Carrie Underwood is hanging off a rock-climbing wall as if she’s auditioning for a role in Free Solo—and totally nailing it.
FWIW, this is not an activity she does often: “I went rappelling once as a kid and freaked out,” she says.
But hesitation is nowhere in sight today as Carrie supports her body in a series of challenging poses without breaking a sweat.
When I first meet Carrie, she’s walking back from brushing her teeth in the bathroom (What can I say, not every moment of a photo shoot is glamorous.) But from the moment she shakes my hand, I can tell—hello, grip strength—that the CALIA by Carrie Underwood designer came ready to put on a show. The 5’3″ singer is strong. The kind of strong that makes dangling from a vertical face seem easy. The kind of strong that makes her look as if she were born singing her heart out while commanding a stage in heels. “I swear I use butt muscles to hit notes sometimes,” she says.
That strength didn’t happen by accident—and for the 36-year-old, it didn’t happen overnight. Carrie, who characterizes herself as a vegetarian and “wannabe vegan,” grew up on a cattle farm in Checotah, Oklahoma, population 3,500. She remembers the exact moment she vowed to stop eating beef: when she was 13 and saw the calves she’d grown up with getting neutered.
Her initial dedication to a plant-based diet was more about animal welfare than health. Carrie didn’t pay much attention to nutrition or fitness until she encountered online message boards during her winning stint on American Idol in 2005. “Carrie’s getting fat,” read one note.
“I shouldn’t care what other people think about me,” Carrie says. But she also knew that the quesadillas and pasta she’d been living on weren’t making her feel her best. “I was tired, and I kept buying bigger clothes,” she recalls. “I knew I could be better for myself, and I let my haters be my motivators.”
After she won American Idol, Carrie and the other contestants went on tour. She started reading labels, counting calories, and logging time on the elliptical. At first, she felt good. “I was sleeping better, and I had more energy for our grueling schedule,” she says. So she decided to take it further. If this is working, she reasoned, wouldn’t it be better to exercise even more and eat a little less? Some days, she consumed as few as 800 calories.
By the time she attended her first CMA Awards in November 2005, her plan was starting to backfire. Sure, she’d lost weight, but she was also finding it nearly impossible to stick to her strict diet. Her periods of restriction were almost always followed by overindulging. “I would ‘fall off the wagon,’ then feel terrible and repeat the cycle.” Her newfound energy levels were also starting to dip. “Your body is screaming out, I need more calories, I need more carbs!” she says. When I ask if she feels she was suffering from disordered eating, Carrie pauses, then says thoughtfully, “I really would not call it that.” Instead, she feels she just lacked the knowledge to create parameters that worked for her.
Today, with her first book, Carrie has created the manual she wishes she had back then, Find Your Path: Honor Your Body, Fuel Your Soul, and Get Strong With Fit52Life, available now. Along with her trainer, Eve Overland, and nutritionist, Cara Clark, Carrie offers a framework to help women make smart choices year-round. (Stay tuned for the app this spring.)
Watch Carrie play a game of “Once, Never, Forever” with WH:
So what does Carrie’s current version of healthy look like? It’s structured, but in a way that allows her to enjoy the occasional slice of cake. “I love rules,” says Carrie. “This is how I feel good about myself, and this is how I operate.” On that note, she tracks calories and macros (the amount of protein, carbs, and fat she consumes daily) on the app MyFitnessPal. Her happy place: 45 percent carbs, 30 percent fat, and 25 percent protein.
A typical day of eats for the star starts pre-workout, with a tofu or egg-white scramble, Ezekiel toast, berries, and coffee. At lunch, she’ll have a sandwich with Tofurky, tomato, avocado, red onion, spinach, and mustard. Her snack might be a green smoothie or protein bar. Then for dinner she’ll make roasted veggies and a piece of vegan chicken, or a tofu stir-fry.
She’s not a big dessert person, but she keeps squares of dark chocolate for when a craving strikes. “I do have my vice,” Carrie admits, “and it’s red wine. It’s good for my heart, right?!” she laughs. She likes to unwind with a glass or two and The Bachelor.
While Carrie doesn’t leave much to chance in terms of her diet, she is learning to roll with the punches when it comes to her workouts, now that she’s the mother of two sons, Isaiah, 5, and Jake, 1. “If I can work out seven days a week—which doesn’t happen, but if I can—I’m going to,” she says. “Because the next week, I might get two days.”
Her trainer, Eve, travels with her when she’s on the road. (Check out Carrie’s Instagram to peep the impressive mobile gym she built for tours.) But at home, Carrie primarily comes up with her own routines, which she maps out in a journal. “When I walk in and don’t have a plan, I usually walk out,” she says, nodding in solidarity as I admit I usually do the same, as if we were two workout buddies exchanging gripes in the locker room.
Carrie credits Eve for getting her hooked on lifting—and for crafting the routine responsible for her incredibly sculpted legs. Warning: It’s not for the faint of heart. Carrie’s leg workout consists of six supersets of three moves, each done for three or four sets. Moves include tuck jumps, Romanian deadlifts (with 30- to 35-pound dumbbells), walking lunges (with 20- to 25-pound dumbbells), and elevated sumo squats (with a 50-pound dumbbell!). I’m sore just thinking about it.
In between crushing leg days, Carrie runs outside when it’s warm or crafts mini challenges on the treadmill. “I have to set goals for myself: ‘Every 15 minutes I’m going to hit 1.25 miles, then by the end of an hour I’ll have run 5 miles,’ ” she says. She’s also hard at work on her pullup game—she’s up to eight.
The dedication to exercise and clean eating may seem intense, but it’s refreshing to speak to a celebrity who’s honest about what it takes to keep her body prepared to own the stage—in constant motion no less—for two hours a night on a five-month tour. Not to mention those evenings when she’s walking a red carpet, camera-ready. Carrie doesn’t pretend to eat pizza every night or claim to do only a few crunches every now and then to get those abs. She puts in work—and knowing she can pull it off with two kids and a 24/7 job makes me feel I can find the motivation too.
While Carrie’s got her wellness routine on lock, she admits she could definitely improve when it comes to self-care. She calls exercise her anti-depressant and antianxiety medication—and says when she falls out of her routine, both she and her husband notice a shift in her mood. When I ask if she’s learned other ways to maintain her equilibrium when she can’t work out, she scrunches her face and says without hesitation, “No.”
Later, she elaborates: “That’s a part of my personality I need to be better with. I’d love to sit in a bubble bath, but that’s not going to happen. My self-care is my gym time, and that’s a stress reliever for me.”
Carrie’s certainly been through some tough times in recent years. Before the birth of her second son, she experienced three miscarriages. When we talk about it, tears come to her eyes. “For my body to not be doing something it was ‘supposed to do’ was a tough pill to swallow,” she says. “It reminded me I’m not in control of everything.”
She says opening up about the miscarriages felt like a “weight lifted off my shoulders”—and since then, women tell her their stories. “It’s not a dirty secret. It’s something many women go through,” Carrie says.
Her relationship with her husband, former NHL player Mike Fisher, is also a source of energy—even though it may seem like a case of opposites attracting. He wears a jersey; she loves sequins. She’s basically vegan; he eats meat. The list goes on. But the gym is their common ground. They work out together when they can, or swap childcare duties so the other can sweat.
They’ve got a similar strategy at home. She buys groceries, makes dinners, packs lunches, etc. When it’s time for her to work? Mike takes over. “We’re a good team,” she says.
While not all the pieces fit perfectly, Carrie has a structure in place to guide her on her (very busy) path. And even with the new book, her activewear line, and plans to work on new music, don’t expect her to stray. “Physical fitness makes everything else possible,” she says. Carrie is clearly a woman who knows where her strengths lie—and isn’t afraid to use them.
Photographed by Peggy Sirota • Style Editor Kristen Saladino • Hair and Makeup Melissa Schleicher • Manicure Jennifer Tsourvakas • Shot on location at CLIMB Murfreesboro