FeatureProfile July 6, 2023

Emily Knowles

World Champion natural bodybuilder flexes her muscles


Ever since college, when she began stoking an insatiable desire to develop six-pack abs, Emily Knowles put bodybuilding on her bucket list.

When she started working in the fitness industry, she began training with a science-based approach. “I wanted to embark on a body transformation journey to see how developed I could get when everything came together perfectly but naturally—with nutrition, sleep recovery and training,” says Knowles.

Her first competition, in 2004, was a National Gym Association (NGA) show in Boise. “There was one category and no bling,” she says. “I was hooked on the entire process and end result.”

Now 47, not only does she have a six-pack, but 17 bodybuilding competitions behind her, resulting in the bling of numerous awards, the sweetest of which is her 2021 Las Vegas World’s Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF) Championship in Open Figure and last year’s Los Angeles WNBF second place in Master’s Figure.

Knowles has won throughout the Pacific Northwest in two of the six female competition categories—Body Building and Physique, judged primarily by visible muscle size and striation. Her first year competing in Figure was 2021, which was judged more on symmetry and lean muscle mass. It was a decision she made after encouragement from coaches and judges for her smaller body type. It proved a good move.

For Knowles, the personal journey to champion is reinforced with desire, resolve and mindset in a sport that has become more than bulked-up muscles resembling their male counterpart, but rather a meticulous body sculpting, a combination of muscle size, symmetry and conditioning, where success demands achieving peak physique on competition day. It’s a competitive journey she’s approached the same way as life—naturally and well-balanced. Competition training is six-days-a-week non-negotiable—cycled weight training workouts, exercises, diet, nutrition, supplements and, most important, sleep—a strict regimen for total body support and workout recovery. Food is measured, and macros are counted. Then, a month before competition, the beastly diet gets hard and tight.

“It is hard, hard work. I have a coach who guides my diet and training routines, but I don’t have extra help. It’s a day-in, day-out grind that doesn’t come easy. There is no opting out of a workout. You have to be 100% in,” explains Knowles.

Spend an hour in the gym with the well-known personal trainer and fitness instructor, and you will understand her love of the lifestyle, body-confidence perspective and belief in nutrition. “It can be inspiring for others to see me get to competition-level fitness, but also for them to see the reality of my physique fluctuate,” says Knowles.

The gym has been where she’s felt most at home most of her life. As a teenager, she would lift and work out with her dad at a small gym near her family’s home in Bellevue, Wash. “I’ve always felt drawn towards the energy of a gym,” says Knowles. “When I don’t work out, I don’t feel good physically, emotionally, or mentally. Exercise is medicine.”

Balancing life and training can be demanding and daunting, with personal sacrifices affecting the people around you. “What has always worked for my family and me is that I am not a year-round competitor,” says Knowles. “I still work out; I’m just not competing. Bodybuilders are hard to live with, and training can be stressful. There are times I must be selfish, but first and foremost, I’m a wife and mom. I believe it’s possible to set a goal, achieve it, and still have your personal priorities intact. You just have to do it very thoughtfully and carefully.”

For Knowles, 2021 dawned with many unknowns. She lost a job of 20 years and started a new business venture but kept focused on qualifying for Worlds. It was a rigorous year of training and competing.

“Every show was tentative because of COVID uncertainties, but I had to keep focused on prepping,” she says. “It was definitely harder to keep competing in order to qualify for Worlds, and at 46, I felt like that was my one shot.”

At a show in Seattle in September 2021, she won gold, qualified, and gained her PRO card status in Figure Masters (age 40 and up). Then another challenge presented itself: Carlie Brocksome, Knowles’ Boise coach, became sick right before the Las Vegas World Championships, and the lack of physical support was challenging.

“Without (Carlie) there, it was hard to get in the pre-competition prepping zone,” says Knowles. “As I eyed other competitors, my self-esteem was probably at its lowest. I had to dig deep and remind myself how hard I’ve worked.” Resolve triumphed. Knowles won, having competed against some women half her age. One year later, she was back on the podium in second place.

“After every competition, I always say this could be my last show, not this is my last show,” she says, chuckling. “I know there is going to be an endpoint for me soon and I want to finish well. I mean, why stop?” ï

This article appears in the Summer 2023 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.