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Troops use their strengths to find success as fitness models

Nov. 18, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Marine 1st Lt. Sarah Phillips
Marine 1st Lt. Sarah Phillips (Courtesy of Graphic Muscle)
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Air Force Capt. Allen Elliott began competing in fitness contests in 2010 and scored his first magazine cover in January. (Courtesy of Allen Elliott)

To stand on a stage before thousands, wearing little more than a bikini and spray-on tan, former Sgt. Crystal Green taps into the moxie that motivated her to enlist in the Marine Corps.

Her hardheadedness carried her from the yellow footprints to NCO. And now it gets her through the daily workouts, strict diet and hours of discipline needed to be a top fitness model.

Her years of toiling at amateur bodybuilding and fitness competitions have paid off: She now carries a coveted professional credential, has several product endorsements and has been in a few magazines.

“The military taught me [that] no matter what is going on, you keep going. You find your inner strength, your discipline, to buckle down and go,” Green said.

An International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness pro, Green is a member of a growing cadre of military men, women and veterans — sculpted, chiseled and cut to perfection — who can be seen at competitions, in magazines and plastered all over the Internet in photos so hot that at least one former Marine, underwear model Alex Minsky, had one barred from Facebook in apparent violation of its decency policy.

“Facebook pulled [Alex’s photo] off my page and banned me for 72 hours. Within one day, 4,000 people posted it in solidarity,” photographer Michael Stokes told Military Times via Twitter.

More than modeling, more than fitness

Fitness or physique modeling differs from traditional bodybuilding in that it focuses on natural size, proportion and body aesthetics. Forget the refrigerator-sized physiques and muscles about to bust out of skin and think Michelangelo’s David, Men’s Health or Self magazine.

Air Force Capt. Allen Elliott joined the ranks of cover boys in January with a feature in Max Sports and Fitness. The 27-year-old’s pathway to fitness modeling success began in high school sports followed by college wrestling. He began competing in fitness contests in 2010.

“Wrestling is so tough and competitive, and I was looking for something that I could do to continue pushing my body. I tried running 5Ks, but I was never going to be great at it, given my physique,” Elliott said.

He placed third in his first contest, an amateur bodybuilding competition, and then switched to fitness modeling, drawn to its focus on toned condition and healthy lifestyle.

“I started doing those types of contests, and it led me to get my personal training certification. It has opened a lot of doors,” Elliott said.

Former Navy boatswain’s mate Steve Rowe also was a high school athlete, lifting weights to get in shape for baseball. When he was sent to Coronado, Calif., for duty, he began helping coworkers in the gym, jump-starting a small personal training business.

He now has nutrition videos and workout tips online and is a spokesman for Swole Sports Nutrition. At the start of his modeling career, he aspires to do more.

“I want to be the inspiration for other people,” Rowe said. “I really enjoy the nutrition aspect of it, and I like helping people.”

Training is tough

Getting ripped to enter a competition is not for the faint of heart. Green is in the weight gym at least four times a week, focusing on legs and alternating push and pull muscles the other days. Three or four days a week, she does cardio for 20 to 30 minutes, and prefers running outdoors in challenging terrain.

The workouts go into overtime if she’s preparing for a competition, spending at least two hours a day in the gym as the event approaches.

Elliott is an early riser, doing 30 to 40 minutes of cardio in the morning — Stairmaster is his favorite equipment when he’s not training for his Air Force PT test — and strength training after work.

But if he’s pressed for time or wants to sleep in one morning, he goes to the gym at lunch and gets in a quick circuit.

“It’s just enough to keep my fitness level up for when I can get back on routine,” Elliott said.

As for diet, these pros say it’s all about counting calories from healthy sources — mainly lean proteins, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It takes a strict diet, with maybe a splurge once a week, to maintain perfection.

“It’s really all about calories in, calories out,” said Green, who at 5 feet, 5 inches, eats between 1,800 and 2,100 calories a day.

Double standard

Marine 1st Lt. Sarah Phillips doesn’t just fit the image of a model Marine officer, she is a model — a prize-winning bikini model.

The logistics officer out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., took third place in her height group at the NPC Pacific USA Bodybuilding Championships in August in San Diego.

Her victory has earned her a place at a national competition in New York City this month. The veteran of three deployments — two to Iraq and one to Afghanistan — hopes to compete her way to the top, earning a pro card that will make her among the most elite fitness competitors in the nation.

Phillips said the competitions, and being in peak physical condition, complement her military career in which officers are expected to lead by example.

There are detractors, she acknowledged, noting that there seems to be a double standard between male bodybuilders who compete in Speedos and women who compete in bikinis.

“It is about showcasing fitness and physique. You can’t do that in a burlap sack,” she said. “Women in bikinis draw more attention — positive and negative — than men in Speedos.”

Some Marines try to say that she shouldn’t compete and that it erodes her credibility as a leader and an officer.

Her rebuttal: “It’s about fitness. I think living a healthy, active lifestyle and being a fit Marine is setting the right example for both males and females.”

Phillips regularly aces her fitness tests and feels in the best shape of her life. Most of the Marines she knows are supportive; they turn out at her competitions and only once in a while give her some good-natured teasing.

The payoff

Don’t expect to get rich from competing as a physique model.

Green, who now does fitness modeling and competitions full time, said she makes enough to get by, but the job requires major capital: custom bikinis that can cost upward of $500, travel, coaching, makeup, shoes, hair extensions, nails and more.

“I think I spent $12,000 last year on shows and fees,” Green said. “For the work you put into it, you end up making pennies on the dollar.”

Elliott, whose participation is limited by his full-time Air Force job, makes $800 to $1,200 a month.

“I’d have to go Reserve if I wanted to do this full time. I haven’t decided what I want to do yet,” Elliott said.

Fitness models sometimes are criticized by athletes who say the competitions focus on aesthetics instead of athleticism or performance. According to these naysayers, fitness modeling competitors look fit, but in reality are not.

Elliott, who has maxed every Air Force PT test save one during his five-year career, says that based on his experience, this simply isn’t true.

“I’m able to be both functional and look the part,” Elliott said.

Those interested in learning more about physique and fitness modeling should check out local gyms and the Internet, bring along their fortitude and dedication and check any reservations at the door, Green said.

“Expect to do a lot for free and be humble for what you do get,” she said.

Marine Corps Times staff writer James K. Sanborn contributed to this story.

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