Playing to Win: Lessons from World-Class Athlete Blanca Villoch / Written By: Janna Moretti
Shadows deepen in grooves where muscles adhere to tendons and bone. Stage light plays on fullness and roundness, the angles of the bodybuilder’s shifting geology. Skin is painted dark, feet bare. Bikini sequins sparkle. Fault lines marking separation between fat from muscle, the body moves on stage—its work on display. The tectonic shifts in training and lifestyle result in visible striations, intentionality born. Veins beneath the surface like underground rivers.
Outshining others on the stage, Blanca Villoch became an IFBB professional bodybuilder at the NPC Nationals in Orlando, only her second show after taking first place at her debut performance. She did this coming from a powerlifting background, outranking most powerlifters in the world in the 123-pound, the 132-pound, and the 148-pound weight classes. Her heaviest lifts are a 501-pound squat, a 240-pound bench, and a 512-pound conventional deadlift. She is currently the strongest women’s physique IFBB professional. From playing basketball and running track and cross country in high school, to marathon running, to training with veteran powerlifters and bodybuilders—seeking out wisdom, attending seminar after seminar, reading book after book after book seeking ways to achieve results, at first for herself and now for others—Blanca Villoch plays to win.
Blanca was born and raised in Central New Jersey, on the other side of Manhattan. As a young girl she loved sports. And she was competitive.
“I always wanted to be the first kid picked for the team,” she said.
She loved to run, then loved to see if she could run faster. Playing high school sports nurtured that competitive drive. Despite the prominent thinking at the time that lifting weights would stunt growth and hurt a developing body, Blanca, during her senior year of high school, got her first gym membership. There, she saw images of women bodybuilders on the wall and she thought, “I want to look like that.” She was still young, and bodybuilding takes years to build the type of strength and size needed, so she put her head down and trained. Not being shy, she’d approach lifters at the gym and ask for advice, apply it to her own training, and adjust through trial and error.
Her obstinance and curiosity led her to leave New Jersey for college in Florida, finding Tampa the right fit between the craziness of Miami and the country vibe of Tallahassee. Blanca had always loved her family vacations in Florida as a child; she always knew she wanted to end up there. Years later, her mother, her biggest fan—the loudest cheerleader from the stands—moved to Florida too. Though a life-long athlete, Blanca did not end up playing basketball in college, being so much shorter than the other athletes. She took a hiatus from sports concentrating primarily on her studies. She graduated with her degree in Communications from the University of South Florida.
Blanca began working as a paralegal. Being in an office most of the day, she missed doing things that fed her competitive drive in fitness. She took up running and as was her way, she wanted to go faster and longer and harder, so 5k turned to 15k, which turned to half-marathons and then full marathons, then full marathons at faster paces than before. She found herself at her computer day dreaming about being in the gym.
“Despite making good money in the corporate world,” Blanca said, “fitness was my passion. It was always my passion, so I took a risk in 2013 and left to become a personal trainer.”
Committing to her next goal, Blanca became an NASM-certified personal trainer. Bodybuilding was big at the gym where she trained, and she ended up learning a lot from the gym bros. Because she trained in that style, that’s how she began training her clients too. Later, once she had moved over to training at a powerlifting gym, she gravitated towards the barbell. Getting under the bar, she realized she was really good at it. And she started to compete.
“Competition really fed me,” Blanca said. “It was such an outlet for me. It was so fulfilling. Everything that I loved about sports as a kid, I was finally able to continue doing as an adult so I felt really fulfilled. And I just fell down the rabbit hole, and it was one of the best things to ever happen to me.”
When Blanca commits, no half measures are taken. Blanca’s youthful athleticism combined with her 31-year-old tenacious character and tunnel-vision focus led to her climbing the ranks rapidly in the powerlifting world—beating out younger women in their 20s and older veterans who’d been competing for years. She went from being an unknown to receiving invitations to pro events in the span of a couple of years, and at first this fulfilled her competitive urge. Eventually, though, the stress of competing at the highest level took its toll. Blanca got injured.
“Older lifters had always said, ‘Younger lifters learn what they’re made of when they experience their first injury,’” but in her head, Blanca thought, “It’s powerlifting, you’re gonna get hurt, it’s just what’s gonna happen.”
Unable to peak her bench for 2019 Record Breakers, Blanca knew she had done something to hurt her rotator cuff. Not wanting to back out of the meet, she competed and ended up benching five pounds under her best bench. But after that meet, she finally listened to her gut and got an MRI confirming that she had a tear in the rotator cuff. She had been training with intense weights all that time with an injury and was still able to nearly match her best bench, but her health became more of a priority. She took off the year from benching. She rehabbed the injury working her way through bands, then light weights, then variations on bench until she felt ready to try the flat bench again. Just recently, she hit a very heavy triple. “I surprised myself. I thought I only had one in me but I ended up getting a triple. But still, I sometimes get into the mindset where I am never strong enough.” She says that she will never be able to train her bench in the same way again. “I can go heavy or I can do volume, but I can’t do both.” Injury made Blanca a more well-rounded athlete, having worked through the psychological torment of lost time and loss of strength.
Still, the injury was a blow to morale. And competing at that level presented other complications. So few women in the world lifted what she would be lifting, which meant there were only so many coaches who had ever taken an athlete to those heights. “Many coaches of top-level athletes are not putting the longevity and health of their athletes as a priority.” Some coaches coach and direct heavy supplement protocols for their athletes because they want the accolades of having coached X or Y athlete. She wasn’t willing to put her health on the line like that anymore.
And the higher Blanca climbed in the ranks, the pressure mounted. There was so much stress building into the day of the meet that powerlifting was getting to the point that it wasn’t fun anymore. Not just not fun, she didn’t do it for fun, but it was not rewarding in the ways she was seeking. It felt like a job. And at that level, it may take a year to add maybe 10 pounds onto a total—and that is a ton of wear and tear on the body risking injury and mental health. These stresses coupled with the injury led Blanca to switch over to bodybuilding. Through powerlifting, she had finally built the foundation of the body she needed to be competitive. Thinking back to those women on the posters at her first gym, she was able to finally shift to that goal from many years ago.
She sought out a female prep coach because she wanted to support other women, and because the training, diet, and supplement protocol was challenging to navigate. It is not a matter of women taking half a dose of a supplement and it is fine; women’s hormones respond differently. She discovered that there are only about four prep coaches who female professional bodybuilders prep with and they were all men. Still, she ended up prepping with coaches whom she respected. She made incredible gains in bodybuilding in less than a year earning her Pro Card.
Immersing herself fully into bodybuilding, her first prep training was a blend of own experience in powerbuilding with more bodybuilding focus. She did heavy barbell work coupled with lot of volume accessory work, a lot of isolation and single-leg, single-arm movements. Working with the barbell, she didn’t have to do much cardio for this first prep, and she was able to eat close to 2000 calorie/day leading into the weeks before the show—which is unheard of. The barbell work builds that dense muscle that eats up the calories. And she was able to continue lifting heavy. A couple weeks before last year’s Nationals, Blanca actually deadlifted 455 pounds for doubles and squatted 405 pounds for a double. She took first at that show.
In an effort to grow more as a bodybuilder, she switched the training she knew for traditional bodybuilding training for her next show. This meant she increased her cardio, used mostly machines and some free weights, but she did not work with heavy weight on a barbell. Because of this, she had to eat way less.
“Prep for a bodybuilding show is one of the hardest things I can do,” Blanca said. “A lot of people can’t do it. Professional bodybuilders are the most disciplined people ... They have everyday boxes to check: meal prep, eating, cardio, posing … It really is a sport all about yourself.”
She did her isolation work, no barbell. In the end, though she was proud of her physique, the package she had brought to the stage fell short in some ways to her debut performance where she incorporated powerlifts into her training. “I am not ashamed to admit that my physique was built from powerlifting.” Compared to her first prep when she was eating a lot of food and doing minimal cardio, during her second prep, she ate very little food while having to do cardio twice a day in addition to lifting. At the end she could only process the day-by-day actions in bite-size chunks. “It was all the energy would allow.” And when she was doing her second bout of cardio on days when she had almost nothing to eat, Blanca would envision what she would look like on the stage. Certain songs would come on and she imagined what she’d do on that stage, what she would look like, how all the hard work would culminate in a physique that would make her proud, and in the middle of a cardio workout, she would be brought to tears seeing only that result on the other side.
She earned her Pro Card at that show. And unlike what meet days became to her, show day was exciting.
“Stepping onto stage is the fun part, showing off the hard work,” Blanca said. “Powerlifting game day is very stressful. Bodybuilding is different on game day. I’ve got my makeup done and my hair done. I get to display my hard work.”
After immersing fully into the experience of bodybuilding—adhering to the diet and the training with 100% compliance—Blanca outgrew that skin for a fuller, wiser form. She had learned a lot about what she earned and what had been lost along the way. Her return to barbell work showed her that she was the weakest she had been in years, and it reminded her of her love of strength. She returned to her roots of powerbuilding with this broader perspective.
About the differences she experienced training at the highest levels in both sports, she said, “Bodybuilding can be a very loner sport whereas powerlifting is more communal, training and competing as a team with a coach. In bodybuilding, coaching is on Facetime. There is community and camaraderie in powerlifting.”
Not only are there group differences to the sports, but off-seasons lend to different habits as well. Muscle is built in off-seasons for bodybuilders and for powerlifters, but powerlifters can add fat and not be overly concerned with fat as it applies to aesthetics. Bodybuilders have to eat a ton of food to bulk up and then lose that fat later.
Bodybuilders and powerlifters can learn from each other. Bodybuilders usually stick with machines and stay away from lifting heavy barbell work because they can be concerned about injuries, but they can get injured from overtraining from volume. Plus, they don’t have a scheduled deload. Bodybuilders could use some of the conventions of powerlifting, while powerlifters could benefit from cleaning up their diet, not shortcutting accessories, and spending time doing isolation work to correct imbalances. Plus, Blanca explained, “In bodybuilding, I learned the importance of a good warm-up to prevent injury. You get a lot more out of a workout if you warm up with machines, get that blood flowing, get warmed up, get the muscles firing, then move to the bar. You can’t get that out of a band.” Each sport informs the other, and Blanca has this unique perspective of how to be a winner in both.
When I asked her what’s on the horizon, if she is open to competing in powerlifting again or doing another show any time soon, she said, “I’m old enough to know to never say never, but I don’t think I’ll compete in powerlifting again.” She is finally at the point where she can look back and acknowledge her successes in powerlifting. She did what she had set out to do. And about bodybuilding she said her training this last year was intense. She had gained a ton of muscle, shredded off a lot of fat, her body at 8% bodyfat for her last show. These things take their toll and time is needed to come back to it fresh, if at all. Having placed at the top of two strength sports, she is shifting focus to her athletes.
“I’m stepping away from competing, giving coaching 100%. When competing, everything takes a back seat, so I was never able to put my coaching as a top priority. It always came second to competing. So, I’m finally at the point where I focus on coaching and keep training like I compete, but have that be less of a priority.”
I’m fortunate to have found her at this shift in her journey from self to other. I’ve already experienced the intensity of her rigor as her athlete, and I can say that I have no doubt that those who train with her will reach heights seemingly insurmountable. Her athletes' wins are her wins. My wins are her wins. And if Blanca has shown us all anything, it is that she plays to win.
If you’re interested in training with Blanca, she is now offering one-on-one training at Pack Animal Fitness in St. Petersburg and at Optimum in Tampa. She is also open to taking more online clients. She coaches strength athletes with a focus on training and nutrition for powerlifters and on/off-season training for bodybuilders. For more information check out her company Fusion Strength and Fitness.
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