Lifter Profile: Stephanie Pio

Hi Stephanie! Thanks so much for doing this interview. You’re a big inspiration to a lot of people. What is your biological age, your training age, and your current squat/bench/deadlift?

I am 28 years old, and I walked into the gym for the first time as an adult seven years ago, in early 2009. I fell in love with the barbell around spring of 2012, but didn’t get myself into what I now consider “training,” as opposed to just lifting, until the middle of 2015. Way back in high school I was a competitive cheerleader and on the dance team for my school, and I lifted a bit to stay strong for that, though lifting was never the priority. I guess based on that I’m not sure of my training age. My training has changed and adapted so much over time!

At my last meet, in December 2016, where I got my USPA elite meet total in the 123 (56kg) weight class, with a 275 squat, a 143 bench, and a 325 deadlift.

What made you first start powerlifting?

I first got in the gym to lose some weight. I used to be about 40 pounds heavier than I now am in my bodybuilding offseason, at my heaviest, but I quickly grew bored of doing the “women’s weight loss plans” I found on the internet. It was a fun challenge to myself to see if I could go up in weight each session on any of my lifts, even though that was not written into those plans. I started doing some research into getting strong, and I found 5/3/1, which seemed to more closely align with the newfound love for moving weight I had found. I switched to that from my dumbbell and machine-dominated programs, enlisted my husband and YouTube to teach me the big three, and fell in love immediately. I recall so clearly the first time I switched to a sumo stance for deadlift and I pulled 245. I knew as those plates left the floor that this was exactly what I would be doing for years to come. It was like I had this epiphany at the top of that lift: YES. Yes, THIS is it!

You’ve trained for aesthetics, as well as strength. How do they differ? Do you prefer one to the other?

I do train for both! I’m actually a professional natural bodybuilder in the WNBF, which sort of happened by accident. I never intended to compete in bodybuilding. I was purely a numbers-chaser for years. I got a breast augmentation in 2014, after which I was told I couldn’t do any direct chest work for six months. No benching of any sort, not even push ups. I really struggled with that, not being able to do 1/3 of the lifts I needed to in order to meet my goals of being a powerlifter, but one day soon after, as I snuggled my way through a lackluster workout, someone at the gym approached me about prepping for a show, and I didn’t have a good reason to say no. I ended up doing really well, and decided to continue pursuing lifting for aesthetics as well.

I quickly realized that my style of lifting, continuing to prioritize heavy barbell work, was not the norm for competitors in the figure division, and I started a blog, Squat Rack Shenanigans, to talk about balancing strength and stage, which has been incredible to write and receive feedback on.

Until this season, my training was not that different between sports. I do more hypertrophy work, lifting in the 6 to 20 rep range, and additional accessory work for the body parts I want to focus on when I’m getting ready for a bodybuilding show, much like an offseason powerlifter might do as well, to add size. When I’m prepping for a meet, it’s all about the numbers on those big three, of course, and like any in-season powerlifter, I taper off on the intensity and volume of accessory work and focus more on moving heavy weight with technical proficiency. I still bench, squat, and deadlift year-round though, with the exception of giving up heavy deadlifts in the last few weeks before I take the stage, due to the fact that I need to be a bit more careful about busting myself up and getting scratched and bruised, as well as the fact that a wicked deadlift session will see me holding a few pounds of water for a day or two after, and when I’m that close to stage my brain just can’t handle seeing the scale do that at that point. It’s a really weird place to be, mentally. The day after a show, though, I always plan a deadlift day, because deadlifting is absolutely my favorite!

I could never choose one of my sports over the other, to be honest. Every time someone asks me this I come away from the question feeling really, deeply sad. I love them both so much, and each allows me to push myself in a different way, to test my limits and see what my body is capable of, as well as what my mind is. I definitely think my sports are synergistic, though. Bodybuilding season hypertrophy work helps me put on size that will help me in powerlifting season, and the strength I build up training during powerlifting season definitely helps my physique on stage. I credit heavy compound movements with helping me to retain muscle mass and strength even through a pretty deep cut, which is something that bodybuilders struggle to do, often, when we prep, due to the low energy we have as a result of being at low caloric intakes and very low body fat. For me, it’s mind over matter, on this. If I let myself believe I can’t lift heavy while I’m dieting or while i’m lean, I can’t, but if I keep in my head that yes, of course I’m still a powerlifter, of course I’m strong, of course I CAN, I can push through even when it’s difficult.

If you could give your younger self advice about something related to lifting, body image, or anything else, what would you say and why?

The smallest version of you is not the best version of you.

I think that our society really focuses on the message that women need to be small, and not take up much space in order to be attractive, to be successful, to be desirable, and to be loved. This goes beyond just physicality, too, women should not try to take up space with their personality, ideas, or voices. I spent so much of my life just trying to fit into that, to be ever smaller. I’m not even a large person! I’m only 5’2” so being small sort of comes with that.

I spent so many years feeling too… something

Too fat. Too broad shouldered. Too muscular.

My thighs spread across my chair too much. I spoke too much. I laughed too loudly. I argued too passionately. It was a constant fixation that manifested in just never being good enough. I was always too something. Getting away from that mentality, and learning to take up space- physically, mentally, academically, socially- has been really freeing. Of course I’m always chasing something more, trying to improve, but I’m no longer focused on being small in any aspect of my life. I’m not afraid to be seen, or heard, or noticed, and demand my space.

What’s a personal goal of yours, not related to lifting?

I am a high school Government teacher, and I absolutely LOVE my job. I love my students, I love going to work every day, I love politics, I love it all. But it’s also recently got me thinking, a lot. I have a lot of ideas that are much bigger than myself and my inner circle, and I’d like to bring them to a larger audience. I’ve been looking into running for public office, first at the local level, maybe something like school board to start, and see where that takes me. It’s one thing to be really knowledgeable about the government, but it’s another thing entirely to participate in it fully, using that knowledge. I’m no longer content to just observe, I really feel like I need to be a part of it, so, within the next few years my goal is to, in addition to teaching Government, hold public office in it!

Thank you so much for sharing your story. Is there anything else you want to add?

There’s this pervasive idea that powerlifters can’t be aesthetic, and that bodybuilders aren’t strong. I’m just out to prove that wrong. Don’t let anybody tell you what you can’t do. Instead, prove to the naysayers that you can. I take those “can’t” assertions as a challenge. Tell me I can’t? Let me show you I CAN!

Follow Stephanie! 

Instagram: @Squat_Rack_Shenanigans

Facebook: @SquatRackShenanigans

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