One of my favorite responses from Holland Canter during this interview actually came before the first question. When I pitched the idea, she quickly accepted, politely explaining the reply would be delayed a bit because her plans over the weekend—mountain climbing in Northern New Mexico—went on longer than expected.
In this age of instant, anywhere communication, I couldn’t help picturing her hundreds of feet above ground, typing a message with one hand and gripping a wedge of rock with the other, her mighty muscles quivering ever so slightly under the extra strain keeping her steady.
Holland has always been pretty good at keeping her balance. She was a gifted gymnast growing up, elevating her skills to the division-1 level in college where she competed for the Air Force Academy and went on to earn multiple awards both athletically and scholastically. Today, the 24-year-old is in her first year as a physique competitor, juggling training and contest prep with a career as a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.
Remarkably, she’s still a newbie to the weight room (gymnastics training used only body weight resistance) and has been lifting about a year. Still, she won her first two physique shows before moving on to the national-level at USAs, where she came in arguably underrated at 13th in her class. Indeed, she’s poised for a dramatic rebound at her next show, NPC Nationals in November.
Coming up, Holland talks about the roller coaster of emotions during her first show—a thrilling win at the Ironman in California—and also reveals thoughts about making a switch to fitness one day, possibly even next year.
For the moment, she’s focused on the physique division and bringing a more balanced, conditioned look and improved stage presence to Nationals. Holland combines striking good looks (deep brown eyes, long dark blonde hair and a warm smile) with great physical highlights (thick, vascular sledgehammer forearms and powerful legs with diamond calves) to create a perfect mix of femininity and athleticism.
Climbing remains one of her great passions. “It helps continue my drive to get stronger and train harder,” she said. It takes a courageous young woman with tremendous reserves of strength and cardiovascular endurance to pursue such daring sources of inspiration.
Holland still calls competing a hobby. It might become more if she finds herself winning a pro card in a physique or fitness show down the road. But even then, it would still be just another trophy and title, empty of meaning without the main ingredient that fueled it. “Fitness is something that I will continue for a lifetime,” she said.
Holland Canter: I am 24 years old. I am 5’3″. My competition weight ranges from 124-127, and my off season weight is 135-139. My hometown is Dadeville, Ala. My husband and I are currently stationed at Holloman AFB, New Mexico.
Dean: You’re getting ready to compete at NPC Nationals after making your national-level debut at USAs. What kinds of things did you learn at USAs and what improvements are you trying to make to prepare for Nationals?
Holland: At USAs, I learned that if I want to excel on the national stage I need more competition experience, posing practice, and muscular maturity. Since I have only been lifting for one year, some of my muscles just aren’t as developed as the other ladies. This is just going to take time, but I’m still putting in 100% every day to try to speed up the process. Currently, I’m working to balance out my lower body by widening my lats. I’m also trying to build my shoulders. I would also like to come in leaner on the day of the show. While I need to make these improvements, most of my weaknesses can be hidden with good posing and stage presentation. Although I practiced posing before USAs, I plan on making posing a part of my daily workout routine and treat it as importantly as cardio this time around!
Dean: You started out the year winning the Ironman Naturally contest. How did it feel to win your first show and did you expect to come so far so fast in your first year competing?
Holland: The Ironman Naturally was a great show! I did the show with my former gymnastics teammate and fellow Air Force officer Stephanie Frick. We didn’t train together, but we texted and kept up with each other’s progress, which was great! Since the Ironman was our first show, we were so anxious and nervous. It definitely helped to have someone by my side the whole day.
On the day of the show, I cried after prejudging because it went so fast. The lights were in my eyes, I couldn’t tell if the judges liked me or not, and I didn’t know if I did all the poses right! Because the physique category only had five girls, there were no call outs during prejudging. I couldn’t believe that I had to wait hours to see how I did! In gymnastics, I was used to getting immediate feedback with a score, but this experience was so different. I was much calmer by the time the night show started. I loved performing my routine, and when my name was announced as the winner, I had tears in my eyes again. Winning the contest made me feel like my sacrifices and hard work had been worth it, and it helped me to truly appreciate my muscular physique for the first time.
Dean: Could you talk a little about your accomplishments in gymnastics and as a Division-1 gymnast in college? What university did you attend and did you receive a scholarship?
Power and Beauty: Holland once won an arm-wrestling contest during freshman year at the Air Force Academy.
Holland: After high school, I received the once in a lifetime opportunity to compete in D-1 gymnastics for the United States Air Force Academy. The Academy is a military institution, and all cadets are on academic scholarships. You must maintain a certain grade point average (GPA) to stay at the Academy and an even higher GPA to compete in a collegiate sport.
After two hard years of training, I finally made the gymnastics line-up my junior year as a competitor on the uneven bars and vault. In most meets, my coach put me “first up.” First up meant I would compete first on bars and vault. It also means that you may not be the best gymnast on the team, but the coach has faith that you will hit your set and start the team off right. My junior year I received the “Most Improved Gymnast” award, and my senior year I received “Most Consistent.”
I also graduated from the US Air Force Academy on the Dean’s list of Academic Excellence with a Bachelor of Science degree in Management with a minor in French. I also graduated on the Athletic Director’s list for Excellence in Physical Conditioning with a perfect score on my Physical Fitness Test.
Dean: I’m sure you’ve been told that with your background, you could compete in fitness as well as physique. Is that something you might want to try someday?
Holland: I have definitely considered making the switch from physique to fitness. The IFBB Pro Fitness girls are truly inspiring. I love watching Oksana Grishina! I was speechless after watching her Avatar routine. I also have a former gymnastics teammate who is an IFBB Fitness Pro, Tiffany Robinson! She won her pro card at Team U last year, and she been a huge inspiration in my journey this year. I know the pool of girls is much smaller in fitness, and I would have a greater chance at making top 5 or even winning on a national stage. One day (maybe next year), I would like to compete in fitness, but I know it will require more time and financial commitment. I’m going to see how Nationals goes, and then I will make my decision.
Dean: You must already face some significant physical demands being an Air Force Lieutenant. Do you find that being in shape makes it easier to balance your career with competing, or do certain challenges—like finding time to train or prepping for a show—make it harder?
Chiseled Legs: Holland can lift almost the whole stack on standing calve raises.
Holland: Fitness is a way of life, and it is very important to be fit as a member of the military. I could deploy at a moment’s notice, and I’m expected to uphold certain standards. As an officer, those standards are higher because my airmen are looking to me to set the example. However, staying fit for the military and competing in physique are completely different. As most people already know, competing takes fitness and conditioning to a whole new level. At times, I have found it very difficult to balance training, work, and my home life.
Being in the military, I have to report to Physical Training (PT) Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursdays at 0630. At those PT sessions, I either lead my squadron with a group workout session or I do what a fellow Physical Training Leader (PTL) has planned for the squadron that morning. After PT, I go straight to work until at least 5pm every day. Many times I stay later because I am a flight commander, and I have many additional duties for the squadron as a 2nd Lieutenant.
Because of my busy schedule, I have to find time to train around work. Towards the end of prep, the balance between work and training is especially hard with two hours of cardio a day plus strength. Through the past several months, I have found splitting up my workouts to be the easiest way to get it all done. During PT, I will work out with my squadron, which usually includes running, plyos, and bodyweight exercises like pushups and pull ups. Then, I will do 40 minutes of cardio during lunch. Finally, after work, I will lift and finish up my cardio.
During prep for USAs, I didn’t think I was going to make it through work some days. However, I tried my best not to show it. Like I said before, my airmen look up to me, and if I have a bad attitude or if I am slacking, they will feel like it is ok for them to do it too. I feel like my prep for Nationals will be a little easier mentally because now I know what it takes to train for a national competition.
Dean: I read that rock climbing is one of your favorite activities and it must have played a role in developing those great forearms you have! Have you ever surprised someone with your especially strong grip or tried armwrestling before?
Holland: Yes, I love rock climbing! Working out in a gym can get boring sometimes. Climbing really rejuvenates and inspires me. It helps continue my drive to get stronger and train harder. Nature has a healing effect on the body that you just don’t get in a gym. I also love to train climbing inside. Bouldering inside or top roping is a great tool to strengthen your upper body, and it’s even great cardio! At the climbing gym, I’ve developed what I call “Climbing Drop Sets.” I use the Auto-Belay device and climb the hardest route on the wall, and then, I climb all the easier routes surrounding the Auto-Belay until I can’t make it up the wall anymore. My forearms were actually small at USAs because I took a month off from climbing to train for the contest on the weekends. They usually get about 2 inches bigger.
Gripping Strength: Years of climbing and gymnastics have further sculpted Holland’s formidable upperbody.
As for arm-wrestling, I was shy about my muscles growing up, so every time someone would ask me to arm-wrestle I would turn them down. However, I won an arm-wrestling contest during my freshman year at the Air Force Academy against all the females in my squadron. During my junior year of college, I tore my labrum in my right shoulder doing the uneven bars at gymnastics. I did not get surgery after the injury because the team needed me to compete. It is still torn now, so I have a hard time arm-wrestling anyone. I will do it if you ask, but it’s painful, and I’m not as strong as I would be if I was 100%. The labral tear causes me problems lifting, but the pain is nothing like doing uneven bar routines every day while I was in college.
Dean: Speaking of strength, was there ever a time in the gym when you surprised someone with some particularly strong lifts? With the calves you have, for instance, you’ve probably been able to lift the entire stack on standing calve raises!
Holland: Since I only starting lifting a year ago, I don’t really have any particularly strong lifts yet. I maxed out on bench at 145lbs before USAs, and I can do 22 pull ups in a row. Yes, I can move almost the whole stack on standing calve raises, but I usually don’t lift that heavy because I get blisters on my shoulders! I can be tough, but sometimes, I’m still a baby when it comes to lifting. I went 18 years of my life only using my body weight to train for gymnastics, so I’m still getting used to throwing the weights around in the gym.
Dean: You look amazing in your new pictures taken at USAs! Has it felt sort of empowering doing photoshoots and showing off your hard work for the camera, sort of like a fitness magazine covergirl?
Holland: After not placing well at USAs, I was definitely down on myself. I didn’t go into the contest with aspirations of winning, but I thought I would do better than I did. It’s hard to put your all into something and then fail. The photo shoots were my favorite part of USAs!
Ready to Shine: Holland is training for her upcoming show, the NPC Nationals in Atlanta on November 9.
Dean: What would you say are your biggest goals with working out and being involved in the fitness industry? Are you also a personal trainer or hoping to get certified?
Holland: My short term fitness goal is to bring my best package to Nationals in November. I’m my biggest critic, and I just want to do better. While I would like to move up in the ranks, I just want to go into this next competition knowing that I give it my all and know that I did not “leave anything on the field.”
As for a long term goal, I’m very much a “Live for the Moment” type of girl. I like to do things that inspire me. Competing is a hobby that I picked up this year, but fitness is something that I will continue for a lifetime. If competing continues to inspire me, I will keep it up, but the last thing I want is to become a cynical competitor wrapped up in the politics of the sport. While I have loved competing this year, I find my passion for fitness outdoors. In the future, I would like to climb a few mountains including Mt. Rainier, Denali, Aconcagua, and do the Patagonia Ice Trail. I would also like to boulder a V9 and sport climb a 5.13.
Dean: Thanks so much for taking time out to do this interview! Is there anything else you’d like to promote (website, sponsors, personal training business, etc.) or any special shout-outs you’d like to give?
Holland: First, I would like to thank my husband for his never ending support. This year has been a learning experience for both of us, and I couldn’t have done it without him. Next, I would like to thank my family. They have always supported me through all of my adventures. Whether I was climbing a Colorado 14,000-foot mountain, making the decision to go into the military, or prancing around on a national stage in a little bikini, they have always been my biggest fans! Finally, I would like to thank my trainer Rick Dobbins. He is the one who discovered me outside of Tao nightclub in July 2011. Without him, I would have never made this journey. He has truly helped me to see my potential and love myself for who I am, muscles and all!