Kwabena Miller, a 44-year-old transit driver in Knoxville, Tennessee, has always been enthusiastic about his fitness. He prides himself on being a sharp dresser and a regular gym-goer. But staying in shape hasn’t always been easy.
Last October, a driver ran a stop sign and plowed into the side of Kwabena’s van. The door crumpled into his arm and shoulder. The doctor put Kwabena’s arm in a sling and told him to stop going to the gym for three months. Kwabena went on medical leave from his job.
Those three months were difficult. He became a couch potato, fell into bad eating habits and lost a sense of structure in his life.
“That’s how I got fat,” Kwabena says. His body fat percentage grew to 24 percent, which is on the high end of the American Council on Exercise’s acceptable range for men. He also had to go on blood pressure medication. “I had fallen so hard. I didn’t have any wind. I didn’t have any motivation. I was in a rut.”
Luckily for Kwabena, his doctor allowed him to return to the gym the last week of December — just when the Gold’s Gym Challenge was about to start.
“When I saw the 12-week Challenge, I knew it was the motivation I needed,” he says.
Becoming a superhero
Ever since he was a kid, Kwabena has been inspired by superheroes like He-Man, Superman and the Hulk. When he went back into the gym last January, those muscle men were on his mind. “Now I get to aspire to be that,” he recalls thinking. “I want to be the ‘Super Me.’” He wanted to win the Gold’s Gym Challenge.
Exercising after injury isn’t easy, though. For the first time in his life, Kwabena got a personal trainer, Byron Gillespie, and they created a fitness plan. “There’s no way you can achieve goals without commitment and discipline,” Kwabena says. “This taught me discipline on a whole other level. Pushing yourself, exhausting yourself physically — it goes into every aspect.”
On most days, he went to the gym twice a day. Strength training after 40 has its own particular challenges: Muscles are more vulnerable to injury and can take longer to recover, for example. Gillespie showed him how to split workouts — working out different muscle groups at different times — and use variation to avoid plateaus. Kwabena also attended Gold’s Gym group classes. Although he says they “kicked my butt,” he thrived in part because of the support of other gym-goers. “They’re people I can trust,” he says. “That’s priceless. I know I’m with good people when I’m at the gym.”
Kwabena had been around the other people in the gym before, but once he got more serious, they all started to learn about each another and trade workout knowledge. The support helped Kwabena get better.
Over the course of 12 weeks, Kwabena lost 52.2 pounds and 14 percent of his body fat. He was able to stop taking his blood pressure medicine and could do sprints. He became his own superhero, and he was crowned the 2019 Gold’s Gym Challenge overall male winner.
When he flew to Las Vegas to be honored at the annual Gold’s Gym’s Global Convention, a few of his gym friends joined him to celebrate. “There’s no way I could have trained that hard on my own,” he says.
‘It’s bigger than me’
Raised in a rough neighborhood in Knoxville, Kwabena has been through difficult phases of his life with drugs and gangs. But he has worked toward becoming a positive force. He helped organize a program through local churches to help young people who were caught up in gang violence.
Now that he’s a Gold’s Gym Challenge winner, he feels he has a larger platform to spread a positive message and be a model for others looking to change.
“The Challenge helped me create a vision and showed me how to move toward that vision,” he says. “When you do something positive, you also affect other people. It’s bigger than me.”
That impact has spread to his coworkers, who noticed his transformation. He’s been encouraging them to work on their own fitness, and one coworker, Shaun Boland, has started working out and has lost 10 pounds. “I needed to make some changes, and he’s got me going to the gym,” she says.
Kwabena is now competing in men’s physique contests around the country. The next stage for him: natural bodybuilding competitions.
“If it weren’t for the Challenge, I never would’ve known I could do this,” he says. “It’s like a continuation of the Challenge: making fitness a lifestyle.”