The boutique co-owner and food blogger has stepped into the fitness circuit

Photos by Chip Willis Photo, taken at Beyond Limits Training

Ashley Barnhart, who co-owns Upper Arlington women's clothing shop Cheesecake Boutique, is now competing on the fitness circuit. She recently flexed her muscles at The Arnold Sports Festival and is traveling to compete elsewhere during several weekends in March, April and May. She also blogs about healthy cooking at www.CleanComfortCooking.wordpress.com. We chatted with the fashionista-who lives in the Short North with her husband, Matt, and 1-year-old son, Bobby-about her newest passions. Here are highlights of our conversation.

Q: So what got you into body buildling?

A: A couple years ago, I read a book called "The Eat-Clean Diet" by Tosca Reno and realized that there was more to this whole dieting thing than starving yourself to be skinny. And she, through her book, explained portions, eating whole foods, understanding fats and carbs and proteins, and basically that not all calories are created equally. And that kind of blew my mind. And I had a little bit of a connection with her: She had gone through a divorce, and I had gone through a divorce. She had done a show, and I thought, "One day, I'm going to do this. I'm going to do a show. I'm going to get up on stage in this crazy, sparkly bikini and this crazy dark orange tan and the hooker heels. And I want to see what my body is capable of."

Q: You decided you'd try it after having a baby, then, yes?

A: I had a baby and I thought, "There's no time like the present." I set a goal of being one year post-partum when I competed. I found a show, and I got a really great trainer-someone who specialized in natural body building (Adam Atkinson at Beyond Limits on Long St.).

Q: Beyond the workouts, though, food plays a huge part in this. And you didn't love your first diet plan.

A: I hired a diet coach who gave me the same foods to eat for 16 weeks, and I was miserable, and I was an emotional wreck. It was really difficult.

Q: But you ate what you were told, and you competed for the first time in the Cardinal Classic in Youngstown. How'd you do?

A: I won the novice title.

Q: You had told your husband if you did well at the show, you wanted to compete in something bigger, yes?

A: I told my husband, "You know, if I do well at this show, I would really like to try for something bigger, like The Arnold. … I want to be a part of something that's international to see how I do and how I stack up-just to have that goal, and the experience of the international show."

Q: So how did you then amp up your training for The Arnold?

A: After being miserable with the first diet coach, I thought , "There's got to be a better way to do this." So I did some research and I met (Indiana-based) Dr. Joe Klemczewski, and told him my story. And he said, "I've heard this a million times from competitors struggling, struggling, struggling." And it has been just a completely different season for me. I've learned that I can eat whatever I want, basically, within some guidelines, and gain strength, gain energy, gain size-because obviously you want to gain muscle-and be a good mom and a good friend and still have a social life.

Q: What's a typical day of meals like for you?

A: Lots of food, all the time. So I wake up first thing in the morning, and as I'm heading out the door I make what I call muscle muffins-oats, egg white, blueberries. Post-workout it's a carbohydrate and protein to recover. If I want something savory, I'll have a couple whole eggs and some ezekiel bread. If I want something sweet, I might have chocolate protein shake and some fruit. I've found it's never good to deprive yourself. Lunch, I usually do a fat and protein, so I'll do let's say shrimp on a salad with goat cheese and almonds. Then I'll snack during the day on dried fruit, on leftover chicken from the night before, anything that's kind of on hand-again, it's about eating whenever you're hungry, listening to your body, giving it what it's asking for so you keep your metabolism burning.

Q: What do you eat when you really want to treat yourself?

A: I'm a big chocolate fan. I love, love, love chocolate. So for my before-bed meal, I have really yummy chocolate protein powder, and I make it into a pudding consistency, and I measure out dark chocolate chips and dump them in there. It's chocolate-y heaven. I'm eating real chocolate. Clearly, if my body wants chocolate, it needs chocolate. I tell everybody this: If your body's asking for it, there's a reason why.

Q: How often do you work out?

A: I work out about five days a week. I break out muscle groups, so Monday would be legs, Tuesday back, Wednesday heavy conditioning or a boot-camp-style workout. Thursday would be arms. Friday would be shoulders and abs.

Q: How long are those workouts?

A: About an hour.

Q: What's hardest for you?

A: Going (to workouts) super early in the morning, when you just want to stay in bed and snuggle… to drag yourself out of bed super early before anybody's awake and go hit it really hard.

Q: What body part are you most proud of?

A: I'd say my back, believe it or not. I know that's a strange answer. That was something that came in for me that I was really surprised about. All of a sudden, I've got all this detail and strength.

Q: You have competed in both fitness and bikini competitions. What's the difference?

A: Bikini and figure both have their own individual posing. Bikini's a little bit sexier. It's a little more of a beauty contest. Obviously in both categories they're looking for symmetry; they're looking for body parts to be formed a certain way. In figure, you are actually posing and standing still and flexing certain parts of your body. In bikini, you have a front and back, and you're standing hand on hip. They're looking more for a really nice booty, nice legs, great shoulders-but they're looking for less muscle. In figure, you're looking for slightly larger muscles.

Q: You competed in the bikini category at The Arnold. How'd you do?

A: I placed in the top 15 in my class (12th place out of 35).

Q: What was competition like?

A: Oh my gosh-it was so cool to be there with girls literally from all over the United States, all over the world. I keep telling people these girls from Russia were just insane looking. They're gorgeous. And after being in the fashion industry, I've seen beautiful women. The one thing that brought us together was hard work. Everybody had put in the same amount of their own energy. Backstage you're getting ready, you're talking about your journey-where you come from. It was just such a neat experience. Somebody had survived leukemia; she said, "This was a goal for me. It's not about placing; this was a bucket-list item." And so many of us were like that.

Q: What's been your favorite part of this journey?

A: Seeing what my body's capable of. Helping to inspire others. Learning that you can live lean and live.