From Ballet to Bodybuilding – The Incredible Liesl Damstra

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From Ballet to Bodybuilding – The Incredible Liesl Damstra

The story of how a gorgeous mom of 3 took her grace and passion from the ballet stage to the bodybuilding arena. Liesl Damstra started bodybuilding and fitness at the age of 39 and is now one of our most prized possessions as a pro athlete. A woman who doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “can’t” and proves yet again that you can do anything you set your mind to achieve.

By Andrew Carruthers, Editor-In-Chief

Full name: Liesl Damstra
Height: 1,73m
Weight: Competition 63kg (67-8 kg when not competing)
Age: 44
Trains: Virgin Active Bloemfontein
Competing: 4 years
Competition highlights:
Shawn Rhoden Classic 2018, 2nd Class C Figure
Amateur Olympia Portugal, 2nd Masters Figure and 3rd Class C Figure
iCandy Classic Cape Town, 1st Overall and Masters Figure
Bigman Weekend South Africa, Winner Overall figure and Fitness

Tell us about yourself, who you are and what you do?
My name is Liesl Damstra, I compete in the IFBB Pro league as a fitness and figure pro. I currently live in Bloemfontein with my husband and three kids. In short, I trained to be a professional ballet dancer and attended Pro Arte School of the Arts in Pretoria. Directly after matric I joined the then known as PACT Ballet Company, (Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal) and danced professionally for 4 years. We moved abroad for 14 years in which time I qualified and worked as a Ballet teacher and Pilates instructor, in between having my children. When we returned to South Africa, I took some time from teaching and did something else that I had always wanted to do, I started flying and did my PPL but my love and need for physical movement and something more challenging is what started my fitness and bodybuilding adventure, which has become a way of life for me. I still teach Pilates, which I LOVE and I am currently busy with a certification in nutrition from MNU.

How is lockdown treating you? What have you been up to?
Lockdown has been interesting! Spending quality time with my kids and my husband has been amazing, one rarely takes a moment to appreciate each other and now we have been given the gift of time, no more saying, “I don’t have the time to…..” This time spent together has been very special and I will miss it when it ends. On the other hand, I now realise more than ever how important social interaction is for everyones health and well being. I am a social person so I miss my friends and just doing simple things like going to the gym and taking the dogs for a walk. The days are not very exciting during lock down. The time is usually spent doing washing and cleaning, training, doing school work with the kids and I am busy revising work for my nutrition course, which I should be finishing soon. At night I like to stretch in front of the TV while we watch Netflix, or play Balderdash with friends on Zoom.

How have you been keeping in shape over the past few weeks?
I am really lucky. We have a fairly well-equipped gym in our basement. I weight train about 5 times a week. I am not prepping at the moment so my cardio is down to about 30 min, twice a week. I stretch and do some Pilates at least 3-4 times a week.

How did you get into the bodybuilding lifestyle and what made you start competing?
I have always been very active and a member of a gym where ever we lived. However, I was always afraid of lifting heavier weights because as most girls do, I believed that lifting will make me big and manly, LOL. As I was approaching forty and realised that doing the same little cardio bunny routine was not really getting me the results I was looking for, coupled with the fact that there is a history of arthiritis in my family and I realised that my training needed to change and become more resistance training based for my health. I joined a small gym in my area where training was intense and a challenge which I loved. It soon became addictive when I started seeing my body react and I saw big changes in the mirror. As for competing, well my husband always bought Muscle Evolution magazines at Dischem and I used to page through them and admire the competition pictures. So the challenge junkie in me decided it was something I had to try, probably something to do with being on stage again and working my butt off just appealed to me and to prove to myself that I could do it after having 3 kids and before turning 40. My first competition was a regional show in Bloemfontein at age 39. After the first show I realised I was hooked!

Tell us a bit about your approach to training. How do you train and what are your beliefs around training?
First of all, I love weight training with intensity, usually pretty heavy but definitely with intensity. The areas that need special attention get trained twice a week. For figure and somewhat with fitness, the focus is on a nice wide back, well developed delts, glutes and hamstrings. I try and avoid training arms before competitions because bigger arms will make your shoulders and back look smaller. For weight training I alternate between “heavier” weeks with progressive overload and a lower rep range (8-10) or more volume-based weeks with more reps (15-20) sets. Weight training is only part of my training. I also do Pilates which is essential for creating muscle and mind connection as well as strengthening and conditioning of the core and deep stabilising muscles to help prevent injuries and improve form. I do dance classes to work on my routine for fitness, stretching at home and last but not least cardio. During prep it can become very time consuming to fit everything in, especially with added cardio before a show. But I love it and I actually miss not being on prep when I am not competing. I believe wholeheartedly that everyone should find/have an activity they absolutely LOVE to do and that will keep you healthy forever.

Who has helped you along the way to get into your best shape?
Andrew Hudson has been my coach for the last 4 years and he is responsible for bringing the best out in me. I decided to contact Andrew for coaching because I really liked the way his athletes looked. Looking back, this is still one of the best decisions I ever made! He perfectly understands what my goals are and what I want to achieve and he knows how to get me there. I love his evidence-based approach, always putting health first. I really appreciate his calm and confident nature a week out from a show when my mind starts playing tricks.

Give us an idea how you would eat on a typical day when prepping for a show.
A typical day might vary depending on where we are with the prep but I like to keep it pretty simple. I usually eat 5 – 6 meals a day. I eat a variety of different protein sources, mostly chicken, beef, fresh fish and whey of course. Lots of fresh veggies, rice and potatoes. I prep and measure all my meals on a Sunday for the week ahead. As I get closer to show date the Andrew will change things slightly but never big drastic changes.

Do you have any body part you have really struggled to get a good response out of? If so, what did you do to better the weak body parts?
So for the longest time it was my legs and we really worked hard on developing and building good shape, I love training legs so we still work them really hard as well as my glutes and hamstrings. At the moment my back is the most difficult to get a good response out of. Back development for figure is really important for the X-frame look on stage. My arms tend to want to take over when I do pull exercises. I really have to focus on getting a good mind-muscle connection and optimal hand placement when training back otherwise I just over-use my arms. We do a lot of exercises that target the back from different angles and pull ups are a big part of my program. Personally, I believe training weaker body parts twice a week gives the best results and then time and consistency are key to building quality muscle. Genetics obviously plays a major role but with hard work and persistence one can definitely improve a weaker body part.

Tell us about how you split your training during the week?
Sunday: Legs (quads), Calves
Monday: Shoulders, Chest, Triceps
Tuesday: Back, Biceps
Wednesday: Legs (Hams + glutes), Calves
Thursday: Pilates
Friday: Back and Shoulders
Saturday: Pilates

Cardio (HIIT): 2xp/week when not competing, 5xp/week when competing

What are your main goals and ambitions for yourself in this sport?
My short-term goal is to make my pro debut. I planned to compete this year in the pro show in Portugal in July at the Amateur Olympia but due to the circumstances that has now been postponed. I am not sure if it will be possible to still compete this year but I am hopeful. Ultimately, every IFBB pro dreams about making it to the Olympia or the Arnold Australia /Ohio stage.

What else do you enjoy when you are not training and on diet for a show?
I really enjoy aviation and when I get a free moment and the weather is good, I go and fly. My favourite food when I am not on diet is definitely Italian. I love a good glass of wine and a seafood pasta.

What kind of music do you listen to?
I listen to a wide selection of music but it varies according to what I am doing. When I do cardio, I listen to all sorts of dance music. When I lift, I usually prefer some hard rock or alternative music. At home, my favourite bands are Coldplay, Collective Soul, Queen, INXS and Red Hot Chilli Peppers. 80’s music is also a favourite… amongst many others.

Where do you pull your inspiration from?
Fitness: Oksana Grishina
Figure: Candice Carter
Are 2 of my biggest inspirations and motivations, but I get inspired most days by people just working hard to be the best they can be. My kids inspire me everyday to be a better mom and person.

What motivates you?
When someone says I can’t do it!

What is your take on the Bodybuilding and Fitness Industry in SA?
It’s a very exciting time for bodybuilding in South Africa, a lot has changed in the last couple of years and there are just so many opportunities for all athletes right now. Obviously I think the fact that the NPC World Wide Pro League is in South Africa is the most exciting thing for anyone who wants to compete and have a chance of making it to the Olympia stage – the super bowl for bodybuilders! This federation is open to any athlete which is incredible. If you want to be part of the family and compete with the best, join the NPC!
This situation with the Pandemic is awful for so many and especially in the fitness industry. My heart goes out for anybody making a living in this industry at the moment. Their income has been taken away and the future looks very uncertain in many ways. We can only hope and pray that the situation returns to normal as soon as possible.

What is one of the hardest lessons you have learned?
Do what makes YOU happy. You don’t owe anybody an explanation.
When you start lifting weights as a woman you might get negative comments. When you start competing you might get placings that will upset you. These are only opinions of people. If you live YOUR dream, no one else’s opinion should matter. You don’t need to please anyone, only yourself. I am by nature someone that feels the need to please everyone but I have learned along the way that this usually leads down the wrong road. I’m not saying you need to be a hard ass or a bitch, be gracious and humble, we all had to start somewhere. I like to help if and where I can and I like to pay things forward.

There are probably hundreds of women that want to follow your footsteps. What advice would you give them about getting into shape and chasing a dream of being fit and healthy?
This is a difficult one because it sort of ties in with the previous question. I do not train and compete to make a living or to try and get a sponsorship. I do it because I love to exercise, I love the discipline and I love the sport. If I were to to give any advice it would be to just start, take it one day at a time. It doesn’t matter what you start with, its more about the change that takes place in your mind to commit to making a change. Just don’t give up on yourself, you don’t need to be a competitive athlete or a pro if that’s not your dream but if you’ve made the decision to change then give it all you’ve got. If you give up on yourself who will fight for you? You only get this one body and this one life to make it the best ever. There will be tough times, not every day will be filled with motivation but I guarantee you MOST of the time you will feel better and stronger and fitter than you thought you could. We are capable of so much more than we can imagine, give yourself some credit and dream big!

Famous last words?
I guess something I really live by is that life is not a dress rehearsal, there are no do-overs. You have this one life so get busy living.

For more on Liesl, Check out:

Instagram: @lieslfitmom


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