'This Mindset Shift Was Key To Finally Building Muscle And Strength'

strength training transformation
Strength Training Helped Me Rediscover Discipline Courtesy Kimberly Lopez - Hearst Owned

Growing up in Puerto Rico, I was an active child and fell in love with volleyball. When I was 10, my mother and I picked up and moved to New York. While adjusting to my new home and my mom's long work hours, I had to take care of myself more. As a result, I started gaining weight.

By age 21, I was dealing with lower back pain from a car accident and became pregnant with my daughter. I weighed 250 pounds, which caused sciatica pain and made carrying my pregnancy harder. At one point, it was even difficult to walk. My self-image took a hit, I was depressed, and I felt like I lost myself.

My daughter inspired me to make major changes in my health and start a fitness routine.

After I gave birth to my daughter, I hit a turning point.

In 2018, I decided to sign up for XSport, a local gym facility, and started using YouTube to teach myself different workouts. I also worked with a personal trainer for a month to learn the basics of equipment and exercises in the gym and get a meal plan started. My mom was always big on working out, so we would go together as well.

I started seeing results, but at that point, I was only focused on losing weight, not strength or building muscle. I did cardio-heavy workouts seven days a week. It was mostly the treadmill and elliptical.

When I saw the number on the scale continue to drop, it sparked my curiosity for the machines and weights.

Luckily, my boyfriend at the time was a bodybuilder and taught me a lot. He gave me the tools I needed to build muscle and challenge myself on my own.

Transitioning out of cardio-focused workouts and light weights and into a new routine was challenging. It was exciting to know that I was taking the right steps to see the results I wanted.

Learning so many new things at once and then putting it into action was also intimidating. I felt overwhelmed. Between early morning gym sessions, measuring my meals, creating enough time to stretch, and hitting my water goals, it was a lot.

I knew I had a foundation of fitness, but I needed to put the pieces together in a way that worked for me and for my goals. Things didn't start to click for me until waking up at 4 a.m. for cardio became second nature.

Now, I approach my training like a bodybuilder and often do two workouts a day.

I currently train at a bodybuilding gym (Xtreme Fitness) six days a week and do cardio about seven days a week. Generally, I do my cardio in the morning and go back to the gym in the evening to strength train. I used to have push and pull days, but now I have four leg days and one upper-body day once a week. On my rest days, I'm usually working, so it’s more of an active recovery day.

Some of my go-to exercises include Bulgarian split squats, goblet squats, leg curls, and leg extensions. I try to stay away from squatting because of my sciatica. For upper body, I’ll do side and front lateral raises, lat pulldowns, and seated cable rows.

I usually do four sets of 15 to 20 reps for every exercise. Each week, I’ll try to up the weights and test myself, and if I feel like I can’t hit my usual goal, then I’ll max out at 12 reps instead.

I’m preparing to compete in my first bodybuilding competition later this year in the women’s wellness division, which focuses on bigger legs and glutes and a leaner upper body. I’m also in the process of becoming a certified personal trainer.

Bodybuilding is less about numbers and PR’s, but a few years ago I was able to leg press 675 pounds for 12 reps. We call that “ego lifting,” because it’s not necessary. While I still lift heavy from time to time, I’d rather avoid injuring myself. For example, for leg extensions, I’ll stick to around 135 pounds for 20 reps. And for an RDL, I won’t go heavier than 115 pounds.

I learned what worked and what didn't trying different diets until I found a sustainable plan and started measuring out my meals.

Before I started hitting the gym, I tried Herbalife and lost 25 pounds. Eventually, it got expensive, so I had to stop. I ended up gaining the weight back. Once I started training, I tried the keto diet for about five months and lost 50 pounds. With that, I hit 170 pounds.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I was actually doing dirty keto, which I found out thanks to my ex-boyfriend. With his help, we restructured my meals, and I got off keto. Not long after making the switch, I had better energy levels, improved focus, and noticeable progress in the gym.

Now, my new bodybuilding coach has me eat 1,400 calories a day. (Reminder: That's what works for me, but you should always work with an expert before making big calorie or diet changes.) For breakfast, I have two whole eggs with lean brown beef and some pineapple. For lunch, I’ll have grilled chicken with any green vegetable.

My pre-workout is 30 grams of cashews, and my post-workout is 30 grams of cream of rice with one scoop of protein and water mixed together. For dinner, I usually eat salmon and sweet potato. I measure all my meals beforehand and drink a gallon of water a day.

I had to reframe my mindset around changes in my weight to enable muscle gain.

One of the biggest blocks I had to overcome was accepting that building muscle also came with gaining weight. People explained the science to me, but I still wasn't processing it. I was so focused on losing weight for so long that I found myself frustrated about working hard at the gym and not seeing more weight coming off.

At the same time, I started to finally see my muscles coming through. That's when I began to understand weight in a new way. It was challenging to think of gaining weight as my new goal. I even had to give myself pep talks to help myself lean into what was needed in order to see progress. Once I let the fear go, everything started falling into place.

Learning the importance of discipline made a huge difference in and out of the gym.

Of all my goals, I’m most proud of my ability to stay disciplined. There are still days I wake up and don’t want to train or eat the same foods. But I feel like I’ve mastered the discipline that was needed to get me to where I’m at. I learned that motivation comes and goes—it’s not consistent. But it’s about showing up for yourself. Discipline has had a positive affect on my work life and at-home life as a mom. I can apply it to everything.

I want women to know how important mindset is. You really have to think about what you're getting into before an attempt at your goal is even made. You have to be willing to dedicate the time and remind yourself that this for you and nobody else. Get comfortable being uncomfortable, and in the end, it will always be worth it.

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