Phil Cianciolo says his love of bodybuilding was “embedded in me,” growing up in a household where he woke up to the sound of his father lifting weights every morning.
“I fell in love with weight training more than I did with any sport,” Ciancolo, 60, tells PEOPLE. “When I got to college, I started powerlifting for the University of Cincinnati. I started competing as a bodybuilder, and started winning local shows and regional shows. I went on to compete in the 1980 and 1981 Mr. America shows, but then career and family took priority and I stopped.”
Even though the Cincinnati, Ohio-based produce industry professional stopped officially competing, he never stopped training.
“Bodybuilding has always been a part of my lifestyle,” he says. “That’s who I am and who I’ve always been.”
In addition to keeping him in good physical health, continuing to bodybuild helped Cianciolo to get through some tough times in his personal life. One of his twin daughters was born with disabilities, and working out helped get him through long nights at the hospital and helped him heal when she died at the age of 10 due to kidney failure. He turned to training again after his former wife filed for divorce shortly after Christmas 2015.
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“It really devastated me,” says Cianciolo. “I was losing weight and losing muscle. After six months I thought, ‘I’ve got to move on and I’ve got to get muscle back.’ As I started training harder and eating better, I thought, maybe a show would get my mind, body and soul back to where it should be.”
Cianciolo decided to compete at the NPC Northern Kentucky Grand Prix Championships at the end of March, and began “secretly training” for the show.
“I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t know if I could do it at the age of 60,” he says. “It had been 36 years since I competed. I always stayed in shape but not competitive shape.”
To get back into competition shape, Cianciolo upped his cardio from three times a week to hour-long runs on the treadmill every morning. He followed that with 15 minutes of core work, which he upped to a daily routine from his usual twice a week. In the afternoon, Cianciolo returned to the gym for an hour and a half of strength training, working out each body part twice a week.
“It was a goal to just get me out of my rut and to move on, and after 36 years I stepped on stage and I did it,” he says. “It really helped me move on and get my life in order. Getting up on stage and competing against 20 and 30 year olds, it was a blast.”