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This Dad Won a Bodybuilding Competition After Training Only on Tonal

John Sill fell off the fitness wagon when he had kids. Here’s how his daughter’s brutal honesty led him to newfound strength at the top of the podium.

John Sill lifting up two of his kids on his biceps

It started out innocently enough. Back in the summer of 2021, John Sill, a 35-year-old lawyer, was playing with his then-5-year-old daughter in their Wichita, Kansas home, flexing his biceps and imitating her favorite muscle-bound animated movie character. 

“You don’t have big muscles,” she said playfully. Her words stung. No one would have said this to him before he had kids.

He didn’t know it then, but her comment would spark a change in his life. “That one hit home pretty hard and let me know I’d let myself go too far,” he said. “That’s just not what you want to hear.”

A Love of Lifting

A high school athlete, Sill started lifting weights when he was 15 years old to gain strength for track and cross country. He ended up loving it.

“I just really liked the gains,” he said. “I always struggled with being the small guy and wanted to put on more muscle mass.” He kept up the habit throughout high school, college, and even during law school. 

But when Sill and his wife, Audrey, had their first child, he fell off the wagon. Driving back and forth to the gym after work, getting a workout in, and showering could be a three-hour ordeal, and Sill felt guilty not spending that time with his family. 

Sill and Audrey went on to have two more children, which made it even more difficult to add fitness back into his schedule. “It’s hard to enjoy yourself at the gym and focus on what you’re supposed to be doing when in the back of your mind you’re constantly thinking, I’m missing out on things or I have to cut this short because I have to get back to the family,” he said. Audrey felt the same way, so they both “put fitness on the back burner and focused on family time.” 

It wasn’t long before his confidence started to slip. “I was probably more lazy and sluggish,” he said. “I continued to eat like I was working out, but I wasn’t working out so I lost a lot of muscle mass and put on a lot of weight.”  

When his daughter called him out, he finally got serious about making a change.

From the Sofa to the Stage

Between work and family obligations, Sill knew the best way to build back strength would be a home gym. At first, he wanted a traditional weight rack with a barbell and plates because he was used to working out with one at the gym. However, as he talked through the decision with Audrey, he realized a weight rack would take up a lot of space and could be dangerous if the kids were playing nearby.

That’s when he came across Tonal. He liked the idea of being able to turn the weight on and off with a button. Compared to racking weights at the gym, it seemed like a big time saver—and it’d be safer around his kids. 

Since Sill had a lot of lifting experience—he could bench press 335 pounds, squat over 400 pounds, and deadlift over 500 pounds—he was initially hesitant that the 200 pounds of resistance on Tonal wouldn’t be enough weight.

But when Sill tried Tonal for the first time, he said, “it blew my mind.” Compared to free weights, the digital weight felt heavier. He especially liked lifting in eccentric mode, feeling the resistance in the cables even in the lowering phase of an exercise—something he couldn’t do at the gym. 

With Tonal, it was easy for Sill to exercise consistently again. Within a month, he was back in the habit of lifting regularly. He loved being able to work out at any time and not have to worry about childcare. Soon, he felt his strength and endurance increase.

After a few months of working out consistently on Tonal, Sill had the opportunity to meet four-time Mr. Olympia (and one of his childhood heroes), Jay Cutler, at an event at a local store. Cutler asked if Sill competed in bodybuilding competitions, and Sill said he thought he was too old. Cutler debunked that, telling Sill he started winning competitions at the same age. 

As Sill walked away, Cutler said, “Hey, I’ll see you on stage soon.” Sill called Audrey right away and told her he wanted to compete. 

Leading up to his first bodybuilding show, Sill again worried he’d need a gym membership to lift heavier in order to achieve the results he desired. But after training both at the gym and on Tonal for a while, he decided Tonal provided all the training stimulus he needed. 

“[Tonal] had endless options as far as moves you can do. It was very flexible and adaptive to what I wanted to achieve,” he said. “I wasn’t leaving anything on the table at the end of these workouts.” 

Instead of taking Sill away from his family, Tonal actually allowed him to spend more time with his kids and share his passion for fitness with them. “Sometimes they watch and participate,” Sill said. “If it’s something bodyweight-related, they like to do it with me. It’s teaching them healthy habits and the importance of exercise.”

Training for a bodybuilding competition involves continually trying to fatigue your muscles, and Tonal lets Sill crank out the reps to failure without worrying about injury. “When I reach failure on a traditional weight rack, I’m dropping a bar on myself,” he said. On Tonal, Sill can activate Spotter Mode to help him finish out those last few reps, or simply turn the weight off.

A ‘Transformative’ Experience

He entered his first competition in the novice class, meant for first-time competitors. However, a week before the competition, the organizers realized they didn’t have enough novice participants so they bumped Sill and his fellow novices up to the open division—with much more experienced competitors. If Sill won, he’d earn a pro card, which would make him eligible to compete in more elite shows with cash prizes. 

Sill was buzzing with nerves throughout the show. He hadn’t even prepared an individual presentation, in which a participant goes on stage alone and poses for the judges, because he didn’t know he’d have to do one. He had to ask someone backstage for advice. 

“It’s really different posing in front of a mirror all the time for practice versus being on stage,” he said. “You can’t see what you look like.”

John Sill after winning his bodybuilding competition

Finally, the judges called all the competitors back on stage to announce the winners. Sill had made it into the top three and would have been ecstatic to come in third in his first competition. But when the judges announced the third-place contestant, they didn’t call his number. Then they announced second place and, again, called out a different number. Sill was confused and even looked down at his shorts to make sure he hadn’t forgotten his number. But he hadn’t. 

He’d come in first place and won.

“My jaw dropped. I had a look of shock on my face,” said Sill. “In that moment, I felt like I was king of the world.” 

Best of all, Sill’s daughter, now 7 years old, was in the audience screaming out his number in the crowd. “That was the most excited and proud she’s been of me [in] her whole life,” said Sill. She certainly thinks he has “big muscles” now.  Now, his daughter helps him practice his posing and even flexes her own muscles, too.

John Sill with two of his children

“If I had to describe my Tonal experience in one word, it would be ‘transformative,’” said Sill. “Before I got Tonal, I felt like half the man I wanted to be.” He’s still stunned he was able to go from not working out for five years to winning a bodybuilding competition.

But this is not the end for Sill; it’s just the beginning. Now that he’s earned his pro card, he can compete against other professionals at a much higher level—and he’s confident Tonal can help him achieve the physique he needs to succeed. Sill thought the competition would be a one-time learning experience but now, he said, “I’m only going to go up from here and reach for bigger and better goals.”

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