Two Lehigh students have made strides in their fitness careers, becoming competitive natural bodybuilders.
At his second competition, Alexi Psillos, ‘25, won his pro card, which established him as a professional bodybuilder. At 19 years old, his fitness coach Mikey James Cuciniello said he is one of the youngest people ever to earn a pro card in a natural competition.
Cuciniello said this is practically unheard of.
In the months leading up to competition, Psillos said he was consuming below 2,000 calories a day, doing an hour of cardio six days a week, and doing additional work-outs for up to two and a half hours, five days a week. He lost 40 pounds and dropped to about 6% body fat.
Mason Burger, ‘25, also competed alongside Psillos after both men trained for more than 16 weeks.
Psillos and Burger met through a mutual friend at a dining hall during their first semester at Lehigh. After a few compliments about each other’s physique and sharing gym progress pictures, Psillos said they realized they shared the same passion — one for fitness and working out. From then on, the two became training partners.
Psillos first competed in August 2022 and was joined in his second competition by Burger on Sept. 18 at the White Plains Performing Center in New York. They both competed within the Organization of Competition Bodies in the men’s classic physique category.
Burger said within their category, they were scored on the size, symmetry, detail of their bodies, stage presence and charisma. They trained for about four months in preparation, during which they were assisted by coaches and each other.
Their fitness journeys trace back far earlier than when they started training for competition.
Burger said he first became interested in fitness in high school when he was struggling with his body image. He found a passion for lifting and has been pursuing it ever since.
Psillos said from a young age, he was inspired by bodybuilders and celebrities he saw in movies. He begged his parents for a gym membership and started to work out seriously during his freshman year of high school.
“I started going (to the gym) religiously from that point,” Psillos said. “But honestly, there was no transition. I knew that this is something I wanted to do and I knew I could do, I just needed to put the work in for it.”
Psillos said the preparation process for competitions is typically between 16 and 18 weeks long and includes eating in a caloric deficit, cardio and weight training. To balance these components, Psillos reached out to Cuciniello.
Cuciniello is an experienced bodybuilder, and after years of helping his friends train and studying the human body, he started his own business, Rare Breed X Bodies. Today, he said he coaches 47 professional bodybuilders and men and women of all ages, all of whom are 100% natural.
Cuciniello said natural bodybuilding didn’t used to be as big as it is now. He said without performance enhancing drugs, bodybuilding can be a far more difficult process.
“Natural bodybuilding is a completely different animal than doing it the enhanced way,” he said.
Cuciniello said his training style differs from most other coaches, as he trains his clients like athletes. In addition to heavy bodybuilding, he trains clients with speed and conditioning.
He said while this process is difficult for anybody, it can be particularly challenging for college students like Burger and Psillos.
Burger said the process is far more complicated than just losing fat. Instead, it’s a careful blend of managing your carbohydrate intake and your water and sodium levels.
The challenges of bodybuilding transcended the physical for the two. They said with lower energy, training became a mental battle.
Psillos said during his competition preparation, he felt as though he was never in a good mood and had such low energy that walking became difficult. Burger added that he lost much of his social life and found it difficult to pay attention in class.
When motivation began to drop, the two said they remained focused on doing whatever they needed to do to achieve their goals.
“Bodybuilding isn’t like a day job … It’s 24/7,” Burger said. “You can’t just take a night off because that can literally undo a process that you’ve been putting work into for months. Motivation is a very transient thing, and during a contest prep, you’re going to lose motivation. The only thing you can really stick with is your discipline.”
Despite all of the challenges, Burger said bodybuilding has been beneficial for him. He said the structure of his training gave him a new perspective since he was working towards a goal every day and fighting an internal battle with himself.
Psillos said the most rewarding part of the process was learning what he was capable of.
“I always wondered what I would look like if I was stage ready,” Psillos said. “Now, I have pictures of me on stage where I get to see what I achieved.”
Cuciniello said while many people fixate on winning, the best part of a client’s journey is when they wake up in the morning and they feel better about themself.
“At the end of the day, the trophy doesn’t mean anything,” Cuciniello said. “When you get on stage, you already won.”
For now, Psillos and Burger are in an off-season and do not plan to compete in the near future. They hope to earn a measurable amount of progress and come back even stronger for their future competitions.
Psillos and Burger have been sharing their progress and achievements on social media throughout the training process and will continue to do so. While they want to share proud achievements with their followers, they also hope to inspire and educate other people.
Burger said he hopes his journey can impact others. Throughout his preparation for competition, Burger said he received many fitness questions and he has enjoyed helping those people achieve their fitness goals.
“Each day was a little victory for me,” Burger said. “You get into a rhythm where every morning you’re waking up, seeing new details in your body. It’s a very visceral reward for what you’re doing.”
Psillos’ biggest goal is to win a professional card within the International Federation of BodyBuilding and Fitness and be among the first people to do so naturally. Through his own process, Psillos hopes to show other people what they are capable of.