Natural woman

Diet, hard work are Elk Grove natural bodybuilding champion Michelle Shepherd’s key to success

She works hard for the body: Bodybuilding and fitness champ Michelle Shepherd shows off the results of her labor.

She works hard for the body: Bodybuilding and fitness champ Michelle Shepherd shows off the results of her labor.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Michelle Shepherd bakes gourmet cheesecakes as a hobby. But when the winner of the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation’s Ms. Exercise World Figure Championships prepares for bodybuilding and figure contests, dessert is off the menu. In fact, Shepherd says watching her food intake is the biggest challenge of her regimen.

“The cardio and weight training are tough, but diet affects every aspect of my life,” said Shepherd, 38, an Elk Grove resident. “That means lots of cooking, eating and dish-washing,” she laughed. “I take my food with me when leaving the house, which cuts out going to social functions. It’s really hard but very rewarding.”

To reach her contest bodyweight of 105-106 lbs., or 6 percent body fat, Shepherd eats meals of lean proteins, healthy carbohydrates and fats six times a day. She diets and trains “naturally,” not using outlawed substances. Some other competitors use such shortcuts to increase muscle and lose fat faster.

Off-season, she gains about 8 pounds by, in part, indulging herself in the occasional slice of her cheesecake or crunchy apple pie. She bakes the latter with a recipe that uses a sugar substitute and oat flour instead of white flour.

“You would never know it by its taste,” Shepherd said. “I also make protein pumpkin bread and protein banana bread using all healthy ingredients, like oat flour, flax meal, oat bran, protein powder, cinnamon and egg whites. Everyone who tastes it loves it. They can’t believe that it is actually good for you.”

Currently, she weight trains five days a week, working two body parts a day. Shepherd does three to four sets per body part, six to 15 repetitions per set. And unlike some other bodybuilders, she does not watch the clock at the gym. “The longer that I rest between sets, the more weight I can lift. I go faster when training with Mark, my husband, because he wants to get through it!”

She does more cardio work when not training for a contest, typically 20 to 30 minutes, four to five days a week, sometimes twice daily. “First thing in the morning is always the most productive time to lose body fat. I will eat only a rice cake, so as not to burn muscle, then go for a jog. Immediately afterward, I will eat breakfast.” For cardio training, she also does machine work at the gym and runs up and down stairs at home.

A graduate of Valley High School, Shepherd trains at California Family Fitness in Elk Grove. A gymnast from childhood through high school, she was also a cheerleader at Valley. Shepherd played co-ed softball as a 20-something. “I started going to the gym six years ago because having gotten into my 30s and seeing that my clothes were getting a little tight, I figured that I better start working out.”

I am natural, hear me roar.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Shepherd began to work out each day after she left her job as a custom picture framer. In time she met Mark, and they became workout partners before getting married in August 2002. A half-year of inconsistent visits to the gym ensued, leaving them out of shape. This period of relative inactivity, in turn, spurred the Shepherds to return to the gym regularly. Their fitness regimen, however, lacked direction. An acquaintance recommended they see Fred Larson, a personal trainer and World Natural Bodybuilding Federation pro bodybuilder.

Unlike the International Federation of Bodybuilders, which does not screen for steroids, growth hormone and other controversial supplements, the WNBF adheres to rigid rules prohibiting the use of such substances. As the negative side effects of steroid use have become more well known in recent years, natural bodybuilding has increased in popularity, especially among competitors.

Meeting Larson in 2004 proved pivotal for the Shepherds. He provided advice on proper diet and exercise that “totally changed” her life, Shepherd explained. Larson gives most of the credit to the Shepherds.

“I helped them with their focus,” he said. He recommended clean nutrition (emphasizing unprocessed foods), heavy free weights (dumbbells and barbells), moderate cardio exercise and proper recovery time between workouts. “The Shepherds did the rest of it themselves.”

Under Larson’s tutelage, they achieved attention-grabbing results. “After six to eight months on Larson’s new routine, people began to ask me if I was going to compete,” Shepherd said. Later, both Shepherds decided to enter the Capital City Bodybuilding Championships in July 2005. They won first place in their respective divisions.

The Shepherds attended the same contest in 2006 as spectators, a decision that Shepherd later regretted. “Once we were there I wished I would have competed,” she said. “It was then that I decided I was going to compete in 2007.”

And compete she did, entering six contests last year. In the beginning, she concentrated only on winning bodybuilding contests. Then her competitive path took a slight twist. “My girlfriend convinced me to compete in figure as well as bodybuilding contests,” she said. “I had not considered figure until then.”

In figure contests, judges rank competitors on their aesthetics, muscle tone and symmetry. Muscle size is not emphasized as much as it is in bodybuilding. After working with Dr. Joe Klemczewski, of nutrition and training tip Web site “The Diet Doc,” on her nutrition, she entered her first figure competition in Boston last May. She won the title of overall figure champion, which came as “a shock” to her.

The Boston victory paved the way for Shepherd to compete professionally and win cash prizes. In late June, she won a bodybuilding contest in New York in which she earned professional status as well. She returned to Elk Grove to nab first place in a bodybuilding and figure contest last July.

Against the backdrop of widespread use of drugs in pro baseball and football and amateur track and field, Shepherd is a natural athlete. She says that meeting her fellow competitors is perhaps the greatest joy that bodybuilding and figure contests offer. “The camaraderie between the ladies is really awesome, for me to speak with others who have gone through similar training.”

The exact date of her next contest is uncertain. It seems the Shepherds are planning to start a family. “We have thrown around the idea of my competing this September or November if I am not yet pregnant,” she said. “I could also compete after having children.”

Her competitors would be wise to never underestimate this natural woman.