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Prime Cut

Success in female bodybuilding is wafer-thin.

By the time Arvada native Christine Pomponio-Pate arrives at the prestigious Arnold bodybuilding show in Columbus, Ohio, in early March, she'll have been intensively preparing her physique for close to four months. Her body-fat percentage will be near 9 percent -- between a half and a third of that of the average fit young woman. The muscles in her shoulders, back, arms and legs will stand out like the cords on a cut-away doll used to teach anatomy. Her muscle bellies -- the round part of the muscle where it looks like a snake swallowed a rabbit -- will be pumped and full, defined by edges as sharp as a countertop's.

Because muscles appear clearer on a depleted body, she will feel weak from food and water deprivation. "We try to dehydrate ourselves near to death and then hope we don't pass out on stage," she says.

Pomponio-Pate's physical training has been more intense than most people would understand. The former engineer's assistant has been lifting weights and burning thousands of calories during cardio workouts nearly every day. She'll gradually cut carbohydrates out of her meals until two days before the contest, when she'll stop eating anything of substance altogether. She'll be cranky and irritable. She will have started to dream about hamburgers and cups of ranch dressing.

In the final couple of days leading up to the competition, she'll also cut back drastically on water and sodium. Both are enemies of the bodybuilder. They swell the tissues, which can obscure the muscles and definition under the skin -- an undesirable condition known in the sport as "spillover." As the day of the show approaches, she'll cut her water intake in half. On the actual day of the contest, she'll merely sip at a water bottle and take an herbal supplement or over-the-counter drug such as Midol to dry her body out further, hoping to produce the coveted effect bodybuilders call "tight."

The rest of Pomponio-Pate's preparation is literally skin deep. Over time, bodybuilders have decided that darker skin looks better under the harsh glare of stage lights; each year the appropriate color seems to get a shade darker. "Three days out, we start layering on the Pro Tan," says Carla Sanchez, Pomponio-Pate's trainer. The lotion, which is more of a stain, sells for $26 a bottle.

Sanchez will help her client apply anywhere between four and eight layers of the color. Putting on one's own Pro Tan is considered foolish. Last year, Pomponio-Pate recalls, a contestant's tan was off at a major competition; she looked wan. "The judges said her color might've dropped her two places," she says. The morning of the show, she'll add a separate coat of Dream Tan, a pudding-like cream that creates a bronze or gold shimmer.

Having been coiffed and made up for two hours, she'll carefully pull on her one-piece swimsuit custom-tailored by Christine Marsh, who sews bodybuilding costumes in a small southeast Denver storefront. Her suits, crusted with Swarovski crystals, sell for as much as $500 and are famous all over the country. Pomponio-Pate's suit is black, wet-looking and extremely high-cut.

Once backstage, she will spend several minutes lifting dumbbells or tugging at tubular stretch cords; the short, intense workout helps fill the muscles with blood, making them look plump and large. She'll eat a handful of oat bran, to make her body look fuller, and some honey, to make her veins stand out.

She'll put on clear, open-toed plastic shoes with four-inch heels. Pretty, but inconspicuous. A poorly selected shoe hurts more than a perfect one helps, so contestants err on the side of caution. Finally, Pomponio-Pate will pin her number to her left side and step onto the stage.

At the better-known pro shows, such as the Ms. Olympia, the women are called out one at a time. They begin with a "relaxed" pose. "Of course," Pomponio-Pate notes, "it's not relaxed at all. It's sexy, but flexing a little. Everyone does it differently. I usually have one arm on my hip, one off. Some girls have two arms on their hips.

"Then you do your presentation: You show what you're bringing to the stage. A side pose, a back pose, another side, a curtsy and you're done."

Pomponio-Pate, who is only 5'1", will flex with her legs straight in the hopes of appearing taller. She'll arch her back and stick out her butt -- "so my upper body appears bigger," she explains. Everyone flares her lats -- the latissimus dorsi, the back muscles between the armpit and the ribs that form the crucial 'V' shape. "And, of course, always smiling," she adds.

Contestants will next turn to the right. Pomponio-Pate pivots with her right foot behind the left and then twists, giving judges a chance to observe the "cuts," or indentations, in her arms and the curves in her butt. Then she and the other contestants will turn their backs to the judges. Pomponio-Pate will move her long hair to the front of her shoulder, over her collarbone. As she flares her lats, she'll also lean just a little bit toward the judges to make her back seem even larger.

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