The warrior gene: Active mother and physical therapist becomes a bodybuilder

Jen Dugan is excited to compete in her second NPC bodybuilding figure show this Saturday at the Greg Grant Basketball and Training Center in Sterling Heights. Her favorite song while working out at the Rochester Gym “that always seems to come on, even though it’s on shuffle,” is “Sky Full of Angels” by Reba McEntire. “This truly is my life,” she said, “I have a sky full of guardian angles that watch over, guide and protect me and my family every day!”

Busy mother of two and a physical therapist by trade, Jen Dugan has added another full-time position to her résumé—bodybuilding.

Not knowing she would become a figure competitor just two years ago, Dugan began working with Coach Tom to strengthen and heal her hip, which she hurt and has had several surgeries since.

“I love being in the gym, I love the high that I get from it,” she said. So when her hip began to heal, she began to train.

Cardio. Weights. Repeat.

Running was no longer an option when she first met with her trainer, Tom, who prefers to be called by first name only as he works solely by referral. But she is running 5k races and half marathons again—“My hip never bothers me anymore,” she said.

Now Dugan has her sights on snagging a modeling contract and competing in professional figure shows. She does cardio exercise six days each week and weight lifts four days at the Rochester Gym while constantly eating “clean.”

“You’re training to feel better for your whole life.”

Conditioning for a show is “a very big time commitment,” she said, but the way she feels is what keeps her motivated. Consuming proper nutrition is every bit as important as weight lifting and hitting the gym often when building and maintaining muscle.

“(The diet)’s not strict,” Dugan said, “You just don’t eat anything that’s not good for you.”

Her daily intake might include protein and few carbohydrates—“Only clean carbs like oatmeal, sweet potatoes or brown rice” rather than pastas or pizza, she said. “You just have to have a clean diet; the key is drinking a ton of water every day.”

Dugan prepares for each show “hoping you look great on that one day, but you’re training to feel better for your whole life,” she said, “And I do.”

Cooking dinner in high heels

The hardest part about becoming a figure competitor is learning to balance her schedule and ultimately her life, she said. As a full-time physical therapist and a mother of two—Kiley, 4, and Kaitlyn, 8, —it’s no easy task.

“This becomes a full-time job; you have to prioritize,” she said, “And that, especially as a mom, is hard to do.”

But, her girls love it.

“Mommy’s doing another show!” Dugan said, exhibiting the excitement her daughters do when her competition approaches. “Mommy stands like this”—posing—“And this!”

Or when Dugan learned she would need to get comfortable walking in five-inch heels for her first show, “I walked around for months in the house,” she said, “My girls were like ‘Mommy, why are you cooking in high-heels?’”

Aside from the fun of the sport, Dugan wants to teach by action.

“I want my girls to see that no matter what, if you put your mind to it and you try hard enough, you can succeed at anything,” she said.

Both daughters and husband Mike are thrilled to see Dugan compete in the NPC (National Physique Committee of the USA, Inc.) John Simmons Midwest Challenge National Qualifier this Saturday at the Greg Grant Basketball and Training Center in Sterling Heights.

Judging a figure competition is “like the icing on the cake,” John Simmons, event promoter said. Because he loves the sport of bodybuilding in its entirety, judging is enjoyable because “they work so hard and you get to see what they’ve done,” he said.

Simmons will not be a judge this weekend since this is his show, but he has been judging bodybuilding competitions for 20 years.

The warrior gene

When competing as a bodybuilder, there are fitness, physique, bikini, figure shows and more.  Figure competitors line up in front of four to five judges and pose four different ways, rotating in quarter turns, Dugan said.

A show consists of a morning prejudge round and an evening show where trophies are presented based on age and height as well as an overall category. Dugan competed in her first NPC figure show in June, taking third place overall.

“The overall competition is really what it’s about,” Tom said, “You shoot for a top-three-finish and she did it her first time out there.”

Even as a nerve-racking experience, “I walked off and said ‘That was fun! Let’s do it again!’” Dugan said.

Tom believes she has what he calls the warrior gene or the ability to not fear as much as an average person, allowing those who have it to compete and be successful.

“She will take (her training) right to the edge and even a foot past it,” he said, “Those are traits of professionals.”

And without a doubt, Dugan said she wouldn’t continue to reach her goals without her trainer, Tom. “He’s that rock that you need through this,” she said, “He and his wife have become part of my family.”

Future goals

After this weekend, Dugan will take “a couple weeks of not training so hard, (laughs)” as she enters the bodybuilding off-season.

But by Jan. 1, the workout regimen reloads and she plans to compete in four to five shows next year.

For more information about this weekend’s NPC John Simmons Midwest Challenge National Qualifier, please visit

About Jen Bucciarelli

Veggie lover and aspiring word chef, reporter Jen Bucciarelli covers all things health and medicine for Rochester Media and The Community Edge. She is always on the hunt for local experts who can help improve the lives of our readers. Send her a note at

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