When Courtney Krueger, 26, graduated from the University of Memphis in 2015, it was the end of her collegiate career as a high-performing shot putter in track and field. Like many former athletes, she struggled to find purpose and motivation at the gym. “When you don’t make it to the next level, it can be a hard comedown,” Courtney says. “I was used to being told what to do and then was suddenly left on my own. I made every excuse not to get to the gym.”

Going to a bodybuilding show is what turned things around for Courtney; it inspired her to start training to compete in bench press. She regained her discipline, dropped down to 181 pounds, and won the competition with 37 reps of 90 pounds. First prize was a three-month membership to NBS Fitness in Cordova, where she says she “fell in love again with fitness, but in a completely different way.”

There, Courtney met her fiancé, a powerlifter, and created a strong community while achieving her next goal: participating in a figure competition. “Figure competitions are in the realm of bodybuilding, but competitors are less muscular and have a higher body-fat percentage,” she says.

Courtney hired coaches Christi and Ron Poe in June 2018 to craft a diet and exercise plan. She weighed 171 pounds at her first check-in, and on the morning of the show in October, she weighed 148.

“I didn’t win, but I fell in love with the process. Getting all glammed up and putting on the suit to show off my physique and everything I’d worked for was so empowering. It gave me the kick to start doing things I want and to stop worrying about failure or getting stuck in self-doubt.”

Just a few weeks after the show, Courtney’s mother started having chest pains and needed a defibrillator surgery. “I had to balance emotional and family struggles. I didn’t want to have that post-show meltdown, but I did. I’m not in my best shape, but that’s okay for me right now.”

She says her new goal is to “be strong and look strong.” Courtney explains, “The diet of a bodybuilder is not sustainable. I gained about 30 pounds back, not because I stopped working out but because I stopped caring about what I ate. Now I’m enjoying playing around with my diet and cardio, two things I disliked about prepping for the show. I’m just having fun with it.”

How Her Workout Has Changed

During the 16 weeks leading up to the competition, Courtney woke up at 4:30 am to do cardio at the gym before work. After a full day of teaching at Campus Elementary, she was back in the gym or doing work for graduate school.

Now, she streams cardio workouts at home and does hypertrophy training five mornings a week. “Hypertrophy is a style of weightlifting for bodybuilders that involves lifting a higher volume at a lower weight,” Courtney says.

Courtney is interested in diets and regimens that have research to back them up. She recommends listening to your body and hiring a trainer or nutritionist for their expertise.

How Her Diet Has Changed

While prepping for the figure competition, Courtney adhered to her trainers’ strict plan of lean meats and moderate carbs with an increasing calorie deficit closer to the show. “I dieted four months straight without a cheat meal except for an extra almond here or there,” she says. “These shows are so intense, and it’s not healthy to maintain.”

Since the show, she’s still all about the protein and nutrients. She starts the day with a protein shake and half a bagel with peanut butter and cinnamon. For lunch, she makes a salad with lean meat and low-fat dressing with fruit on the side. Pre-workout, she eats rice cakes, chicken or turkey, and another shake. Following a lift session, it’s egg whites or a burrito bowl.

“My last meal of the day is more fun. Maybe some more rice cakes with sugar-free syrup, or, if I’m feeling adventurous, some Halo Top ice cream or Enlightened brownies and cookie dough ice cream.”

Courtney teaches third grade and brings the idea of balance to her students. “I wanted to share my journey of competing with my students, but I was afraid that it wouldn’t set a healthy example. Body image is a big thing for me, and the last thing I wanted to do was give them a false perception of what I was trying to accomplish. Instead, we talk about protein, carbs, and fats. I tell them about how treats are okay as long as you balance them with activity or exercise.”

By India Nikotich

Photo by Mark Mason