Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Melissa Di Bernardo Interview

Once in awhile I post an interview and say its one I have wanted for a long time. Well welcome to one of those interviews. I have long wanted one with Melissa Di Bernardo. Melissa has one of my favorite physiques in the sport, is one of the most beautiful women in the sport, and I love her attitude. Her first competition didn't go well, and she says she didn't belong on that stage. Instead of pouting about her placing, she did the work she needed and didn't get back on stage till she felt she belonged. Now Melissa belongs on any stage she wants to go on.

Q: First, Melissa, I want to thank you for taking the time to do this.
A: Well, thank YOU for giving me the opportunity to do this interview!

Q: Can you start out by telling a little about yourself.
A: I was born and raised in Palatine, IL where I lived until I was 14 years old. At that time, my parents divorced, and my little brother and I moved with our father to South Windsor, CT because his job had transferred him out there. I finished my last two years of high school in CT and then moved to NY when I began college at Marist College. I earned my Bachelor's in Psychology and my Master's in Counseling at Marist in 2003 and eventually was hired to work for Dutchess County where I've been working for the past 6 years.

Q: Before the gym were you an especially athletic person? Play any sports or anything?
A: I absolutely LOVED sports growing up. I started taking gymnastics when I was three, but my mom and her whole side of the family were very artistically inclined (music, drawing, painting, etc.), and she tried so hard to get me into that. But I can remember sitting in art class at the local community center and watching the other kids outside playing soccer and baseball and wishing I was out there instead of inside drawing trees and making clay ashtrays. I finally spoke up about my dislike for the artsy stuff and convinced my parents to put me in soccer. I played soccer and did competitive gymnastics straight through until I graduated high school. I also ran track in high school as well.
When college rolled around, I was tired of gymnastics and wasn't good enough for the school's Division I soccer team, so I joined the crew team. At first, I started out as a coxswain (the person who yells and steers the boat), but I got bored very quickly with that and eventually decided I wanted to row. Against the advice of the head coach (who told me I was too small to be any kind of a successful rower), I got in there and was able pull more than my own weight with all the bigger girls. In fact, I've heard from girls on the team now that the coach still talks about how I was "pound for pound" the best rower the Marist women's team had. Hell, I'll take that :)

Q: What initially led you into the gym?
A: I first got into weight training when I was 17 years old. I had just finished my gymnastics season in my senior year of high school and was looking for a way to still stay in shape. My boyfriend at the time had a membership to the local gym, so I joined with him. Initially, I found myself on the cardio equipment, but I always watched him lift with his buddies and really wanted to try it. So, I just got in there and got down with the iron. I taught myself how to squat, dead lift, bench press...you know, all the basics. Granted, I was still of the mind frame that I didn't want to get "bulky" so the workouts weren't much to write home about. But as I got more involved in weight training, I obviously saw I was getting results fast and realized that I was stronger than the average girl. I especially liked the strength gains I was making, and I was hooked!!
I stuck with the weights even when I went to college (I absolutely refused to gain the dreaded freshman 15), and I attribute my rowing success to my efforts in the gym. I'm convinced that all my time under the squat rack and on the dead lift platform helped me bring my erg times down (erg is short for ergometer, aka the rowing machine). Throughout my four years of college, I was training twice a day....5am crew practice and then lifting and more cardio at night. I can remember having to push past all the lacrosse, baseball, and football players to get to the dumbbells and the machines....it was then that I quickly developed my "piss off" face in the gym.

Q: Was training something you picked up fairly easy? How long before you started to see results?
A: As I mentioned above, I picked up on the training techniques pretty quickly. Sure, I'm still learning ways to refine my form on a lot of exercises, even now. But for the most part, I found my niche with the weights. And again, as I mentioned above, I noticed results right away, but they came more in the form of strength gains than an actual physical transformation.
Also, one thing that cracks me up now (not so much back then), but when I was doing gymnastics in high school, the kids used to call me "Thunder Thighs." Looking back at old pictures, I had pretty well-developed quads for a little 15 year old. If only I could see those people today....who y'all calling "Thunder Thighs" now?

Q: What made you decide to compete for the first time?
A: Well, in case you couldn't tell by now, I'm a pretty competitive person, and I love a good challenge. After college, I joined a gym, this time to keep myself from gaining the post-college 15. Unfortunately, I just couldn't keep up with my old workout schedule while adjusting to now being in the working world, and the weight started to creep up. Fortunately, I took notice before it got bad and began talking to people around the gym who I knew competed in local shows in the area. It took me a while before I decided I was ready to give up my crappy diet of bagels, hot pockets, and mac and cheese, but once I did, I picked a show and was committed to getting on stage. That was in 2005. I actually entered in bodybuilding for my first show (June 2005) and had no business being on stage.I was definitely NOT in the shape I needed to be and needless to say came in 4th out of 5 girls. I said I would never get on stage looking like that again, and I didn't. I decided to compete in figure and bodybuilding at the local New York State INBF show that October and came in much better shape, walking away with the overall in both divisions.

Q: Is competing something your family and friends supported?
A: The answer to that is two-fold, actually. My friends are incredibly supportive of my competing endeavors, even the ones who don't compete or even workout. They don't always understand why I do what I do, but they try their best to make some sense of it. And they always follow my progress and support me at my shows when they can. I'm really lucky to have that support system in them, both my friends who don't compete and those who do.
My family on the other hand is a very different story. I only have one sibling, a younger brother, and he is incredibly supportive of my competing. He has always felt that it was his suggestion to compete that ultimately convinced me to get on stage (and I still let him think that to this day). My parents, on the other hand, truly despise my decision to compete, especially since I have switched to bodybuilding. They don't like the look or the extremes that I take my body, too. Unfortunately, they don't even try to understand, so its something that's never discussed, as if it doesn't exist.

Q: Was competing what you expected or did anything surprise you about it?
A: I would have to say that competing itself was more or less like what I expected. Having done competitive sports all my life, I was pretty well-versed in the level of commitment it takes to achieve a particular goal. Given the background I established for myself with weight training, I think it was the next logical step for me as an athlete. What I wasn't prepared for was how the diet and actual contest prep can impact a person on so many levels. I think that surprised me more than anything else. Sure, you know you're going to be hungry. You're eating less food and doing more training/cardio. But nobody could've ever prepared me for the effect it would have on me mentally, both positive and negative. I think that's one thing that even the best coach cant necessarily prepare an athlete for,its something the athlete needs to find out on his/her own because it affects everyone differently.

Q: Can you share your contest history.
*June 2005: INBF Natural NYC, 4th place BB
*October 2005: INBF New York State Championships, Figure Overall and BB Overall
*May 2006: INBF Northeast Classic, 3rd place Figure
*June 2006: INBF Hercules, Figure Overall and WNBF pro card earned
*May 2007: WNBF Northeast Classic, 5th place Pro Figure
*June 2007: NPC Atlantic States, 5th place Figure B
*November 2007: NPC Eastern USA's, 4th place Figure B
*May 2008: NPC Long Island, Figure Overall
*June 2008: NPC Atlantic States, 3rd place Figure B
*June 2008: NPC Jr. Nationals, DNP
*November 2009: NPC Eastern USA's, 2nd place LW BB
*November 2009: NPC Nationals, DNP LW BB
*October 2010: NPC Eastern USA's, BB Overall
*October 2010: NPC Nationals, 5th place MW

Q: As far as body parts, what do you feel is your best one?
A: Personally, Id have to say my shoulders, but I often get a lot of comments on my quads. I have always hated my legs, though (reference "thunder thighs" above lol).

Q: Do you have a part you most like to train or favorite exercise?
A: My favorite body part to train also happens to be my most lagging body part, as ironic as that is, .my back. I have always LOVED dead lifting, as I feel its a true test of strength and power. But since my width is really what needs to improve, Ive cut back on dead lifting to focus more on my width training.
I also used to love training quads (squatting, in particular), but I incurred some sort of hamstring injury 4 or 5 years ago that I never addressed. And now it really negatively impacts my quad workouts. I'm thinking maybe I was a power lifter in another life.

Q: What is your normal training routine and diet like and how do you alter it for contest prep?
A: For the most part, I don't do anything too unusual for my training. I usually train one body part per workout, except for delts and chest, which I train together since delts are a strong point for me. And chest, well, what can I say, I got what most female physique competitors got there, so I gotta try to protect the investment, ya know? One thing that I do that I know everyone has their own theory on is the fact that I split my quad and ham workouts into two separate workouts. I have always felt that my hams/glutes needed extra attention that they wouldn't get if I trained them with quads, so they get a day of their own.
The only difference between my offseason training and my contest prep training is really just volume. I am probably a classic overtrainer during the offseason. I can get into a groove and just do set after set after set. I eat clean 95% of the time during the offseason, and that allows me to get insane workouts and really maximize my progress. During prep, I simply don't have the stamina for all the volume that I do offseason. I need to be much more efficient with my workouts, so they re a little shorter. I always try to lift "heavy", but I really hate using that term because I think its always relative to the individual. Whats heavy for me might be a warm-up weight for another girl. Anyway, for my compound exercises, I try to stick to a weight that I can get anywhere from 5-8 reps depending on the day. Everything else varies from week to week as far as rep range.
With my diet, as I mentioned above, I prefer to eat clean most of the time during my offseason. But don't get me wrong, I eat A LOT of food. My body is just more efficient with good food (I know, shocking, right?), and since I seem to have average genetics, I feel I need to maximize all of the tools at my disposal, and that means keeping a clean diet. I definitely do allow myself one scheduled cheat meal per week, and I try to be a little more laid back with my food if its a special occasion like a party, wedding, etc. Overall, I just try to make good choices about what I eat. And when I'm getting ready for a show, again, nothing crazy or out of the ordinary. Ive tried a few different styles of prepping, including keto and carb cycling, and honestly, Ive found that I can get in shape on just about any of those plans. For me, its about finding which one fits best into my lifestyle with a very stressful job. Right now, I have some carbs in my first couple of meals, and the rest is protein and fats.

Q: When someone sees your physique or hears you compete for the first time, what is the most common reaction? More positive or negative?
A: I think I get a mixed bag of reactions, to be completely honest. Most people find what I do intriguing and have positive things to say or ask about. One thing Ive noticed is that the women usually only have positive things to say when I'm in shape and getting ready for a show, they all want my arms, abs, and butt. When I'm offseason, though, its a different story, they think I'm "too bulky".

Q: When they see it that first time, what is the one question or comment you are most sick of hearing?
A: Without a doubt its the "Can you give me a diet" question or some variation of it. When I first came into the sport, I was quick to offer tips and even help put together diets for people. But I caught on quick that none of those people are truly looking for a "plan" to change the way they look. They want a quick fix. So instead of getting annoyed like I used to, I now have my standard response when people want to ask ridiculous diet or even training advice."There are three things I don't discuss with people because it only leads to problems, politics, religion, and diet/training." That usually gets my point across pretty well.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about women who train and compete or the one thing you wish people understood?
A: In my little world, I think that the biggest misconception that I have come across is that training and competing the way I do means I'm a bitch (can I use that word here? I hope so). Sure, I'm an intense person, and I approach everything I do with intensity, my job, my training, my relationships. The amount of weight I move in the gym or the confidence I display on stage is not a representation of the kind of person I am. Like Shrek said, "I'm like an onion. I have layers." hahaha

Q: What is the best and worst part of training for you?
A: The worst part of training is easily the joint pain and injuries Ive dealt with as Ive gotten older (not that I'm all that old, but I do have some years of heavy training under my belt for my age). Otherwise, its nothing but good things for me. I think the best part of training is the confidence it gives me and the personal satisfaction of achieving a particular goal. I'm an extremely ambitious and goal-oriented person, and training very much satisfies that.

Q: Do you have any favorite competitors or any you admire
A: I would have to say one of the current pro female bodybuilders physiques I admire the most is Nicole Ball's. I love her lines and shape, and I don't feel shes taken the look of female bodybuilding to an extreme. Her look is one I wouldn't mind aspiring towards. And although she was not a pro, I also was a fan of Britt Miller's look when she was still competing.

Q: Do you have a favorite cheat food?
A: Ummm, that's a silly question!! I sure do!! Any time I'm allowed a cheat meal, its almost guaranteed to include Cold Stone ice cream. I cant get enough of it. I'm also a big fan of burgers and fries, but not the fast food ones. I like me a big char-grilled burger from a true burger joint.

Q: If another woman told you she wanted to start training, what is the one piece of advice you would most want to give her?
A: Do not be afraid to lift heavy. Whether she wants to compete in bikini or bodybuilding or even just the average woman who wants to get in better shape. I think that women have such a misconception that they're going to get "bulky". Well let me tell you, with the exception of a few people who are genetically inclined to build muscle easily, it is very difficult for a woman to put on muscle. Why do you think so many turn to anabolics to help assist in that process?
So if a woman is first starting out in the gym, I would definitely tell her not to be afraid of moving some iron and really challenging herself to push past how strong she *thinks* she is.

Q: Do you think its becoming more common to see women using the weights in the gym as opposed to just doing cardio?
A; I actually do think it is. And as much as I think magazines like Oxygen and Shape don't always offer the ideal advice on nutrition and training, I do think that its because of them that more and more women are venturing into the weight room. I think its about education and letting women see that they can control how much or how little muscle they put on. In fact, I think when the women realize that, its a sense of empowerment because using weights is probably one of the few areas of their life that anyone can truly control 100%.

Q: Outside of training, any other hobbies or activities you enjoy?
A: Well, I'll be perfectly honest, the gym does take up a good amount of my spare time, particularly when preparing for a show. But being that I believe in keeping a good balance between competing and life outside the sport, I do make it a point to incorporate other activities into my life on a regular basis. Ive always been a bit of a nerdy bookworm and will pretty much read whatever you put in front of me, particularly anything fictional. If I'm going to pick up a book its because I want to escape reality, so if its based on real life, chances are I'll get bored real quick. I also enjoy just spending time with friends. I'm lucky to have a very close group of competitor friends as well as non-competitor friends, so I really get the best of both worlds there. Lately, I've also found myself on a movie-watching kick.

Q: Can you describe a typical day in the life of Melissa Di Bernardo.
A: My life is pretty routine and boring, which is something I've really come to enjoy!
Since I'm preparing for a show right now, things are especially scheduled and routine, but I wake up at 4:45am and head to the gym for my morning cardio. Then its back home to shower and get ready for work by 8:00am. I'm at work until 4:30 (I'm very fortunate to have a job with hours that are extremely conducive to this sport for the most part). After work, I head to the gym at around 5:30 and am usually done around 7:00 or 7:30 depending on what body part I train and how much time I spend practicing my posing afterwards. Then its home to prepare everything for the next day, and I try my hardest to be in bed by 9:30 or 10:00 because I NEED my sleep!!!

Q: Describe Melissa Di Bernardo in five words.
A: Ambitious, loyal, honest, dependable, and hard-working.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
A: I am deathly afraid of mice and insects. Like blood-curdling scream, deathly afraid (especially of the mice).

Q: Any set plans for the near future as far as competing or anything else?
A: As I mentioned above, I'm currently prepping for the USA's in July this year. The outcome of that, as well as what the future of fbb holds, will determine my next steps in the sport.

Q: Anything you want to take this opportunity to plug or promote?
A: I would like to thank Species Nutrition, particularly Dave Palumbo and Joel Goldberg, for taking me in as a part of the Species family and supporting me along my competitive ventures. The Species products are a great line of supplements and are ones I've been using religiously for the past three years, especially Vanilla PB Isolyze, Artholyze, and Somalyze. I would also like to say thanks to my coach, PJ Braun, for teaming up with me recently and working with me through each step of the way to achieve my goals in this sport.

Q: Melissa, again, I thank you for taking the time to do this. Any last words before you go?
A: Well, thank you again for giving me the opportunity to do this interview. All that you do to help promote female athletes is fantastic and so much appreciated.
There are a few other people I would just like to give some props and thank yous to because theyve really been instrumental in supporting me not just in this sport but in my life in general. First of all, I want to especially thank Sean Clarke. Hes my training partner and is with me day in and day out in the gym and has always supported everything I have done with competing. Hes also one of my best friends and has been so much more than just a dependable and supportive training partner, hes the one that keeps me grounded and (somewhat) sane. Id also like to thank my girls, Jillian Reville and Kat Ramirez, who started off as my "friends in the sport" and have quickly grown to be two of my best girlfriends, both in AND outside of the sport. And to quickly list a few other people in my life who have always shown me unconditional love and support. My little brother, Marc, my "pseudo" parents, Melissa and Eric Williamson, and my very dear friend, Jennifer Conklin. There wouldnt even be anything to interview me about if it wasnt for all that these people have done for me.

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