Every so often, I get some really interesting emails from my customers.
I recently got one from an equally interesting woman, Sara Shafer. Sara has totally transformed her life through strength training and with kettlebells. In fact, she went on to compete in Kettlebell Sport using some ideas that run against conventional wisdom.
Her story is truly inspiring and will help fire you up, get you off your but if that’s what you need, and get out and achieve your goals. Sara agreed to do an interview with me and share her story which I’ve posted below.
GN: Hey Sara, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. I know you’re really going to help out my Kettlebell Secrets members and they are really going to enjoy it.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, because you’re not necessarily “jane average” are you?
SS: I’m a doctoral candidate in Humanities at the University of Louisville and an adjunct professor of philosophy and religious studies at Marshall University. I know of several people with advanced degrees who train and compete – at least one person at the kettlebell gym I go to here and with whom I’ve competed is an MD – but I have noticed that there’s a tendency to assume that my PhD is in Exercise Phys or another of the “hard sciences” when people find out I lift. My dissertation is on the development of Franz Kafka’s use of silence and gesture as a stylistic device in narrative. Heavy on language as well. I have to be fluent in German and Yiddish as well as have some basic competence in French, Hebrew and Greek. Training is what I do to keep my sanity while I’m slogging through my dissertation. People are also surprised when they find out I lift because I don’t embody the weightlifter stereotype: I’m 6’1” and 155 lb – pretty skinny.
GN: Wow – that’s impressive! Not too many people will ever venture into that world. Speaking of “Metamorphosis”, you made a few yourself. Can you tell us how you got into strength training?
SS: My first exposure to strength training was through a close friend of my mother’s who was really into bodybuilding. I think it grew out of a general effort of his to expose me to fitness. In 7th grade, I weighed over 200 pounds, and through diet and walking I got myself to a healthy weight. Mom’s friend made me conscious of this other side of fitness, and I fully embraced it. Or I embraced bodybuilding. I had a pretty steady diet of Muscle&Fitness and Flex magazines, and they have these images of men and women with fantastic physiques, the physiques that many people associate with strength and athleticism. Even while I was a long-distance runner through high school, I lifted all the time – I found that when I lifted, I didn’t get injured.
GN: Yeah, that’s very similar to my background – heavy on the Muscle Tabloids and some distance running in high school. I actually ran as prep work for wrestling, but I found that the strength training made me a much stronger wrestler and probably saved me from some injuries too. And what made you get your CSCS? Have you found it helpful in your field?
SS: I got my CSCS in 2005. I’d known about the certification for years because so many contributors to the magazines I read had it. It was just a dream til one day I took a practice quiz for the cert on the NSCA’s website and aced it. I thought maybe I could actually pull it off, and in 2005 I did.
If by “field” you mean my academic field, you’d be surprised how helpful it has actually been. Successfully completing the CSCS exam made me realize that I could actually turn dreams into reality. Having such prestigious credentials behind me gave me a sense of validation and that carried over into parts of my life not related to athletics.
The other obvious carryover from my CSCS is that training athletes and teaching students present similar challenges: how does one demonstrate and communicate a given idea to a wide variety of individuals? How can one develop a variety of teaching tools and methods that can be used when confronted with students who have many different strengths and weaknesses? This is incredibly challenging but very rewarding when you can figure it out.
GN: Yeah, coming from a liberal arts instead of science background myself I can see that. I also see a pattern emerging here keeping with the Kafka theme, from bodybuilding to scientifically backed strength training with your CSCS and then on to kettlebells; which at first may throw people off because a lot of people mistakenly believe kettlebells are a lot of hype, but there’s quite a bit of science validating the claims about them. So how did you get into kettlebells? And how long have you been using them? (I always wanted to use a semi-colon in an interview question, so thanks for that.)
SS: I first heard of kettlebells – as many of us probably have – through Muscle Media magazine, for which Pavel used to write articles. I thought it was cool because at the time it seemed so foreign and avant garde…plus I was really into anything Russian (big Dostoyevsky fan). But Pavel’s training philosophy seemed absurd to me at that time, doubtless because of my Muscle&Fitness-induced training coma.
GN: Yeah, I know what you mean – I was a big fan of anything “Eastern Bloc” or “Russian” with regards to training early on in my career and would read anything I could get my hands on. I remember the days of Muscle Media when Pavel answered the “Question of Strength” columns. I got hooked because it helped me get my “fix” of the “Russian” stuff. Sorry, as you were saying…
SS: I was living in the middle of rural Appalachia in the late ‘90s, and access to kettlebells was completely nonexistent. When I moved to Louisville, KY, for graduate school, I finally had access to kbs. I’ve trained under some great instructors. It took time for me to sever ties with bodybuilding and traditional cardio, but after years of trial and error I found that my body responds better to the style of training I do now.
GN: What have some of your results been using kettlebells? Any specific programs or methodology that you follow?
SS: I could talk about physique and strength improvements, but my training has done so much more than that for me. I found that training for strength and power suited my body better than bodybuilding-style workouts alone ever did. I’m much leaner, stronger and more muscular than I ever was when I ran and did conventional lifting all the time. If I have a method, it’s “pick up heavy things.” Everyone who knows me knows that, left to my own devices, I’m just going to lift the heaviest ‘bell I can – even if the point of the drill is to get max reps, I’d rather lift what I can with the heaviest bell possible than get in more reps with a lighter weight! When there’s some concrete goal, like a competition, I follow a more defined plan. One of the first plans I actually followed to the letter was Kettlebell Burn 2.0, and following that Kettlebell Burn Extreme. They just made sense for how I normally like to train anyway, but with the added thrust of a time limit. This is going to sound like a shameless promotion, but once you see the kinds of aesthetic and functional gains that I did with these programs, you don’t turn back!!
One of the greatest gifts that training has given me is to help me distance myself from some serious psychological problems that I’ve been holding onto for years. I’m recovering from some fairly insidious exercise and eating disorders. Seeing my progress with lifting and knowing that I must take care of myself in order to preserve and enhance my progress has done more than any therapist or medication ever could. That’s gold.
That is “gold” indeed. We’ll pick up the rest of the interview with Sara tomorrow, including how she did the exact opposite of what she was “supposed to” do and ended up beating her competition.