Friday, March 25, 2011

Interview With Trainer and Powerlifter Nia Shanks

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview personal trainer and powerlifter, Nia Shanks.  Nia is not only very knowledgeable, but she is a tremendous role model for women.  Some of my clients/readers already follow her blog

So, now on to the interview with Nia! 

1. (Dan) Tell me more about yourself and your background. How did you get into strength training? How long have you been personal training?

I’ll do my best to keep this short and sweet. I got into strength training because of my Mom. She has been in the fitness industry since her early 20s and has been a personal trainer since I was a kid. I naturally gravitated toward the world of strength and conditioning and fell in love with lifting weights the first time I grabbed a barbell.

Plus, I’ve always preferred individual sporting activities as opposed to team sports once I became a teenager. One of my favorite hobbies was roller blading. I had homemade ramps and rails in my drive way, jumped flights of stairs, and did anything on my roller blades that sounded crazy and fun. I also did a lot of bike riding and skateboarding.

Once I turned 15 I really got into weight lifting, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I got my personal training certification when I was 19 and I later received my bachelor degree in Exercise Physiology in 2009 from the University of Louisville.

2. What is your training philosophy? What implements do you prefer to use? Do you use any machines?

As my training philosophy evolved over the recent years, I now sum it up like this: stick to the basics, keep it simple, and constantly improve your performance. This works for myself and my clients no matter what the primary goal may be – fat loss, building muscle, improving strength – it’s a very simply philosophy, but it works. It works very well.

My favorite equipment is bodyweight and a barbell with plates. I’m all about keeping things simple and getting the best results possible with the minimum amount of work. (In fact, Beautiful Badass is a system I will have coming out in the next few weeks that goes over all of this. Shameless plug, I know).

I also like to use some form of suspension training device: TRX, Jungle Gym, or blast straps. I especially like to use these for push-ups and inverted rows since it allows the trainee to put his/her hands in a more neutral position, therefore putting less stress on the shoulders as well.

Machines? I can’t even begin to think of the last time I used a machine with myself or my clients. Wait . . . I know. I’ll use the Smith machine sometimes. It’s great to use for push-ups, inverted rows, and assisted chin-ups. But then again, you can do the same thing with a barbell and power rack. That’s it as far as machines are concerned.

I don’t have my clients use cardio machines either. They either go for brisk walks or run hill sprints. That’s basically it. Keeping it simple. Are you seeing the theme here?

3. What is your basic nutritional advice for women trying to lose body fat? Do you recommend any dietary supplements?

Allow me to tackle the supplement part of the question first. As far as supplements go, I don’t recommend any. Most people would be much better off consistently applying some basic nutrition principles. Supplements are by no means mandatory, in my opinion.

Now on to my nutritional advice to women. Can you guess how this is going to start?

Keep. It. Simple. I’m sure you’re in shock! I’ll give you a second to pick yourself up off the floor.

Here’s the thing; when it comes to nutrition most people know what they should do/not do. I mean, do I really need to tell you to stop eating donuts for breakfast with a large iced coffee, chocolate, mocha, vanilla, caramel-tea-chia-infused thingy you get every morning on your way to work?

People need to use some common sense. It’s really not that complicated.

Other than that, I just tell people to focus on eating real food at least 90 percent of the time. Slim Fast Shakes, crackers, and other heavily processed foods are not real food. Items you can grow, find in nature, and kill are real food. I should note I highly recommend people buy grass-fed beef, organic eggs, wild caught fish, etc. And don’t tell me you can’t afford those foods. Remember the supplement part of the question? Instead of spending hundreds of dollars each month on supplements (which I know a lot of people do), use that money to buy high quality food. Your body, and wallet, will thank you.

So, what are you supposed to do with all of this real food? Eat it – when you’re hungry. Don’t eat it – when you’re not hungry.

People need to get in tune with their bodies. Most people don’t even know what physical hunger feels like because they eat by a clock or set schedule. Oh look; it’s noon. Time to eat!

Now I know this goes against most of the popular nutrition advice nowadays, but it’s worked wonders with me and all of my clients. This stuff isn’t rocket science, people. Eating for improved body composition and health really is quite simple. It takes consistent effort on your part, but it is simple.

Now let me add something about all of this “keep it simple” stuff I keep mentioning and blabbing about when it comes to training and nutrition. Let me warn you right now: this is going to be a rant of sorts.

I just read this from Dan John’s book Never Let Go and it sums up a lot of my thoughts on this topic:

Listen, I think many of us think this way: If it’s free or simple or easy to understand, it can’t be as good as something that’s expensive, complicated and difficult to figure out on your own.
I’ll get emails damn near every week from people wanting something “innovative” and “ground breaking”. These are the same individuals who search for the “holy grail” in training and nutrition on a daily basis.

They don’t like my answer of “keep it simple and stick to the basics”. Their response is usually along the lines of, “But I already know that. I want something new and innovative.”

Well, I usually reply with, “Wouldn’t you rather do something that actually works?”

That’s when the conversation generally comes to an end.

The reality is this – most people will never need to stray far from the basics of training and nutrition. People act as if they are going to be competing in the next Mr. Olympia or standing on stage in a bikini.

Most people just want to look good naked, have more energy, and improve their health. Those goals can easily be accomplished with some simple, no nonsense strength training programs and nutrition principles. And most people just need to apply it consistently to reap the benefits.

There. My rant is over. I feel better, and we can move on to the next question.

4. From my experience, many women have a self-defeating attitude when it comes to exercise training and their bodies. Often, a negative self-image is their primary motivator to work out. From your perspective, what is the best way to help these women overcome these psychological constraints?

I know exactly what you’re talking about. Most women focus on how many calories they can burn on a cardio machine or “feeling the burn” during a set of crunches or on the inner thigh machine.

Yes, most women are motivated to workout because of negative motivators. I myself have been there, and done that.
That is why my clients (and I) focus on getting stronger. Even if his/her primary goal is to lose body fat, we still focus on getting stronger.

Why? Simple – because it is a positive goal. Whenever they come to the gym they focus on adding weight to the bar or performing more repetitions.

That is their focus. They improve their performance in the gym. Oh, and if you keep it up long enough, you will start to notice some significant improvements in your physique too.

While women are usually very hesitant to lift heavy weights in the squat or deadlift, after a while they have a “light bulb” moment. Something in their mind just seems to click. They begin to love lifting heavy weights. They love challenging themselves. They love setting new personal records. They love seeing what they are capable of achieving in the weight room.

And, more often than not, they take this new found confidence and courage outside of the gym with them. It’s a wonderful journey to witness. This is what I like to call the Beautiful Badass journey.

5. You are a very strong woman, what does your weekly training look like? What are your current training goals?

Thank you for the compliment. What can I say; I love lifting heavy weights, especially off the floor.

Right now my training consists of sumo deadlifts, squats, push presses, chin-ups, parallel bar dips, inverted rows, glute bridges, and some ab work with the ab wheel.

My current training goals are to lift more weight and get stronger. My main priority is increasing my deadlift. I am determined to pull as much weight as possible off the ground. I’m aiming for 360 right now because that would be a triple bodyweight deadlift. It’s only 45 more pounds than my current PR. : )

Other than lifting weights I just go for brisk walks several times per week.

6. For females, what are some gender (anatomical, psychological, biological, etc.) differences they need to consider when training basic, heavy, compound lifts?

In my experience, women and men don’t/shouldn’t train all that differently. Women may want some extra work for their glutes, but that’s about it.

Other than that I have noticed that women don’t need as much rest between sets, and they can usually tolerate (and want) a higher volume of training.

Simply put – my female clients usually perform more sets per exercise than male clients, and they don’t rest as long between sets. Both, however, still lift heavy.

Anything else that needs to be addressed depends solely on the individual (postural issues, muscle imbalances, mobility, etc) and not the gender. However, most people benefit from putting an emphasis on their posterior chain (glutes, lower back, hamstrings) and upper back.

7. Finally, what is the best piece of advice you can give females to help them stay motivated for long-term success?

It’s hard to say one thing, so I’ll give you a short list.
• Calm down. Relax. Take a deep breath

• Make things a simple as possible – both with your training and nutrition

• Learn to listen to your body – eat real food, eat when you’re hungry, stop eating when you’re satisfied (not stuffed)

• Take things one day at a time

• Train the big, basic, compound exercises

• Get stronger and do not be afraid of getting stronger. Your efforts will be rewarded

• Focus on improving your performance in the gym and nothing else

• For the love of God, please stop using pastel dumbbells – it’s degrading to all women. And leave the cardio equipment to the cardio queens. You have some heavy weights calling your name.

Thank you, Nia!

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