I'm a huge proponent of learning the history of people and things. The same is true of powerlifting, especially women in powerlifting. When you think of the women that pioneered this sport, the name Laura Phelps is at the top of the list. She's broken record after record, including breaking her own records over 35 times. With a 725lb squat and 465lb bench press, this woman has most definitely paved the way for us, as women, in this sport. As the Cincinnati Women’s Pro/AM meet approaches I thought it was fitting to and an honor to sit down with Laura and learned what it was like to be one of the only females at meets and see how powerlifting has changed over the past decade.
You're arguably the best female strength athlete of all time but started off as a runner. How did you go from running to powerlifting and why?
It was actually bodybuilding that essentially led me to Powerlifting. But I was introduced to bodybuilding by my husband when we started dating in 2003. That is how he trained, and I was intrigued. I only ran because I didn't know any other way to be competitive after my gymnastics career was over. It was taking its toll on my body and lifting weights sounded like so much more fun, especially with the guidance of someone so knowledgeable. After about a year and a half of bodybuilding training, we added in some powerlifting to increase muscle density, and found that I loved lifting heavy and eating more than I loved all that went along with bodybuilding. Not to mention the community and camaraderie in Powerlifting.
How did you get involved with Westside and Louie Simmons and what was that first training session like?
I spoke with Louie at the 2005 WPO Semi-Finals after I broke my first All-Time World Record. To get his nod of approval was as meaningful as the record was to me. We lived a couple hours from Westside at the time. And Jason Fry (former Westside lifter) didn't live too far from us so we started training, some, with him. Louie told him to bring me down so, of course, we jumped on the opportunity and showed up that weekend for a 7am bench training session with George Halbert. Of course I was nervous, but everyone was so great, it quickly felt like home. Soon after, Louie invited me to be a part of the team, and that felt like the beginning of something pretty special. And it certainly has been.
You've broken plenty of records which one do you hold dearest to your heart?
It's definitely got to be the 1800 pound total in the 165 pound class. Making that 11x Bodyweight Total finally made me the first at something. It felt good to be the first woman to ever Total 11x bodyweight. I couldn't say that about any of my other lifts, even though they were weight class World Records.
Have you ever sat back and thought "I'm literally stronger than most men" how does that feel?
Haha! Honestly, it doesn't strike me that often. I will see a man lift a weight, like a 500 pound bench press, for example. And think, wow, that's so strong! And then it puts it in perspective when I realize...I've done that. I can do that. I've lifted more than that. I still think that guy's bench is crazy strong. It just makes me want to help other people, men or women, bench what I have, and more.
Powerlifting seems to be trending up right now. Are you seeing more women in the sport? What are your thoughts about that?
When I started in Powerlifting, at any given meet, I could easily be the only woman. Or maybe there were 5, or less, women competing. And at one point, I worried that Women's Powerlifting was dying. All the top lifters at the time were retiring. Becca Swanson, Kara Bohigian, Tina Rinehart, Julie Scanlon, etc. I believe that the shift in society, making it okay and cool for women to be strong, has helped tremendously. And I believe CrossFit played a large part in that shift. Suddenly a massive amount of women were being exposed to the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift in their training. And the competitive nature of CrossFit made it so that these women wanted to increase their strength, both for their personal records for those lifts, but to also make them better at all other aspects of CrossFit. Some of these women ended up branching off from CrossFit to pursue Powerlifting. And even those who didn't may have at least jumped into some local Powerlifting competitions. We see it at every meet now. Here come the CrossFitters! We can thank them for helping save Powerlifting, that's for sure.
Lately, I've seen you talk about Whole30. Tell me a bit about your approach to nutrition.
I got my start in weight training 13 years ago as a bodybuilder. So, I retained many of those eating habits. 5-6 Meals per day. Proper amounts of Protein, Carbs, and Fats. Clean sources of all of those. Eating this way has never been a problem for me, I love healthy foods. The problem has always been that I love sugar even more. So even though I could easily fit all my healthy foods in, I couldn't stop myself from eating sugar and junk food, additionally. I was literally addicted. Even if I had something important planned, in which I wished that I could "lean up" a bit, I couldn't find the will power to get my act together and cut back or cut out sugar. Early 2015, during one of our trips to Deuce Gym in Venice, California, I noticed that many of them were participating in Whole30 at the time. I paid attention to what they were eating and why, and I was intrigued. I am competitive, by nature, so I am always up for a Challenge. So, in May I started thinking about our upcoming trip to the CrossFit Games. Every year I am surrounded by the Super Fit. A sea of Abs everywhere. I decided to commit to doing Whole30 before our trip. My initial intention was to lose weight but what happened was so much more. I went 30 days with no sugar, no grains, no dairy, no alcohol, no legumes, and no processed foods of any kind. Just whole foods. I learned to read labels meticulously. And I learned to love whole foods and be satisfied by them. My obsessive nighttime sugar cravings vanished. After the 30 days was over, I continued (and still do) eating "Whole30", but would allow myself some cheats on Sundays. I love food and always will so, it would never be realistic for me to think that I could give up the "bad" foods forever. But it feels good to be able to eat bad foods but not be tempted to fall off the wagon. I currently eat about 2500-3000 calories per day, 150-160 grams of protein, 200 grams of carbs, 80-90 grams of fat. Those are totally approximate, as I don't follow any plan. I eat as I feel is needed for my body, based on my activity level for the day and just how hungry I am.
We’re lifters so I have to ask Favorite cheat meal?
Doughnuts and Ice Cream!
3-5 Tips for newbie lifters
1: If you need a coach, find a good coach who knows what the Hell they're doing. NOT the most popular coach with the most followers.
2: Learn how to train effectively in an un-heightened state. You should be able to be relaxed but find that momentary internal intensity right before the lift. Save the real outward, sometimes excessive, intensity for meet day.
3: Your program should include a lot of accessory work to help build strength and muscle mass for a solid foundation. It will keep you healthy and prevent injuries. You'll have a much longer career and you'll become a better athlete in general.
It looks like you jumped into CrossFit. On your Instagram, it's called "Crossfit Congjugate" can you tell me more about that.
Yes! My husband, Shane, and I own CrossFit Conjugate in Cincinnati, Ohio. We became involved in CrossFit in 2009 when we assisted Louie Simmons in teaching the CrossFit Powerlifting Trainer Course. We've spent the past 4 years traveling and representing Louie and Westside Barbell in teaching this course. When we opened CrossFit Conjugate, I dabbled in CrossFit a little, jumping into a WOD here and there. After my last (most recent, NOT last) powerlifting meet in August 2014, I started adding in more CrossFit to my powerlifting training and ended up doing a couple partner/team competitions. I am a fitness enthusiast at heart so doing CrossFit allows me to challenge myself again in this way, but also has given me more athletic capacities than I ever could have imagined. All while maintaining my strength. I am currently participating in the CrossFit Open and am thoroughly enjoying the process and training with some incredible athletes. I am hungry to return to the Powerlifting platform but I will keep doing CrossFit while training for it, as I have seen many benefits of CrossFit training. I will be intelligent in the way I approach this hybrid program but I am super excited!
If you could go back to the beginning of your lifting career what would you tell young Laura?
Build your thick skin quick and have better character judgment. People will completely take advantage of you, pose as friends and good acquaintances, but have only one intention, to use you for their benefit.
I would also tell myself to eat better and be in better condition. I would have liked to see what I really could have done, had I been a bit more disciplined in these areas.