This post is an interview with my friend and mentor, Donna Slaga. I first saw Donna when I joined the local Gold's Gym. Donna, her husband Mark and my (now) friends Cory and Andrew were powerlifting in a tucked away corner of the gym a few times a week when I was there. I saw them using bands, chains, powerlifting gear like bench shirts and squat suits, chalk and basically anything else that made me question the intensity of my own lifting at that time. Every exercise was performed with intensity and focus, nothing was done "just because". On top of that, they were strong....like, really strong. The kind of strong that gets you kicked out of Planet Fitness because it makes other people ashamed of their "workouts". They were muscular, lean and just all around badass.
Soon after, Donna and her crew left the gym, as I was to find out, because they had built their own amazing gym in their garage and now exclusively trained there. I was friends with Andrew's sister and asked him one time if I could come by to check it out. Well, I went and never came back to World Gym.
I basically trained with Donna and followed everything she did for the first few months I was there. As a guy, I can say it was intimidating being around people way stronger than you and especially humbling to be training alongside a woman who is way stronger than you. Either way, I did what I was told (but not always, right Donna? haha) and made some great gains in a short amount of time.
My 3 years or so training at Donna and Mark's house taught me something that you can't just learn by reading or watching, it needs to be something you are immersed in. That is intensity and focus. I would train "hard" before but never in a way that taxed me emotionally and mentally, it was new territory. Approaching a weight that you have never squatted before, flipping a 600lb tired, benching against chains and bands or just doing walking lunges across the backyard in winter instilled a work ethic that I would never have developed on my own, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Donna is a legend and fixture in the powerlifting community. Not only is she strong but extremely humble, knowledgeable, kind and giving. She has not ulterior motive except to help you become stronger and she has had to claw and scratch for every PR she's gotten, despite starting late in the game and not having typical powerlifting genetics. In short, there is literally no one else like Donna.
If Donna can do it, you can do it. Listen up.
1. First off, tell us a little about yourself, what you do for a living, hobbies, interests etc. Well, I’m the Sales & Marketing Manager for the Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau. We are responsible for bringing meetings, conventions and sporting events to the state. I’m also a competitive powerlifter, amazingly incredible wife (it’s good my husband isn’t seeing this) and I love to garden.
2. When did you get into lifting and/or powerlifting and what was your background in the gym before that?
Well, I didn’t start lifting until my early 20’s. I was very active in college but after I graduated I joined the work force, became less active and felt I was getting out of shape. At the time, and this is going to make me sound very old, it wasn’t mainstream for women to lift weights. The best gyms in the state had a “no women allowed” policy. My boyfriend at the time, now husband, worked out in his basement and one day I asked if maybe I could join him. Fortunately for me he was thrilled to have me join him and I loved it the minute I started.
3. Can you tell us about some of your powerlifting accomplishments and records and how long you have been lifting.
I’ve been lifting for almost 30 years now. During that time I’ve managed to set state, national and world records in 6 different federations (over 140 records). Also, this year I’m being inducted into the CT Powerlifting Hall of Fame, only the 2nd woman ever to be inducted. My best competition lifts are a 400 squat, 275 bench press, 407.5 deadlift and a 1,060 total. I’ve also totaled Elite in two weight classes lifting both equipped and raw. I’ve also been ranked as one of the top lifters in the nation for over 25 years. 4. Did you find powerlifting or lifting weights in general to be a boy's club or intimidating to break into?
Lifting was definitely a boy’s club activity. Women just didn’t do such a thing. I remember having a young boy of about 10 come up to me in a gym early on and ask me very innocently if I wanted to be a man, lol. It was just so foreign at that time for a woman to lift. The very first public gym I joined was a tiny place close to my home. I walked in and the owner thought I was there to get directions. The members didn’t know what to think of me early on, I was definitely treading on their territory. Fortunately I was too busy working hard to notice and it didn’t take long for the members to notice that as well. Once they realized I wasn’t there to pick up guys but to work, I had their full support and they went out of their way to help. 5. Were there any specific issues you faced as a woman in the gym or resistance from friends, family, other lifters for choosing this sport?
You mean other than some family members feeling it necessary to do an intervention, lol? My mother was embarrassed by my lifting and that issue only got worse when a distant cousin who attended the same college I did saw me working out in the school gym. He was shocked and immediately called home to report what he saw. Word spread like wildfire through the family, resulting in my grandmother calling my parents, wondering what was wrong with me, lol. One good thing that all of that did is it gave me tunnel vision in the gym, what I call my “blinders”. It was very easy to become self-conscious and that can totally destroy your workout if you let it. I can remember joining a franchise gym once I was in the work force. All day long at work I was the Donna in the cute outfits, now imagine training hard and heavy in the gym, sweaty, face beat red and veins bulging out of your neck from exertion, turning and realizing that the CEO of the company you worked for had been off in a corner watching you lift far more weight than he could. I’m sure you can imagine just how “unlady” like it all looked to him. For what that’s worth, he didn’t look all that hot in his belly stretching t-shirt and high waisted shorts either! To this day I can still get very self-conscious training in a public gym, I don’t like drawing attention to myself and really have to do my best to just focus on the task at hand and ignore everyone else by using my “blinders”. Makes things a tad uncomfortable when I have a complete stranger come over to me in a store to say hi only to find out we’ve trained at the same gym for 8 years, doh! 6. Did you need to train differently from men?
No, I would say the same exercises that are the most result producing for men work the same way for women. Getting women to do them is the trick. I think even in today’s society there are exercises that are looked at as either woman or man “exercises”. It’s never hard to find a woman doing tricep kickbacks to tone their arms or leg extensions for their legs. Not quite as easy to find a woman doing squats or bench press, exercises that some may consider “man” exercises even though those exercises would be far more productive for a woman to tone their upper and lower body. I think there are still many women out there who believe that doing exercises that allow them to use considerable weight on the bar will make them big and bulky. Short of a major hormone imbalance, and the person would know they had one long before they ever touched a weight, adding muscle is quite the difficult task. On more than a few occasions I have had very overweight women with arms and legs larger than the world’s biggest women bodybuilders telling me they would never lift weights because they’d be afraid they’d get “big”. The fact that they already had 19” arms composed of fat seemed to slip their notice. It’s just not that easy. Professional bodybuilders have to train at an intensity level that just about causes them to bleed out of their eyes to add just a fraction of muscle and they train like that workout after workout, year after to year to attain any appreciable size. Muscle doesn’t just sneak up on you where one day you wake up and realize you look like the incredible hulk. That’s probably the thing I liked most about lifting in general. I think most women from teens on, never feel in control of their bodies. Your hormones are always creating chaos, some days your cravings are uncontrollable, others your emotions are unrecognizable to you, some days you feel so lousy your hair even hurts, one week you look good and the next you’re a bloated mess. It’s like being on a run-away roller coaster and it can really make a woman feel powerless when it comes to her body. Strength training for me was the first time I ever felt like I was in control of my body. It was very empowering. 7. Since powerlifting doesn't rely much on aerobic exercise traditionally, how have you stayed lean? Diet, hobbies?
I eat a pretty strict diet. I myself have a very difficult time building muscle. When I started lifting, I was a classic ectomorph, built for running long distances or taking long walks in Ethiopia. I have to pay close attention to my diet to add what little muscle I can. Because of that I eat a high protein, low carb, low fat diet. I am very strict during the week, it is much easier for me to eat that way with my work schedule and training schedule, and on the weekend I will eat a little looser with a little cheat here and there to keep me sane. During the summer I try to get a brisk walk in during lunch. Running tends to strip muscle off me incredibly quickly plus it is hard on my joints and I already do enough things that are hard on my joints, so I tend to stay away from it. If I want to include aerobic work in my training, I stick to hi-intensity exercises like sledge hammer work or sled pulling/pushing. I also will do our version of “battle rope” work using fire hoses. 8. What are some other exercises (like sleds, tire flips) you can use to build work capacity and strength?
Sled work, tire flips, sledge hammer work, sandbag work, the occasional backyard obstacle course when we are bored and need to switch it up. 9. How does your lifting compare now to when you started? Would you do things differently?
Well, when I first started I was incredibly weak. I couldn’t even bench an empty bar. I wasn’t smart enough to let that deter me, lol, I just figured I’d have to work smarter, harder and longer than those that were more gifted genetically. I never had a coach, so I read anything and everything I could possibly read about lifting. I then attacked the gym with real ferocity, too much ferocity for the bag of bones that I was. I did too much, too often, trying to outwork everyone else. This resulted in quite a few years lost to overtraining and suffering from lots of aches and pains. It took a while for me to realize that my diet and rest had to be just as important as my time in the gym. Once I finally got that through my thick skull, I ever so slowly began adding muscle and with it, strength. These days, I continue to put as much emphasis on my diet and rest as I do my training. I notice as I’ve gotten older, I lose muscle and strength very quickly if I have too much rest, so it’s a very delicate balance for me. I also find I can’t do the killer 3.5 hr. workouts that I used to. I just can’t train at the intensity I need to for that long. I find myself moving some muscle groups to my off days, like abs and rehab work. This way I can work that hard but not have to spend a considerable time in the gym that will draw from the energy I need for my other workouts. As far as what I would do differently, there are definitely some things. While I didn’t have the best body for the sport, I have always felt my mind was/is my biggest strength. My mind controls what my body does and there have been more than a few occasions where I’ve dipped into that well a little too deeply, made the lift and paid the price with an injury. I’m still trying to learn how to control that. The biggest “do-over” would be to learn and work hard on myofascial release techniques. There was no such word as “prehab” when I started, no such thing as myfascial release. Getting good at anything requires time and even though I’ve been fortunate to have a long career by powerlifting standards, not a lot of time has been spent on making sure I’d be healthy enough to continue to do the sport in my later years. Strains and sprains are going to happen to anyone who is serious about their sport whether it is tennis, running or competitive powerlifting. There must be a conscious effort made to recover from injuries as fully as possible. Going right back to training without fully addressing your health will ultimately cause you issues. 10. How have you seen the sport evolve over the years? Things you like better or issues with how things have changed?
Powerlifting has always allowed the use of supportive apparel. Early on, this gear provided enough support to keep a lifter healthy by taking some of the stress off of vulnerable joints. Over the past 10-15 years there has been a major shift to high performance suits and shirts, focused less on safety but more on performance. Lifters who utilized this equipment could expect 100’s of pounds added to their lifts as a result. Training changed to best utilize the support this equipment gave with far less time spent on improving overall muscle strength and more time spent on technique. Because of the very supportive equipment, lifters also found it very difficult to have their lifts conform to the rules. Lifters wouldn’t take a squat deep enough to conform to the rules because quite frankly, they couldn’t, their equipment was too tight to allow it. Individuals who cared less about the sport and more about making money created new lifting organizations that changed the rules of performance, allowing less adherence to the rules to accommodate the high performance supportive gear. Being a society that needs instant gratification, lifters flocked to these organizations, why spend years developing strength when we can just throw on a shirt and suit and lift weights that in some cases would never be attainable without them? Unfortunately with the addition of the high performance equipment, injuries also increased due to less time spent on developing muscle. Massive poundages were being lifted by people who looked like they had never lifted a weight in their lives. Without developing a base, a little loss in control with huge poundages resulted in lots of snaps, cracks and pops. Fortunately the tide seems to be turning over the past couple of years. Lifters who are strong with and without the high performance gear have been challenging the one-trick ponies to take off their equipment and show the world what they can do without it. Not being able to perform at a high level without it, those lifters seem to slowly be fading away and the lifting world is returning to be one about strength. Performance enhancing drugs are also an issue in the sport that has become more prevalent. Again, probably caused by the need for instant gratification. Where it was rare in the old days to have a woman lifter in the sport who wasn’t drug-free, over the past 10 years the rate of top female lifters who aren’t has risen considerably. While I feel everyone is free to make that choice for themselves, as a life-time drug-free lifter, I have a hard time rationalizing the use of performance enhancing drugs. Sure, it will help you attain records but if hormonally you are more male than female when you set them, how does one get satisfaction from it? Is it really a woman’s record if you have more testosterone flowing through your body than many men? 11. Why do you think strength training is important for women? How can we help them understand that it does not turn you "bulky".
Strength training is great for a woman. It helps you keep your bone mass up which is very important later in life. The muscle that you add to your frame also helps you burn more calories, so you get to eat more. I also like the feeling it gives me of being self-sufficient. Now while I certainly appreciate having help when moving heavy things at home, I don’t necessarily HAVE to have it. I can do it myself and that is very empowering. As far as the “bulky” comment, I’ve covered that earlier. Building muscle doesn’t happen overnight, you don’t just wake up one morning, look in the mirror and say, “oh my god, I’ve taken things too far!”. Adding muscle to your frame gives it a curvier, defined, sexy look. You have complete control and as I said earlier, it’s much harder than you think. It is very much like being a sculpture using your body as the canvas. Add a little muscle to your shoulders and your lats and what happens? You give the illusion your waist is that much smaller. Strength training is about adding muscle where you want it, toning your body where you want to tone it, and you have complete control. 12. If a woman is interested in general lifting or powerlifting, what are some tips you could give her from the start?
Your form when performing all lifts is very, very important. That’s one big difference I see between women and men with their training. Women tend to have great form because we don’t have the ego pushing us to lift more than we are ready for. It’s important for us to do it right. Men get caught up in adding weight too soon, before they have their form down, and that is always a recipe for disaster. It’s all about form and as they say, treat light weights like heavy weights and heavy weights like light weights. So in other words, same form, every rep, every time. Once you have your form down, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself.
13. More specifically, lets say a woman wants to enter a meet, what are some things she should know before entering?
I think it’s always best to watch a meet first, just so you can get a feel for the rules of performance. Also, study the rulebook for the powerlifting federation so you know exactly what’s expected. I’m a big believer in practicing the way you play, so make it a habit to perform all your lifts in the gym in a manner that would pass in competition. Powerlifters in general are a VERY supportive bunch. It doesn’t matter if you lift 100 lbs. or 1,000 lbs., everyone at the meet is striving to lift the most weight they can and I’ve always found that it’s not so much the weight on the bar that people appreciate but the effort the lifter puts forth. I know most people in general have a fear they won’t be competitive. With myself, I actually started competing because I felt it would enhance my training, it would force me to work harder because I wanted to do my very best if people were watching. Competing gives my training a purpose which is a big help when you are tired from a long day and would rather just skip the workout. I never worried about being competitive figuring if I just competed against myself, against my best lifts, being competitive would take care of itself. If you beat yourself enough times the records and wins kind of take care of themselves. I’ve never changed that approach. 14. Do you think a female lifter needs to eat differently than a male lifter? If so, in what way?
I think it’s very important to keep your protein levels up. I try to get at least 1 gram of protein for each pound of bodyweight. This helps me recover from my workouts and I tend to feel better in general on a low carb/high protein diet. I tend to think many women eat far more carbs than they need. It’s comfort food but that comfort tends to make me feel sluggish, lazy, not sharp mentally or physically. High protein/low carb/low fat makes me feel sharp, fast and my endurance is far better. 15. What's more important for a beginner: technique, total sets/reps, exercise variation?
Technique is the most important in my opinion. I feel for a beginner it’s very important to learn the main lifts, practice them over and over with perfect technique. There’s no need to get fancy with exercises or equipment, master the lifts and see how they affect your body. Some lifters need very little accessory work, the main lifts develop their muscle groups evenly. Some lifters find their leverages cause the main lifts to overstress some areas and undertrain others. Those lifters would need to devote more time to accessory work to address their weaker, undeveloped areas. Focus on the main lifts with good form and they will help you learn what your body needs. 16. Can you list some common mistakes you see beginning lifters make?
Poor form, usually caused by too much weight in the case of males, not challenging themselves with enough weight in the case of women. Just training with weights doesn’t elicit an effect, training with enough weight so that your muscles are challenged and have to change to accommodate the resistance, that’s what forces your body to change. Doing too many exercises with too many sets and reps is another mistake I see. Training long in the gym doesn’t get you results, training hard does. If you can spend hours and hours in the gym you aren’t challenging yourself with enough weight. If you really give your all to the sets and reps you do you won’t be able to spend hours and hours in the gym. Not paying attention to their nutrition and rest is another mistake I see beginners make. You need to rest just as hard as you train.
--Donna is a testament to the fact that hard work and dedication produce results, not fad diets, extreme calorie restriction, excessive cardio or comparing yourself to others. As women, you can also stay feminine while getting stronger. Forget about all the myths you've heard. Getting stronger is the base to build everything else off of, for men and women.
Note: After a while, I was so used to seeing Donna lift incredible weights that at every meet I've been to, I am reminded how much stronger she is than most other women, even those using lifting gear. This is all hard work, consistency and patience. No shortcuts or gimmicks. Oh, and she rocks visible abs too.