Fitness Fridays: Monica Bencomo On Going From Flamin’ Hots For Breakfast To Making Fitness A Family Affair
For many moms, trying to find the time to work out when you have a full house to care for can feel like quite the task. But Monica Bencomo, a married mother of two, mastered a way to balance fitness and family. The 30-year-old started integrating her children into her workouts, and doing so helped her reach a pretty massive audience online (almost 70k on Instagram alone).
When she’s doing jump squats, her toddler is jumping on a trampoline in front of her. When her daughter wants to stay around her, she uses the little one as a weight. If she goes hard with a weighted barbell, she hands her son his plastic barbell set and they get to work together. Fitness truly is a family affair for the Albuquerque-based mom, as are interviews: “I’m breastfeeding while I’m on the phone with you,” she said during our conversation this week. “This is mom life.”
We chatted with this beautiful Afro-Latina about making her health a priority after going through depression, competing in her first (and last) fitness competition after having two kids, the importance of taking her time to get back into exercise after giving birth (death to “the snapback”!) and why workouts with her kids beat the gym any day.
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MadameNoire: Could you tell me about your fitness background? I know you have done competitions, I know you are a health and fitness coach, but have you always been someone in good shape who made being active a priority?
Monica Bencomo: No ma’am! And this is why I really want to get better about telling my story. So I actually suffered from a really, really bad depression around 18 or 19 when I lived in Chicago. And I remember vividly just going after work to the McDonald’s drive-through and I would scarf down a meal and then I would literally drive across the street, go to Wendy’s and scarf down another meal. And then I would feel still depressed, but it was comforting to me at that time. So I put on I would say 50 pounds right after high school. Not a lot of people know that. So, after that happened, kind of a long story short, I just moved to Albuquerque and said, “You know what? I’m ready to shed all of this weight. It doesn’t feel like me.” And at that time, my older sister who lived in Albuquerque kind of took me under her wing and she just taught me, this is how you eat, this is how you move your body. And from there, after I had my first child, that’s when I got really into fitness because I realized my body wasn’t responding to traditional workouts. So that’s when I started to do more of the weight training. That’s why I always tell women, you’ve got to lift those weights! Especially if you’ve got kids because I had a lot of loose skin and a lot extra fat in my stomach area, especially after carrying two babies full term. And literally the only thing that helped me transform after that was lifting those weights. So that’s a general, short version background of why I love fitness [laughs].
So did you move to Albuquerque for a job or a specific reason?
I think it’s really hard to grow when there is no light, when there is no water. It’s like the rose that grew from concrete. I got tired of being the rose that was growing from concrete. I just wanted to relocate to an environment that was more conducive to the woman I wanted to become. Before, all my friends had just kind of lumped me into this category of the chunky girl who wasn’t going to go anywhere. And I think the danger of staying in an environment like that is that it can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So having people see me in that light was making me stay in that image. So I would do a lot of prayer, I would do a lot of meditation, I would do a lot of nights crying in my room alone and not going to the club with my friends, which was rare for me during that time. I just felt like this calling, “You have to get out or you’re going to end up like everybody else who is here and you don’t want their life. You’ve got to go.”
I’ll be honest, I moved out here and punked out. It was a culture shock. Wasn’t no other Black people and I was like, “Sis, I gotta go!” So I got a job at McDonald’s for a month and saved up enough to get on a plane and came right back, girl. Because literally I had just come from Chicago where you see people who look like you, like me, all of the time, and then coming out here, people would look at me like I was an alien just because I had different hair, a different complexion and a different way of talking. So the culture shock brought me back. Then I got off the airplane and literally walked right back into the same hot mess: the friends who were gossiping about me, the friends who would belittle me to my face, eating unhealthy and the boyfriend who treated me like dookie. And I remember that first weekend of being back in Illinois thinking, “What the heck did you just do? You just walked away from a great opportunity.” And I remember just feeling like crap. So I called my sister back [laughs]. And I was like “Yo, sis, I know I just asked you to help me get out of here, but I want to come back.” She being the kind, older, mature and empathetic sister she is, she helped me come right back the next two weeks. And at that point I actually did the work. I got enrolled in college. I got a part-time job. I started jogging every morning at 6:30 in the morning before school. I met my then-boyfriend and now husband in college. And I feel like at that time when I finally said yes to what God was asking me to do with my life, everything started to fall into place. And then I became addicted to that progress of seeing my body change, of seeing my skin clear, of seeing myself more energetic and I was like, “Yo, this is who I am! I’m not that other girl.”
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Were you ever nervous once you made all of this progress with your health and body about giving birth? Were you worried about what pregnancy would do to you physically?
Honestly? No. I was too happy to be pregnant [laughs]. I wanted to be a mom so bad and I was so excited because I had been on hormonal birth control for like 10 years prior and I’d heard horror stories about how that affects your fertility. So I was just scared that I couldn’t have kids with my husband. Once we became pregnant, first with my son and once we had my daughter, I was just like, honestly, on another planet.
I looked really bad though when I had my son because I didn’t know then how to care for my body. I broke out really badly, really bad hormonal acne on every inch of my body, I gained 55 pounds. But you couldn’t tell me nothin’. I felt like the prettiest girl in the room. “Yo, I’m carrying life. You can’t tell me nothin’!” I didn’t care about it then. And then when I got pregnant with my daughter, I didn’t care about it because I was like, I transformed my body after my son, I’ve learned through trial and error how to keep my skin more clear, how to keep my energy levels high and stay active during pregnancy, so I’m going to do even better this time around. So I was actually more inspired the second time around to be more fearless. I was jogging during my pregnancy, having my green smoothies and being that girl everyone would stare at on the track because I was literally jogging with this huge belly. I still gained 50 pounds, but I felt like myself. I learned how to care for me and my child while in the whom, and corrected what I’d done wrong while carrying my son.
Do you prefer your home workouts at this point to working up a sweat at the gym?
Honestly, I do not like the gym. I go back and forth as far as, “Should I join a gym?” But the reason why I don’t is because when I look back at my Instagram videos and my YouTube videos and I see my fitness transformation journey and I see the workouts I do with my kids, it warms my heart. I get grateful that I did not spend those times looking awkward in the gym while guys were looking at me. It’s just, the gym culture is its own culture. And no offense to those who like the gym, but it just doesn’t work for my lifestyle because I have to work so much from home as it is and literally it would take an extra three hours out of my day, which is a lot, to get my kids ready, get them in the car and check them in at the gym daycare. And then half of the time they’re calling me, “Monica, come change your baby’s diaper.” Really? Y’all can’t do that? I’m paying you. So I’m like, life is too short. For me, I just felt like life is too short to have my babies stuck in a hot room full of germs and they’re not happy. I’d rather just show moms another option.
How often do you get to exercise at home?
Girl, I have to do it every day [laughs]. Honestly, I do it every day not because I have to but even if it’s just 10 minutes, I have to sweat. Because, again, I’m constantly reminded of the me when I was 18 in my mom’s tiny two-bedroom apartment in Chicago, overweight, depressed and lethargic. So seeing that clear, clear image of how I was, I never want to feel that way again. So for me, working out isn’t so much about looks. It’s about the endorphins I get after I work out. It’s about how proud I feel of myself after I work out.
What advice would you give to new moms who feel that pressure to snapback? I know you waited a month before exercising again after gaining 50 pounds, so why was it important to take your time?
I think you gotta stay woke. With the culture and the society we live in, looks are put at the top of the pedestal over how we feel. And I think that is placing exterior values on top of how we feel as humans, as women, as mothers. What I would really like to share with moms, new moms and first-time moms that no one told me is that you will never get those first postpartum days, weeks and months back. They are so magical: The sleepless nights, your baby waking up nonstop, your boobs hurting because you’re breastfeeding and you’ve just got all this milk in them. Those moments you will never get back. I don’t care how much money you have, how fly you look, how many abs you’ve got. We are mixed up in a society where we put more pressure on ourselves because we care how we look to others more than we care about how our home life is.
So at what point did you get into competitions? Was it after having kids?
I was a punk before I had kids. That’s why I didn’t really start a brand or compete until after I became a mom. I wanted to do a fitness competition before I had kids when I was still in college. I kept talking myself out of it. “Oh, you’re not ready.” Truth be told, I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t even into weight training yet, I was just doing cardio. After I had my son, I was training for it and I told God and I told my husband that if I get pregnant first, competition, schmompetition. I want to have my baby and I’ll do that later. As fate would have it, I got pregnant with my daughter. I had it on my vision board while pregnant with my daughter, I’m still going to compete. And I would tell her in the womb, “I’m still going to compete.” So I had her and I made it a goal. And for me, I held myself accountable by sharing that with the community on my blog and on my Instagram. I knew once I put it out there in the world and I shared it, I wouldn’t let myself back out of it.
So with that I was scared crapless to get up there on that stage because I was only breastfeeding mom in a crowd of hundreds of women who’d signed up to compete. It was really scary, but girl, it was so liberating. I remember the girls backstage before going on, they were looking at me and said, “How are you so confident? I’m scared right now.” I looked at them like, “Girl, your boobies look better than mine, your stomach looks better than mine.” To me I was like, this is why I want to get more into life coaching. Because your looks can be a 10 and you can still walk on the stage like you’re a three because you don’t have your mind right. So I had a conversation with God backstage like, “Ok, I feel like you’re pointing me in a different direction to not just do fitness coaching but also work on more emotional coaching as well.” We suffer from lack of confidence as women due to unconscious men trying to place us in a hierarchy. That’s actually why I decided not to do anymore competitions after I completed mine. Because I felt, the dichotomy of two emotions: I felt incredibly empowered, I felt beautiful, I felt strong. On the other side I just felt like I was being objectified. I wanted to shout to the judges, “Hey, guys! I have a personality! I’m kind of funny sometimes! I can dance!” I wanted to share these things with them because I felt like the judges just wanted to see where your muscles popped, how perky your boobs are and how white your teeth are. So I made a decision after that of, this isn’t where I’m being directed to stay.
So to sum it all up, why is it important to prioritize time to work out as a busy mom, or as you say, “Do what you gotta do”?
It’s important because I feel as though if we completely neglect and negate caring for our own physical, physiological and emotional needs as women, then we turn around and snap at our kids, snap at our husbands and get upset at the smallest things when we ignore making ourselves happy. For me, fitness is important because how we feel about our bodies from the inside out reflects our mood. It does. That’s why I will never go back to eating Flamin’ Hots for breakfast, because I know what that used to do to my mood. I would feel like dookie the whole day. So for me, fitness and eating healthy is a tool I use to become an even better mother. When you have, for me, which is only on average 15 minutes a day to sweat in what I refer to as my goddess cave — I’ll put on Mother Goose Club for my babies and I will go. That is mommy’s time. Can mommy just have 15 minutes, y’all? Cool. For me, working out is spiritual, so I get to sweat, I get to dance, I get to lift heavy things and I can feel proud of myself after. I get to make an investment in my health and I get to be my own best friend during that time. It’s just fun to me because that’s when I get my most creative ideas, is when I’m working out. That’s when I feel just super energetic. I want moms to know it doesn’t have to be an hour a day. It doesn’t have to be two hours a day, it doesn’t have to be at the gym. Even if you’re in your garage like me or if you’re in your living room like me, as long as you can focus for enough time to work up a sweat, you can make it a spiritual experience and you can make it something that makes a deposit into your self-confidence. And fitness is a tool, exercise is our virtues, our patience, our discipline. If we can use those things, we end up being better moms, it ends up benefiting the family in the end when mom takes a few minutes out of the day to be selfish.