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Nobody ever said the fitness industry isn’t a tough business. Truth to tell, you have to have skin as thick as an elephant bull to come out unscathed by the criticisms of judges, fans, anti-fans and cyberbullies.
But one woman at the 2015 Arnold Figure International did not give one damn about what anyone else thought. She strode onstage with a shorn blond ’do, a radiance that comes with self-awareness and a presence that made the crowd stand still. She didn’t win — far from it — but she literally could not care less.
“I think I finished last — I actually have no idea,” says Ava Cowan, laughing from her Boca Raton, Florida, home. “But I had a blast — I had the best time. I was indifferent to what people thought, and that was amazing.”
This que sera, sera attitude is a new one for Cowan, who up until this very article had never even given her real age in an interview. “I used to believe that you lose value as a woman as you get older, and I always associated being older with a decline,” she admits. “But the thing is — this is the oldest I have been and the happiest I have been, so how can it be bad? The new Ava is stepping out of fear and into the truth on all levels at all times. That is how I am now living my life. And to walk out of fear is to say publicly that I am 43 years old, and I’m proud of it.”
Though liberated from judgment, Cowan has still opted to retire from competition. “I don’t feel that I have anything left to prove,” she says. “It doesn’t serve me anymore as a person and I know I am enough, and I don’t have to compete again.”
Looking back, Cowan has no regrets about her career or her decisions about — well, basically about anything. “I wouldn’t have changed a thing about my path because it put me right here, right now, in this moment,” she says. “I have no regrets because I have arrived, so to speak, right here. In a world where I used to fear being judged, now I am fearless. I can say and do whatever I want. Everything is exactly how it’s supposed to be.���
A New Way To Train … In Any Decade!
Retiring does not mean couch-surfing to Cowan. In fact, she has also overhauled her training program and transformed it into a whole-body synergistic plan with an emphasis on multiple planes of motion. “I am more interested in the athletic conditioning aspect of working out these days than I am in my external appearance,” she says. “If your body is moving in all planes of motion, you will actually get the most beautiful, aesthetically pleasing body possible because every single muscle has to engage on some level, as does your mind.”
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Cowan changes her program every six to 12 weeks and continually plays with the variables in a very instinctual style of training. “I am very intuitive and can tell if I need to change things,” she says. “Sometimes I will train one bodypart twice a week if it is lagging, or I lift heavy one day and do endurance another day — depends on how I feel and what I think my body needs.”
This shoulder workout is borne from Cowan’s multidirectional training edict, and she does this routine when she feels her shoulders need some extra attention. Minor changes to hand position and lifting angles fire new muscle fibers with each variation, a technique Cowan believes more fully develops your muscle bellies because of neurological and muscular engagement.
Setup: Hold the handle of a resistance band in one hand with your elbow bent 90 degrees. Hold the center of the band in your other hand to create tension horizontally across your abdomen.
Move: Keeping your elbow pinned to your waist, open your hand out to the side as far as you can and pull the band taut. Hold your other hand steady throughout. Slowly return to the start and repeat right away.
Tip: Move slowly and continuously to warm up the tiny muscles in your rotator cuff to help prevent injury.
Seated Dumbbell Press (neutral grip)
Setup: Sit on a bench with a short back and hold a set of weights next to your ears, palms facing inward, elbows down. (To keep constant tension on the shoulders, Cowan’s start and finish position is a little higher than normal.)
Move: Straighten your arms and press the weights up and overhead until they reach full extension, then slowly return to the start.
Tip: Don’t bounce the weights at the bottom. Make your movements smooth and controlled, like pistons sliding on a track.
Lying Dumbbell Lateral Raise Giant Set
Setup: Lie facedown on an incline bench set to about 45 degrees. Hold a light set of weights with your arms hanging perpendicular to the floor.
Move: Begin with one of the variations listed below. Do eight to 12 reps, then change positions and immediately do eight to 12 more reps. Continue this way until you’ve completed all five variations. Rest up to two minutes, then repeat once more.
1. Supinated Y-Raise
Turn your palms forward and lift your arms in front of you in a Y shape, leading with your thumbs.
2. Neutral Lateral Raise
Turn your palms inward and lift your arms straight out to the sides to shoulder height.
3. Supinated Lateral Raise
Turn your palms forward and lift your arms straight up to the sides, leading with your thumbs.
4. Pronated Lateral Raise
Turn your palms rearward and lift your arms straight out to the sides to shoulder height, leading with your pinkies.
5. Pronated Rear V-Raise
Turn your palms rearward and lift your arms up and behind you in a V shape, leading with your pinkies.
Dumbbell Overhead Press Combo
Setup: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell with both hands at your chest, elbows down.
Move: Press the weight straight up overhead until your arms are fully extended, then return to the start. Next, press it up and to the left and back down, then up and to the right and back down to complete one rep.
Tip: Don’t turn as you press side to side; keep your hips square.
Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise
Setup: Hold a set of weights with your arms at your sides, palms facing inward. Fold forward from your hips with a straight back until your torso is 45 degrees or slightly lower to the ground. Allow your arms to hang straight down from your shoulders and bend your elbows slightly.
Move: Leading with your elbows, lift the weights up and to the sides until they are parallel to your shoulders. Pause briefly, then slowly lower to the start.
Tip: Keep the weights in your peripheral vision to hit the rear delts and not the back muscles.
Running The Rack
This is an excellent way to do a maximum amount of work in a minimum amount of time and shock your muscles into responding. For this advanced technique, set yourself up with several sets of dumbbells in decreasing weight increments, preferably arranged on a rack in front of you or on the floor. Begin with the heaviest weight and do as many reps as you can until you reach failure. Then drop that set and immediately pick up the next lightest set and rep it out again to failure. Continue down the rack until you reach the lightest weight and rep it out until you physically can’t lift your arms anymore. Then you’re through!
Ava Cowan likes to use this technique with dumbbell side raises to build the lateral delts and give the illusion of a smaller waist and hips.