The word bodybuilders conjures up an image of an enormous Arnold Schwarzenegger in tiny bikini trunks, posing like some ancient marble sculpture, every muscle and sinew carved with precision and beauty.

People are perhaps less likely to manifest the image of a 5-foot-tall, 36-year-old wife and mother of two who works as an administrative assistant for the Edgewood Police Department.

Nina McCracken, (pronounced NINE-ah) is much more than she appears at first glance. The former Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Department administrative assistant has been with Edgewood PD for two years, and she’s also a champion bodybuilder.

“I was on the swim team when I was growing up,” said McCracken during a recent workout with her husband and coach Larry at Thin Line Fitness in Edgewood. “Then I was a cheerleader in high school. I’ve just always been active.”

A natural athlete, McCracken said she felt the need to delve seriously into fitness after the birth of her daughter in 2007.

“I wanted to get back in shape,” she said. “We both just got really into lifting. And I was, like, ‘I’m going to compete one day.’ It took a while to get there because I didn’t think I was ever going to be big enough.”

She said that once, during a workout with a friend, she was asked why she wasn’t already competing on stage. After listing her reasons for not yet joining the fitness competition circuit, the friend, a gym owner in Moriarty, simply said, “Just go compete,” McCracken said.

So, she did.

“My first [competition] was the [Organization of Competitive Bodybuilders] in Albuquerque in 2016,” said McCracken. “It was my first one and I took third. I’ve never not placed.”

There are several levels of competition for female bodybuilders, said McCracken. The spectrum of levels spans from the Wellness category—a relatively new category that focuses on a traditionally healthy, well-proportioned physique—to the far extreme of the Bodybuilding category, which focuses on muscle mass and body fat levels as opposed to athleticism, appearance, or femininity, criteria that other fitness categories are judged by.

McCracken competes as a bodybuilder.

According to the National Federation of Professional Trainers, judges in the bodybuilding category look for very lean bodies with striated muscles, greater muscle mass and symmetry, and well-developed abdominal musculature. The women compete barefoot, and move through a 60-second, choreographed routine wherein they strike and maintain poses to highlight each muscle group.

At her competition best, McCracken gets down to around 7% body fat, she said. “He gets down to 3%,” she said as she pointed to her husband, who has also competed.

The couple is currently working out around six days a week, she said, because she’s training for a competition this fall. The National Physique Committee-sanctioned New Mexico State Open will take place in Albuquerque on November 13.

This will be McCracken’s first competition of the year, and her first since the pandemic sidelined her previous competition plans.

“I qualified to go to Nationals in 2019, and then Covid hit,” she said.

To earn a spot in the NPC Nationals, McCracken had to beat nine other contestants, both within her height class, and in the overall competition.

“It was very nice. I got a trophy and a sword,” she said of her win.

Wins like that are not easy, said McCracken. In addition to a rigorous muscle-building training regiment, she must also focus on maintaining her dietary discipline.

The couple eats lots a whole-food diet consisting of lots egg whites, chicken, fish, potatoes, and rice, said McCracken.

“You can come to the gym and put in hours and hours of work and get nothing, because it’s diet, unfortunately,” said McCracken. “We tell people all the time that the gym is a small part. You grow when you rest and when you’re eating. If your diet’s not there, you’re probably just maintaining [your weight] at that point.”

She said the couple “messes with” their diet regularly. For instance, they’ll switch up white potatoes with sweet potatoes, white rice with brown rice, and determine what the best dietary course of action is based on how they feel after those adjustments, McCracken said.

“It’s mind over matter,” she said. “You just buckle down and do it.”

McCracken enjoys the meal prep portion of her training, saying, “I had a coach that called me the Rachel Ray of Prepped Food because I love to cook. That’s the best part—being able to cook all this stuff. So I’ve gotten very creative at making what people think is nothing into something.”

Though McCracken readily admits to cheat days, she says those usually include food that’s still relatively “clean,” like Vietnamese food. She’ll even occasionally indulge in classic diet-ruiners like donuts. But, regarding her 11-year-old son playfully taunting and waving the treat in her face, she said, “I’ll have what I want of that donut when I want it.”

As she approaches her next competition, McCracken said her focus will continue to narrow to factors that the judges will be looking for: dryness, or as much water depleted from the skin as possible; granularity, or a low enough body fat percentage to allow for visible muscle texture; and vascularization, or the combined lack of water and fat in the skin that allows for visible veins.

Though her husband is currently serving as her coach as she trains for the competition in November, McCracken said anyone interested in pursuing fitness on any serious level might consider enlisting some help as well.

Photos by Sara Werth

“I think if you’re not too sure about stuff, get a trainer for a month, maybe six weeks,” she said. “Just someone who can track where you’re at and see your progress and mess with your diet. And they can also show you how to use equipment, or explain to you how stuff works. That’s where I think a lot of people get lost.”

McCracken said she has given thought to creating an introductory class for weightlifting to answer the questions that a lot of beginners seem to have, like “What’s this for?”, “How do I use it?”, and “How much weight should I be using?”

“People think they have to do the most weight, but you have to leave your ego at the door,” she said. “It’s taken me 10 years to look like this. People should just embrace who they are and love who they are. We’re all different.”

McCracken credits Larry with a lot of her motivation to keep competing. “I’m lucky because he’s really supportive and helps out a lot, and the kids are supportive,” she said. “We’ve tried to instill in them that we just all help each other to make it work.”

Self-motivation is also clearly a factor in McCracken’s successes. “To me, competing gives me that goal to remind myself that this is what I’m going towards so I don’t slack off,” she said.

After the NPC State Open competition in November, McCracken intends to get her pro card, which would enable her to compete nationally as a certified bodybuilder. Winners of pro level competitions can win thousands of dollars, a significantly higher payout than is awarded by state level contests.

“I’d like to be a pro,” she said. “But even after that, it’s just a title. Something fun to do.”

And the bodybuilding competitions are incredibly fun, said McCracken. Not just for the competitors, but for the spectators as well.

“I don’t think anyone’s truly lived until they’ve seen a pose-down,” she said, referring to the portion of the competitions when—usually the men—will line up on stage, glistening with oil, and try to outdo each other with alternating displays of bulging muscle groups.

Ultimately, McCracken will continue her fitness journey regardless of any competitions she or Larry take part in; fitness is their lifestyle.

“We just love it. It’s like our therapy,” he said. “It’s what we’ve done for 13 years or so.”

“Our kids grew up around all this,” said McCracken. “To us, it’s like brushing our teeth or taking a shower. And I think we’re lucky we have each other.”