How Two Training Partners Changed Their Physiques and Lives

In March of 2009, I was contacted by Nate and Donia, training partners from Iowa who were looking to get into better shape. Eight months later, they both competed in their first competitions (bodybuilding for him and figure for her) with completely transformed physiques. Here’s a peek into their journey and the struggles and joys that they encountered along the way.


Shelby: Give us some background on yourselves, how you guys got into training, how you know each other, and anything else that you’d like to add.

Donia: I’m 29-years-old and a registered nurse currently working in neonatal intensive care. Nate and I work together. I did a little training in high school and college when I played sports but was always intimidated by the weight room and heavily influenced by the amount of and variety of information in fitness magazines and other outlets. Needless to say, I never saw the results that I desired and just accepted that my body could not look feminine and muscular like the girls in the fitness magazines.

So my weight and level of fitness has fluctuated from the time that I hit middle school. I got into shape (or so I thought) for my wedding day in 2006 but couldn’t/wouldn’t have the knowledge or discipline to stick with it. After reaching an all-time low, both physically and emotionally in January, it was time for help. I believe people are brought into our lives for a reason and soon I found out what this past year had in store for me.

Nate: I was a fat kid growing up throughout grade school and high school. Around the time I turned 16- or 17-years-old, I wanted to lose weight big time. So what did I do? I stopped eating and started working out. I started off at around 200 lbs and ended up at around 135 lbs. I stayed at that weight for a 6–7 month period of time. I was able to break this cycle thanks to my cousin getting me a construction job where I basically had to eat and grow or I would lose my job because I was too weak to work.

I came back to school after that summer, and no one recognized me. I had gained at least 30 lbs, but it was all functional muscle from hard labor. I started finding my way to the weight room after school to supplement what I wasn’t doing in the winter so that I could keep gaining muscle. I started reading bodybuilding magazines, and it was all downhill from there (laughs). Currently, I live in West Des Moines, Iowa with my wife, Andrea, and our two crazy dogs, Chewy and Diesel. I work weekends as a nurse in the NICU, which is the department that nurses premature babies. I met Donia when I started working there two years ago, and we became friends.

Shelby: How and when did you decide to embark on your "transformations?" What were the deciding factors? Did you intend on competing when you started your transformation?

Donia: I don’t think that I looked at it as embarking on a transformation. At the time, I was more concerned about changing my lifestyle, mostly because I’m turning 30-years-old this year and knew that my current lifestyle at the time wouldn’t lead to longevity.

My sister was married in December (not even one year ago) and seeing pictures with me in them from that day was horrific. I didn’t recognize myself and was ultimately heartbroken and utterly disappointed in myself. I’m known to be a perfectionist and really hard on myself in all areas of my life. I needed guidance getting back into weight lifting the correct way and accurate knowledge and resources. I turned to the one person in my life who I knew could help guide me in the right direction—Nate.

Nate showed me pictures of figure competitors online and introduced me to the world of bodybuilding, figure, and fitness. I was immediately intrigued. I didn’t intend to compete. It didn’t seem attainable at the time. My brain can only focus on smaller goals, which in the beginning was a day by day and week by week basis. I believe that’s how so many people fall off the bandwagon so to speak. Huge goals seem so far away and can make it hard to appreciate the smaller goals achieved every day, which are the ones that actually keep you motivated and moving forward.

Nate: Donia actually came to me because she knew that I lifted weights, and she wanted to lose a few pounds. I think her initial goal was to lose 10–15 lbs or so, which she clearly accomplished and then some. After a week or two, I started telling her about this diet guy who could help us and how I was going to hire him for a 12-week consultation type of thing. She looked over the information and decided that she wanted to take part in the consultation as well. So we both signed up with Shelby, and the rest is history.

I believe within a few weeks my wife basically gave me an ultimatum. She told me, “You follow all this bodybuilding stuff, you eat all this food, you don’t compete, and you really don’t look much like a bodybuilder, just a big guy. So either shit or get off the pot.” I think that was the final kick in the ass that I needed. I said ok.

I’ve wanted to do a show ever since I was 18-years-old, so why not now? I saw the Minnesota North Stars contest on a MySpace page and said, “This is my show.” From what I can remember, Donia didn’t need any convincing. She was just like, “Ok, lets do it.”

Shelby: Why did you guys choose me to work with?

Donia: Nate is always researching and keeping up with the world of bodybuilding. He knew the type of nutritional guidance that you provide and the results that your clients are capable of achieving. Honestly, your clients’ before and after pictures speak for themselves. That is why we chose you. Luckily for us, you were willing to take us on. You were the piece of the puzzle that was missing.

Nate: I had followed your morphing into a bodybuilder from the “Muscle Mayhem” ( Troponin subforum. I said to myself, “You know, this is the guy I want to work with.” I’m big on having role models and emulating people who have already done what I want to do. You had basically done what I hoped to accomplish in this sport. All I needed to do was follow your lead and do what you told me to do. If I do the work, I will get where I want to go.

Shelby: Tell us about your transformations from the start. What obstacles did you encounter, how did you adapt, and how did your friends and family respond?

Donia: The very first obstacle was simple—how do I possibly figure out how to eat? Nate spent a morning showing me how to weigh my food and portion my meals. After that, I was good to go. I’ve actually been inventing new recipes ever since. I made laminated, color coded, meal cards that hung on my fridge until I had all my meals and supplements memorized. I also have a typed up laminated food conversion chart of the common foods that I eat to make me more efficient. I know…can you say dork?

Thursday afternoons are my time to prepare all my meals for the weekend. I work Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays and have no time to deal with food. It usually amounts to about three hours from start to finish including packing up all of the food. I also try to include my first two meals for Monday in the regimen. That way I don’t have to do anything Sunday nights after working a long weekend. Monday afternoons I cook again and have my fridge stocked with cooked chicken, ground turkey, rice, chopped veggies, and other items for the week. I have already figured out all the portions and post them on the fridge. So when I need to eat, it’s weigh and go! I rotate flavors from Asian to Italian, make single serving soups from scratch, muffins and pancakes, turkey cakes (my version of a crab cake), lettuce wraps, smoothies, and more. I try to make it interesting. I rarely feel like I’m eating the same old thing.

After that, it was trying to explain the new habits to family and friends. Changing my habits was not something that I advertised, but I was willing to discuss them if asked. I hate the word “diet.” To this day, I’ll correct people who ask about my “dieting.” I kindly explain that for months now it’s been simply a lifestyle change that has maintained the results of my earlier dieting this year.

It’s so amazing how offended people act when you try to explain what you’re not eating. For example, many people don’t think that it’s right that I don’t eat dairy or fruit. They try to advise me that it isn’t healthy to do what I’m doing and that I really should not be so restrictive in my diet. My parents and sisters hadn’t seen me since my sister’s wedding in December. I saw them in June after my weight went from 165 lbs down to 119 lbs. So they were concerned. A couple of them accused me of not eating or of not eating any fat in my diet (I probably eat more peanut butter than I should) and some were flat out concerned that I had an eating disorder. Honestly, I probably eat more often than they do.

For a time, Nate and I met in the mornings before work and walked/jogged up and down five flights of stairs. Not long after, people started rumors of an affair. At some point, I confronted the rumors. I said that it was insane and sarcastically blurted out, “I’m sure that’s how (at that point) I lost 30 lbs…by having sex in a stairwell.” There wasn’t much talk after that.

My husband and I have had some issues off and on as well. We never have eaten the same type of diet, let alone eaten much together due to work schedules. So it surprised me how upset he was about what and when I was eating. He also has been confronted by various family and friends out of concern about my weight loss, and he is now tired of defending me.

All in all, he really came through during the last week before the show. Between taking off a week of work; painting me with ProTan; not questioning one thing that I needed to do, eat, or drink; sitting through prejudging and the night show; and taking pictures, he was a real trooper. I haven’t felt more supported than I did in the last week by the one person in my life who matters the most.

In the end, learning to balance every day life and trying to adapt to a new lifestyle was difficult. But if you want it bad enough, you make it happen and you make it work. I eventually got to the point that if I ate my meal 30 minutes or so late, oh well. At least I got my meal in. It would have been more detrimental to skip it or miss it by several hours. I couldn’t always put myself first on the surface, but by the end of the day, I usually got it all done. If I ended up out and about, I learned how to eye portions of chicken and learned how to order in restaurants in order to make things easier for everyone else. In the end, it never hurt my progress. So learning to be flexible and adaptable is a must. You’ll go crazy if you aren’t.

Nate: I enjoyed the whole process, even the last few weeks of dieting when my carbs were low. I was working out at a decent level and doing two hours of cardio a day. I did piss and moan a bit, but that is to be expected. My mom was very excited when I told her that I was doing a show, and she started inviting the whole family, which was great.

When I went to visit home, much of my family gave me tons of praise and were very interested in the whole process. My wife sort of gave me the, “Oh really…a bodybuilding show?” type of look but said to do it. In the end, she has told me that she knew I could do it, but she was worried that my body wouldn’t be able to achieve the type of condition I needed to compete on stage. When I came out on stage for the first time during prejudging, she was bawling her eyes out because she was so happy for what I had accomplished. That meant more to me than anything.

People at work are dispiriting for the most part and don’t understand. I hate to make it sound like that, but it’s the truth. “Why do you eat all the time?” “How much water are you drinking?” “You’re getting too thin.” “Are you sick?” Blah, blah, blah. You really just have to put the blinders on, but sometimes it does get to you. Regardless, it never really deterred me from what I wanted to do.

One woman at work even told me that I needed to mix my protein shakes with chocolate milk to lose weight. Good advice. I just think it comes down to jealousy and envy that you’re setting goals and accomplishing them. People can’t grasp that or they want to do it and are afraid to try. There were a few people who gave us tons of encouragement. They were the ones we could go to and confide in when we couldn’t talk to each other. I got some grief at work, but I know Donia had it way worse. We work with a 114 other women so things are going to be said and vicious people really show their true colors when someone loses 60 lbs.

I did have my appendix removed during the preparation, which set me back for about a week. However, I only missed three meals and was in the gym doing cardio the afternoon that I was released from the hospital. I was back in the gym on Monday after having surgery on Friday. The only thing I can say is if you feel a sharp, shooting pain in your lower abdomen, don’t do a back workout with deadlifts and bent over rows.

Shelby: Tell us about doing the transformation together. That must have made it easier to have a friend/training partner going through the same thing.

Donia: I think it was crucial for me to have someone to be accountable to and someone depending on me. Accountability in the gym wasn’t difficult for me because both Nate and I work the same schedule at work and have Monday through Thursday off. We agreed to be there. We both do better by getting in our workouts first thing in the day. Plus, our philosophy of what a productive workout is (focused, no gabbing, hard work) was always in sync. I never assumed that we were done. I was always asking for more. I didn’t complain and was always trying to lift heavier and learn more. The other aspect was being accountable to Shelby. To know that I was sending pictures along with my weight every week to Shelby made it that much easier to drive myself to the gym for all of my cardio sessions when Nate wasn’t around.

It also made it easier to have someone going through the diet with. Nate actually came over to my house and showed me how to weigh out my meat and figure out my meals. I would have been lost without that. As the diet progressed, it was helpful to have someone truly understand how you feel as your days cycle, as your cardio increases, and as the carb intake decreases. It’s especially helpful when no one else around you understands how you feel both physically and mentally. We always encouraged each other to get through the day.

Nate: I really don’t think I could have gotten through this whole preparation without Donia. My transformation was good, but hers was even more amazing to watch firsthand. When we were getting near the end and it was getting tougher and tougher, watching her was great motivation for me. Her transformation was even enough to get my wife back in the gym and help her lose 20 lbs (also with Shelby’s help). I was jealous every once in a while, but I reminded myself that she had put in a lot of work before the actual contest diet began to get into shape.

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