I never felt self conscious about my body until my high school sweetheart cheated on me with a volleyball player and athlete. Up until then, I had been active—cheerleading, dancing, doing gymnastics—and considered myself to be thin and petite. But this girl had a nice butt and an athletic frame. I started picking myself apart—I wasn’t athletic enough, I lacked a nice behind, I didn’t look as good as my girlfriends or the alluring athlete.
I joined the gym, then track and field. It boosted my confidence a bit, but what it really gave me was an interest in fitness. I graduated high school, ditched the guy, and went to college for kinesiology—the study of body movement. After graduating, I wanted to become a personal trainer. And to supplement my training, I decided to enter a bikini competition.
1. I weighed around 52 kilos, but I was skinny-fat.
I was small and slender with little muscle definition and 23 percent body fat. I hired a coach, who instructed me to do cardio twice a day—burning roughly 500 calories each time—plus lifting weights. I was granted one rest day. Of course, I was also restricting calories.
This recipe, plus always being on my feet at work, put me in an extreme caloric deficit. I was losing muscle instead of building it. After three months, my butt got flatter and smaller—the opposite of what I wanted—and I just looked thinner instead of cut.
For the next couple years, I struggled with building muscle and staying healthy. I worked out regularly but was negating it by binge drinking, partying, and doing drugs. I definitely was not practicing what I was trying to preach as a trainer, but justified it to myself with the mantra, “Work hard, play hard.”
During this time, I started dating a co-worker from the gym, and we rushed into marriage. I quickly realised this wasn’t a smart decision and that it wasn’t a healthy relationship for me. I starting fighting some battles with mild depression and anxiety; I felt lost; I became really unhappy with myself. I knew I needed to leave.
With the help of a relative, I moved to a new city, found a new gym to work at, and vowed to take better care of myself.
Even though starting over was the right move, the major change in environment threw me into major anxiety and mild depression. I would fret and cry often, and had difficulty keeping positive emotions in check. I was putting so much pressure on myself to not turn back and not fail. But I shifted my focus toward fitness to keep me sane.
I was still rather slender and petite, and feeling pretty weak. But I set new goals: look and feel more athletic, build muscle, and increase strength.
2. I seriously struggled to get strong.
I knew I had to show up every day and put forth my best effort. I owed that much to myself. I wanted change and was tired of other things getting in the way, so I needed to learn to dedicate more time to fitness and trained myself to fight the temptation of going back to my old ways.
I wasn’t mentally ready to do it all on my own. I hired my gym co-workers to keep me accountable and provide structure. And slowly, I started to feel my passion for fitness rekindle.
I got more into heavy lifting, focusing on compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, and bench presses, and complemented them with isolated free weights and cable exercises. I pushed myself to lift weights at least five times a week with no more than two days of cardio.
Being so dedicated was mentally exhausting sometimes, and there were times that drinking and partying felt much more appealing than hitting the gym. It was a constant battle, picking between the two. But over time, I found myself always choosing the latter.
It wasn’t easy, but having someone else help hold me responsible prevented me from getting easily distracted.
But when I wasn’t seeing results after months of dedication, I took a step back. My strength wasn’t really improving like I had hoped it would by this time. With all my hours training clients, then all the hours training myself, I was too stressed and not giving myself enough recovery.
3. But once I stopped overdoing it, the magic happened.
4. I learned to eat intuitively and practice self-control.
Before lifting, I foam roll, do dynamic stretches, then activate the muscles I'll be working for the day. On lower-body days, I use small resistance bands to activate my legs and glutes, and on upper body days, I work on mobility prior to my main lifts.
I start with compound lifts, then move on to accessory exercises—I like to incorporate a couple single-limb exercises like lunges and cable kickbacks, or one-arm movements. Most of my workouts usually consist of just five to six exercises.
I rarely do cardio, but I'll do it more often in the summer when I can be outdoors.
My week is typically structured as follows:
Day 1: Lower body
Compound lift: Sumo deadlift
Unilateral exercise: Deficit lunges
Other: Leg press, cable kickbacks, some machines
Day 2: Rest
Day 3: Upper body (chest/back)
Compound: Bench press
Unilateral exercise: One-arm row
Other: Pullups, dumbbell and cable exercises
Day 4: Lower body
Compound lift: Barbell squats and barbell hip thrust
Unilateral: Bulgarian split squat
Other: Romanian deadlifts, some machines
Day 5: Rest
Day 6: Upper body (shoulders/arms)
Compound: Standing barbell military press
Other: Seated dumbbell shoulder presses, cable exercises for arms
Day 7: Rest
6. My advice: Don’t be afraid to lift heavy weights and eat more.
Train hard and heavy, eat sensibly, and be patient! Results will come with consistency over time—that’s what I learned, at least.