Interview with Jen Sinkler

Bard Madvig, founder of The Press, recently wrote, “Women’s lifting has over tripled and in general our events are becoming massive in size.

Powerlifting has returned with a vengeance.” Leading the charge here in the Twin Cities is Jen Sinkler, a longtime fitness writer and personal trainer based in Minneapolis working out of The Movement Minneapolis.

In anticipation of her upcoming meet on February 21st, we discuss why lifting is fun, her competitive itch and the importance of stick-with-itude.

MMG: How did you get started in powerlifting?

SINKLER: I’ve always been an advocate for women lifting heavy weights — it does such great things for confidence and body image — and I’ve been lifting heavy myself since 2001.

My primary focus was on training for rugby, though, and it just never occurred to me to pursue lifting as a competitive sport.

Then, last spring, a few members of the coaching team at The Movement Minneapolis started discussing potential goals, both for ourselves and our members, and we decided to enter a team into a local powerlifting meet, if there was enough interest. There was definitely enough interest.

We brought a total of seven women from the gym to the Twin Cities Open in August, and the total number of women entered in that meet set a record as the most women entered in a powerlifting meet in Minnesota — or at least since the 80s, according to the meet director.

I’ ve entered a meet every two months since then, and the Minnesota State and Midwest Open on February 21st this month will be my fourth one.

I took second place in my first meet, and first place in the second two, and have set a few Minnesota state records for my weight class in the process (with a squat of 309 pounds, a deadlift of 364 pounds, and a total of 832 pounds).

There has been a resurgence of interest in the sport recently, and women are leading the charge. Movement Minneapolis has 13 women and two men entering the Feb. 21 meet alone. It’s very cool to be a part of it.

MMG: What drove you to look beyond the gym and compete?

SINKLER: I’ve been a competitive athlete my entire life, playing four sports in high school and then rugby through college and beyond, and am pretty much always looking for ways to scratch my competitive itch.

A walk to the car can end up a race. The unfortunate case, however, is that most options for competitions — or at least the ones that we hear about the most often — tend to revolve around endurance events, but the reality is, not all of us enjoy endurance events. I am not a distance runner, and I’ve made my peace with that.

I’m trying to get the word out about strength-based competitions. For those of us who don’t want to run whatever-K’s or compete in triathlon or the like, there are other options. Powerlifting, strongman, Olympic lifting, CrossFit and kettlebell sport competitions offer another avenue.

I dabbled in CrossFit competitions and Olympic weightlifting meets, but I would need to devote much more time and energy to improving my technique daily for the latter if I were to pursue that more seriously, and the former might just still require too much endurance for me.

At our gym, we just happen to focus more on the squat and deadlift than the clean, the jerk, and the snatch, so it’s a more natural fit for me right now.

In powerlifting (and many strength contests), lifters are grouped together by weight class, so anyone with a solid grasp of barbell back squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting is welcome to compete against others who are relatively the same size (and there is a masters’ division for those over 40). The powerlifting community is extremely welcoming to newcomers, so that’s a big draw, as well.

MMG: You competed this past summer at the Twin Cities Open powerlifting meet in Mounds View. Can you tell us about that experience?

SINKLER: This was my very first powerlifting meet, so I felt all the things you feel on game day: anticipation, excitement, and a little nervous. I wrote a lengthy recap of that meet called “How to Lose” for my website.

The short story is that came in second, right after my very good friend and longtime competitor in a variety of endeavors, Jenn Halvorson.

It came down to the very last lift of the competition. I could have won, but I had to make a deadlift that was still a little out of my league at that time, and I missed it by a hair.

I love the following quote from Tim Krabbé’s book The Rider: “Being a good loser is a despicable evasion, an insult to the sporting spirit.” Don’t get me wrong: I don’t throw tantrums, I’m not nasty to my opponents and I don’t blame the referees or judges for outcomes.

That is, I’m not a baby. But I do believe in doing your damnedest to win, both in the build-up to competition and on game day.

Losing sticks with me for a good, long time. But if you must lose, I believe there is a useful way to do it. A way that will make you better. And that’s immediately what I started plotting to do after that first meet.

I love game day — no matter the competition — and the whole process of sport. The tactical decision-making, the mindset, the preparation.

It’s a part of my personality. So, I trained hard, came back and got that deadlift the next time — and I beat Jenn (AKA “Halvo”) in our rematch. We are such friendly competitors — we played rugby together in college — but having a target makes the whole thing so much more entertaining.

I know she’s gunning hard for me again on Feb. 21, and she’s been hitting personal records (PR’s) in her training left and right. It should be interesting.

MMG: How do you physically and mentally prepare the day of a major meet like that?

SINKLER: Powerlifting meets are an all-day event. Physically, I’ve had to cut a few pounds to make sure I qualified for the 148-pound weight class before meets, so I cut carbs in the weeks before the meet (or sometimes the week of, if I wait too long!) and dramatically increase water intake until the night before weigh-in.

Then you cut off water intake about 12 hours before weigh-in and whooooosh! You keep shedding fluids.

The weight classes just got rejiggered, though, and I had the choice to compete in the 158-pound class or the 138-pound class.

I’m well within the former (I walk around at about 150), but the latter would have been a stretch to get to. So I won’t have to cut before the next meet, which is nice. If you cut too much, too fast, you can really affect your strength levels the day of competition.

After weigh-in, which occurs the morning of the meet in the federation I lift in most often, USA Powerlifting, I eat the fastest-processing carbs I can get my hands on. Seriously, that post-weigh-in donut is heaven.

Add to that smorgasbord plenty of drinkable carbs, because the goal is to rehydrate as quickly as possible so your performance is not adversely affected. I bring a shopping bag full of treats and liquids and go to town.

Mentally, the vast majority of prep is done before I walk in the door to check in the day of the meet: I like to get the OK on my lifting equipment at gear check the night before (singlets, belt, socks, shoes, shirts, and wrist wraps all need to be cleared by the judges before the meet). I pack up my food the night before, too.

Probably the most important thing I do the day before is plot out the possibilities for each my attempts for each lifts, based on whether my first attempt went well, and what kind of jumps I think I can make.

I jot down options for if it’s feeling easy and if it’s feeling hard.
Being prepared ahead of time allows me to keep a clear head on game day and focus on what needs to be done the day of the meet: lift the weight.

It also allows me to focus on supporting my teammates and fellow Movement Minneapolis members. Being part of Team Green is a big part of what makes competing fun.

MMG: What keeps you interested and motivated to keep lifting?

SINKLER: Community is my biggest driver, to be honest. I love lifting as a social activity. I’ve essentially replaced happy hours and the like with something that benefits the health of everyone involved.

It’s really fun to lift with my group of smart, hilarious, independent friends. We make a point of getting together three times a week to lift.

I also firmly believe that strong makes your whole life better — both bodily and mentally, emotionally.

Physical strength has a way of bleeding into the rest of your life and there is nothing better than feeling capable of handling whatever tasks comes your way. That is motivation enough to keep going.

MMG: Is there a community in the Twin Cities of people involved with powerlifting? Was it easy to get involved with or something you had to seek out on your own?

SINKLER: The powerlifting community in the Twin Cities is tremendously supportive and encouraging.

The old guard, who have been powerlifting forever and who organize the many meets in Minnesota, really bend over backwards to explain the rules and make newcomers feel welcome. Those are the selfless people who want to see their sport grow, who see and really understand the big picture.

All I had to do was pick a meet and enter it, then follow the instructions the organizers provided. The resources exist to figure out what you need, and further questions are welcomed on pages like Minnesota Power Pages, as well as a private group by the same name for powerlifters in this state.

There are many powerlifting federations, but I mostly lift in USA Powerlifting (USAPL) because it’s drug tested, which is nice if you don’t want to compete against athletes on PEDs.

MMG: For many, both men and women, when they want to focus on their health and fitness they jump on a treadmill or an elliptical. Why would you recommend someone incorporate weight lifting into their routine?

SINKLER: Traditional cardio, like running on a treadmill or an elliptical, has its place and it’s an easy entry point for someone brand new to exercise.

Stuff like that, which doesn’t need much instruction, can serve as a gateway to all the other toys in the gym, like the free weights, especially.

And it’s the weights that really carve out curves, if that’s something you’re interested in. The weights help you achieve the lean and toned look so many people are going for.

That said, the best thing about lifting weights — and I see this all the time, especially with women — is that soon enough, their goals become more performance based (i.e., I want to be able to deadlift my bodyweight, or double my bodyweight), which is more intrinsically motivating than aesthetic goals can be over the long term.

Getting strong is fun. Lifting weights is fun, and can boost your confidence and improve your whole life. Try it. Invest in some good coaching, join a gym with a strength bias, and try it. You’ll see.

MMG: What is your favorite lift?

SINKLER: Oh man, that’s like asking a mother which of her kids is her favorite. The back squat is satisfying…and the front squat is, too…the deadlift is a magnificent beast, and highly empowering because of the amount of weight you get to move.

Squat variations such as the Anderson and those with the safety squat bar are their own brand of evil genius.

Pressing overhead is another favorite. And when I do the Olympic lifts, I maintain that you can’t have more fun in the gym than those. You literally get to throw the weight around.

Yeah, so…those are my favorites.

MMG: So that does a normal week of training look like? How many days on? How many days off? And what type of workouts are you doing? Break it down for us.

SINKLER: My lifting buddies and I train powerlifting three days a week, and each day is focused on one of the big three: barbell back squat, barbell bench press, and the deadlift. A short time in the beginning is spent on mobility and muscle activation, which is important to maintain quality of movement.

Then a big chunk of time is spent on one of the main lifts, usually in a straight set (meaning it’s not paired with any other exercise), with the training focus being on intensity, speed, or volume, depending on the day. After that, we include two supersets: pairs of two different movements done back to back.

One will address any weakness in the main lift and the other will either be training a smaller group of muscles involved in the main lift (for instance, barbell bent-over rows will usually be included in a superset on deadlift day).

We also include core-specific training and include lots of rotation and anti-rotation work. My co-coach for our women’s-only class at Movement Minneapolis, Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake, has written our programming before most meets, and she’s very good at it. We’re all still making progress.

Then, because we like to be strong in all the ways, if there is gas left in our tanks we include a short circuit like those pulled from my ebook, Lift Weights Faster, either the same day or on active rest days a couple times a week. Maybe a sprint workout or two, depending on how slick it is outside.

Keeping our conditioning up assists in speedier workout recovery and helps maintain energy levels on competition day.

MMG: How does diet factor into all your training? Do you follow any plans or have any rules that you follow in terms of eating and drinking?

SINKLER: Diet is a huge factor in how you feel and how you look. Probably 80 to 85 percent of the time, I follow the very reasonable guideline that that I would give anyone looking to eat well: Eat mostly whole foods, and even better if those foods are from responsible, humane sources. Eat a little more protein and carbs surrounding your workouts.

Because I want to keep improving, however, I recently started a new nutrition plan from a company called Renaissance Periodization, which specializes in working with strength athletes. So far so good! My energy levels are still high, and my body fat is dropping.

Last year I cut a few pounds for the meets I competed in, only because I was this close to the weight class below me — and being at the top of a weight class definitely has it advantages in terms of how many pounds you’re able to move.

This meant cutting out all sugar and most carbs, and drinking lots and lots of water. This year, the IPL (International Powerlifting Federation) changed the weight classes for men and women and what this means is that I no longer have to cut weight.

And for what it’s worth, for women looking to compete in their first meet, I tell them in no uncertain terms not to worry about cutting weight. The goal is to have fun and set your own personal bests.

MMG: What’s the best piece of advice you have received in terms of your training?

SINKLER: My favorite coaches over the years echo the same refrain: There is no one way to get fit, to get strong. Sure, there may be methods that are more effective than others in an ideal world, but enjoyment matters above all.

If you try to make yourself do something you hate, you won’t be consistent, and it’s the stick-with-itude that ends up mattering most in fitness.

MMG: And what’s your best advice for someone who is just starting out with a lifting program?

SINKLER: Be consistent and pay attention. Are you getting results? Are you staying healthy or are you consistently sore or injured? And again, not to be discounted, are you enjoying yourself?

Give yourself some time to discover the answers to these questions and if any of them end up to be no, it’s probably time to look elsewhere.

And if you need to do that, my advice is this: Look around at who’s doing what you want to be doing, at who is doing it well, and at who is enjoying themselves. And then get your buns in there with them.

MMG: Do you typically train alone or with other people? What is different for you when you have a training partner? Does it help or hinder your workout?

SINKLER: I train with my group of lifting buddies at The Movement Minneapolis. We hold each other accountable. Plus, we genuinely like being with each other, so training time includes lots of laughs, snorts, and banter.

We push each other in a “loving peer-pressure” sort of way. It’s important to us that we bring the best out in each other, so we are better for having trained together.

When I’m traveling, as I do often for fitness seminars and workshops, I have pockets of lifting buddies all over the country (and anymore, all over the world). It’s a pretty great set-up.

MMG: And what has been the biggest lesson you have learned along the way?

SINKLER: I used to lament the abilities that would sneak away when I wasn’t looking (heavy weighted pull-ups, muscle-ups, max Olympic lifts), but I’ve made peace with the fact that you can be best (that you can be) at what you’re concentrating on during that training cycle.

Trying to maintain absolutely all of your strength and skills in all domains at once is a futile prospect.

You can always cycle back to skills you want to pick up again, but it’s more fun to get really good at the thing in right front of you, and pour your energy into that.

MMG: Finally, the name of this site is based on the idea of a “goat” in CrossFit. It is an exercise, lift or movement that you suck at and need to work on. What is your goat?

SINKLER: Ring muscle-ups are probably my biggest goat. I had to work for several months straight to get my first one in 2010, and the ability abandons me again the second I don’t work them diligently.

I keep thinking I need to get back to those. Maybe it’s a project for this summer.

Jen Sinkler talks fitness, food, happy life and general health topics at her website, and writes for a variety of national health magazines.

Earlier this year, she authored Lift Weights Faster, an e-library of over 130 conditioning workouts for fat loss, athleticism, and overall health. Lift Weights Faster 2 will be released March 10.

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