How STRONG Winner Jill May Balances Fitness and Life


This past year I was fortunate enough to host the NBC show STRONG. Not only did I enjoy the premise of the show which was to encourage female participants to challenge themselves to the limit, but I was amazed and inspired each week by what the women took on. These were “ordinary” women who put themselves in brutal circumstances, and accomplished extraordinary feats like hanging from a bar for 15 minutes to test grip strength, or completing an obstacle tower. STRONG was a true reminder of what we can do with our muscles when we put our mind to it.

Jill May of the Blue Team along with her teammate and trainer Bennie Wylie Jr. came out victorious in the end. To be honest all the contestants ‘won’—each with amazing transformations—but the Blue Team won the final tower challenge, making them the last team standing.

I caught up with Jill after her STRONG experience to find out what she ultimately took away from the show, and to discuss not only the changes she has made, but also how she’s keeping up with her new lifestyle. By the way, did I mention this Minnesota native and pastor’s wife is also a mother of four?

Becoming the Woman in the Mirror

Gabby Reece: How do you feel physically, emotionally, and mentally now compared to how you felt before you started training and eating differently?

Jill May: I am 20 pounds lighter, and I’ve added 24 pounds of lean muscle. But maybe the biggest change for me was emotionally. In an effort to be a good person, I really allowed what others felt and thought to influence me. Obviously I still care what people think (especially my friends and family) but, the difference is I no longer let that rule me. I finally decided to accept who I am. I never fit the mold of a size zero, for example, and this journey helped me embrace who I am. I’m the woman in the mirror.

Another really interesting discovery for me came in my first week with Bennie. After observing me he told me I was an aggressive person, and that resonated with me. In an effort to be polite (like a good pastor’s wife), I sometimes would stuff that side of myself down deep. I learned being aggressive isn’t bad, and that was liberating. I would look at athletic women or women doing healthy, “aggressive” things, and I connected with that. Now I know how to carry that into my own life.

GR: What is your take now on strength training?

JM: I learned that I love the concept of making my body the best it can be. I now look at my  arm, for example, and think, “This muscle is functional, and I can lift something with it, or move an object.” The muscle is not just a body part, but rather an instrument of function.

Learning to Love All Forms of Fitness

GR: Which parts of training did you find most difficult?

JM: The battle ropes. The running and cardio was also challenging for me. I loved the weight training, but have to fire up to do my cardio. It was like drinking a glass of water: You know you need to, but you are not always the best at hydrating enough. I would put my accountability partner on (my Fitbit tracker!) and get going.

GR: Which are your favorite exercises and/or forms of exercise now?

JM: I love barre classes, because I can envision myself in that moment training like a ballerina.  During that time I am a ballerina. I also enjoy swimming because I have big shoulders, and it’s a great way to utilize them.

I also love anything that allows me to use my power, like sprinting. Boxing and kickboxing are  my favorites. Sometimes I imagine something I’m irritated about strapped to my back—and then I punch it out of my body. That is the best feeling.

Eliminating Excuses

GR: What advice would you give other parents struggling to balance life with fitness?

JM: My advice may sound harsh, but I only say this because I was there: People will ultimately make time for what they want, and so fitness has to be a priority. When we can get

to a place that we choose to make something important, we can get it done. Having said all that I know it’s still difficult to get it done, but it’s well worth it. It also helps to find someone or something to help hold you accountable. Whether you work out with someone, or just check in, it can help.

GR:  How would you like other women to perceive the idea of being strong? What would you hope to convey?

JM: You won’t get huge, you will just get strong, and healthy. I hope STRONG and women like me on the show will give women permission to know it’s OK to be strong. Also, it’s good to look within to determine how we can truly be our own best self. Hey, I still have to stop looking at pictures of tiny models as the standard. Also, I used to think “strong” was a physical description, and now I know being strong means so much more. It’s mind, body, and spirit, and discovering yourself and your own voice.

Moving Forward with Strength

GR: Do you think it will be hard for you to stay motivated? Or is fitness now permanently a part of your life?

JM: I hope I’m past having any motivational issues. In fact, now, I want to move into the health and fitness space in some way. I want to take this feeling I have and use it to help others.

GR: What’s next for you? Have you set any new fitness or life goals since the show?

JM: I am moving into a different relationship with food. I would train all day long, so I can eat. Now I’m working on having a healthy relationship with food. I’m an emotional eater, and now I’m trying to put that in a healthy place. It’s normal to use food in times of celebration, sadness, boredom, etc., but now I’m trying to use it only as fuel, and find new habits for the other areas of my life.  

Photo courtesy of  NBCUniversal Media, LLC and 25/7 Productions in association with Sony Pictures Television


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