light switch," Irick explained. "It wasn't just one day that I just turned this on."

The gradual nature of her progress allowed Irick to define a new, safe relationship with her body – not one framed by competitions or judges.

"I had some big jumps and leaps," she said, "but I was slowly returning home to myself in a way that I hadn't known in a long time."

But Irick worries about other bodybuilders who are still trying anything to stay lean, especially other women.

Bodybuilding is "dangerously dominated" by men, Irick explained, and many women swear by long-used regimens suited for much larger physiques.

What's more, the most popular cocktails of fat burners, steroids, and other performance-enhancing substances aren't medically vetted.

"These guys don't know what they're doing," Irick explained. "It's just this passed-down protocol."

There's even a saying in bodybuilding, Irick said, that perfectly surmises the cynicism around industry expectations.

"They'll say, 'It's who has the best genetics and the best chemist,'" Irick said.

As a result, even early-career bodybuilders feel pressure to start using drugs like clenbuterol.

"There are certain coaches who say things like, 'I won't work with you unless you take these things because it's going to optimize your results,'" Irick claimed.

In turn, she said, many bodybuilders who begin using substances feel "trapped."

Irick said coaches and sponsors discourage competitors from speaking out against the popular supplements and drug cocktails.

When a bodybuilder earns a coveted sponsorship from a nutrition or supplement company, they often feel more pressure to perform, she said.

What's worse, once a brand deal is signed, stopping substance use or being honest about it could put their livelihood at risk, Irick said.

"It's a lot of these promises, or this carrot-dangling," Irick said. "It's kind of predatory."

As an example, Irick shared a screenshot of a targeted ad that popped up on her feed: an IFBB professional who was looking for coaches to train.

In the ad copy, he promised to teach clients how to implement PEDs – performance-enhancing drugs – into a training program.

"Those coaches get more notoriety and their businesses grow while they still have these very negligent and downright dangerous practices," she warned.

Today, Irick is a different sort of coach.

She's a holistic nutritionist who helps clients work with their bodies – not against them – to meet their goals.

At first, it was frightening to leave bodybuilding and examine her reasons for joining the community.

Today, Irick sees her new life as an opportunity for joy and discovery.

"Who am I, outside of competing? Who am I outside of this 'fit bodybuilder bikini-pro Lauren' identity?" she asked. "What do I like? Why do I do this stuff?"

They're big questions, and Irick can't wait to learn the answers.

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