The new The Biggest Loser trainer opens up about the personal experiences that make him feel connected to the show's contestants.

By Faith Brar
February 18, 2020
Maarten de Boer/NBCUniversal/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The Biggest Loser has returned to USA Network with a new focus on overall health versus quick weight loss. As part of the reboot, the show enlisted two new trainers: Erica Lugo and Steve Cook, who've both personally struggled with weight and body image.

Lugo has previously opened up to Shape about her incredible 160-pound weight-loss journey that's made her one of the most relatable trainers out there. Cook, on the other hand, has had his own challenges with failure and body image. Despite his extensive background in fitness, it took him years to realize what it really means to be healthy, he shares.

Cook experienced a series of disappointments early on in his life, he shares. He grew up playing football throughout high school and college and dreamed of playing in the NFL. "Football was a huge part of my identity," says Cook. "But when I didn't make it to the NFL, I was devastated and it really took a toll on my confidence."

Shortly after leaving football behind, Cook says he went through a divorce at just 23 years old. "It was an extremely hard part of my life, and I felt like I had failed," he shares. (Related: 8 Surprising Ways Divorce Affects Your Health)

As a way of coping with both his divorce and the end of his football career, Cook dove into the world of fitness by getting into bodybuilding competitions. "It was my way of moving past what had happened in my life personally," he explains.

Since Cook was already fit from playing football, preparing for bodybuilding competitions mostly came down to adjusting his diet, he says. "Bodybuilding was all about getting lean," he explains. "I was fascinated with the nutrition aspect of it and learning how to strip fat from my diet and getting into peak shape." (Related: A Beginner's Guide to Bodybuilding for Women)

For the next five years, Cook worked on expanding his career as a bodybuilder. "Pretty quickly, I started gaining recognition, got some sponsors, and began traveling the world doing expos and seminars," he says.

But Cook soon found himself obsessing over aesthetics instead of prioritizing his overall health and well-being, he shares. He began to realize he was pressuring himself to look the way he did after weeks of intense dieting not just in the days leading up to a bodybuilding competition, but also in his normal, everyday life, he explains. "My goal was to have 3-5 percent body fat for [bodybuilding] shows, which had nothing to do with health. It was about looking the part," he says. (Related: Kelsey Wells Shares What It Really Means to Feel Empowered By Fitness)

When Cook wasn't competing, he says he started binge eating to compensate for the time he spent restricting his diet. "I remember walking down the streets of Santa Monica and stuffing my face until I wanted to throw up," he shares. "Everyone expected me to be the epitome of fitness, so I felt like I couldn't touch anything that was 'unhealthy.' But after literally starving myself for weeks, I binge-ate behind closed doors because my body was not getting the nutrients it needed." (Here's how to tell when binge eating gets out of control.)

Given the hard work Cook put into prepping for bodybuilding competitions, he says he couldn't help but "feel like a failure" when he succumbed to his food cravings. "I'd feel so depressed and disappointed when I caved to unhealthy foods, and at one point all my feelings about food revolved around shame," he shares. "Eventually I realized that this way of living was not sustainable."

"I started to ask myself questions like, 'Why am I doing this?' and 'Is this even good for me?'" he adds. "Once I started reflecting on that, I knew it was time to make a change."

Cook eventually stepped away from bodybuilding. Still, he says he wouldn't trade the experience for the world. "Looking back, I'm so glad I went through that because otherwise, I would have never understood what being healthy really means," he explains. "I learned what it felt like to be shameful of eating. I learned what it feels like to be unnecessarily hard on your body. All of that has helped me relate to the people I train so much more." (Related: This Fitness Model Turned Body-Image Advocate Is Happier Now That She’s Less Fit)

It's that personal connection that Cook hopes to bring to his role on The Biggest Loser, he says. "I didn't like who I was, and it took me years to get over my issues with body image⁠—something a lot of people on the show can relate to on a personal level," he explains.

Most of all, Cook's experiences have helped him realize what it takes to change your habits and transform your life, he shares. "Change comes by acknowledging that you have problems and by finding solutions that will help you transform from the inside out," he says. "It's about being the best version of yourself. Hopefully, the contestants see that and realize that a lot of people, regardless of shape and size, deal with these issues and that they're not alone in their struggles." (Related: 30 Healthy Lifestyle Habits to Adopt Every Day)

Helping contestants realize their full potential—even in the face of their own struggles with weight, body image, and everything in between—is one of Cook's biggest challenges as a trainer on The Biggest Loser, he says. "So many contestants are in their situation because they're such givers and such lovers that they forgot to take care of themselves along the way," he explains. "My goal is to show them how capable they are and how deserving they are of self-love."

In the show's upcoming episodes, Cook shares his experiences with failure to inspire contestants to reach their own full potential. "How we deal with failure is a massive thing when it comes to long-term success," says the trainer. "Life is not about what happens to us; it's how we react to it. If my life has taught me anything, it's that you have to be proactive when things get tough. You have to realize that if you want something in your life to change, you have to fight for it because no one is going to do it for you." (Related: Can You Love Your Body and Still Want to Change It?)

As the show continues, Cook says he hopes that both the contestants and viewers realize that while failure is inevitable, it can also motivate you to move forward and crush your goals. "It's all about focusing on small victories that eventually result in a snowball effect that gives you the confidence to keep moving forward," he explains. "No matter what your goals are, it's important to remember that winning is incremental. There will always be setbacks, but it's about taking them in stride and realizing that they're a part of the journey."

The Biggest Loser airs on USA Network on Tuesdays at 9/8c.

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