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The Secret to Their Success

Five icons of the fitness industry share their secrets for success.

The desire for success is so strong it might as well be embedded in our genetic code. But not everyone is willing to do the hard work to achieve it. And no matter how you define it, success takes a lot of hard work.

It also requires an alchemical mix of vision, action, passion, discipline, determination, support, integrity and humility. Being successful means you have to be motivated, work hard, overcome obstacles, win, embrace failure when you don’t, and have a strong support system to buoy you through the ups and downs.

The five icons of the fitness industry featured here have mastered the task of being successful. We asked them for their secrets.

Jillian Michaels on Motivation


Celebrity trainer Jillian Michaels’ family is her primary focus these days, but that doesn’t mean the tough-talking trainer has gone totally soft. Motivating people to make such drastic changes to their lives can be a Herculean task, which is why she takes that in-your-face approach at times. “The Biggest Loser is a cartoon version of me,” Michaels says. “I’m tough when I need to be. The people I work with on that show are going through a life-or-death intervention, and there are times when the job requires some tough love.” She makes her contestants dig deep, not just physically but emotionally, as well. “I empower people through a series of small successes. I facilitate for them an understanding of not just what they want but the actual how of getting it.”

And what motivates the trainer? “I want to be around for my kids and be someone they are proud of, so I stay healthy and active to be there for them as a parent and a role model,” she says. To that end, Michaels’ workouts are pretty intense. “I box twice a week, train with a friend (who is insane) twice a week, spin at Flywheel once a week and do yoga once a week.” She also keeps her diet pretty simple: “I don’t eat more calories than I burn over the course of my week, and I avoid eating chemicals and fake foods as often as possible.” 

And when it comes to her career, her passion to help others is the impetus. “I want to help people and connect with them, so I work for that end result — the moment someone comes up to me on the street in tears and talks about a transformation that has occurred in their life — that’s a magical moment that makes all the hours at work totally worth it,” Michaels says.

It’s that passion combined with authenticity that she believes are the reasons she’s been so successful. “Be honest — with yourself and the rest of the world,” she says. “Do what you love. I love what I do. I get an idea in my head about something I want to share or create that moves me, and then I work to make my vision a reality.” This year alone, she’s launching a clothing line at Kmart, embarking on the second leg of her “Maximize Your Life” speaking tour and continuing to promote products she believes in, like the all-natural energy drink Eboost.

Turning 40 this year doesn’t seem to be slowing Michaels down at all. “I thought turning 40 would freak me out, but it really doesn’t. I’ve been putting forth a concerted effort to be in the best shape of my life at 40, and so far it looks like I will be on target.” 

For more on Michaels, go to

Kim Lyons on Embracing Failure


Failure isn’t something Kim Lyons fears. “That’s the most critical aspect of my success,” says the 40-year-old trainer. “I’ve truly learned to embrace it and see it as part of life, growth and success. I want to push boundaries and do big things, and with that comes failure.” 

Lyons has had many successes. She started competing in 1997, won the Miss Galaxy title in 2000 and eventually earned her IFBB pro card in 2002. A few years later, she caught the eye of producers from The Biggest Loser, on which she appeared for two seasons as the trainer of the red team. She is an athlete, personal trainer, fitness model and a mother, wife and businesswoman. “My overly ambitious personality is going to be the death of me,” Lyons says. “But I love what I do. It’s incredibly rewarding to help other people live healthy lives.” 

Whether she’s nurturing that competitive edge or expanding her business, Lyons believes in visualization. “I picture where I want to be, throw it out into the universe and work my way there. I have always believed so strongly in my dreams and goals, however, that most of the people in my life have told me I was nuts or just a dreamer. That fueled my fire to succeed!” 

It doesn’t hurt to have a good support system, either. “My husband, Gunter [Schlierkamp], is truly my knight in shining armor,” she says. “He picks me up by the scruff of my neck, puts a glass of wine in my hand and tells me to chill out every now and again. I need it!” 

Which is not to say that Lyons is slowing down. She just launched a chain of functional training studios called Bionic Body. “It’s a brand that’s like nothing this industry has ever seen — simple yet innovative!” she says. “I’m aiming to open five more studios in the next three years.”

For more about Bionic Body, go to or visit

Erin Stern on Overcoming Obstacles


Two-time Figure Olympian Erin Stern doesn’t like the word “obstacle.” The former All-American missed the Olympic qualifying standard in high jump by 3 centimeters in 2008 and then found a new challenge in Figure competition. “I think eliminating the word ‘obstacle’ from your vocabulary is helpful,” she says. “Call it a ‘challenge’ — a lot of success is in how we perceive challenges. I’ll write down a challenge and logically think of ways to get through it instead of feeling stuck and not taking action.”

Inspired by a mix of athletes and physique competitors, Stern entered — and won — her first show in 2008 and earned her pro card the following year. The 2009 Arnold Classic was her pro debut — and her forth show ever — and she finished in 10th place. Later that year, she placed sixth at the Olympia. That was the last time she finished out of the top three.

How does the 34-year-old do it? She’s a proponent of balance. “I approach contest prep and competing with balance,” she says. “I think that helps me be successful. The diet for a show is so extreme, so I maintain a pretty decent offseason weight. I eat everything in moderation. If I want chocolate, I have it. And I don’t feel guilty.” 

As far as training, it’s quality, not quantity, that counts. “I believe in functional training and not doing a lot of steady-state cardio,” Stern says. “I want to show people they can achieve results without spending hours in the gym. I do Olympic lifts, sprints and bounding and a lot of compound movements. It’s 45 minutes to an hour in the gym, six days a week. It’s about maintaining the intensity.”

Up next for Stern: becoming “the Oprah of the fitness world,” she says. “I want to help people more, and I feel like competing doesn’t necessarily fulfill my need to help. What I want to do is educate, enrich and empower women. I want to show them how strength in the gym equates to strength outside the gym — how to feel better, look better and live better lives.”

For more on Stern, visit

Nicole Wilkins on Working Hard


“There’s no substitute for hard work” might as well be reigning Figure Olympia champion Nicole Wilkins’ motto. Her drive and ambition are unrivalled on and off the stage, perhaps because she has always been a competitor, first as a gymnast and then winning the Figure Olympia and Figure International titles a total of six times. “I’m not really sure where this comes from,” Wilkins says, laughing. “No one else in my family does anything like this. My mom is really type A, though, so I suppose that’s where the personality trait comes from.” 

After enduring a couple of gymnastics-related knee surgeries in high school, Wilkins recuperated with strength training, and her passion for fitness was born. “When I started competing, you could cross over and do both Figure and Fitness at every show unless the promoter said otherwise,” Wilkins says. “I would do both because I thought it was another opportunity to get onstage and compete.” In 2007, she won her pro card at the NPC Team Universe in both Fitness and Figure by winning the overall title in both categories — a feat that had never been achieved before. 

To stay at the top of her game, Wilkins goes hard and lifts heavy. “I do anywhere from five to six exercises for each bodypart, and I do single-bodypart splits,” she says. “My main focus is legs and glutes and shoulders and back. I’ll hit my back twice a week because I want to make sure my back stays wide enough to balance out my legs. I also want to keep my shoulders nice and round because as you get leaner, you want to keep the fullness.” In addition, she runs every morning for time instead of distance. If she needs to up her cardio, she throws in some high-intensity interval training and sprints. She allows herself one total rest day — no training, nothing. And no matter what, she gets seven or eight hours of sleep a night. 

But the true source of Wilkins’ success is her tenacity. “There have been times in my career where I could say I did horrible,” she says. “But every time I haven’t done well, it’s given me the motivation to prove myself. It’s such a great feeling when you’re at that point where people think you should retire, and then you come back and prove to yourself that you’re better.” Her lowest point came in 2010 when she lost the Olympia title for the first time. But coming back the next year and winning five shows in a row proved to Wilkins that she wasn’t done yet. 

She still isn’t. “Competing is really a hobby. It’s really more about exposure than anything. That’s why I still do personal training, I do appearances and seminars, I promote a couple of shows, and I’m taking over [Jen Hendershott’s] Phat Camps in a couple of years,” Wilkins says. “All these things benefit from me going onstage. That’s part of why I still compete. If I get to a point when I’m not having fun anymore, then I know it’s time for me to step away. In the meantime, competing helps with all the other avenues I’m trying to build.”

For more about Wilkins, go to

Jen Hendershott on Having a Strong Support System


Behind every successful person there’s someone (or a team of someones) who propels them forward, giving them the support and confidence needed to reach their goals. For Jen Hendershott, there are several people who were there for her as she worked to become a two-time Fitness Olympia champion and two-time Fitness International champion. “My good friend Mike Davies introduced me to a world I didn’t know existed. From day one, he believed in me. I truly believe we were brought into each other’s lives for a reason,” she says.

Davies may be Hendershott’s mentor, but her husband offered support as her career soared. “My husband is an incredible man,” she says. “He keeps me humble and loves me no matter what.” Other family members — parents, stepparents and in-laws — all played a huge part in her career, as well, reminding Hendershott where she came from and keeping her grounded whether she was winning or losing. “My brothers and friends are amazing,” she says. “They’ve stuck by me. They love me unconditionally. [And when things get tough], I turn to the people who love me the most. I allow them to help me.” 

Some of the best advice Hendershott ever got came from within the industry, from Monica Brant, in fact. “She said, ‘Don’t plan on making a living from competing and winning. Find a niche and make a living between competing and winning.’ So I did. I created Phat Camp 12 years ago, and it’s still going strong.” 

Although she retired from competition in 2009, Hendershott is still working hard in the gym and on her business. “I don’t train as heavy, but I do lots of reps and sets. Life is too short not to care for yourself,” she says. And although her plans for this year are top secret, Hendershott says, “I’m unstoppable and as ambitious as ever!”

For more on Hendershott, go to