She’s got the power: Meet Monica Johnson, the strongest woman in Charlottesville

“Whenever I’m feeling down, I remind myself of what I’ve accomplished,” Johnson says. “I tell myself, “Monica, you pulled a truck that weights over 12,000 pounds. You’re amazing!” Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith “Whenever I’m feeling down, I remind myself of what I’ve accomplished,” Johnson says. “I tell myself, “Monica, you pulled a truck that weights over 12,000 pounds. You’re amazing!” Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

I’ve been doing strength competitions for just about a year and a half, so I’ve worked hard to get to where I am. My current national ranking is second in the women’s amateur heavyweight division. That’s according to the Arnold Corporation, the governing body for Strongman and Strongwoman events. I’m 32 now, and I feel I have some time to reach my true potential. I have a master’s in social work, so my jobs keep me busy—as a clinician on Region Ten’s PACT (programs of assertive community treatment) team, and a part-time counselor at Tandem Friends School. But I make working out a priority—I have to, in order to compete.

My next meets are East Coast Most Powerful, in June, in Baltimore, and the North America National Championships, in West Palm Beach, in September.

Growing up here in Charlottesville, I was a tomboy and always strong when fighting with my guy friends. My idea of sports was mainstream—I played basketball, field hockey, and lacrosse in high school. I knew that lifting weights was necessary for conditioning, but I never realized that powerlifting, let alone strongman, was a sport.

I found out for sure in 2016, when I joined a local powerlifting gym, Primal Strength. I did a charity powerlifting meet that fall, and my first Strongman competition, Rumble in the Jungle, in July 2017. I won that one, and the next two, the same year. In my most recent competition, this past March, I placed fourth—that was the Arnold Amateur Strongwoman World Championships.

Each training cycle for a competition is 12 to 16 weeks long, so I feel like I’m cranking it out the entire time, five days a week. The goal is to reach maximum strength and meet the weight requirement, which is 180.5 pounds in my division.

I do not count calories, and focus on water and protein intake, and eating three meals and two snacks a day. It gives me the fuel I need to train. I also make sure to sleep eight hours a night, and icing and stretching are key to my recovery. I put my body through a lot of stress, so it needs a chance to heal. By stress, I mean, I can deadlift 480 pounds, bench press 195, and squat with 425 pounds on my back.

I still struggle to believe in my full potential. However, at the end of the day I love seeing how far I can push my body, as well as discovering self-love for my body. I’ve gained 40-ish pounds since I’ve been competing, which is difficult for a woman who was a lean, avid runner. So whenever I’m feeling down, I remind myself of what I’ve accomplished. I tell myself, “Monica, you pulled a truck that weights over 12,000 pounds. You’re amazing!”

When I’m competing it’s like going to another zone. Nothing is more exhilarating than going onto the floor with my training partner, Shaun, and knowing that we are among the few people of color—typically, the only people of color—able to compete at a high level in our sport. That alone pushes me to keep striving for my best.

Competing has taught me to be mentally tough. I used to always think that it was bullshit when people would say that it is more mental than anything. However, watching my growth and seeing me pushing numbers in competitions that I could not in training shows the power of the mind at play.

My advice to anyone who wants to get into this is just do it—what do you have to lose? You’re only going to become a better version of yourself mentally and physically.—Monica Johnson, as told to Joe Bargmann