Champaign woman prepares to enter her first body-sculpting competition

In figure competitions, the race is not always to the most muscular or the most voluptuous.

Sara Estock is graceful and lean-muscled from a discipline of hard workouts several times a day — and extremely purposeful-eating.

But the 26-year-old ex-dancer and gymnast from Champaign has never been one to plop on the couch and eat a bucket of fried chicken.

Her day begins early, with a 6 a.m. high-protein serving of food, and continues through a day where she exercises with no-nonsense training partner Stevie Salfelder.

Salfelder has run half-marathons and plans to enter a figure competition later.

"I'm here to help Sara when she's starting to feel tired. She does the same for me, especially when we're working the abs," says Salfelder, who describes herself as an "accountability partner."

That includes keeping to a strict diet.

"When we work out, all we do is talk about food," Salfelder says.

Estock already has an active schedule, exercising other people all day as a certified personal trainer at Champaign's Fitness Center Body Shop.

And all that hard work will culminate when she competes May 4 at the 2013 Heart of America Natural Classic in Washington, Ill., near Peoria. Sanctioned by the National Gym Association, it bills itself as a Natural Body Building and Figure Show. The event goes back to 1995; full information on the competition is at http://www.hoanaturalclassic.com/.

At 5-foot-5 (plus her 4.5-inch heels) and 128 pounds, even this fitness devotee is looking to tighten and tone before her first competition.

She says she has to "trust the process."

"I started my training and nutrition regime on Jan. 20. People are JUST NOW telling me that I look lean and muscular. It takes patience, but the human body will transform with consistency," Estock says. "After that, it's all about dedication to continually achieve small goals that add up to huge gains."

The goal is to improve muscle size and tone while reducing the layer of fat that overlays it.

That means ramping up on food, not cutting back.

"I've never had so much to eat," she says.

You aren't starving when you're eating six meals a day.

But that doesn't mean you have to love a steady diet of egg whites and ground turkey and unbuttered and uncheesed vegetables.

Oh, and spectacularly imaginative variations on unsweetened, stone-cut oatmeal.

Luckily, for Estock, those foods are scrumptilyicious,

"I might put some peanut butter in the oatmeal ball if I'm feeling crazy," she says.

Since Jan. 20, after a pre-planned pigout on sushi, she's kept to lean proteins and lots of broccoli.

Her only problem adjusting was eating so many extra meals.

"I'm not starving," she says. "That would be counter-productive because we want to have a lot of toned muscle. If anything, it was difficult to adjust to eating so often."

She has a degree in kinesiology from the University of Illinois and is starting toward a master's degree in public health at the UI's Springfield campus. So she views her quest with some scientific detachment.

"I'm my own guinea pig. I've been in an experiment since January," she says.

Estock, a certified personal trainer as well as a certified strength and conditioning specialist, is hoping to get leaner as she increases muscle strength.

As a former dancer and gymnast, she's already lean, and protein has triumphed over fat or carbohydrates.

This is despite growing up in the fried food capitol of Memphis before she moved to Champaign at high school age.

Body-builders and beauty contestants are different beasts from Estock's competition, which favors tone over size.

Nor, she says, is it about being thin to expose "the vascular system," or veins, which pop out like they're ready to explode on some body-builders' necks.

Muscle should show, not veins.

Estock already has her upper body well-toned.

"Women store more fat in (the) lower body," she says. "Therefore, as you lose fat, it comes off equally throughout the entire body. Because more is stored in the lower body to begin with, it is usually the last thing to really tone up."

The competition has a few things in common with other competitions: bikini-like posing costumes and a spray-on tan that really does draw out muscular definition.

"I'll be five times darker on competition day," Estock says.

Only the tan is fake. And the "Natural" in the show's name means that competitors get there a day early for the mandatory polygraph and urine test.

Good thing they don't test for sweet potatoes.

Estock is into the yam experience because it's the closest thing she gets to a dessert, and the components of sweet potatoes help maintain a steady level of blood sugar for her.

With all the workouts, Estock can be pressed for time, and sometimes eats canned vegetables, usually low-sodium.

"I'm not going to sit here snappin' beans six times a day. I don't have time," she says.

She doesn't think canned vegetables are doing anything bad for her.

"The salt hasn't been a problem. I'm sweating all day," with multiple strength, endurance and aerobic workouts. "I never add salt to my food."

Initially, with her cravings for verboten chocolate and sushi, "my fiance didn't think I'd make it past three weeks." But she says fiance Chris Maxwell has been supportive throughout.

"We'd splurge on food now and then," Maxwell sayas. "Maybe once a week we'd go to Chinese buffets. She mostly would raid the sushi bar."

Another foray into sin was for Little Caesar's pizza.

But that is nevermore.

"I expected some cheating. There's been ... nothing," he says.

Instead, lean protein.

"Mainly at dinner for the last 12 weeks, we've been pretty consistent: lean chicken, beef or turkey and massive amounts of vegetables. With my food background, it's not bad," says Maxwell, a chef-turned-kitchen designer.

Maxwell has been losing weight, 8 pounds in one week.

"She keeps saying now ... just add some exercise," he says, but he has no intention of entering a figure competition.

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