Javier Hernandez overcame a difficult childhood and obesity, and now competes in fitness competitions
Credit: Courtesy Javier Hernandez; AP Photography

Javier Hernandez has overcome a lot of obstacles to get to where he is today.

“I was always overweight,” Hernandez, 32, tells PEOPLE. “Out of eight kids, I was the fat one with the huge appetite.” But life at home was hard. Raised by a single mother in the projects of Tempe, Arizona, Hernandez and his family didn’t have a lot of money. “My food options weren’t the best – we would have cheap fast foods, donation boxes of foods,” he says. “Playing outside wasn’t much of an option due to the high crime rate in our projects.” They even endured bouts of homelessness.

He continued to struggle throughout his childhood, losing his older brother when he was 16 years old and going through a painful breakup a few years later. He became severely depressed. Friends intervened when they saw him struggling. “They reminded me of a promise I made to my late brother to fix myself,” says Hernandez, who weighed 325 lbs. at his heaviest. “I knew I was damaged inside and out and needed to make a change.”

In 2011, he began the process of losing weight. “When I first started, I knew that I didn’t want to be thin — I wanted to be built,” says Hernandez, who shares his weight loss journey on Instagram. “I also knew that I had to get rid of all the things that could be making me overweight, like sweets, fried foods and tortillas.”

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So he ditched his food vices for a mix of healthy proteins (eggs, chicken, protein shakes) and complex carbs (quick oats and sweet potatoes). “To help battle my appetite,” he says, “I would consume a ton of veggies like broccoli, green beans and spinach.”

Hernandez also found solace at the gym, where he worked out seven days a week. By 2012, he had lost 120 lbs. and decided to enter bodybuilding.com‘s male transformation contest. He was ecstatic when he actually won. “I was super surprised,” he says. “Nothing like that ever really happens for me.”

The experience inspired him to enter a physique show and he continued losing weight, getting down to about 170 lbs. But a couple weeks before the 2012 competition, Hernandez was hit with another blow: He lost a second brother. It sent him into an unhealthy “spiral,” and he gained back some of the weight.

“I knew drinking and eating myself away wasn’t going to help,” says Hernandez, who finally decided to recommit to his healthy routine.

Credit: Courtesy Javier Hernandez

After losing weight a second time, he got a tummy tuck to get rid of loose skin.

He also renewed his commitment to physique shows, competing in his first in 2014. Hernandez put on more muscle after his surgery, currently weights 180 lbs. and continues to compete. He is also studying to get certified in sports medicine.

And he also now has a strong support system cheering him on.

“When I first started [this weight loss journey] I was on my own,” says Hernandez, who is married with two young sons. “[Now] I want to keep up with [my kids]. They keep me driven; they keep me motivated. They are never going to be my excuse, they are always going to be my reason.”