From fitness to unfitness, rediscovery and beyond. This is my personal #BodyBeforeSkill journey - the story that helped me create this unique training method that helps you to find your way to a healthy approach to loving yourself - without first giving up on yourself!
No Pain, No Gain
After producing and shooting my second fitness training DVD series, INTENSITY Cheer Conditioning, I felt like had arrived at a fork in the road:
A) Pursue the pro fitness/trainer road to whatever was next, physically
B) Pursue the more academic/research path of sports and fitness
I was also approaching the dreaded 30th Birthday milestone. This event left me feeling somewhat lost. The expiry date for “adulting” had approached and I was left to figure out what that meant for me. As much of a cliché as it is, the episode of Friends "The One When They all Turn 30” couldn’t be closer to my reality.
Path A) didn't seem like the "grown-up" approach, and experience had taught me that pursuing a more professional path in physical fitness meant upping the ante into cross-fit, body-building, yoga, or an equally dedicated path. None of these options was appealing to me, as I've never been a fan of extreme mindsets, whichever they may be.
This left me feeling I had reached the end of the fitness road and I went down Path B) to research and write my book Body Before Skill: Sports Performance for Cheerleading. Hooray, I had made a firm commitment to "adulting".
The Downhill Journey
In 2016 I moved to South Africa after spending 2 years travelling, researching, writing, and developing our sports and fitness business in the USA. The irony? At this point, I was in the worst shape of my life. Perhaps not for the average Joe or Jane, but considering that my life revolved around the subject of fitness, my body was far from being at its peak.
My body had adapted to being a slob. For some reason, I thought adulthood meant that my days of being a fitness bunny were over. And if I couldn't be a fitness bunny, then what was the point of training at all?
At still only 57kg (125lbs) and 1’68m (5'6), I was still clocking up 25% body fat and barely able to get through a hike without huffing and puffing. Let's not even talk about my muscle density. Two years of travelling, contemplating adulthood, and focusing on flexing the brain muscle left me looking and feeling like a mozzarella stick that had been left out in the sun for too long.
You Just Need To Love Yourself
Even though I was proud of my other accomplishments, I felt horrendous in a bikini. I felt "deflated" and I couldn’t recognise myself anymore. People around me kept saying "not to worry, it’s just part of growing up”.
This created a problem: linking age and genetics as a reason for decline is one of society's biggest failures. Looking back at this time, I can't even understand how I - as a fitness professional - couldn't see this.
“Accept yourself as you are” was a mantra trend that was emerging at the time and is still being reinforced today, to the detriment of our health. The pursuit of tolerance can take things a little too far. Accepting different body shapes, genetics, and loving our uniqueness, yes. Yet accepting unhealthy habits is a far cry from "loving yourself".
Even though I’m fully on board with the concept of being kinder to yourself, working WITH your genetics, not against it and developing a kinder relationship with food and exercise, the message can come across in a way that encourages people to be happy with being unhealthy.
It's Your Body
Whenever I opened up to friends or family, the response was unanimous: “but you look great! People would kill for your body” - but this was no comfort for me because deep in my heart I knew that something wasn't right. I could really feel a decline and it was making me miserable.
I had chronic back pain. I couldn't hike without having sore knees. I felt that my overall appearance was deflated; like I was succumbing to age and gravity. All this self-love and acceptance talk had made me feel miserable.
This was the key: it was how I felt about myself. Not someone else’s opinion on how I looked compared to them or someone else standing next to me. This was MY body and I knew more than anyone what it was capable of. I didn’t want to get skinny, I didn’t want to get bulky, and I didn’t want to become a professional fitness model. What I wanted was to greet the next phase of my life feeling like I was making an effort and finding a balanced lifestyle.
Age Is Just A Number
Inspired by women twice my age in great shape, I decided it was time to get back onto the training bandwagon. My goal was to get ready for a photo/video shoot in one year.
The first year back to fitness was the hardest: especially the mental struggle of not being able to get through basic things that I used to breeze through. My body had adapted out of training and I felt like age was starting to come into play. My progress was a lot slower than I had anticipated.
Was it age? Was this normal? Looking back - it was just a normal consequence of not moving nearly enough for about two years - it had nothing to do with age. Just a LOT of sitting and not enough movement or beneficial training to offset the inactivity.
Fast-forward to October 2017. I was getting closer to my goal but I was far from the idea I had in my head. Then, two freak accidents happened to me almost back-to-back (you can read more about these in my other article).
These two episodes had one thing in common: I had managed to get out of these fairly unscathed, despite the fact that both could have resulted in a brutal ending. My body and understanding of movement, injury prevention, and athletic research had saved my life.
This was an epiphany for me: not only was my training helping me reach my hugely “first world” goal of looking and feeling my best, but it had saved me from tragic injury, or worse. Given that the Body Before Skill approach is an athletic training philosophy - not a training method - it was a powerful moment to experience the results. My body had evolved to do what it was designed to do: protect itself.
December 2017 came, and I felt like I wasn’t ready for my shoot. After having a tantrum (a low-carb diet was to blame!), I felt happy about the outcome: I hadn’t reached the goal I had set out myself to achieve, but my year of training had done something so much more powerful.
I was hooked on how far I could take the #BodyBeforeSkill personal journey, so I decided to visit the Stellenbosch University’s Biokinetics Centre (Biokinetics is essentially medicine through movement).
My Happy Place
Here, my inner thirst for knowledge was quenched. I had found my MECCA. I couldn’t believe how much I was learning, going further and deeper in my discoveries than ever before. Every muscle, every movement was going under the microscope and I was taking a peek.
I discovered a number of niggles and functional defects I had no idea were the main reason I wasn't seeing progress in my training. Every joint in my body (except for my wrists) had an issue with stability, mobility, and normal functioning. Even though I had been a Technique Freak since the beginning of time - this was not a technique issue. This went even deeper down the #BodyBeforeSkill rabbit hole: I had entered the world of corrective training.
Just after 6 weeks of combined Biokinetics training and Iyengar Yoga (two disciplines which focus on proprioception and corrective and technical training) - I could already see a transformation.
Once I had fixed the baseline, I also started working with a personal trainer to get me to the finish line: getting me ready to shoot the BBS LONG & STRONG stretching guide. This time, the results were much quicker but it did involve some intensive training over two months (5-7 hours training per week) with the final 3 weeks of training including supplementing and eating like professional fitness models do.
The BBS shoot was a peak: just like a competition or a marathon, it does not represent everyday life. Something to strive for. The week after, you gain a few pounds as your diet goes back to normal because that’s how normal life is. In fact, in later shoots, I decided to approach things very differently because even though I felt great at the shoot - I personally found the discipline required too stressful. Far from self-loving!
I might have arrived in South Africa in the worst shape of my life, but I left two years later having found physical functionality, flexibility, and movement. Taking a full year to research, study and experiment with the #BodyBeforeSkill method on my body, was the start of a whole new life chapter: personally and for my work.
My 1 year personal #BodyBeforeSkill helped me to:
Lose 10.5% body fat (going from 25% to 14.5%). PLEASE NOTE that all bodies are different and react differently to body fat loss. Before deciding to drop below 18% body fat (if you're a female), consult a professional trainer or nutritionist to check that this is suitable for your body type
Gain 1.5cm in height through improved posture and reducing the "laptop neck" syndrome
Significantly improve my flexibility and joint stability
Gain 3-4kg of muscle
Address my rounded shoulders and winged scapulae
Improve my flat foot arches which were already giving me knee problems
Improve my strength, stamina and resistance to injury
Make me feel like myself again!!
Every #BodyBeforeSkill journey will be different! Please share yours with me on Instagram @Jessica.z.christensen
Every good story should have a moral, and maybe you have come up with one or two after reading my story. For me, these were the most significant takeaways
Don’t let anyone tell you what you should and shouldn’t look like. Get to know your own body, learn to accept the way you’re made and then listen to your instincts about your goals. If you’re finding this hard, seek a professional’s advice. Your friends, family and Instagram followers are not professionals.
Getting into shape is not about aesthetics, even though looking your best will help you boost your overall confidence and improve your quality of life. The important things are how your body performs and helps you stay alive and healthy.
Fix your niggles such as joint stability and loosen any "knots" before you start training. You could spend years trying to achieve your goals when you could spend a tenth of the time if you can fix what’s wrong first. If a car is leaking fuel, you can fill it up at the gas station all you want but you’re not going to get very far!
When you look at shots of fitness models on Instagram, remember two things:
Looking like they do is their JOB. Body aesthetics is their craft and it takes as much dedication and training as any sport. Strict nutrition plans, supplements, and training come into play: and even the coaches have a coach to get them to their goal.
Models don’t look the way they do in shoots all the time. Their body has peaked at a point to show off muscle as much as possible and it’s not sustainable for everyday life: just like a runner couldn’t run a marathon every day of their life. So sit back, and rather than feeling guilty, you can feel inspired and give yourself a pat on the back for every step you take towards your own goal.
My personal BBS transformation journey was made possible thanks to:
Vayden Beyleveld - Biokinetecist & Performance Trainer
Holly Cammell - Biokineticist & Member Support at CCA
Bernette Beyers - Sports Performance Specialist PT
Lawrence Bachelor - Iyengar Yoga Instructor
Thank you for the great gift you have given me, I enjoyed every moment of learning and training in Stellenbosch.