Competing in a pageant isn't for the faint of heart — walking in heels in front of millions, speaking about big political issues with only seconds to form an opinion, and being judged on a stage wearing a tiny bikini takes courage, poise, and hard work. How do they do it? We asked Viva Fitness founder Stephen P. Smith, trainer for newly crowned Miss America Betty Cantrell as well as several other pageant winners, to let us in on the tricks he uses to help contestants look long, lean, and confident on the stage. Check out his tips ahead.
- For leaner-looking legs, focus on your hamstrings: Stephen has his clients do exercises like deadlifts, box step-ups, and hamstring curls. "[For] a lot of the young ladies, the backs of the legs are a little flat, so we work on the hamstring, which helps develop the glutes and just makes the leg look leaner from the front," he explains.
- Lunges are a beauty queen's best friend: For even more lower-body sculpting, Stephen teaches his pageant clients several types of lunges that they can do anywhere — even backstage! "I like a lunge; it's a great front-of-the-leg-back-of-the-leg exercise and it's great for the glutes," Stephen says. "You can vary it up in a number of ways to get different results." His favorite: alternating front and reverse lunges, 16 to 20 per leg, holding weights if you can.
- Posture does make perfect: Standing tall, looking confident, and smiling nonstop for hours on end takes practice. Besides working on balance with one-legged bicep curls, Stephen also has his clients focus on ab work, like planks, in order to stand tall and look thinner on stage. The secret: learning to engage from the lower abs instead of trying to suck in your stomach. "You can always tell when someone is sucking their abs in," he says. "You have that top rib sticking out because they're holding their breath instead of learning to engage from the core and under their rib cage. That will help keep your abs flat."
- Cardio is key: Building and sculpting muscle is important, but for keeping weight in check leading up to a competition, Stephen tells his clients to hop on a treadmill. He recommends treadmill intervals at least two to three times a week for 30 to 45 minutes, ramping up to two hours (broken up into morning and afternoon sessions) as the pageant nears.
- The type of cardio matters: Stephen says he doesn't usually recommend his clients take regular indoor cycling classes in case they overdevelop their quads. "You see people who do a lot of cycling, they have small upper bodies and big lower bodies," he says. "We don't really want big quads, we want fit quads." Stephen adds, however, that like everything, the type of cardio that works for you depends on your body and other factors like injuries and abilities, so he says to not take this as a hard and fast rule.
- Healthy habits win pageants: Stephen's biggest advice for his clients is to start healthy habits that are sustainable rather than resorting to dangerous and ineffective crash dieting. "That's what [some of] these girls do — they starve themselves to get ready for these pageants, and then after the pageant they go back to their old ways of eating," Stephen says. "What we try to do is change the style of eating; don't look at food as bad. You have to eat." To do this, Stephen teaches his clients the importance of meal prep, drinking lots of water, having protein with each meal, avoiding white foods as much as possible, and eating every three hours.
- Deprivation doesn't work: While Stephen works with contestants to clean up their diets, he is adamant that they not go on one. "A diet is a bad word; it gives you restrictions," he says. "Are you really never going to a restaurant again and eat a piece of bread? But if you make changes now when you go to a nice restaurant, you can have a piece of bread. Live your life, enjoy your life, enjoy things as they come. If you go out for dinner, have some bread or some dessert, but know what you have to do at the gym next week." For Stephen, success with his beauty queen clients means he's taught them how to "practice a healthy lifestyle that they can do without me."