How I Turned Pro (In 5 Steps)

On the left: How I looked seven months prior to earning my Pro Card.
On the right: Earning IFBB Pro Card at the USA Championships.

It may or may not surprise you that one of my dreams as a kid was to be a professional in sports. I think that most kids, especially boys, share this dream. There were a few problems that I realized would keep me from fulfilling this dream. The first was that I have been plagued with severe asthma since I was one year old. I spent a great deal of my childhood in and out of hospitals and on various medications for breathing. Another obstacle that stood in the way of me becoming a professional athlete was that I was a small, skinny kid. My hand-eye coordination was great, and I was fast, but I lacked the mass for football and the endurance for most other sports. In my eighth grade year, I began lifting weights pretty seriously with my father and I was able to gain significant strength. Then, in ninth grade, I made the wrestling team. This sport actually suited me well because I was short and a little stalky. Not long into the season, however, I developed severe back and hip pain. I struggled with this pain for two years, all the while popping ibuprofen like candy.

After I graduated high school, I was misdiagnosed with RA, rheumatoid arthritis. I was prescribed Percocet, Darvocet, and a steroid to keep the pain under control. I nearly became addicted to these compounds. To say that I walked around like a stoned zombie would be accurate. Not only that, I stopped lifting weights. After losing lots of muscle tissue and feeling miserable most of the time, I decided to go back and see a specialist. This time, Holly, my girlfriend at the time and now my wife, went with me. The doctor properly diagnosed with with AS, ankylosing spondylitis, a form of reactive arthritis that attacks the joints and organs. People with this specific disease actually carry a genetic marker, HLA-B27. The recommendation of the doctor was that I stop exercising and begin immunosuppressive drugs along with chemotherapy drugs to lower my immune system and reduce the pain. After hearing this news, along with seeing how sickly the people in the waiting room were, I decided to completely ignore his advice and embark on a journey of health and wellness. No drugs. Lots of weight training and exercise. I would also try to identify foods that were making me feel bad. I knew that most autoimmune diseases are at least exacerbated by poor diets. This led me to becoming a personal trainer and opening my first full-service health club at 24 years old. In 2008 I competed in my first bodybuilding competition. I won my classes as a novice bantamweight and open lightweight. I did two more shows in 2009 and 2010. I won the lightweight class in both of those shows as well.

After 2010, Holly and I decided to focus on the business and start a family. I’m happy to say we have been very blessed with two kids and a successful chain of health clubs. In 2017, my wife Holly decided that she wanted to push herself to do a figure show. I researched a great deal to find her a coach that I thought would be a good fit and she took Holly on as a client. After two weeks of watching Holly’s body transform, I decided that I wanted to test the water again and see if I could make a return to the stage. I reached out to IFBB Pro Bodybuilder Jon De La Rosa, who has long been my favorite bodybuilder after watching him turn pro at the USAs in 2011. Honestly, I was nervous that he wouldn’t take me on as a client because I wasn’t in contest shape and I only had nine weeks to pull it all together. But on April 1st, 2017, after putting in the work and giving it our all, my wife and I competed together at the Governor’s Cup in Sacramento. She took second in her class in her very first show (and many had her winning the show). She look absolutely amazing and I knew that she had a bright future. I also won the lightweight Bodybuilding division and the new Classic Physique (classic bodybuilding) A Class, under 170 lbs. Right away my wife called her coach and told her she wanted to do the NPC USAs, just 13 weeks away! I agreed to continue on with her and compete then as well.

Long story short, Holly got sick and was forced to pull out of the show, but I was able to carry on and earn my Pro Card, becoming a professional athlete. My childhood dream had been fulfilled and the best part was that my kids and coach, (now one of my very best friends) Jon De La Rosa, were present to watch me earn pro status. So how did I do it? A weak, sickly kid with arthritis and asthma?

HOW I TURNED PRO IN FIVE STEPS:

  1. I first assembled a great team around me. I had my wife, kids, parents and my amazing coach. As Jim Collins says in the book Good to Great, “First figure out who belongs on the bus. Your team. Then you can figure out where the bus is going.” I didn’t know I’d be turning pro this year, but I assembled the right team to do so first.
  2. I trusted the people on my team. When push came to shove and I had to cut carbs, change my training style and add more cardio, I didn’t complain. I did the work as prescribed, knowing that my team cared about me and had that best plan for me. This is very difficult for most people and quite frankly, honest, caring coaches who are qualified and hungry to see others do well are very rare. So, I was lucky in a way.
  3. I believed in myself. If there is one trait that I have that has made me successful in any way, it is my capacity for faith, or belief, if you will. I have always had faith in myself, and those around me, that the best possible outcome will happen. I have never doubted my abilities. I don’t consider myself cocky, but I see obstacles as more of a challenge. Having beaten AS and asthma, I love a good challenge. A Napoleon Hill said, everyone has the capacity for faith, but most are using it in reverse gear and getting the things they don’t want in life, the things they fear. I agree. Have faith you can get what you want and then take massive action to get it.
  4. I had a clear vision of exactly what I wanted and desired. Clarity and focus are crucial to achieving anything. I firmly believe that most people don’t know what they want in life so they resign themselves to boring lives of quiet desperation. In the days leading up to the shows this season, I would meditate and read to control my mind and focus it on my outcome. I think that outcome-focused people avoid becoming problem-focused people. The biggest drug in the world isn’t in pill form. It is problems. We become addicted to our problems because we focus on them instead of what we actually want our outcome to be.
  5. I let fate take its course. This may sound counterintuitive considering the previous four steps, but the truth is that some things are outside our control. This is especially true in the bodybuilding world. It’s a subjective sport where opinions matter, not facts. While this may be difficult to handle, the truth is we live in a world where bad things happen to good people, the best don’t always win, and terrible things occur. Paying too much attention to things outside our control is a sure-fire way to depression and dissatisfaction. Instead, as the Stoics believed, I spent all the time and effort I could doing the things that were in my control and I let fate take it from there. That doesn’t mean settle, by the way. I’m simply saying that we should identify what we do have control over and what we don’t, and spend all of our energy on the things we CAN control!

So there it is, my long journey to becoming an IFBB Professional Classic Physique Bodybuilder. If I’m being honest, it’s still a little unreal. I’d like to thank all my family and friends again for their support. I’d like to thank my clubs, Fitness System, for being the best place to train in California. I’d urge anyone looking to have an incredible coach and human being in their life to look at http://www.jondelarosa.com to find out about his services.

And above all, I’d like to thank my wife Holly and kids for sticking with me through this journey. There will be more adventures to come.

In health,

Sean Covell IFBB PRO

Forget About Body Fat Percentage (Maybe)

In the fitness world there is an obsession with knowing one’s body fat percentage or BF %. Of course, knowing your numbers in any aspect of life is certainly better than blindly walking through the world with your head buried in the sand. However, I’m going to comment on what I believe is an unnecessary fixation on the BF% number. First, most of what follows will be a commentary on athletes. If you do not train in the gym towards a goal, then yes, you should probably take a keen interest in what your body fat percentage is. Moreover, if you are sedentary and do not exercise, or you do but still have a large amount of body fat around your midsection, it’s likely that you have an unhealthy amount of visceral fat around your organs, which is very dangerous. If you need a kick in the pants to get up off the couch and get moving, go test your BF % and work to decrease it. Good. I’m glad that’s out of the way. Now we can move on.

Also, there is value in knowing what your lean body mass is. If you are eating one gram of protein and carbohydrates per pound of bodyweight, you’re likely taking in too many calories. A better formula would be to eat based on what your lean body mass is (total weight minus body fat). So, if I weight 180 pounds, but my lean body mass is 165 pounds, I should be taking in nutrients based on 165 pounds. This is especially true if fat loss is your goal.

Okay, so you’ve gotten through the first part of this and you’re thinking, “Sean, I do train hard and I’m an athlete. Don’t I need to know my BF %?” My answer to that is no. Let me explain. As a trainer and health club owner, I see too many people become distracted by obtaining a lower BF % and I believe this is the wrong goal. For most cross fit athletes, MMA fighters and other professional sports, the amount of body fat one has is nearly irrelevant. What matters more is performance and the ability to produce on command. For this goal, you need to have a little body fat for the body to tap into for energy. If, on the other hand, an athlete becomes obsessed with some abstraction like BF%, his or her ability to perform will be hindered by an unneeded distraction about knowing a piece of information that will not help them.

It should also be noted that body types range widely from person to person. Some folks might walk around at 10% body fat and looked cut and jacked out of their mind simply because they hold fat in different places. I know guys with 15% body fat with incredible abs. The same goes for women. So, if your goal is purely aesthetic, and you train hard and are healthy, the mirror is a much better guide than a BF measurement. Again, some people are genetically predisposed to store more fat in their legs and glutes. Some people store it in their midsection. Where your body’s fat stores are has as much impact on how you look as your BF % does. Bottom line here, bodybuilders and physique competitors should let the mirror be their guide.

Another very important thing to remember about body fat testing is the inconsistency in which results occur. The method of testing–calipers, bioelectrical impedance, hydrostatic tanks–they all produce different results. Most bioelectrical impedance machines (the ones where you grab the metal parts and hold your arms out) are very unreliable and produce varying results hour to hour. This is especially true if you are well hydrated or have an increased intake in sodium. My wife and I competed in a bodybuilding and physique show and our coach, IFBB Pro Jon DeLaRosa (www.JonDelarosa.com), kept our sodium intake high throughout the entire contest prep. About three weeks into the prep, one of my employees at the gym wanted to test Holly’s body fat and the result from the machine was so ridiculous that it made me laugh. It didn’t make her laugh though. Despite having become significantly leaner, the machine had her at nearly 30 % body fat, reading as overweight/obese. I reassured her not to worry and explained how the reading was off. But, Holly was nearly de-railed by a piece of false information. She should have trusted the mirror and herself. Calipers and hydro tanks are more accurate, however, it’s worth repeating that your BF % may not have any relevance to you, depending on what your goals as an athlete are.

In closing, if you are an athlete, don’t focus on BF %. It’s a complete distraction to you and will hinder your ability to achieve your goals. If you are NOT an athlete and you know that you have a significant amount of fat to lose, or your gut is solid from too much visceral fat, then you should know your BF% number and work to decrease it via training hard and fueling your body with the proper nutrients based on your lean body mass, not your overall bodyweight. Again, the real takeaway here is that there is no cookie cutter approach or metric that can be applied to the whole population for anything in life. That includes ideal BF %, BMI, sodium intake, or anything else. Know thyself. Don’t be defined or distracted by a number!

In health,

Sean