Stefi Cohen needs no introduction among serious powerlifters. Since going pro, the strength legend has set over 25 world records, a CV that includes shattering three records in the same day and also becoming the first person in history to deadlift 4.4x her own bodyweight.
Still, that doesn’t mean Cohen is immune to some of the more common gym struggles that afflict mere mortals just trying to stay fit. When transitioning from powerlifting to competitive boxing, for instance, she admits she had trouble with basic conditioning exercises like jumping and running. Unlike most people, however, Cohen was uniquely positioned to work through those issues, drawing on her extensive experience as a doctor of physical therapy.
She’s now undefeated in her boxing career, and works with other elite athletes to help them overcome common workout-related afflictions as part of her “Hybrid Performance Method” training program. Before starting any new routine, she asks one simple question: “Is this going to help me or set me back?” After years of trial and error in the gym, she now has plenty of good answers to that question—and thankfully for us, she was willing to share them.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.
What motivated you to start strength training at such an elite level?
Fitness has always been a part of my life. I started playing soccer at 8 years old, and I always had ambitious goals. Being in the best shape possible, for me, was always a prerequisite for the bigger goals I’ve had. Strength was something I found much later in life, and even though I made the national team in Venezuela, it wasn’t advanced. We trained on a dirt field, and strength was actually something I was weak at. That’s what got me into it. It was the area of fitness I was lacking the most.
What were some of the biggest mistakes you made as a beginner?
The main mistake I made was being impatient during the journey. When you start lifting, you get those beginner gains. You get excited, and you have great training sessions. Many people get in this PR mode, and they want to set records every workout. It turns out that not only is it unrealistic, but it’s not a very effective way to attack the training. The real key isn’t how fast you can get strong, but how long you can stay injury free. That approach was what eventually helped me. I found that out later in my career, but it was too late because I had already gotten hurt.
How would you advise people to keep them from making the same mistake?
What I found worked was that I set smaller goals, and I started chipping away at those over longer periods of time. This gave my body the time it needed to adapt to the demands I was placing on it. Those smaller goals allowed me to get closer to the bigger ones.
Once you identify those smaller goals, what’s the balance between staying consistent and setting new challenges?
That actually reminds me of another mistake I made. I thought that because something worked once, it would work again. That is actually ignoring the consequences of time on your body. Every year that passes, you’re one year older, and that matters. That is another year of wear and tear that your body has gone through, and it’s another year of work that you need to recover from.
I went through old journals and tried to repeat those blocks again down to the weight, and it didn’t work. One friend of mine that has set world records tried to replicate programs he did in the past, and he kept getting hurt. As you get older, the body needs more kindness and time to recover.
How focused should most people be on warming up versus getting right into the workout if they’re short on time?
I think warming up is important for everybody, regardless of sport or training level. How you warm up varies from person to person. For strength purposes, getting your heart rate and body temperature up is important. How you do that is up to you. It could be skipping rope, the treadmill, or jumping jacks. What is important is that your heart rate goes up and that your body is warm before the set to come.
How do you suggest people prepare for work sets?
When they get under the bar, they should take their time. Make sure you’re dialing in your technique, and that you’re aware of the approach you’re taking. Give each rep the importance and respect it deserves. Then, you’ll be primed for that top lift or top set.
As someone who has set numerous world records, what are your go-to assistance exercises to help people get stronger in the squat, bench press, and deadlift?
I would say for the squat, lunges and Bulgarian split squats are best. For the bench press, I’m going to suggest shoulder press and pullups. Yes, pullups are for the back, but having a bigger back with strong fascia that you can hold tension in will provide more stability for the bench press. Then for the deadlift, doing deficit deadlift and good mornings work very well.
You’ve had to recover from injuries before, and you’re also a physical therapist. Is there anything that people can do on their own to improve the recovery and rehab process so they improve faster?
I think going in with the mindset of speeding up the process is already the wrong approach. Everyone heals at different rates at different times. Everyone wants the diagnosis, treatment, and timeline to be crystal clear, but we are human beings, and it won’t always work that way. As therapists we can tell you what we’ve seen from our experience, but each person’s experience with injuries and recovery is going to be slightly different. Worrying about doing more or less or working faster isn’t going to make a difference. Working with someone you trust and listening to that person as well as your own body during that time is what will make the biggest difference.
What was the transition like from doing such intense powerlifting workouts to boxing training?
That actually started during lockdown, and it was the perfect time for me to take my foot off the gas in powerlifting. I was the strongest I had ever been, but I was so unfit in other aspects of life. I couldn’t jump high or run fast, and I was immobile. So that was the perfect time to start something new. Once I made that decision, I stopped lifting altogether, and I started doing everything to improve conditioning. I hired a coach, and I started training for boxing once a week, then twice, then three, and so on. I had to really work to improve conditioning and get technique down. Mind you, at the time, I told myself that I wasn’t going to really fight. Then, I ended up fighting, I got hooked, and now it’s another one of my obsessions.
Why do you feel it’s so important to “take the foot off the gas?” People tend to think if they take a break, it’ll “hurt” their gains.
I hope people reading this don’t get offended, but I actually don’t feel that a lot of people train hard enough to warrant it, to be honest. Now if they are, and I mean beating the body down, maybe doing two sessions a day, or going all-out every single time for a sport or something serious to them, going at a lower pace or changing focus is important. If you just take two days off after you compete or whatever it is, and then get back on it, you’re going to burn out, get hurt, or eventually not like it anymore.
Many people find that dialing in their nutrition is the hardest part of getting in shape. What advice do you have to help people stay consistent?
I’ve been doing this so long that it’s like second nature to me, and I know how I’m going to feel if I have certain foods. Many people will feel the same once they stick to it for a while. What I found is that I make it a priority to pick foods that are going to help me with performance. That’s not to say that I don’t have a dessert or hamburger occasionally, but I choose what I eat based on how it’s going to help me. When I sit down to eat, I literally ask myself “is this going to help me get better or suffer?” That helps me keep it simple. Some people reading this may find that helps.
Many beginners are trying to find a way to stay motivated when they have days they would rather eat what they want or skip the gym. What can you share that will help them stay consistent when days like that come about?
I believe that is more the expectation of how fitness is supposed to feel. They think it’s supposed to be enjoyable or that you should only do things for the purpose of pleasure and enjoyment. The reality is training isn’t one of those things for many people. Life, stress, and responsibilities happen, and sometimes or maybe most times, you’re not going to want to do it.
For me, I remind myself that the mundane things I have to do accumulate over time. I learned how to put my mind on autopilot, and I can just get the work done. When I go to the gym, I’m not sad or angry. I’m not happy or excited, either. There is no emotion with it, I just go do it. That will develop over time for a lot of people that push through and keep going.
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