Some people may see having a wider row-crop planter, more head of cattle, or larger acreage as a major flex — figuratively speaking — in the agricultural industry. Yet for Don Schindler, his ability to flex is much more literal: In May, he checked off a bucket-list item by competing in his first bodybuilding competition.
“The gym is kind of my sanctuary. It’s where I go to forget about what’s happening in the real world and to focus,” said Schindler, who works in digital communications and farmer relations with Dairy Management Inc., the checkoff-funded research and education organization for dairy producers. He is tasked with engaging farmers online, helping to build out their social media platforms, and getting them connected with consumers.
Schindler grew up on a beef and row-crop farm in southeast Missouri — an operation that his brother continues to run full time. Getting hired at DMI about 10 years ago was a chance for Schindler to reconnect with his agricultural roots — to help correct the amount of misinformation about agriculture that was swirling around social media and to protect the farms he cared deeply about.
But fitness has always been a central part of Schindler’s life. He played football in high school, and after graduation, he did a stint in the U.S. Navy, serving as a submariner based out of Charleston, South Carolina, for the majority of his career. When he went to college, he played rugby during his undergraduate years in Missouri as well as in grad school at the University of Notre Dame. He even coached the men’s team while working in Notre Dame’s marketing department.
Schindler set a goal of competing in bodybuilding by the time he turned 50 — the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, sidelined that ambition. He was eight months into training and one month away from competing when the world shut down in early 2020. It was heartbreaking not just because of the mounting anticipation of his bodybuilding event but because he had to let go of so much work.
And it was hard work.
Schindler has always lifted, but the amount of cardio he had to do, as well as the strict discipline on food intake, is serious and took a toll on his body and on his family.
“I was stunned at what bodybuilders had to do — you’re on 24/7,” he said. “It wipes your family time out. You don’t do dinners together because I don’t eat the same. I’m eating six times a day, and they’re eating three.”
A lot of the time, he was simply eating alone.
Prepping for competition also means walking one to two hours a day, usually on an empty stomach so that the body is primarily burning fat. Meal plans changed weekly, with a large amount of carb cycling. For example, Schindler would do one day of high-carb foods, four days of mid-carbs, and two low-carb days, the last which he said was “almost like a keto diet.” He used MyFitnessPal to track his meals, often eating 1,000 to 1,500 calories more than normal while bulking and dropping down to just 1,200 calories a day while cutting.
The 5-foot-8 bodybuilder went from 218 pounds down to 176 pounds during his training.
“Toward the very end, it got very very low on everything because I needed to be in a calorie deficit,” he explained. But “I always wanted to see where I could take my body if I really worked at it.”
At the age of 52, Schindler finally got his chance to compete. He registered for the Palmetto Pro, held in South Carolina.
He admits that it was nerve-wracking being on stage. All lights and eyes were on him. He felt pretty exposed in this arena.
“It’s pretty shocking,” he said. “Like, I’m used to public speaking, and I don’t have any problems getting up and speaking to a crowd. But being naked on stage is awkward and weird, especially trying to learn the poses. I’m not very good at that stuff.”
Still, he shined.
Schindler took second place in men’s classic physique in his age group (where competitors wear the little shorts and are judged on both legs and upper body), fifth in men’s physique (wearing board shorts and only judged on upper body), and sixth in true novice.
“I would not do men’s physique again,” he said about the experience. “There was a lot more guys in that, so I was surprised compared with the men’s classic. I enjoyed men’s classic much more [because] all the work I put into my legs didn’t really matter in men’s physique.”
But he also said, if he’s being honest, he probably wouldn’t actually compete again.
“It was a bucket list thing. One and done,” he said. “The amount of discipline it takes is rough. And it’s hard on the family.”
He’ll still be into fitness, though, and pushing his body forward — “The iron doesn’t care how you feel,” he likes to say, and he’s happy to compete against only himself.
He’ll also continue to advocate for agriculture and food. The fitness industry has a lot of misconceptions about food, so-called “clean” eating, and the best diets during exercise. Even with his bodybuilding coach, Schindler said that they disagreed over including dairy in his diet because Schindler much prefers whey protein over any plant-based alternatives.
Remaining in this space allows him to correct these lingering misconceptions about food and to bring farmers and dieticians directly into key conversations.
As he gets older, too, he believes he can be an inspiration to others. He watched his father’s and grandfather’s bodies break down after working years on the farm, so there’s a message of keeping your body healthy buried in his determination.
“Doing the hard labor when you’re younger can keep your body fit, but when it’s not regular and not on a schedule, it’s one of those things where you got to make that time to do it right,” Schindler said. “Farmers should always be on the lookout for their own health, because they got enough stress on the farm, it’s good to get away for a little bit and focus on yourself.”
And for those who balk at the strictness of taking care of themselves and the discipline healthy eating requires, know that Schindler has one go-to treat sure to keep people happy as well as healthy: mixing ice cream with protein powder.
Seriously, try it.
Ryan Tipps is the founder and managing editor of AGDAILY. The Virginia Tech graduate has covered farming since 2011, and his writing has been honored by state- and national-level agricultural organizations.
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Author: Ryan Tipps