Courtesy of Matt Shepley
How bad did it get for Mikhail Kniaziewicz, once a fit sports fanatic growing up in a well-to-do Philadelphia suburb who earned a college football roster spot on the strength of his left leg, to end up depressed, lonely, out of shape and overweight, wondering if life was worth living?
“It got to the point that some nights I would sit outside alone, listening to music with the suicide hotline number in my hand, ready to dial. Thankfully, I never got to a point where I felt that I had to call it,” Kniaziewicz says.
For that—and for the amazing turnaround that followed—we need to go back to the very beginning of his journey.
From the Pitch to the Gridiron
“Growing up, I was a very active kid,” Kniaziewicz recalls. He and his older sister were involved in sports as long as he can remember, and he took it seriously. “I guess you could say I was a little trophy hunter growing up, and I spent far more time focusing on sports than I ever did schoolwork. I was just so infatuated with pro athletes, and training and being the absolute best with any sport I was in.”
He figured soccer would be his mainstay, but after excelling in youth leagues, he ended up not making the cut for his high school soccer team as a freshman. Disappointed but undeterred, he took his kicking acumen to the football field instead. It stuck. “I ended up going to Division III King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and played four years there,” he says.
That’s when the issues with his weight began. He entered college around 170 pounds at a height of 5’7”—but after just one semester, the so-called “Freshman 15” turned into the “Freshman 45,” putting him at 215 pounds. However, it wasn’t just the typical college culprits of fast food and partying that sent Kniaziewicz into a spiral.
“My first experience with depression happened after my last high school football game senior year—I missed a game-tying extra point, costing us the game and eliminating us in the playoffs,” he recounts. “I received threats on social media that night and my house was egged. My teammates didn’t support me; they contributed in the bullying. It was so bad I sat by myself at lunch the rest of my senior year and didn’t even go to prom.”
The pain endured for a couple years, as Kniaziewicz eschewed professional help. Eventually, though, he came to a crossroads in his mind—and decided to turn the negative energy into positive change. “I wanted to use the pain as a tool to further reach my goals. It’s sounds crazy, but I wanted to continue thinking about those bad memories because it motivated me to become highly successful in life, not only to find self-worth but to prove all of them wrong.”
Kniaziewicz was already well-versed in the weight room, having started working out in high school when he joined the football team. But as a junior in college, he really poured himself into his quest for fitness., training with a hybrid mix of heavy, low-rep powerlifting moves and high-intensity exercise to failure that helped him drop from 215 to 165 pounds in six months. “I’d train twice a day, watch videos of workouts and read articles in Muscle & Fitness,” he says. “For me, bodybuilding and the gym were my anti-depressant, and I loved spending time there.”
Nutritionally, he dropped as much processed foods as he could from his diet. “I simply stuck with foods that were closer to being in their natural form,” he explains. “Fruits, vegetables, and any kind of meat was what I ate every single meal through every day. I also spent a lot of time studying about supplements, how they work and when to use them. I regularly took whey protein, BCAAs, and green-tea-based fat burners.”
Seeing his football career winding down, as a senior Kniaziewicz turned his athletic ambitions to the bodybuilding stage, targeting the men’s physique division, while also deciding he would put his BSBA degree in marketing to use in a personal training career. But an old nemesis was about to rear its head as he prepped for his competitive debut in October 2019.
“I first experienced pancreatic issues my senior year of college,” the 24-year-old says. “It wasn’t too bad then, as the nurses just had me eat snacks (instead of full meals) to rest my pancreas. But I had my second attack 10 weeks out from the show, and it was easily a 10 on the pain scale.”
After some difficult treatments, including fasting and feeding through an IV, Kniaziewicz figured his preparations for the show had been set back at least three weeks—but he wasn’t ready to quit. “From a training perspective, I had to eliminate all ab workouts and keep cardio to a minimum, so I didn’t cause further damage to my pancreas,” he explains. “For my diet, I had to switch from a keto to a low-fat approach and keep my meals small, which restricted my growth. I was basically competing at about 70%.”
That 70%, however, was enough to take fourth in his class at the 2019 OCB Chesapeake Classic—and now he’s gunning for two more competitions in 2020. “I’m spending a huge amount of time getting mentally and physically stronger so I can showcase my true, best physique, and hopefully earn my pro card,” he says.
Looking back, Kniaziewicz also credits that missed kick for changing his life for the better. Had that fateful boot instead sailed through the uprights, “I never would have discovered myself, my love for health and fitness, and even my passion to help others and make a difference in their lives,” he points out. “In a weird way, I’m extremely thankful it happened.”
Kniaziewicz’s Training Split
Monday: Back, Triceps
Tuesday: Chest, Biceps
Friday: Biceps, Triceps
He’ll also do three 30-minute low-intensity cardio sessions per week.