Joe McNelis’s day starts at 3:30 a.m.—he wakes up to begin a rigorous schedule that balances his own training and nutrition with training clients and tackling life’s usual obligations. But the 30-year-old bodybuilder wouldn’t have it any other way.

A four-sport athlete in high school, McNelis excelled
 at football, baseball, basketball, and track before going on to
 play wide receiver
 at Sam Houston
 State University.
 He was invited to
 the NFL Regional
 Combine but didn’t
 make a team. He decided to hang up his cleats, put his exercise physiology degree, which he got from Rutgers University, to good use, and pursue his other passions: personal training and bodybuilding.

Now McNelis is a Tier X coach at Equinox in Summit, NJ, and is a regular in NPC classic physique competitions, which required him to undertake an entirely new training regimen.

“Sports like football are all about improving your speed, agility, and explosiveness,” McNelis says. “Training for physique is totally different. It’s more about size, symmetry, and focusing on individual body parts.”
 McNelis competed in his first NPC show five years ago and fell in love with it. “My interest in the human body and how it works and being able to watch it change made it that much better for me,” he says. With 10 classic physique contests under his belt now, he hopes to eventually get his pro card and compete on the IFBB Pro League circuit. The formula to make it happen lies in his preternatural discipline.

McNelis is a full-time trainer, spends another 12 to 15 hours a week working out on his own, studies for fitness and nutrition certifications, and is constantly cooking and prepping meals to ensure he’s got plenty of healthy fuel to fill his tank. So he’s a busy guy. But no matter his schedule, he keeps his priorities in check.

“I always joke that I have a secret time machine, but I just prioritize things that are important to me,” McNelis says, “and that includes being there for others.”

His work ethic comes from his parents, who often worked multiple jobs to provide for their kids. “They taught me that you don’t stop working when you’re tired, you stop when you’re done.”

And while McNelis makes sure to enjoy some time out- side the gym with friends and family, his job is never done. After an NPC show, he quickly begins prepping for the next one. “I’ll focus on getting bigger for six months and then give myself three months to cut down and get as lean as possible for the stage,” he says. “You really can’t do all this unless you treat it as a lifestyle.”

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Leading up to a competition, his workouts and diet get much more intense and specific. He’ll change gyms so that he can focus on training without being distracted, and he spends a lot of time in the kitchen.

“As an athlete, I ate healthy but wasn’t counting macros or paying attention to the types of food. I just ate when I was hungry,” McNelis says. Now he cooks, weighs, and packs all his food for the week on Sundays to ensure he’s got consistent, calculated, ready-to-eat meals.

Of course, even McNelis needs the occasional break. That’s why he takes one full day off every week. He also gets one to two massages per month and tries to build some time into each day for foam rolling, myofascial release, and meditation.

“If you don’t recover, you can’t perform well the next day,” he says.