Bodybuilding Military Officers

By Gina Harkins 

Keeping a New Year's resolution to get fit can be a challenge. The motivation many feel at the start of a brand new year can begin to wane midway through the cold winter months.

But Navy Lt. Kayla Tawoda and Army 1st Lt. Stephen Bell have mastered their commitment to fitness goals - and they say every military officer has what it takes to do the same.

“Motivation is not something that you're not going to have every day - but discipline is,” Bell says. “You just need the discipline to go that that gym every day.”

Bell and Tawoda aren't just military officers - they're also bodybuilding champs. Tawoda has taken first place in four bodybuilding competitions since 2012, and Bell clenched the top spot in his first competition in fall 2016.

All military officers know the importance of completing a mission, Tawoda says, and they can meet their fitness goals by treating workouts the same way.

“The ability to wake up every day and make that commitment to achieve a goal is just like any mission,” she says. “You plan, you prepare, and then you execute.”

How they did it

Tawoda and Bell both credit downtime on their deployments with sparking their interests in fitness and nutrition.

Tawoda, a naval gunfire liaison officer with I Marine Expeditionary Force, currently is based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. But she goes out on a lot of joint missions, and one in particular left her team with a lot downtime between long bouts of work. During that time, she hit the gym and did a lot of reading on the science of nutrition.

Bell, a former wrestler, has always been athletic. But during a deployment to Iraq, he was determined to avoid bad choices in the chow hall and becoming what soldiers call a “deployment chunk,” he says. Instead, he was determined to become a “deployment hunk,” he laughs.

“It's a stressful environment, but you have a lot of time there to think,” says Bell, who works in logistics with the 316th Mission Support Element. “You eat, sleep, work, work out, and then repeat.”

After developing good fitness habits downrange, the two ramped up their efforts when they got home. Tawoda typically hits the Stairmaster while wearing ankle weights before working on her legs with squats, walking lunges, and cable kickbacks, followed by an ab workout, and then pull-ups. She also weaves in lighter training days when she does power yoga or Pilates or plays a team sport.

“While I do spend four or five days in the gym, I also try to switch it up once a week with yoga, volleyball on the beach, or going on a hike so your body is always guessing,” she says.

On gym days, Tawoda says she tries to get her cardio in first. She's also into strength training and injury prevention, so she is careful to listen to her body and give her muscles a rest some days. She also enjoys high-intensity tactical training, which Marines now use before, during, and post-deployment.

Bell adjusts his workouts just before a bodybuilding competition. He typically trains five days a week for about two hours a day. When he's competing, he boosts that to three hours by adding an hour-long working in the morning.

Unless he has an Army Physical Fitness Test coming up, Bell also says he avoids running because it can “kill his gains” from bodybuilding. For cardio, he walks instead.

When he works out, he focuses primarily on his chest, legs, and back to start. He then moves onto shoulders, hits the legs again, and ends with arms. He suggests focusing primarily on legs and chest in order to get the biggest gains.

The most important thing, Bell says, is that people keep hitting the gym even it appears physically like their work is done. Too often, people start the year out strong and by summertime think they look good enough and stop going. Then the rest of the year, all the gains they made in the first few months go to waste.

“It's just like brushing your teeth,” he says. “Would you stop brushing your teeth just because you feel they look white enough? Probably not.”

It all starts with nutrition

Tawoda says one of the most important things she has learned in this process is the importance of eating the right foods to fuel your body (for more information, read “Eating for Exercise”).

“If you don't have the right nutrition to get through your workday, you're going to go back to your old ways, injure yourself, or get sick,” she says. “It all starts with nutrition.”

For breakfast, she loads up on oatmeal with protein powder, almond butter, berries, and chia seeds. On the weekends, she swaps that out for eggs with avocado and salsa with some Ezekiel toast - made from sprouted whole grains -with cream cheese. For lunch, she goes high-protein and low-carb, and dinners include fish, chicken, or steak with veggies and brown rice or quinoa on the side.

Before or after her workouts, she adds a snack like a protein shake, Greek yogurt, or a whole-grain granola bar. She tries to stay away from fried, processed, or high-sugar foods. (If you're concerned about the sugar in your diet, read“Does Sugar Cause Heart Disease?”)

“I try my best to eat a clean and balanced diet even in the off-season,” she said. “I love to go out for sushi and even pizza, pasta, and Mexican if I have eaten a 'clean diet' and trained consistently during most of the week prior.”

Bell says his pre-competition diet is pretty regimented. He eats about a cup of rice a day, a lot of salads with chicken, and up to eight eggs a day and drinks between one and two gallons of water.

When he's not training up for a competition, though, he said he eats a lot more carbs - and a lot more burgers.

Paying it forward

While participating in natural fitness competitions, Tawoda has helped raise more than $1,200 for The Heroes Project, a group that helps rehabilitate wounded warriors by helping them summit some of the world's biggest mountains.

Her goal was to give back to a community that - over the past 13 years - has instilled in her “the drive and discipline it takes to compete” with integrity, courage, and commitment.

Both officers now help mentor other servicemembers who want to eat healthier and work out more. (That includes their superiors, too; Bell currently is helping one of his majors meet his fitness goals.)

Personal trainers can be expensive, so Tawoda urges servicemembers who might be interested in competing to research programs that might be a good fit for them. Bell is happy to offer any soldier his advice on how they can bulk up. Soldiers routinely email them their diets and workout plans, and he helps customize regimens that might work for them.

It doesn't matter if the soldiers are officers or enlisted, he says. When they're training together and getting ready for competitions and missions, physical training is a middle ground.

“That's where everyone can just let out stress,” he says. “When you're pounding weigh, 225 pounds is the same no matter if you're a captain or a specialist.”

Tawoda acknowledges that such intense physical goals aren't always easy to meet for military personnel who are always on the go. But the effort is worth the payoff, she says.

“From finding the time to train in military aircraft hangars between missions across the country, to figuring out how to prepare balanced nonperishable food diets in austere environments, I have never let my circumstances be an excuse not to persevere,” she says.

It's also important for officers to set a good example for their troops, and bodybuilding is a way to do that, Bell says. It can help servicemembers improve physical fitness test scores and make them more confident leaders.

“Leading from the front has a lot to do with your soldiers' perceptions of you or leaders' perceptions of you,” Bell says. “With me, bodybuilding and mentoring soldiers shows that I appreciate being with them and having them be with me.”

Gina Harkins can be reached at . Follow her on Twitter: @ginaaharkins .