Last week, I had the chance to catch up with Philadelphia native and nationally-ranked raw powerlifter Nicole London for a Q&A session. In just a year and a half of training at VIP Training and Strength Sport (Yardley, PA), Nicole has catapulted herself to a top 15 ranking in the 148-pound weight class. Find out how Nicole trains, what it's like to be a female powerlifter, what she's doing to gear up for her upcoming competition, and much more.
How did you get started powerlifting?
My teacher at the National Personal Training School, Barry Fritz, introduced me to the deadlift. Barry coached me every week, and each week I increased in weight. I had a goal of hitting 250 pounds, but when I graduated school I had no one really to help me. Then, about a year and a half ago, I met a guy on a dating website. He’s a powerlifter. I love telling the story, because he's the reason why I'm doing what I'm doing today. We became friends, and he brought me to the powerlifting gym I'm at now. Even then I didn't know that I would become a competitive powerlifter. I was just doing it for fun. But then my goals kept getting bigger, and my dreams kept getting bigger. I never left.
At 37 years old, you're a latecomer to the sport. Has starting later in life helped you or hurt you?
I always say I wish I had started earlier, but I'm doing it now, and that's when I'm supposed to do it. I'm grateful for my gymnastics and dance background, which plays such a big role in my powerlifting today. I started gymnastics and dance at 3 or 4 years old, but I wasn't really competitive or athletic growing up. I just did it to be moving. Now, at my age, I'm stronger than ever. I'm stronger than I was in my 20's and mid-30's, so that's all that matters.
What does a typical week of training look like?
I'm in the gym 4 to 5 days a week. I have three max effort days, one dynamic speed day, and one mobility/restoration day per week. Let’s take this past week as an example. On Monday, it was squat for heavy reps, like 80 to 90% of my max and then speed deadlifts. Tuesday was speed bench at about 60 to 70% of my max. Wednesday was my mobility day. Thursday was my one-rep max deadlift attempt and then dynamic squats, too. And Saturday was max bench. That's the cycle I'm on right now. It might change in a month, but it's working. I always feel good, and I'm getting stronger by it.
How important is setting personal records to you?
I always try to chase numbers, but I've learned that that's not what it's about. Really, it's just about getting stronger. Last week, I attempted a 330 deadlift. I didn't get it, and I was okay with that. I'm eventually going to get that 330. Before, I looked at it like it was the end of the world. I would think, tomorrow I'm going to get 300 -- it's going to be the day. And it never worked that way.
Now, I walk away into the other room while my coach loads the bar. I come in, and I don't even look at the weight. I just lift. That's how extreme I can be. Because I'll start adding numbers up in my head and I'll be like, well, I just pulled 300, so he's probably going to put 3-something on the bar. Once I have that number in my head, chances are I'm obsessing about the number, and most of the time I miss. I've learned to accept the process of the sport and accept the process of me getting stronger. You can't PR every week.
How important is what you do outside the gym?
Very important. Power loves rest and nutrition. When I don't get sleep and when I'm eating crappy, I don't perform well. I might do okay for a little bit, but it catches up to me, and it eventually affects my training. I can be in the gym, on the platform, in front of that bar, but if I'm undernourished and sleep-deprived, then mentally I'm not there. I’m somewhere else. My coach always says to set the stage for the week on Sundays: make Sundays your prep day -- your getting to bed early day -- because that dictates your whole training week.
Do you take any supplements?
I'll take branch-chain amino acids in powder form. Honestly, though, I get most of my protein and nutrients from food. My body reacts to that the best. I eat a ton of eggs. I'm not on any nutrition plan right now. I will be following one starting next week, though, because my next competition is in 10 weeks, and I’m going to be cutting down to the 132 weight class (from 139 pounds).
What are your goals for the upcoming meet?
I'll be competing in the 132 open division, which means I’ll be up against anyone from 18 years old and up. Previously, I competed in the 40-and-under sub-masters division, which limited the people who I was competing against and gave me more of a chance to come in first or second place. So this time I'll be running against more women, and I'll have more competition.
My goal for this meet is to get an 800 total and a pro total. My last meet was 730. Once I get the pro total, I'll be eligible for more powerlifting events. There's a big one in February that you have to be a top 10 lifter in the country for. Right now, I'm ranked 15th in the 148 class.
What goes through your mind right before you attempt a lift in competition?
I do very well in gym training, but when I'm in competition, a switch goes off. It's an indescribable feeling. My face goes numb. My blood tingles. Everything is dark. It’s fight-or-flight. No matter what, I tell myself I'm going to get that lift.
It's not always the best feeling.... In powerlifting, I have to dig really down and dirty sometimes, get really negative, and think bad thoughts. I read it in an article somewhere --- and I'm probably not quoting it properly – “you go to the gym with the devil and leave without the devil.” I've learned to do what I have to do, no matter what, to get the lift.
What are your greatest strengths, mental and physical, as a powerlifter?
My greatest mental strength is that I'm able not to care about the weights. At one point in my powerlifting journey, it wasn't fun for me. I was never satisfied with anything I did, and I had such guilt and shame at the end of training. Now, I realize it's only weight, and everything's going to be okay no matter what. The biggest thing is that I'm having fun.
My greatest physical strength is my legs. I’ve always had the fast-twitch muscle from dancing and gymnastics. Now that I'm squatting 300-plus pounds, though, I'm realizing just how strong my legs really are. Even if my technique goes out the door on a heavy squat, I know that my legs are getting me up no matter what.
What challenges do you face as a female powerlifter?
As a female powerlifter, there's always the stigma of getting too bulky. I deal with that on a weekly, at least, basis. I've had guys that I've met dating say to my face, “I don't know how I feel about dating someone as strong as you and with legs as big as yours.” It's real. It happens. I get it a lot. I sometimes feel like I'm this monster -– and I have to have that mentality -- but really, most people probably aren’t as intimidated by me as I think they are.
As far as training goes, as a woman you’re obviously not always at 100%. Sometimes, when I’m feeling crappy, I can gut it out. But that’s also when injuries can happen. Fortunately, my coach knows how my body is and knows when to shut it down.
You use Facebook to document your training. Why?
The main reason why I post my stuff is because I'm proud. That's the bottom line. I'm proud of what I do. Number two, because I want to inspire. I do it to inspire other women and other people. When I first started posting my videos, though, I would get messages -- all kinds of scrutiny -- saying my squat was too high or I was too rounded in my deadlift. It really affected me mentally. Now, I can tell you that I'm in training, and what happens in training, well, it's training. All that matters is what I do on the competition platform. But dealing with the negative feedback and scrutiny has helped me grow so much mentally. I'm going to keep on doing it.
How has powerlifting helped you become a better trainer?
Not every trainer knows how to deadlift, squat, and bench themselves. Those are three core lifts in our industry. If you don't know how to do them right yourself, then you're definitely not teaching them right. If I have a weak link with my own body, and I learn how to fix it, I can then apply that in the gym to helping others.
Powerlifting has boosted my confidence in every day life, too. I'm just growing as a person. I've matured so much. I'm constantly learning, and things are coming from every angle. When a woman is mentally and physically strong, there's nothing better than that. The girls I train, especially -- they trust me.
What is your favorite assistance lift for each of the core lifts?
For squats, my favorite assistance lift is front squats. Front squats have really helped me with the arch in my back and keeping my chest up. For deadlifts, my favorite assistance work is banded stiff leg deadlifts. The band will be around my hips and attached to a bar behind me. I'll get in the band, walk up to the barbell, and I'll do stiff leg deadlifts. The other day I did them deficit, actually, too. It's an amazing exercise to help you pull through and lock out your hips. For my bench press, my favorite accessory work is overhead press. Either strict press or push press. These are my favorites for now, but it changes all the time.
What advice would you give someone who's looking to get into powerlifting?
Get a good coach, first and foremost. If you can't get a coach, find a good training partner. Get a good gym. Use proper technique. Get proper lifting shoes. Chucks are probably the best for deadlifts, and Olympic lifting shoes are probably best for squats. And mobility, mobility, mobility. It's boring, but it's so important. Also, have some thick skin. There are going to be amazing training days, and there are going to be crappy training days. Just know that you're getting stronger with every training session. And just have fun!
Follow Nicole London on Facebook here.