My Story

Debby McKnight IFBB Pro on the cable crossover


My name is Debby McKnight and this is my blog.

Some of you visiting my blog know me from my years as an IFBB Pro Bodybuilder, during what is often called the “Golden Era” of bodybuilding. Many years have passed since those days.

Others have come across this blog looking for fitness, bodybuilding, and nutrition advice. If you’ve landed here by chance, welcome! You’ve come to the right place for honest, no-nonsense information.

I’m not really a writer, and hate being in front of a camera, but I do have a lot of information to share. I see so much garbage in the gym, especially these days, when everyone with a camera is an “expert.”

So, what makes me an “expert” in most things fitness related?

Well, I’ve spent a lifetime in the gym, and that’s not just a figurative statement. It’s actually been over 40 years. So much has changed… then again, some things just never change.
I’ve been through every fitness class era from Jazzercise, “Kick Your Face” high impact cardio, Calinetics, Step, Bosu, Boot Camp, to Pole Dancing. I taught cardio classes for over 12 years, until I realized the excessive cardio was cutting into my muscle gain.

When I first started in weightlifting women weren’t even allowed on the gym floor, and the women’s gym areas were only equipped with dumbbells up to 10 lbs., little bars with pink plates, an inner/outer thigh machine, and old leftover butt-jiggling and rolling machines from the 1950’s.

CrossFit came along and normalized heavy lifting for women. The surprising desire some women have to emulate Kim Kardashian has sent droves of women to the gym to build the biggest butt possible. I am amazed how for decades the first thing a woman would say to me was how she didn’t want to grow her butt or legs, then BABOOM!! now women are working like crazy to have the biggest ass possible. It expanded with the introduction of the Wellness competitive category, where the desired shape is smaller upper body, and legs & butt like a racehorse.

The gym annoyances are still there. There are the jerks who leave their dumbbells wherever they were using them, and never rerack their weights. There are the screamer, bangers, and crashers, who insist that everyone hear and see them. And then there are the sweaty head guys who leave gross puddles of sweat on everything they use. My pet peeve?… the person who exercises blocking the weight stack. Who really needs to look at their nose hairs while doing a lateral raise? Oh, and let’s not forget that every gym has the gym pervert who never works out but roams around staring at the girls.
Debby McKnight IFBB Pro photo shoot with infant son
Debby McKnight IFBB Pro performing a Hammer High Row
I almost forgot about the dudes who load up the leg press with 20+ plates then pace around the machine for 15 minutes. When they finally get on the machine, they only move the thing 2 inches, rack it, then wander off leaving the plates on the machine.

We’ve got the trainers that hog 10 different stations, the trainer that conducts psychotherapy on a machine for an entire hour, and then the ones you just wonder… “What the hell are you doing?”

We’ve added a few annoyances in the past few years. People filming E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G, every exercise, every set. It is annoying working with clients always trying to dodge everyone else’s cameras. Hey, I’m all for shooting a world record on a squat or a bench… or even a personal best, but do you really need to take a video of that same unremarkable triceps press down with your 20 lbs.?

We’ve got the other filmers seemingly broadcasting a live feed of themselves wandering around the gym, talking to their viewers, in a gym version of the classic tit & ass show…. Sexy fish lips and all.

Many of us old schoolers feel estranged from the new narcissism. Gym etiquette has always been marginal, but it was something we came to accept… because let’s face it, there are idiots everywhere. The gym is no different.
I had a douche bag tell me one time I needed to get my client off the machine he wanted to use because I was interrupting his intensity. He refused to work in, then proceeded to shoot criticisms at my client. I told him that just because he had a small penis, didn’t mean his workout was any more important than my client’s.

The gym is for everyone, not just for meatheads with big egos, and Instagrammers. And, if you find the right place, your gym and gym buddies can become your second home and family.

Eventually I’ll get to the “me” in My Story. It is just really difficult to condense so many years and complex circumstances down to a couple of pages. People often tell me that I am an intense person. Sometimes that is just a judgment based on how hard I work out.

Understanding who I am really, and what got me to where I am is hard enough for me; relating that to an audience is even harder. I’m laying it all out there, in a soul-baring sort of way. Maybe some people feel I’m putting out too much really personal information. But to get to know me, and the “why” behind why I feel bodybuilding saved my life, I feel it is necessary.

I get asked all the time how I got involved in all this. Bodybuilding was not exactly the normal choice for a Southern girl from Mississippi. Even my youngest daughter asked me if possibly my choice was a reaction to how I was treated when I was young, as a kind of “f**k you” to everything and everybody. Well, maybe.
Deb McKnight IFBB Pro in black shorts and leopard top posing on top of a decorative lion at a photo shoot.
Deb McKnight onstage at Jr. USA with trophy after winning overall championship doing a side chest pose.

My Super Personal Story:

I was born in 1960, the youngest of 3 girls, in Jackson, Mississippi. Unfortunately, my mom was a paranoid schizophrenic, something I was keenly aware of at an extremely young age. Many people say they remember very little from their early years, but I remember everything. I remember as early as being potty trained. I remember JFK being assassinated in 1963 and seeing it on TV. And I remember every moment growing up in what seemed like an insane asylum. Some people block out trauma and other people never forget.

“Home” was a bug and rat-infested shack crumbling into the septic tank. If it wasn’t the fear of roaches and spiders crawling on you at night, it was fear of what my mom would do, or fear of schoolmates discovering what my life was really like. Mother would hallucinate that demons were coming in the window to attack her, yell at us in “tongues”, and insist that aliens called “Huranges” were sprinkling radiation dust on her head and attacking the Earth. She sent stick figure defense plans to the Pentagon at one point.

I was incredibly shy and introverted, sensitive, and smart. I was left to fend for myself mostly and taught myself to read by the time I was 3. Since I couldn’t have playmates around in the asylum, I spent all day while my older sisters were in school doing their old workbooks. By the time I was in first grade I could read at an advanced level and do my sister’s 6th grade math workbooks. When I started school, I was immediately moved to the 2nd grade… for half the year, until the school district said it was against the law and moved me back to the first grade.
My parents were divorced when I was 11. The memory of my dad driving off with us, leaving my mother hysterically screaming in the front yard of the shack, will be forever etched in my brain.

My middle sister left and married at 15, and my older sister was in and out, working her way through college. I was left to cook and clean for my dad, what little food he would allow me to have.

The rest of school was a blur. I always felt like I was in a glass bubble looking out at a life I had no connection with, not having a clue what “normal” was. I was always waiting for the day I would start losing my mind, since I know schizophrenia often runs in families. I knew people thought I was weird. They only talked to me to cheat off my papers.

I was picked on. I was so skinny and malnourished at one point, people would laugh that if I stuck my tongue out and turned to the side, I would look like a zipper. I had bad skin and scoliosis. Kids would look at me and ask me if I was deformed.

At 15 my dad threw me out of the house. I tried to go back to live with my mom, but it was hell. I was sick, starving, and eventually ended up trying to kill myself. Super long story, but 2 months before the end of my senior year (graduating a year early) at 16, I went to go live with a friend. Even though I left school, and finished somewhere else, my diploma had already been printed. I still graduated valedictorian of my class
Deb McKnight IFBB Pro in black dress looking back at camera.
Deb McKnight IFBB Pro posing in blue suit with hands on hip in twisting lat pose.
I had a makeshift family for a few months, and finally food to eat. There were lingering health problems. I had a blood clot in my leg due to some vascular problems the doctor said was from malnourishment. He gave me old lady support hose and said I would have ugly legs for the rest of my life. What a wonderful thing to say to a young girl.

However, when the summer was over, my friend was leaving and getting married. My college plans dissolved for lack of money, and I was soon going to be homeless again. I had been dating an older guy for a while, so when an offer of marriage came, I accepted. Walking down the aisle, all I could think was “what the hell am I doing?”, but I had nowhere else to go. I was 17.

I soon was pregnant with my first child, my second by 21. I loved being a mom and went headfirst into being the perfect Southern housewife.

I had regained my health from years of starvation but was thin. I started taking ballet classes for exercise when I was pregnant. It was something I had always wanted to do, but never had opportunity to do as a child. I knew ballet would strengthen the muscles in my legs, help my vein issue, and possibly prevent the scoliosis from getting worse.

I advanced quickly, eventually subbing for my teacher, teaching my own dance exercise classes, and joined the Hollis Pippin jazz troupe. I was certified for group exercise classes in the first AFAA certification they ever had. I even did disco competitions during the Dance Fever craze.

I gained 15 lbs. with my 1st pregnancy, but my husband gained 100. He was jealous and controlling. As you can guess, my marriage was a disaster. I worked part-time teaching classes, dance, and cardio. My husband would call me a whore if I tried leaving the house in anything other than a full sweatsuit, would accuse me of f**king my gay dance teacher, and at one point ran me off the road in his pick-up truck when I wanted to change OB doctors, saying I just wanted to show my twot to every guy in town. He didn’t want me working at all, but then wanted to ridicule me because I wasn’t making the money.

I was like a servant to my husband. Childcare was 100% the woman’s responsibility, so my babies went with me everywhere. The man who promised me I could go to school if I married him, then said no. Everything belonged to him, including me. The good Southern woman in that day was just suppose to shut the f**k up, be a doormat, and do what they’re told.

I had never had anyone tell me anything and had fended for myself my whole life. It just all felt so wrong. I just really wanted to do something with my life. I had been held back and smothered by circumstances growing up, and now it just seemed like more of the same. I really didn’t think giving in and doing nothing with my life was setting a very good example for my kids. Especially when their father’s motto in life was “What do you want to do that for?” and preferred living the life of a morbidly obese person.

Deb McKnight IFBB Pro magazine photo shoot holding bar on cable machine.
Deb McKnight Jr. USA Overall Champion doing a chest pose in a lavender posing suit.
I got tired of being ridiculed and took a fulltime job as an aerobics coordinator and manager of a fitness center. I started lifting weights there daily, along with the classes I taught. I was tiny, but lean and muscular already from years of teaching classes. Once a week I would go lift at a more hardcore gym, where I met Gene… my future training partner. Gene was an FBI agent and competition judge. He had competed for decades. He gave me a piece of paper with the rules and encouraged me to sign up for my first competition.

My husband went berserk over the thought of my posing on stage in a competition suit, but I didn’t care. I dieted, choreographed my routine in front of a tiny hallway mirror, and tried to mimic the compulsory poses on the paper Gene gave me. I went to the show alone, not really knowing what in the hell I was doing. Surprisingly, I not only won the show, but won best poser.

A few months later, I filed for divorce. My husband took the house, and I took the kids. I kept training, working to build a life for myself and my kids, and continued to try to advance with my fitness career and bodybuilding. It was really the only option I had. At one point, the owner of the fitness center I managed told me that I was too intimidating. He took me to the ladies’ room at closing and demonstrated to me how a woman should walk… arms close to the body, demur, with her head down. My posture had improved, so I stood up straight.
I was now all of about 115 lbs. but a little muscular, and he thought I was too intimidating.

I was like “What the hell? If people think I’m too intimidating and I’ve only just begun. Where do I go now?”

Well, I left that job and moved to another town, taking a job working at the gym owned by the state NPC chairman. I competed on the local level, and quickly moved up to the national level competing and winning the JR. USA Heavyweight & Overall in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1988. I moved jobs and become the Operations Manager of a large corporate hospital-based wellness center while still training and competing trying to advance up the ladder. In 1989, I went on to win the NPC USA Women’s Heavyweight and Overall, plus Mixed Pairs with partner Luke Tesvich from New Orleans.

That win gave me my IFBB pro card. In those days, it was much harder to get a pro card. There was only one division, bodybuilding, and I estimate there was probably only 25 or so Pro Female Competitors internationally.

There was a kind of high winning the USA, but it didn’t make life any easier. I traveled more for gym openings, guest posings and trade shows and was able to make a bit of money. In the next couple of years, I competed in the Ms. Olympia, the Ms. International, Jan Tana, and the Italian Invitational. It was great to be able to travel a bit and take my daughter along.

It was exhausting however, as I was still working overtime and going all out for competitions. Being at the top of my career so far, I took the opportunity and used my connections to find a job in Los Angeles. The kids and I started preparing for the move.
Debby McKnight IFBB Pro double bicep pose in a gold posing suit.
Deb McKnight IFBB Pro on the lat pulldown machine in a two piece leopard outfit.
As I was packing to come to LA for a photo shoot and look for somewhere to live. I looked down at my leg, and one leg was starting to get red and swollen. It looked like I had a spider bite. By the next day, when I went to get on the plane, the second leg was swollen. When I landed in Los Angeles, I was taken off the plane and taken straight to the hospital.

Both legs were swollen and red, with pitting edema. The ER doctors thought I was either having heart failure, kidney failure, been bitten by a poisonous spider, or had burns. It looked as if my legs were going to split open. I was given diuretics and told to have tests run when I got back home. The first thing doctors do when they see a muscular girl is write in your chart that obviously any problems you have must be due to steroid use. I knew I wasn’t taking anything, but they didn’t believe me. They could have done blood work and figured that out.

I found a small place to rent and returned to Mississippi, a swollen fat mess. In the next few weeks, I went from a lean onstage weight of about 140, to about 175 lbs. still dieting and trying to get a grip on what was happening to me.

The time to leave Mississippi came quickly and I loaded my stuff and my kids in a Ryder van and drove across country. I got settled and started my job at Gold’s in North Hollywood running their nutrition program and training clients.
By now, my metabolism had totally shut down. It seemed my adrenal glands had failed. I had narcolepsy where I would just pass out, the pitting edema was so bad it lapped over my socks. I developed a cortisol moon head and had such water retention and muscle spasms that at one time my whole diaphragm spasmed knocking all the air out of my lungs so violently that I hit the floor.

I spent the next year trying to control what was happening, going to UCLA endocrinology, but they couldn’t help. They just kept telling me all my tests were normal. And I said normal for who?

On my own, I figured what had happened to me. I was suffering from extreme exhaustion. Plus, in those days we would all frequently take Ephedrine to train. That was before they figured it could really be addictive, since you just would need more and more, plus it would blow out your Adrenal Glands. Also, the doctors at the hospital I worked at had given me Nolvadex, an estrogen blocker, as a breast cancer preventative.

They wanted to give me progesterone to get my body fat up, but I said no. They didn’t understand I was supposed to be lean. I agreed to the Nolvadex because a lot of the girls were taking it to help block the undesirable effects of estrogen, like water retention, etc. And my mother’s entire side of the family had a long history of breast cancer.
Deb McKnight doing a bicep pose onstage at the NPC USA Championship in a blue posing suit.
Debby McKnight IFBB Pro photo shoot with Bill Dobbins in black nightie.
I took the Nolvadex for about 1 week or so, until I read the package insert. It listed all sorts of potential side effects including skin disorders. I already had bad skin, so like a moron, I just suddenly stopped taking the Nolvadex. Well, when you suddenly stop taking an estrogen blocker, a woman will have a massive estrogen rebound.

I had not ovulated in 5 years, and I suddenly had a period. In the cycle of things, your thyroid hormones, adrenaline hormones, and reproductive hormones are all interconnected. Wherever you mess up one, the others follow. I was spent and artificially animating myself with Ephedrine and caffeine to work, so I was already on edge. The estrogen surge I got stopping the Nolvadex caused the adrenals to fail, and my thyroid to shut down. Nothing I did helped.

I tried dieting, stopped cardio to lessen the stress, and even tried competing in a show, but I looked like crap. This went on for about a year. The only reason I came out of this was I got pregnant. My body was forced to balance out and start functioning again for the baby. After I had my son, my body mostly returned to its original state. It is why I always encourage women in their reproductive years to be careful with any hormonal manipulation, including birth control pills, and the use of stimulants like Ephedrine and Clenbuterol.

Six months after my move to LA, my mother died of breast cancer. Even though I still have some family there, I’ve pretty much severed my connection to my past.
I’ve owned a training company in Los Angeles ever since. I continued to compete as an IFBB Pro for a while, until I was going through a long grueling divorce and custody battle over my younger son. I had a restraining order against my ex. I was told to stop training my arms and cover up. It was unfair, but a muscular woman is perceived as a psychopath, but a muscular man considered normal.

My ex was over a foot taller than me, outweighed me by nearly 100 lbs., and was also a bodybuilder, boxer, and athlete. However, common sense didn’t matter. The court said no one would believe I was not the aggressor, since muscular women are considered abnormal.

My ex had people from the gym write him statements that they knew he was a “nice guy” and thought that maybe I was the nutty one because “It was obvious by the intensity she performed her workouts that she must be the angry aggressor.” Oh, and apparently it is okay for a man to pursue career opportunities, but a woman not so much. What a crock of shit.

Retirement from competition was mostly forced upon me. Also, changes in the sport finalized the situation. The last pro show I did was in Prague. I can’t remember where I placed… either 7th or 9th, but I looked the best I had ever looked. It was shortly after I had my younger son. The Czech woman that won had a long, stringy, and crazy shredded physique. The following year I was invited to compete again but couldn’t go due to the divorce. The same Czech girl won that show again…I was told about 40 lbs. heavier. She didn’t even look like the same person.

Deb McKnight IFBB Pro posing in black leather two piece outfit against a tree.
Photo collage of magazine articles featuring Debby McKnight IFBB Pro
In a nutshell, I really didn’t want to go that route to continue competing. My structure was never ideal. I don’t have wide shoulders, a tiny waist, and wider hips for that natural hourglass. Whatever curves I had, I built by adding width to my back, a cap on my shoulders, and a sweep to my quads. If I had learned one thing through my life, it is I don’t want to fit in anymore when it just feels wrong.

A few years ago, I was inspired to start my clothing company. I found it very hard to find tank tops, as an older woman, that I wanted to wear. Plus it gave me a creative artistic outlet I sorely needed.

I started with the Musclewear Collection, custom-printed graphics on t-shirt, tanks, and sweats. A year later I started designing sublimated printed original textile prints on bra tops, leggings, shorts, and swimwear under the Global Warming Wear Collection. It is a themed collection featuring depictions of endangered species, flora and fauna, along with my blog on the environment.

Right now, all apparel can be found at Down the line, since now I have thousands of products, the website will be divided into two. I will keep you posted on that.

Right after I launched the apparel websites, Covid shut us down for 2 years. The fitness industry has never fully returned. Some people are still fearful of the gym, and others just got accustomed to working out at home. This blog comes from those changes. I felt it was time to share some of my 40+ years of experience with whoever felt the desire to check it out. I’ll be posting articles, instructional exercise videos, recipes, and product recommendations.

Anyone who knows me, knows I run from the camera. Leftover conditioning from a lifetime of people saying, “You’re never good enough”. Hey, but I’m biting the bullet. Social media has made bullying and criticism so easy now. However, I feel we all have a voice, and this is mine.

Life Lessons

Do the most with what God gave you, even if it’s not perfect or what you expected.

Be thankful for what you have, someone always has less.

Be kind to others; you have no idea what they are going through.

Don’t judge people on things they can do nothing about.

Things are always clearer looking in the rear-view mirror, than when you are on top of it.

The most heartbreaking thing is unrealized potential; help others be their best.

Snuffing out someone else’s light doesn’t make yours shine brighter.

Other people’s opinion of you is none of your business; it is not usually based on reality but their own garbage.

Everybody has garbage.

You can strive for excellence, but perfection doesn’t exist.

Anyone can achieve excellence.

If you can’t forgive yourself; no one will.

Forgive others; hatred and anger will destroy you.

God gives you everything you need to handle the things that you will be faced with in your life. Some things just prepare you for what’s down the line.

If everyone jumps in the cart; there will be no one to pull it.

You’re not as weak as you think.

You’re stronger than you know.

Everyone is an asshole at times.

Crazy people rarely know they’re crazy; so if you think you’re crazy you’re probably the sane one.

Plan for the future, learn from the past, live in the present.

Live every day with meaning and purpose.

Appreciate beauty. The beauty of nature gives us peace; the beauty of a smile gives us comfort; the beauty of unconditional love gives us strength.

What you possess is meaningless, compared to what you gave.

Live a passionate, meaningful life.

Develop what you have and be the best version of you; then nurture and inspire others to do the same.
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