Gerson Pickett said a recent win in his first-ever bodybuilding competition, along with the results from a physical following the event, proves that he is in the best shape of his life – quite a comeback for the 51-year-old who underwent open heart surgery seven years ago to repair a mitral valve.
“I’m in prime condition,” said Pickett, maintenance specialist at Alabama Power’s Gaston Steam Plant. “I took my physical the Monday after the competition, and my numbers were the best they’ve ever been. That’s because I eat the way the doctor would want you to eat and I work out.”
On May 28, Pickett, a newcomer to the sport of bodybuilding, took home first place in the 2022 National Physique Committee (NPC) Vulcan Classic in the 50-plus age group in the Men’s Physique Division. He also placed sixth in the True Novice Division, which included all first-time contestants, regardless of their age. That was truly an achievement because Pickett outstripped the next oldest competitor in the division by nearly 12 years.
“I was so excited,” said Pickett. “I couldn’t believe it because it was my very first time onstage as a men’s physique competitor.”
Contestants in the Men’s Physique Division are judged on who has the most athletic-looking build, as well as their muscularity and overall fitness. Other factors include stage presence and poise.
The participants complete various poses and turns, both individually and as a group, allowing the judges to see them from all angles.
“Your conditioning is very important, especially during the comparison poses,” Pickett said. “It can be tough because you might have to hold a pose for a minute or a minute and a half. You have to hold that position until the judges have looked at all the competitors.”
The NPC Vulcan Classic in Birmingham is a national qualifier bodybuilding, classic physique, bikini, figure, fitness and wellness competition for men and women. As a first-place winner, Pickett will move on to compete in the NPC Alabama State Championship in Gadsden on Aug. 27.
Pickett is no stranger to weight-lifting and daily workouts. He was already a champion powerlifter when he decided to switch to bodybuilding, at the urging of a friend and fellow athlete.
Pickett, who injured his leg during a powerlifting competition in 2019, knew that bodybuilding would put less strain on his joints and muscles. He was attempting to break the national dead-lift record, which was 585 pounds, when he went down. Pickett damaged the IT (iliotibial) band that runs along the outside of his leg and helps control the knee joint.
Although he recovered within a couple of weeks, Pickett decided it was time for a change.
“My friend was transitioning from bodybuilding to powerlifting,” he said. “I told him I’d like to do that but go from powerlifting to bodybuilding, and he said, ‘You can.’ So we supported each other.”
Pickett said he works out, including two hours of lifting weights and 30 minutes of cardio exercises, six days a week, focusing on strengthening the muscles in his back, abdomen (abs), and arms and legs. He also rides a bicycle around the grounds of Gaston Steam Plant.
One of the most challenging parts of training as a bodybuilder is “staying true to the diet,” Pickett said. Powerlifters eat lots of carbohydrates to increase their energy.
But because carbohydrates make the body appear fuller, bodybuilders focus on consuming mostly proteins and limiting their water intake for at least three weeks before an event, Pickett said.
During that period, Pickett eats five to six times a day, including snacks, such as protein shakes, peanuts, rice cakes and peanut butter. The key, he said, is to look as fit as possible.
“As you change your diet, you can physically feel the difference in your body. Your energy goes down, and you’re sleepy all the time the week before the competition,” Pickett said. “You want to save every bit of energy you can for the meet.”
Pickett said he is grateful to his co-workers who helped him stay focused on his diet before the Vulcan Classic.
“The guys always call me the ‘cookie monster’ because they know I love cookies,” he said. “But they were very supportive. When they would see me heading toward the cookies at work, they would say, ‘Stay away from that cabinet.’”
He’s got the power
At 220 pounds, Pickett took part in his first powerlifting competition in 2016, just six months after his heart surgery. Along with winning that competition in the 45-50 age group, he set state records for three consecutive years in squatting, bench press and dead lifting.
Pickett said he decided to check out powerlifting, in response to a challenge from his buddies at his local gym.
“They saw me lifting weights and said, ‘You’re pretty strong not to be doing it right. I bet you can’t get in a powerlifting competition and do that,’” he said. “I don’t know if it was male ego or male pride, but I competed in a real meet, and I enjoyed it.”
Pickett is proud of his recent achievements in the sports of bodybuilding and powerlifting, and encourages others to follow their dreams, no matter the issues they face.
“People often use illnesses and past injuries as an excuse not to try something,” he said. “My heart surgery slowed me down, but I didn’t let it stop me. In fact, I used it as motivation.”