Every so often you come across someone in the fitness industry, or life in general, whose character shines so brightly and so genuinely that you just want to share them with the world…
For me, Emily Duncan falls smack bang in that category.
I’m going to keep this spiel short because I went a liiiittle overboard with my questions (… only slightly… okay, I lie, a whole lot), but I wanted to give you a rundown on this 20 year old American beauty before we get into the actual interview!
I came across Emily on Instagram a while ago and instantly fell in love with everything she stood for both as an athlete, and overall human being. A bikini competitor who preaches heavy lifting and compound movements, flexible dieting, froyo, puppies, self-love, stepping out of society’s standards, KINDNESS, moderation, transparency, and embracing the essence of who you are, all rolled up into one person who displays a killer work ethic in everything she does (how can I not ask a million questions considering the above right?)
Since 2014, she has competed in a total of 7 bodybuilding shows, most recently placing 1st and landing herself in an awesome position to do a winter prep for 2016 (no show date as of YET… I have my eyes peeled though guys). She has been sharing her journey along the way on both Instagram and YouTube (you can find links to both of these social media sites at the bottom of the interview), all the while launching a career as a coach and studying at the same time. Can you see why I’m super thankful she took the time for this interview haha?
SO, with further ado, grab some macro friendly popcorn, or not so macro friendly doughnuts, and enjoy a little slice of Em and her inspiring/funny/badass/loving attitude in regards to all things competing, training and of course, my favourite, self-love.
Schae: Watching you grow over the past few years as both a competitor and role model for females has been an absolute privilege. I’m sure a lot of women, including myself, would like to thank you for being so open on social media about the ups and downs within the fitness industry. Do you think the industry has changed much since you first got involved with it? And if so, do you think these changes impact positively or negatively at the end of the day?
Emily: Thank you so much! There are no thanks needed here. I want to see and make positive change in the fitness community, so being open and honest is one of the best ways I feel that that change will come. I started competing in the spring of 2014, and I’ve definitely noticed some change between then and now. Over the past couple years, social media has gotten HUGE. Fitness, and specifically competing, has also gotten to be huge as well. There are more competitors in my federation, the National Physique Committee, than there have ever been, and that number continues to increase. Social media has definitely given people a great platform with which to share their lives and their journeys to becoming stronger, healthier, more confident people, but social media is also problematic in a lot of ways. I think that, largely due to social media, people (specifically females) feel the need to compete in a bodybuilding show in order to “prove” themselves and their dedication to living a healthy lifestyle. Obviously I love competing, but it’s not for everyone. When people try to compete in order to prove themselves only to find out that it really isn’t for them, that can be a hugely defeating experience that causes them to spiral back down into unhealthy habits. So, while the fitness social media community is largely a positive one, I think it can also generate a lot of subconscious pressure to compete. Health and fitness isn’t all about doing something competitive, it’s about making positive changes in your physical and mental health, and that needs to be prioritized over stepping on a stage.
S: Throughout that time period you have also made huge leaps and bounds as an individual. What is the biggest thing you have learnt about yourself along the way?
E: Thank you so much! I think a big part of that has simply been growing up. I started competing (and “doing social media” I suppose you could say) when I was 18, so there has definitely been a good deal of maturing done in that time frame. I would say my biggest lesson learned has been regarding my internal strength. I truly learned how to listen to the sound of my own voice, my own feelings about myself, and my own wants for myself and my future. I think so many young people (and I say this from personal experience) forget how to truly listen to their intuition due to all of the cultural influences constantly being thrown at us, so rediscovering my voice and singing my song solely for me has been huge… And ultimately, I can relate to and help others BECAUSE of that, so not only has it helped me, but it’s helped me reach thousands of people.
Emily and her pupper, Logan. She Snapchats him farting on occasion… this occasion is usually one of the highlights of my day.
S: You are a huge advocator of self-love and positive body image and have been since the moment I came across you on Instagram. What do you think the biggest change mentally was for you to get to this spot you are in today?
E: This kind of goes back to the whole “listening to your own voice” thing. Culture is so problematic in that we are constantly being bombarded with images and ideas of what we’re “supposed” to be and what society has deemed as beautiful or worthy. The biggest thing for me in terms of overall self love, from love of my personality and all that I have to offer, to love of my physical body, was spending time alone. After a poor relationship (which also happened to be when I started my first contest prep), I spent a lot of time alone. I had kind of lost the essence of myself in that relationship, and I wanted me back. I took myself on a “date” and literally sat down, got coffee, and essentially pen-to-paper word vomited everything I loved about myself, everything I wanted out of life, everything that I thought I could improve upon, etc. After that coffee date, I dedicated everything I had into being completely, wholeheartedly, and unapologetically myself. The simple act of doing stuff from my soul day in and day out reconnected me with who I am, and it made me realize that I really do love who I AM, not who I was pretending to be for other people.
S: What is something you wish to tell young females who are struggling with body image within our society?
E: Oh, gosh. There are so many things. I would challenge my fellow ladies to look – I don’t mean glance, I mean really look at and dissect – what exactly it is that you feel self conscious about and why. Last year (spring semester of 2015), I had the privilege of taking an introductory course in feminism at my university. One big thing that this course taught me was about the various schemas of beauty that society has set up, targeted at men and women alike, but especially at women. Learning that the vast majority of what made me self conscious about myself or my body was a product of societal expectations helped me to dig deeper into my relationship with MYSELF, and again, listen to my own voice and how I feel about who I am, not what anyone else has to say about who I am or how I look.
Image by Lamar Pacley, @shuttereyephoto
S: Competing is a huge part of your life and you have done extremely well for yourself within a short period of time. What have you found to be the most enjoyable, and also most challenging aspect of this sport?
E: I would say the most challenging aspect of the sport is taking enough time off… I am very much a performer (I grew up a dancer and singer, so I have been on stage since before I can remember) and very much competitive in nature. It’s extremely easy for me to get caught up in wanting to compete all the time, when in reality, I can’t do that if I want to be the best. It’s absolutely imperative to take time off in order to grow/improve and allow your body’s systems to return to normal. If you want to make QUALITY tissue changes, you need more than a couple months in an offseason in order to truly improve. I also take longer preps (by the end of this prep I’m in currently, it’s looking to be about 8 months total dieting down), so it’s not realistic to do that all the time. The longer you diet, the longer you need to recover from that. I love to compete and I love to perform, so taking time away from that is the biggest struggle for me, but it always pays dividends the next time around. I’m great with extremes and I crave that, so the whole “balance” thing is definitely, well, a balancing act.
As for the most enjoyable part? That’s tough. Competing has literally become my heart and soul, so it’s hard to pick just one thing! Show day itself is obviously amazing and I love it dearly (I’m a glam girl, what can I say?), but it’s also very fleeting because it’s only ONE day. I think one of my favourite things about competing, while it may sound somewhat twisted, it the gritty, grind-y, nasty prep feeling. That feeling when you have to dig. When you have to do the tough shit. When you have to condition twice a day, or when you get to the hardest phase of the contest diet, or anything of that nature. That’s my favourite part because that’s where you learn who you are and what you’re made of. You can’t accomplish anything extraordinary without some grit, and staring that challenge square in the face and then overcoming it is the best feeling. We often underestimate our personal power, but pushing through those deepest, darkest moments of prep truly has helped teach me that I’m capable of whatever I tell myself I can do, and because of the challenges I’ve overcome, I tell myself that I can do absolutely anything I want. Because I have in the past and can in the future.
S: You have mentioned many times that your programming is heavily based around weightlifting and big compound movements with the addition of accessory work. Would you be able to touch on your opinion on the great debate that weightlifting and bodybuilding are exclusive to one another? How much crossover have you seen in your body composition as a bodybuilder by focusing on this form of training?
E: Oh, I can definitely touch on this. The fact of the matter is that women and men DO NOT need to train extremely differently. There’s this massive misconception that the barbells belong to the boys and the little pink dumbbells belong to the girls, especially if you want to compete in bikini. That line of thinking has got to go. When I first started competing, my training was strictly bodybuilding based. You know the drill, 3-4 sets in an 8-15 rep range, body part splits, one day of plyometrics in a 25-30 rep range, all that. Not that that’s bad necessarily, but my physique still just wasn’t there. Cue strength training. My first offseason with Eric as my coach was where I experienced the most quality tissue growth, and I attribute a lot of that to compound movements (i.e. squats, deadlifts, and the Olympic lifts primarily). The majority of my training volume comes from big lifts, and accessory work acts as a compliment to those. Speaking as someone who is first and foremost a bodybuilder, I would never go back to how I trained before. The Olympic lifts have made me faster, stronger, and more athletic. My body Is much more functional in the sense that I can use my body as a unit much more efficiently, and I think that has contributed to a more balanced physique overall. I am strong and my muscles are dense without being “bulky” like the stereotypes would lead you to believe. My lower body has always been my biggest critique from judges, and the more I strength train, the better my lower body looks both in terms of muscle density as well as conditioning. Big lifts are also much more energetically expensive than smaller accessory movements, so not only do I have a stronger, denser, more balanced physique, but my metabolism has also reaped the benefits 😛 (insert giant bowl of froyo here). I personally would love to see more integration between sports like Weightlifting, bodybuilding, powerlifting, and Crossfit, because we all truly can learn from one another.
And in case anyone is still skeptical, listen to some interviews with Arnold. He squatted. He clean and jerked. He lifted heavy shit and did accessories along with it. So if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe one of the kings of bodybuilding ;).
S: You are currently in a contest prep and weighing in at the lightest you ever have this far out from stage and also seem to be in the best head space yet. What have you done differently this time around?
E: First and foremost, my coaching team is the strongest it has ever been. I have Eric Van Matre (who is also my boyfriend) handling my training – he has a Master’s degree in Sport Performance and he has been in charge of my strength programming since November of 2014. I have Nick Tong handling my nutrition and cardio, and I started working with him this past fall. These two make an absolutely phenomenal pair. They communicate very well with each other, are both highly intelligent individuals, and they’re both very proactive about my progress as an athlete. If something isn’t going how we want it to, they’re very on top of changing it to something that works better. I feel very well taken care of as an athlete, so that better equips me to do the job of the athlete and simply DO. I don’t have to worry about the coaching side of things because I know they have it handled; thus, all of my efforts can go into putting in the work that’s asked of me. This also has kept stress markedly low, which is huge as a historically stress-prone individual.
Another thing that I have done differently, and don’t regret for a moment, is keeping quiet about what shows I’m doing on social media. I think a lot of times competitors get caught up in the social media game, and it can be distracting. Going into this prep, I knew I wanted to be more private. I still share about the things that I go through and what I’m doing, but I’m also keeping some things to myself, like specific show dates. It’s been really nice to have that element of privacy, and it’s allowed me to do this for me and no one but me, which is exactly why I compete. I never want to sound ungrateful for all of the support that I have from the online community, but again, I think people get so caught up in social media and let that serve as a distraction from the ultimate goal – show day. Simply put: putting my head down, keeping (somewhat) quiet, and working. It’s also helped me genuinely enjoy the actual process itself a lot more than I ever have. A strong coaching team and a little more privacy have put me in the best mental facility I have ever been in, and my body is reflecting that.
S: The moment you started your movement #WonderWomanMentality, you literally stole a piece of my heart. For me, it comes across as another way to unite females and create an environment of support and genuine love by sharing our personal struggles, and also celebrating our accomplishments with one another. Is that what you were aiming for and what compelled you to start this?
E: Absolutely, 100% YES. The whole “Wonder Woman” analogy came about during a local radio interview back in the summer of 2014. The interviewer asked, “If you could tell young girls who look up to you one thing, what would it be?” I took a second, smiled a little, and told them: “Become your own Wonder Woman. Don’t rely on the energy of the outside world to fuel you. Find what makes YOU strong and what makes YOU awesome, and run with it.” I get teary whenever I re-watch that interview. That was back when things were just starting for me, and that belief has snowballed into a massive part of my identity. Being your own Wonder Woman isn’t about being better than anyone else; it’s not about being cocky or superior. It’s about owning what you’ve got, in it’s entirety, and encouraging your fellow females to do the same.
S: What is your favourite quote and what does it mean to you?
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” – John Steinbeck.
E: I absolutely love this quote for so many reasons. I grew up, and am very much still, a perfectionist. However, when I learned that I truly never will be perfect and that there is so much beauty in my madness and imperfection, I was finally able to be free. I don’t live in chains of unrealistic expectations of myself. I can be good to myself and to those around me because I’m not constantly worried about putting on a show for anyone. Most importantly, I’m able to actually accomplish what I want out of life because I accept who I am and who I am not, and can move forward without being excessively hard on myself. I am not perfect, but I’m pretty darn good.
S: I love the idea of positive self talk and personally don’t think it is encouraged enough (although we getting better, ya’ll). What is something you love about yourself?
E: I love that I’m a badass. Even moreso? I love that I’m not afraid to say “I’m a badass.”
S: You have the ability to change one thing about the fitness industry, no questions asked. What would it be and why?
E: I would change the lack of regulation. There is no other industry that could get away with having unregulated supplements (“proprietary blend”… Ohhhkay then), magazines published with claims not backed by substantial research, and other things of that nature. There is so much conflicting information about which diet is the best, what training protocol is superior, should women lift heavy or should they not (spoiler alert: they should), what are the ACTUAL ingredients in the supplements on the market, etc. In essence, there’s just a lot of bullshit going around (teatoxes, supplements laced with pharmaceutical grade anti-depressants, waist trainers, you name it) and I’m sick of it. Especially when people are just starting out in fitness, they go to the internet for advice, and a lot of times that “advice” can be misleading. I would LOVE to see more intelligent minds like Laurin Conlin, Layne Norton, Eric, Nick, Peter Fitschen, Jeff Nippard, Krissy Mae Cagney, etc get more attention for the QUALITY information they have to offer. I think that a more science-based era of strength/conditioning/health/fitness is on the rise, and I’m excited to (hopefully) see it happen.
Well, I hope you guys have enjoyed this as much as I have. Again, a big thanks to Emily for this interview and to find her on social media, just follow the links/usernames below!