Girls Who Powerlift: Heidi Dehnel

Interview by: Barrett Snyder

A former Hula dancer and athlete who originates from the Big Island of Hawaii and San Jose California, Heidi received her Bachelors Degree in Kinesiology from the University of Hawaii Hilo in 2006. She is a United States Powerlifting Association (USPA) Coach Practitioner, National Officiate & State Records Chairman. As a former NPC Figure competitor, Heidi has placed in several figure & Bikini shows around the nation and also holds Texas & Alabama State Records in Powerlifting for the USPA. Her love of bodybuilding and powerlifting fosters a training style which combines both practices. 

She, along with her husband Deven, own Core Strength & Performance gym in Huntsville, Alabama. Always hoping to grow the sport of powerlifting amongst the women in North Alabama, “Core Barbell” is now comprised of over 15 athletes, of which 85% are women. Since launching her podcast “The Future Is Female Powerlifting” in 2018, Heidi has been able to reach more women who might be fearful of taking the next step in powerlifting through powerful storytelling and intimate conversation. 

She believes passionately in the balance of family, mindset, strength, and nutrition to achieve a sustainable healthy lifestyle. She focuses on educating her clients on managing their fitness & nutrition so that they may continue training in the long run. 

It has been incredible to watch you over the years do everything in your power to promote women’s powerlifting. You hold Alabama and Texas state powerlifting records, you and your husband Deven, own your own powerlifting gym which is 85% female, you have an incredibly successful podcast dedicated solely to women’s powerlifting, and you are a USPA Coach Practitioner, National Officiate and State Records Chairman. If anyone has furthered the sport of women’s powerlifting, it is certainly you. What is the reason, what is the motivation and where does the love come from, that drives you day in and day out to further women’s powerlifting? Why have you chosen powerlifting as a means to inspire, influence and uplift the lives of so many women (as well as men)? 

Heidi: Well first, I have to say thank you for such a humbling introduction! I don’t often take a step back to appreciate how my life has progressed over the years. It has been, put simplistically, an adventure.

My motivation to keep pushing forward is definitely a result of my parents, especially my mother’s drive towards success. If I listed her years of accolades, I’d need another interview (ha-ha). At the top of the list, she holds multiple degrees in various fields of academia, speaks 5 languages and ran one of the largest Tahitian dance competitions in the United States for over 25 years. The “Tahiti Fete of San Jose” brought in over 4,000 people a day, over the course of 4 days. She was able to accomplish this all while being an Elementary School principle, Fine Arts Commissioner for the City of San Jose and of course, my mother. She was and still is a voracious learner. I mean who else attends law school and right before the bar exam decides, no thank you… I’ll go back to college to be a school administrator. My mom is never afraid to try something new.

Looking back, I never viewed success as finite because I was a female. She made that normal. In fact, as I grew older and observed and met other moms, I realized my mom was special. She often spoke about loving what you do and that the money would eventually follow. She reinforced that striving solely for financial success would not lead me down a path of fulfillment. I took this to heart but also kept some very important things in mind while following my passion. 

“Living your life's passion” can be misleading. If you choose a career that you are passionate about, yet don't have much skill to make it a successful one, you will only cause more angst and feelings of hopelessness. I see many people job hop because they are looking for success and happiness but have not really buckled down on the SKILL of that passion.

Before the term was coined by Cal Newport, author of “Be So Good They Can't Ignore You”, my mother made it very clear you need “Career Capital” if you are going to succeed in your field.

When I told my mother that I wanted to open a gym, the first thing she said to me was, “Heidi, find the most successful gym in your area and work there. Even intern if you have to. Learn everything you need to know about how they run the business, bring in customers, lead their teams and leverage their success for yours.”. I would like to point out that I had already worked at 3 gyms and been a personal trainer for over 6 years. However, you can see how leveraging other very successful gyms would help me build career capital? If you want a great job, you need to be great. That means being a craftsman in your field and continually striving towards being the best.

Through this all, powerlifting was always my passion. I was a bodybuilder and enjoyed the stage but being able to lift heavy made me feel amazing. I couldn’t stay away! You would think the two would go hand in hand, but there were lots of myths surrounding bodybuilding and deadlifting. 

Still, competing in a sport that was, for the most part, determined by my own discipline and hard work made me excited for the challenge. Mentally, I began to embrace physical attributes that caused me anxiety in bodybuilding such as my “thick waist” and beefy traps. I saw my confidence soar and I knew this was for me.

In 2017 you and your husband Deven opened Core Strength & Performance in Huntsville Alabama. First, what does it mean to own and operate a gym with your best friend and most cherished love? Second, what is the most rewarding part about owning your own gym and what is the most difficult part about owning your own gym? For readers who may want to open their own gym in the future, what advice would you give them?

Heidi: Being able to work with my husband, of almost 10 years, has been amazing. However, initially, I thought, what the hell am I thinking?! He and I have totally different personalities! But after all the struggles we have experienced as business partners, we found it helped us grow closer as lifelong partners. 

There were times when financially we were at the lowest point we had ever been as a family. Financial stress can bring out an ugly side of partners, but he and I never took that out on each other. Rather we found solace in our love and commitment to our family. Opening our gym has made us closer than we have ever been, and I am so thankful for my husband, he’s a special type of man.

I’d have to say the most rewarding part of owning my own gym is affecting people’s lives. I mostly work with women so that gives me even more fulfillment. Knowing I can bring another woman to the barbell who was once hesitant makes me so damn happy.

I also find a huge sense of satisfaction doing my own thing and being my own boss. What is the saying? Only entrepreneurs are willing to work 80 hours a week, so they don't HAVE to work 40 hours a week. I love building my own dream and knowing each step I take is towards a larger goal. I think about it constantly. I knew I was on the right path when for years I found myself thinking about it before bed and as soon as I woke up the next morning.

The most difficult part is by far the sales/marketing and financial aspect of owning your own business. You cannot just simply rent a space, buy equipment, put some posts on Instagram and automatically assume people will being lining up to purchase a membership. I think the hardest part from transitioning to a coach, to a business owner, is having to be very clear about money and pricing, which can be a difficult conversation for many.

The challenging parts also mean doing the things you are not good at such as balancing books, sales or even public speaking. Knowing my weaknesses, I took a few online courses for accounting because I felt lost. So many things were new to me such as business taxes. 

Did you know you can get taxed on the items you buy for the gym? It's called a Personal Property Tax. You get a sales tax when you buy the items, but you ALSO get taxed by the city that year just because you are using it to operate your business. And don't forget to log all those things you bought! That’s just one thing amongst the many we are taxed on each year.

It seems overwhelming when I look at it all now, but my knowledge grew over time having the business. I didn’t know ANY of this before. I just knew I wanted to help people and own a gym. I tried not to be hard on myself because you can definitely get caught up in pity party for not knowing some basic shit in business. 

My first piece of advice is to identify exactly why you want to own a gym. Most of us think about doing it because we enjoy helping others in a field that excites us. However, owning a business is no joke. Marketing to people so that they can try you out is stressful. Staying true to what you believe to be “good training” is hard and it sometimes feels defeating. Especially when the gym down the street markets “Lose 20lbs in 30 days!” Seeing your bank account go up and down is nerve-wracking. We’ve lost thousands of dollars and probably would have closed if not for our families helping us at different parts of the process. 

My husband always said, “if you were not doing this with me, I would have closed the first couple of months.” He hates everything about the actual business part, he just wants to teach and help others. He’s not motivated to be his own boss as I am, therefore our “why” just happens to complement each other as I enjoy doing what he does not. 

My second piece of advice is to build that career capital on the business, not just the training. Yes, you should definitely understand how to train people safely and effectively. However, just because you are a great trainer, does not equal being a successful business owner. I must have read 10 books on Fitness Businesses ranging from CrossFit to Globo gyms. I listened to hundreds of podcasts from fitness business professionals and attended seminars for fitness business entrepreneurs, all before we actually opened. I became obsessed with succeeding with the slight fear of failing, as I still am now. I know my motivations and they keep me going.

One of the most influential business books I read was “The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It” by Michael Gerber. Gerber says that “The Entrepreneurial Myth is 1) that most people who start small businesses are entrepreneurs and 2) the fatal assumption that an individual who understands the technical work of a business can successfully run a business that does that technical work.” It was an eye-opener for both my husband and I who were “technicians” as Gerber calls them. We knew the technical aspect, training and this fundamentally changed the way we viewed our roles at the gym, helping us be clearer on who handled what.

If I have not reiterated enough, learn everything you can about how gyms are successful. You should be asking yourself; is this location central enough or are we too far away from the main area of the city? What is the estimated cost to run everything (rent, utilities, gym software, insurance, email marketing, ads, music etc)? How much will you charge each member per year to reach your intended goal? Will running contracts be better for you or do you think month to month is the way to go? These are all the questions we asked ourselves before opening, yet still, alter as the gym continues to grow. You do not have to have all the answers but do your best to be prepared and flexible to change if the business needs it.

There will be many individuals reading this interview who have big aspirations when it comes to the sport of powerlifting. However, many of these individuals also have other responsibilities in life (children, family, jobs, school) that require their time, energy and attention. You have found a way to maximize your athletic ability and compete on the national level, while also running a business, working long hours, being a wife and being a mother to three young girls. What advice would you give to those who want to stay competitive on the platform, but who also want to be the best parent, spouse and employee/employer they can be? How were you able to find a “balance” to do and accomplish both.

Heidi: Balancing everything falls under one main area, not being perfect. For example, I don’t stress about going to the gym M/W/F/S at 10 am every week like I did previously. Perfection would tell me I needed to be “consistent” and “do whatever it takes” but I have let go of being “perfect” in almost all areas of my life. I am flexible with my time, as well as my progress, ensuring I remain happy and still see results. I may not get there as fast as others but nevertheless, I am here and still moving forward. 

I do not wait for things to be “perfect” anymore because I have learned that perfection stalls progress and many who wait for things to be perfect, never actually accomplish much. I know this to be true because I use to be one of these people! Leaving perfection behind is vulnerable and scary, but it also allows for the room to say, it is good enough. And you know what? That has gotten me far.

I do not expect the house to be perfectly clean at all times, I am more patient with my kids, I do not snap as easily if they have not picked up their pile socks accumulating by the door. As I have aged, I have also become very clear on what is important to me; how I make people feel. If I try to live up to some fictitious perfection, I am always feeling like I need to do more or be more, which only causes frustration and sadness. That is not how I want to live my life; that is not a healthy way to live life.

One of the most admirable things about you and Deven is that the learning never stops. You see quite a bit of coaches who once they reach a certain level of success, they stop learning. However, you and Deven are constantly hosting seminars, attending seminars, going to lectures and trying to soak up as much information as you can from other coaches. Please talk about the significance of continuing to further one’s education and being a life-long student. 

Heidi: I have come to the conclusion that the more I learn, the less I really know. Right when I think I have a grasp on the body, BAM, I learn something I was previously unaware existed. Recently I learned about Reflexive Performance Reset and now I am suddenly questioning how to approach training in the most optimal manner. Simply put, there is so much to learn and with newfound science and technology at our disposal, educational opportunities continue to expand. I never want to be stuck in my ways and I make it a goal to continually hone my craft. We should all strive to do this, if we truly want to continue helping others as best as we can.

Something you really pride yourself on is the idea of “routine.” Having a routine and system in-place has allowed you a greater sense of structure and discipline in your life, allowing you to be more present with your family and yourself. Talk about this newfound routine and system you recently implemented into your life. What does it look like and how has it allowed you to maximize your ability as a mother, wife, employer and human being? In addition, explain to the readers what the “pomodoro technique” is and how the readers can become implementing some of these techniques and strategies into their life today? 

Heidi: There is nothing sexier than ROUTINE! I was born with an aversion to routine so actually buckling down consistently has been a huge change for me. Sure, I could follow a routine for a couple of days, but a month and longer? That incredibly difficult. 

My usual routine consists of the following:

5:15 am: Wake up, drink a cup water and pink Himalayan salt. My coffee is ready to go, I just press the button. Do my breathing and postural restoration exercises and then pour the coffee and meditate for roughly 10 minutes.

5:40 am: This where I get ready for the day ahead. 

6:30 am: Make my youngest breakfast and get her ready for school. Luckily the older girls do everything on their own.

7:20 am: The kids and I are out the door on our way to school.

8:00 am: Breakfast with Deven.

8:15 am: Begin work. I have already written down my plan of attack in my “Productivity Planner” listed with the most important thing to do in the day first. 

I have been using the pomodoro technique for time management and it has been absolutely magical. It is something I NEVER thought I would like but has worked so well for me! 

You split your time into 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of rest (a “pomodoro”). The productivity planner works with this technique, but you can write it out yourself if you feel the need. I decide how many “pomodoros” I will need to finish the task and then get cracking on meeting that goal. I use an app to time myself (Focus Keeper) and it tells me when to break. During this time, I do everything I can to not be distracted. I go “Do Not Disturb” on my computer and even removed the notices for email so that I am not tempted to pull away (which I often do). It has been huge for my success on getting things done. My brain wants to think of a million things and ideas and this way I work on what is most important now. What is going to move the needle today.

Let’s talk about an incredibly important issue in the sport of powerlifting and life in general: confidence. For readers who might be new to the gym or feel intimidated training around more experienced lifters, how can they establish a level of confidence where they feel comfortable training in a gym environment and feel comfortable taking their own training into their own hands? 

Heidi: I live for this because I went through this! Confidence, shame, and vulnerability are areas many of us struggle with and I want people to know you are not alone. Sometimes advice like “ignore them” or “just do it and do not even think about what others think” can be not so helpful. Often, we as people will think about what others think of us, we cannot always help this. Also, more than likely, they have not done anything to further themselves fitness-wise. 

I advise people that if you feel scared or unconfident going to the gym, start at home! Watch videos or start training where you feel comfortable. Build that confidence with experience or even have a friend join you! You will feel more comfortable with what to expect and then you will see that many people at the gym lack confidence in addition to just yourself. It has been said many times over, but chances are you are more concerned with yourself than others are with you. Put yourself in front of your fears once step at a time.

I’ve noticed at your gym, you have the opportunity to work with a lot of beginners who are just learning how to squat and deadlift with a barbell. As a coach, take us through the progressions you use to help new lifters learn the proper movement patterns for the squat and deadlift. As soon as a new lifter walks into the gym and they tell you they want to learn how to squat and deadlift properly, what do you do? Take us through the progressions, the cues, and anything else you feel is relevant to share. 

Heidi: Let’s say you have been weight training for a bit or have taken group classes that use weights. You are familiar, but very far away from the sport of powerlifting. I would have to say, most of the people who now train with me, started by coming to our free open gym we hold every Saturday from 10-12 am. This is a time where people can come in and get coached on lifts or just use our equipment and train. It is a time we carve out so that strength minded individuals can all come train together. When that happens and a new person comes in and says, “Hey can you help me with my lift?” I usually have them jump into it.

I start by having them warm up on what they normally do. Most of the time its minimal so that is just something I note. When they start, let’s use deadlifting as an example, I have will them do a set of 10-12 repetitions on their own with just a bar and 10lbs rubber plates. I use my camera to film them and I just observe. I give no cues, but I look for a few things:

    • How they set up (stance, shoes, feet, foot placing and how the initiate the lift)
    • How they brace & breath
    • The position of their hips, shoulders and head. 
    • Are the shoulders too over the bar? Are the hips starting too low? Does their but rise first? Is the bar pulling away? Are they keeping their back tight? Do the reps look better as they keep pulling or does it break down more?

I usually figure out one to two things that will impact the lift the most and give them only 1 at a time. It usually goes in this hierarchy of importance for me: 1) position & set up 2) bracing 3) other cues that are more detailed oriented such as tightening the lats or bringing the hips to the bar. Most of the time I have them remove their shoes

I will eventually increase the weight on the bar in order to see how they move with a heavier load. If they have not trained the movement before, I will see what they are comfortable with and try to watch them strain a bit with a heavier load. That is important to me as a coach because we revert back to our old technique under strain. It is not a 1RM but a weight that is difficult for them. From there we work on the main cues and add in others as they seem to get it. I can also see where they are weak and tire out so that I can better direct their future training. Often, I find a good base level of strength fixes a lot of beginner technical errors. Just getting a little stronger makes things move better.

When people come to my gym, they want to improve their technique and it is my job to figure out the best way they can learn that. It is not about flexing your knowledge, it is about the client actually learning from your interaction as the coach. I find that using only 1 or 2 cues at a time is way better than trying to tell them everything they can and should do. I also do my best to make them feel at ease about doing the lift because that can sometimes be nerve-wracking. Making them feel welcomed and at ease goes a long way!

Let’s go back in time. You have been training for many years now. Knowing what you know now about training and proper nutrition, what mistakes did you make early on in your career, that you can advise women who are new to the gym, not to make? In other words, what do you know now about proper training and proper nutrition that you wish you knew decades ago? 

Heidi: Oh boy, where do I begin.

I know many say this, but I would not change a thing because that shaped me into the coach I am today. Empathetic, experienced and understanding. I live a life taking action towards my future and I like where I ended up.

That being said, I would have gotten there A LOT faster had I followed a few of these things:

  1. Find a basic strength program and stick with it for at least 6 months. You don’t need to try the latest workout in Muscle & Fitness, especially the one that is Intense DUP “Undulating daily Periodization” (changing daily) when you really have not established any real good movement patterns. You’re a beginner with very little muscle, do a basic strength program and build muscle.
  2. Don't think about health & fitness in absolutes. If you find yourself saying phrases that include “always, never, can’t, shouldn’t, best, worst…”, take a second to ask yourself why? I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve said seemingly no brainer things such as “you should ALWAYS stretch your hamstrings” or “You SHOULDN'T be running if you are powerlifter” or “vegetables are the BEST for EVERYONE”. Well, you know what, stretching my hamstrings made my back pain worse, there are TONS of strong people who run (CrossFit is a perfect example), and Deven (as well as many others) are highly sensitive to vegetables. 
  3. Be patient, with all of it. Goals take time, especially ones that talk about reshaping & building your body. Contrary to the biggest loser show, shedding fat and gaining strength takes time and reminding yourself of that is important. Otherwise, you will never be satisfied in a way that can be self-defeating.

When your time on this earth comes to an end. How do you want others to remember you? 

Heidi: That I was kind, compassionate and made them feel happy & loved.

Barrett Snyder is a CSCS and personal assistant for Swede Burns, Julia Ladewski (Anto) and Christian Anto. He is currently enrolled at Drexel University's LeBow College of Business. 


  • BIg Bro: April 26, 2020

    Since you were little, you never backed down on anything whether we were boxing, playing basketball or anything. Keeping that drive alive is what will always make your brother and I proud. I Love you sis.

  • Nancy Marin-Rojas: February 11, 2020

    Such an inspiring interview Heidi. You have passion, you are full of love and it comes across loud and clear. You are an extension of your Mom, a strong, successful and passionate woman. As a business woman, you are a great role model. Xoxo….

  • Pua Tokumoto: February 07, 2020

    My beautiful Heidi, you can’t even imagine how proud daddy and I are of the woman you have become. You will always have your passion for bodybuilding, good health and love of family. Just remember always to continue to live your life with pono, love and kindness.
    Me ke aloha pumehana … Mom

  • Richy Negron: February 06, 2020

    Heidi and Deven you are truly dedicated to the world of powerlifting and bodybuilding.
    You’re an inspiration to the world of body building, plus your family. Keep up the good work you both deserve it and don’t change a thing on what you doing. Most success to your business. U R nyc…

  • magda anthony: February 05, 2020

    you are the influence of both of your parents and I am very proud of you , love titi Margie

Leave a comment

All blog comments are checked prior to publishing

GWPL - Gift Card

Regular Price
from $ 25.00
Sale Price
from $ 25.00
Regular Price
Unit Price
Translation missing: en.general.accessibility.unit_price_separator 


Explain the benefits of subscribing

More posts

Quickly Breaking Down Training Volume

by Gage Reid of Nova Strength In the following article I'll be covering training volume, Minimum Effective Dose (MED), Max...