'Comfortable with being uncomfortable': Boone woman takes journey into bodybuilding world

Danielle Gehr
Ames Tribune
Stefanie Davis-Muller of Boone works out at the Strength Shop on Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Boone, Iowa. Davis-Muller won the all-around women's physique at the NPC Iowa State Bodybuilding Championships in her first competition.

As Boone native Stefanie Davis-Muller, 24, took to the bodybuilding stage for the first time, she struck a double bicep pose and achieved what many athletes spend their whole careers trying to do. 

Davis-Muller competed in the April National Physique Committee Iowa State Championships, taking home several awards, including overall women's physique. Good genetics might have had something to do with her success, but her trainer, Tom Gibbs, said she is among the hardest workers he's ever seen, in and outside the gym. 

"She looked like she's done this for 10 years," Gibbs said. "I've done this close to a dozen times now to try to do what she accomplished, to try to win an overall, and I'm still trying."

In preparation, Davis-Muller would finish her workday as a surgical tech and then head to the gym for hours of cardio and lifting until her arms fell limp. Outside the gym, success relied on a strict diet.

Davis-Muller said she always had an interest in bodybuilding, looking to online influencers, but her first step into that world began last year when she approached Gibbs, who has been competing for decades, at Boone's Strength Shop. They sat down to discuss what she was getting herself into. Not long after, Davis-Muller said she was in. 

"And he's like, 'All right, well, we have 18 weeks, so we need to get going,'" Davis-Muller said. 

'You're going to train until failure'

Stefanie Davis-Muller of Boone works out at the Strength Shop on Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Boone, Iowa. Davis-Muller won the all-around women's physique at the NPC Iowa State Bodybuilding Championships in her first competition.

The April competition wasn't just a first for Davis-Muller but was the first time Gibbs took on the role of coach.

Gibbs knew Davis-Muller was built for success but wasn't sure how she would shape up mentally, as the training regimen requires daily gym activity and an extremely restrictive diet. She soon showed that her mental strength in many ways outweighed her physical. 

"People that are thinking about doing this need to come to terms with being comfortable with being uncomfortable," Gibbs said. 

Davis-Muller has lifted weights since she was a high school athlete — soccer, shot put and volleyball — but bodybuilding training was an adjustment.

She often did heavy weights for fewer repetitions, but under Gibbs's direction — as well as her training partner Charlie Messner — she reduced the weight she and increased the number of reps. 

"I was like, 'OK, I'll do this weight for like 12 (reps),'" Davis-Muller said. "They're like, 'No, you're gonna train until failure.'"

'Weights don't make you look manly'

Boone Native Stefanie Davis-Muller compete in her first ever NPC Iowa State Championships. She won overall for women's physique and true novice.

While feats of strength existed for centuries — through stone lifting at first — modern weightlifting began to take shape in the 18th century, as "strong men" started performing in circuses and theaters, according to Britannica.

The first American physique contest was held in 1903 in New York City, but female bodybuilding wouldn't take off until the 1980s — the golden era of the sport, as it's called in Tanya Bunshells' ethnography of female bodybuilding.  

At that time, society began to move away from the fashionably "twiggy" body standard to an ideal beauty standard of "taut" and "toned," she writes, making way for more acceptance of female athleticism, following the first female bodybuilding competitions in the late 1970s. 

The first bodybuilding competitions for women resembled beauty pageants, Bunshells writes, as contestants were forbidden from clenching their fists or striking other poses considered masculine, like double biceps. Winners seemed to be chosen for attractiveness rather than fitness. 

By 1979, winners began to take on a more athletic build and, in 1980, the first Ms. Olympia competition was held — though to this day a strong physique can counter society's beauty standards for women. 

Muller-Davis said, however, she finds empowerment in her strength. 

"Some people are like, 'That's manly,''' Muller-Davis said. "Weights don't make you look manly. You're still beautiful. … It's ultimately how you want to look and present yourself."

The art of bodybuilding doesn't stop once the muscles are packed on. Misted with a spray tan and, for women, walking in heels, competitors are on display, optimizing which poses best show the judges the results of their months of labor. 

For a newcomer like Muller-Davis, the poses don't come naturally without first building confidence. 

"Seeing my body change was definitely a factor in me starting to become confident," Muller-Davis said. "You don't have to look the best on stage. It's not ultimately about the other people on stage. It's about you and what you brought and what you've learned."

Not only was this Davis-Muller's first competition, but she drew number one, meaning she'd be the first one to step on stage. Running late to get on stage and flustered, her nerves were heightened.

Luckily, professional bodybuilder Brook Walker was there to help out the novice. 

"She just said, 'Calm down, smile, you're here, you're gonna have fun.'" Davis-Muller said. "Then once you step on stage, all the time you spent practicing posing and everything, it shows."

And her work ethic did show. Davis-Muller won women's true novice class and women's figure class A, as well as second overall in that category. For women's physique, she won overall. 

"I'm not here to beat these other girls," Davis-Muller said. "I'm here to showcase all the hard work that I did in those months leading up to the show."

'Some people say that we're crazy. It's crazy what you can do with your body'

Stefanie Davis-Muller of Boone works out at the Strength Shop on Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Boone, Iowa. Davis-Muller won the all-around women's physique award at the NPC Iowa State Bodybuilding Championships in her first competition.

Though exercise and health are core tenants of bodybuilding, the sport can take an unhealthy turn. Training seven days a week, David-Muller said, she could feel the stress taking a toll mentally and physically toward the end. Post-show, she found it difficult to start putting on weight again after reaching her peak. 

"That's hard to see when you see yourself ultimately at the best you've ever been and then you kind of start adding stuff back in," Davis-Muller said. "It's hard to grasp the concept of this is healthy, you have to start eating again. What you were on stage is not maintainable."

Gibbs is there to not only push her but also tell her when she needs to stay away from the gym — often to some protest. He also is helping Davis-Muller, with advice from Walker, stick to a higher calorie diet. He even called her mom to bring Davis-Muller a pizza one night.

Her interest in bodybuilding started with influences on a screen, but Davis-Muller says the people she looks up to now are lifting alongside her at the Strength Shop — Gibbs and Messner among them. 

And their guidance will continue as Davis-Muller looks to future competitions, which means bulking up now so she can grow her muscle mass. 

"A lot of people don't understand what it takes to be a bodybuilder," Davis-Muller said. "Some people say that we're crazy. It's crazy what you can do with your body. … You really can achieve anything you put your mind to."

Danielle Gehr is a politics and government reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at dgehr@gannett.com, phone at (515) 663-6925 or on Twitter at @Dani_Gehr.