Strength from Struggle: Getting to Know Olympic Lifter Kristin Pope

High level Olympic Weightlifting competitor Kristin Pope, like many strength athletes before her, trains in a garage gym! The driving factor for a lot of us in choosing the home gym lifestyle is being able to pursue our training without abandoning our families for hours at a time. High level athletes are no exception. Kristin made the choice to move home to Georgia rather than moving to Colorado to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center but that doesn’t mean that she’s any less committed to training hard and bringing her best on the platform! Let’s dive into how Kristin Pope builds Strength Through Struggle!

Goal Setting

In 2015 you said these were your goals: “Become a National Champion Olympic weightlifter, Be on a World Team to represent Team USA, total above 180kg, back squat 400 pounds, snatch over 200 lbs., and clean and jerk double body weight and be the best wife and friend I can be”.
 It’s 2018. You’ve just back squatted 300lbs after coming back from injury, you’ve represented Team USA and you totaled 193kg at USAW Nationals in 2017. Plus you and your husband just took an epic trip through Asia so it looks like you’re doing okay with the wife and best friend goal. So congratulations, but tell me what your process is for setting new goals that are reachable but far enough to force you to get better to reach them.

I took a lot of time to set new goals for the new year and I really did it by looking back at what I wrote down last year, similar to looking back at the summer a few years ago and seeing what I did accomplish and didn’t accomplish and try to reevaluate what I wrote down that I did not accomplish and see if maybe the goals were unreasonable, or if I just didn’t have the right tools to reach them yet. What I needed to do to fix that. I basically set the same goals that I made last year, that are very similar to those that I made in 2015, but on a smaller scale. I just think I set myself up better to reach them now. I’m in a better place personally, moving back to Georgia, I’m a lot happier now. My coach situation now is really great, Colin and I are really jelling well together, I think him being a current athlete is really helpful for our coach-athlete relationship, because he understands everything that I’m going through.

Where are you ranked now after your Arnold placing?

I’m ranked sixth in the 63kg class now.

You hit a PR clean at the Arnold but you did mention that you went two years between your 109 clean and jerk and the 100 clean and jerk you did recently.

I regressed a lot honestly last year, and there were days that even an 85 kilo clean and jerk was difficult for me. That was when it was probably the hardest; when I was literally snatching the same weight that I was clean and jerking. Last year at the Arnold I smashed 91 and then I opened my clean and jerk at 95 and missed it. That was probably the most embarrassing moment of my weightlifting career, to have missed a clean and jerk four kilos more than I had just snatched.

Kristin Pope hitting a PR snatch at the 2018 Arnold Fitness ExpoHow did you handle the negativity from social media and even prevent yourself from engaging in negative self talk?

Really I just had to evaluate what I really wanted out of this sport and if I wanted to progress and get through it I had to somehow tone out even my own negative thoughts that I wasn’t good enough to hit those big numbers in the clean and jerk and just keep grinding at it. The biggest thing was getting my technique in check. I talk about on YouTube, on that last video I made that the 109 I hit two years ago was kind of a fluke. I think I just got lucky on that particular pull and did it right without knowing I did it right.

Colin and I had to decide what we were going to change on my clean to get it moving forward again because everything else I’ve tried wasn’t helping, so a big change that we made was keeping my hook grip on the clean. That has been able to give me a better connection to where the bar is and more body awareness because the bar never releases from your hands when you keep the hook grip. Mobility-wise that was super difficult, but we just decided it doesn’t matter what we’re clean and jerking right now, we’re going to keep the hook grip until we have the mobility.

It took me a few months to stay at lighter weights and just drill it, keeping the hook grip, but once I started to be able to spin my elbow with the hook grip, my cleans were going up and up and up because I was more efficient now. As soon as my legs got strong again after my back injury, things just all fell into place and was progressing in a linear fashion. I hit that 110 and I actually cleaned 111 yesterday in the meet!

Nice! Very nice. You brought up hook grips so let’s talk about that and weightlifting versus powerlifting.

Weightlifting vs Powerlifting

When you deadlifted at USAPL Nationals, you deadlifted with a mixed grip, instead of the hook grip. I believe that you made that choice because you’re used to using a women’s bar which is smaller in diameter than a powerlifting bar but said that you’ll likely do hook grip if you compete in powerlifting again. How are you going to get around the fact that the larger bar?

Honestly, I’d need the men’s bar. I only have a woman’s bar at home.

Didn’t you say your husband powerlifts? Use his bar!

Ha! He has a beater bar that wouldn’t be good enough to do weightlifting on. Yeah, I do need to invest in a men’s bar if I got serious about powerlifting again and practicing the hook grip on that bigger bar.

Do you normally use hook grip when you deadlift in training?

Yes. But a lot of our pulls we do in training we use straps.

Could you elaborate on what makes it uncomfortable to hook grip with a larger bar? Is it where bar hits your thumb or more not feeling as secure?

It’s just bigger, so I can usually wrap three fingers around my hook grip. With the men’s bar I can only get one.

Ah! Okay, so what are the advantages as you see them to using hook grip versus mixed when you’re deadlifting?

Not necessarily advantages, but my dad was a competitive bodybuilder and he has some records in the state of Florida in powerlifting actually, for Masters. He tore his bicepKristin Pope squatting in her garage gym tendon in competition. It’s just a fear of mine, so I’d rather stick with the hook grip.

Okay, I completely understand. In fact, I recently switched to hook grip because I’ve started to notice a significant imbalance in my lats from doing mixed grip. The biggest thing I’ve noticed is the discomfort when doing reps. Do you recommend just using straps for reps and leaving hook grip for singles?

Yeah, and I think some people are really against using straps, but there’s definitely a time and place to use straps and if you’re noticing imbalances, I would definitely go back to squaring things up with straps.

I think it’s amazing that you only trained the deadlift for two weeks leading up to 2016 Raw Nationals. Do you think that all of the other pulling you do is why you were able to blow 330lbs with a ton left in the tank?

Yeah, everybody was like, “Why did you put down the next attempt? It was, 160 kilos maybe, I think I tried. I was like, “Oh it’s too heavy,” and they were like, “No, it’s not.” I got it to my knee and put it back down, I was like, “No thanks.”

You mentioned that when you deadlift now, you tend to avoid locking out because you’re mimicking the movements of Olympic lifting. Do you find that deadlifting this way tends to make your lower back stronger? I know that powerlifter, Richard “The Ant” Hawthorne tends to stop short of lockout when he trains.

It’s stronger in a certain position, so your lockout wouldn’t be strong because you’re not practicing the to push hips through, but yeah, that’s why we train staying over the bar like that at the top of our pulls, to get our lower back strong, with our shoulders still over the bar, which is a much more difficult position for the back than when you’re standing straight up and down. So I definitely think it could be used as a tool for powerlifting, to hold that position before the lockout and I’m not sure I’ve really seen anyone doing that, at least in the current powerlifting scene.

The deadlift can hit the CNS pretty hard, do you advocate alternating deadlift and say power cleans from week to week if someone wanted to save their nervous system but still be able to do a big pulling movement every week?

Honestly, I was trying to fit heavy deadlifts I probably would not be doing any heavy cleans. My heavy cleans would probably be unsuccessful, that’s why. Just because of the fact it would be too fried.  It took me the full two weeks to recover from when I hit my 110 for the meet, my leg, it took a long time for my leg and my back to feel strong again after I hit that PR. Heavy cleans are few and far between in weightlifting if your programming is good.

Question I’ve always wondered: how are jerk boxes different from just setting up the bars in a power rack to whatever height you need? I know that deadlifting from blocks is different than rack pulls is it something similar to that or is it to get you used to the feeling of being outside a rack like you are on a platform?

Programming

Travis Mash said on the Barbell Shrugged podcast, “Girls are really strong from the hips down so they can heave weight above their head that they have no business getting there and so you’ll get a snapped elbow or hurt shoulder. So when I do upper body work with my females, it’s not necessarily cause I’m trying to make them snatch and clean and jerk more; I’m trying to make them snatch and clean and jerk without getting hurt. Because if I can train somebody for five years without injury that’s just as good as this other person but the other person gets hurt, we still won.” With this quote in mind, how do you program assistance work in a garage gym environment that keeps you healthy enough to compete in both strength sports even with the stress of a hectic travel schedule?

Kristin Pope stretching on the beachI work with a physical therapist in Atlanta, Lauren Polivka. She gives me a whole lot of prehab routine stuff that I do. I do an extensive warmup for 25 minutes every day. I’m always working on “prehab” for injuries that are borderline injuries, when things just barely start to hurt, so they don’t progress into something big.

Right and that’s huge because you had an injury to your hips, correct?

Yeah, I’ve torn both labrums in my hips. They’re both un-repaired, so a lot of band-aid, like glute work, all that stuff has been really important to the rehab because it takes so long for those to fuse back together without the surgery.

So speaking of prehab, you enjoy doing a little bit of bodybuilding style training at the end of every training session like seated dumbbell presses, glute ham raises and curls. With the previous question in mind, what do you see as the positive benefits of doing those movements? It seems like the curls might armor proof your bicep tendons a bit to counteract the effect of all the cleans you do, is that correct?

Yeah, with Olympic weightlifting, you’re using your biceps without knowing you’re using your biceps basically, and so it’s important to keep them in shape and ready for it. We do some hypertrophy in the beginning of the higher volume phase. When I’m squatting tens, that’s when I’m doing more bodybuilding stuff, everything is high volume and then closer to the meet I don’t really do any bodybuilding.

Now that you’re no longer a gymnast, do you still practice any of the movements for overall health or fun?

When I strained my back I used a lot of my old gymnastics ab work, routines and really re-training my pelvis to sit in the right position; a lot of that old gymnastics conditioning, a lot of plank work, toes to bar, stuff like that to really work those lower abs.

I recently finished Physical Culture Simplified by Mark H. Berry, he was the U.S. Olympic Team coach in 1932 and 1936 and one thing he mentioned is that after doing a Split Jerk, it’s safer for the lower back to step back with your forward leg rather than bringing your rear leg forward. I realize that you’ve switched to a Power Jerk but I did see you bringing your forward leg back somewhat in your training video with Zygmunt Smalcerz in Colorado. Was that awkward for you?

He was having me work on stepping forward more.

It looked like your foot would get stuck halfway and then you’d bring your rear foot forward.

My split stance wasn’t big enough and wanted me to step forward more, so that was like the double tap of my foot, trying to work on getting it further out. That’s going back to saying about my pelvis positioning. When the split’s not as far forward, your hips are more back, so the weight is not centered over your hips.

We were really working on that stance, but yeah, I switched to the power jerk when my back was hurting me so much because the split stance was really irritating it. Colin and I decided not to do any split work training for the American Open because that was what was aggravating my back, so we just stayed away from it. Then I hit a PR with the power jerk.

Well there you go!

We were like, “Okay, we just won’t split anymore.”

Gym Everywhere

You travel quite a bit so it’s important to have a network of good places to train. What’s your process for finding somewhere to train when you’re going somewhere you’ve never visited before? How far out do you start to do research?

Well, if I know I’m going somewhere I try to plan by day, a few weeks in advance, but sometimes it doesn’t work out like that. For example, I got stranded in New York when the Atlanta airport shut down and I had to stay in New York an extra night by myself. I actually had a really hard time finding somewhere to train. New York is a little bit different on the gym scene. All of their gyms are packed and they’re very small spaces, so they’re not keen on drop-ins, especially unscheduled drop-ins. I couldn’t find anywhere to lift until I found this one CrossFit gym that had two weightlifting areas, CrossFit Gantry. Sometimes it’s really difficult. I do try to plan it in advance and I try to meet and connect with as many people as I can when I go to these cities, so the next time I go I know someone and it’s easier.

Now that you’re sponsored by Universal Nutrition, you need to see if you can convince Eric Schwartz to hook up another Universal Road Trip to Brazil so you can train at that Arpoador Beach aka Flintstones Gym. It looks pretty epic!

Oh, that’s very cool! Yeah, I don’t know where we’re going to go, but they’re talking about doing a road trip international and I really hope I get to go.

Alright, now you mentioned Colin Burns and I know you trained at his garage here in Colorado, it’s pretty awesome. I know whenever I visit another gym, especially a home gym, I’m always checking it out Kristin Pope knows how to cut weight successfully even if she goes out to eat with friendsto see what new ideas or pieces of equipment I can say, “Hey I need that.” What did you see at his gym that made you say, “I’ve got to have this in my gym,”?

He had some really cool vintage squat stands that he actually works on. They’re the kind that are free standing, they’re not even connected together, so anyone can make them wider, or closer together, very easily—

So they’re like what we call jack racks in powerlifting?

Yeah. They’re super expensive, so I can’t get them yet. Especially these vintage ones, but that’s something I definitely want to add to my collection eventually. He also has a cage type squat setup. My husband does powerlifting, so that’s something we want for the powerlifting side of things. I personally dump the bar when I miss a squat, but when you have metal plates you can’t do that.

Yeah, that’s not good for your garage floor! A quick note about dieting. You are a diet coach and follower of flexible dieting. While staying in a hotel you were able to post a low weigh in because of flexible dieting. Briefly talk about some of the strategies you used specifically to adapt to eating in a hotel. For example, did you have a kitchenette or was it a microwave only situation?

I did not have a microwave, and I didn’t have a car either, so I had to Uber to Walmart and buy a microwave. That was kind of funny, but other than that it worked out because I had done some meal prep and was able to heat those up and I work with Trifecta, the meal prep company and they helped me out a good bit. They also estimate meals and stuff. I was going out with friends a little bit, but hotel life was a struggle, but we made it work.

One pitfall that a lot of people have is eating for entertainment and I think that’s a lot easier in a hotel situation where you don’t have as much to occupy your time aside from training. What are some strategies you recommend for someone who’s just started a diet and finds out they need to travel for work?

Oh yeah, I deal with that with my clients all the time. I try to coach, especially when you’re traveling for fun, to eat on plan for like 75% of the beginning of the day, and plan to splurge a little bit at night, so at least you’re in that mindset of staying on track with your diet and you’re mentally in the game all day. Usually that leads to better decisions for that one free meal you’re not being so rigid with, and trying to save up some of your extra calories that way if you eat lighter in the beginning of the day and if you’re walking around all day, you’re burying earning extra calories, if you’re sightseeing, stuff like that. That’s how I handle it when I’m traveling for fun too, I set times where this is where I’m not going to care about my diet and the rest of the time I’m going to make sure I hit close to what my macros should be.

Speaking of macros, you’re not a fan of vegetables. I too am a natural process vegetarian, I like taking in vegetables by eating the animals that eat those vegetables.

Right. Yeah, ha ha! Meatatarian! Ha ha!

Kristin Pope and Garage Gym Magazine founder John Greaves IIII know you’ve tried greens drinks but those don’t necessarily taste the best either.  I like mixing greens with a BCAA drink mix like Juiced Aminos, what strategies do you use to help you get your greens in?

One thing I do like is Wheatgrass shots, which is kind of surprising because I don’t like vegetables, but the reason I don’t like vegetables is not the taste, it’s the texture. Any kind of juice things I’m able to do, I’ll do spinach smoothies even sometimes, but I just cannot crunch on vegetables for some reason. Ha ha!

I got you. Can’t pretend it’s a potato chip!

Right!

Yeah I’ll do stuff like that. Universal’s coming out with a green supplement and they had me try it last visit and it’s actually really good, so I’m going to start using that as soon as they release it.

Garage Gym Lifestyle

Besides barbells and plates, what would you consider the most essential piece of gear in your garage gym?

I do bench press once a week, so the bench is important, which is kind of cool with Colin because I didn’t bench at all last year and I told him I eventually do want to do powerlifting again. My bench fell off so much from not doing it at all, so now we do bench once a week and I think it helps with my snatching, with my overhead stability, having bench press in my regimen. So I’d say bench is probably pretty important.

Sometimes we set up a home gym and realize that we’ve left out something important. You have a garage gym but you guys are building another garage gym—

I wasn’t allowed in the construction zone, is what that was about.

What was the first thing you added to your home gym after your first couple of workouts?

Oh yeah, when we first moved to Georgia we were staying with my mom, and I kind of started building a gym without even telling her, in her garage.

Ha! Okay, surprise Mom! Your car’s going to be parked outside now!

Seriously, she just came home to a platform, I was like, “This is all it’s going to be,” but then it was growing and growing and growing. The first thing that I needed was pull blocks because my programming separates the movements a lot into from the knee and higher or from the hip and higher a lot. I definitely needed the pull blocks, so Josh built those for me first.

Weightlifting is a game of focus. You mentioned in your weightlifting vs powerlifting video with MegSquats that a weightlifting meet is fairly quiet. That makes it seem like a great fit for home gyms where you’re often the only person there.  But when you get to a meet although it’s quiet, you still have to deal with a crowd of people staring at you. You’ve mentioned that visualization and self-affirmation are big for you. Is that how you prepare yourself mentally to go from the cave to the stage?

Yeah, even when I’m attempting my big lifts sometimes I try to picture myself staring at the center judge because that seems to be the biggest distraction, because we have a judge that is literally staring in your eyeballs and sometimes the garage door, even I’ll picture that as my center judge. Usually the crowd itself blurs out, but the judges are pretty close.

You need a mannequin with a suit jacket!

Yeah or a poster!

Quick story: One year at the USAPL Georgia and Southern States my then 12 year old son and I competed on the same day. He was on Platform A and I was on Platform C so I’d run over and handle him. The announcer would usually call my name while he was setting up so I’d watch his lift, call his next attempt, then literally run down to my platform where the timer was usually running down, get on there and lift without much of the prep time that we accustom ourselves to in training. I credit being able to handle the pressure with good attempt selection and the fact that I actually encourage my family to come talk to me about random stuff during training that way I get used to getting in the zone without a ton of prep time. What are some tricks you use in training to prepare you to deal with game day pressure and some of the mind games that Oly lifters can play like running down the clock, changing their attempts to throw your off etc.?

This training cycle specifically, I did this a lot, we were doing a lot of EMOM workouts, so just every minute on the minute. We’d have a certain amount of lifts to do and I would have to do it exactly on the minute mark, on a timer and that’s preparing yourself to move more quickly when things aren’t going well with your timing, or when someone messes up your clock and you’ve got to be ready to go, whether you’re rested and recovered or not. So we did a lot of that timed interval training.

Weightlifters tend to lift heavier closer to their meets. One of my favorite posters is of 91kg Ivan Chakarov doing his famous No No No squat with 270kgs a few days before the 1993 World Championships. Do you all lift so heavy that close to a competition because weightlifting is less about pure strength and more about how you use that strength to apply technique to the lift?

Yeah, there is a lot of, I would say more skill to weightlifting than there is powerlifting and less relying on your total strength. The skill can’t go unpracticed for as long in weightlifting, so we need to keep going through the motions. Most of us train the day before the meet even.

Wow! I did not know that! Let’s finish up with some random stuff.

Random

Your tattoos tell your life story as do mine. Have you gotten ink to commemorate returning to Georgia and becoming a homeowner?

Yeah, I actually for the California bear put on my ankle as soon as we left, or right before we left. Josh and I both got it, we got it matching. Mainly to commemorate our time in California. It was a Kristin Pope models a sleeveless t-shirt from her new Strength from Struggle clothing linerough year for me and for him too, because he had to go along with it all. We both got it in the same spot too.

It was also a really big period of growth for me and figuring out exactly what I want and what I don’t want. It was kind of by process of elimination. We thought we would be in California for several years and ended up realizing that we want to be back home. I was even considering moving to Colorado, which could have been great, but at the last minute we both decided we wanted to be back home. Yeah, getting that tattoo, it was kind of a figuring everything out, like a turning point and I’m not really lost in my twenties anymore. I know exactly what I do want in this next chapter of my life, so that’s why I got that bear.

Beautiful. I laughed when someone on YouTube asked if you still had a day job and you mentioned that you operate a small business. For someone who is an employee it must seem like being a business owner gives you tons of free time but I can attest that it actually takes much more time to run your own business as opposed to clocking in at a certain time and leaving when your day is done. There’s not even such a thing as a typical day.  On a random day how much time do you actually have available to train in addition to all of your other responsibilities?

I try really hard to set aside a two hour block and there are times where I take my two hour workout and somehow I have to do this in 45 minutes and I just go and go and go and don’t have a rest, basically. Even this week, before the meet I had to get on a flight but I also had to do a lot of things for my business. I have a full apparel line coming out next week and I have a lot going on right now. I also have a puppy at home, so I’ve got all kinds of things going on. My last workout at home was a super speedy workout. I do try to set aside two hours that are like, this is my time when I block everything out and focus only on my lifting.

You mentioned apparel which fits perfectly with what I wanted to ask next. Your catchphrase Strength From Struggle sounds like it’s tailormade for a t-shirt. When are we going to see available for sale?

Yeah, Strength from struggle line is coming out next week. I am very excited about it. My tattoo artist in California designed it for me and it is very cool. I tried really hard from start to finish to use only people that have been an influence in my life. The screen printer has been following me since the beginning of my lifting career, so I tried to involve a bunch of different people in this project, my manager and the girl that designed my website all were contributors to how it was going to look. It seems like it’s just a T-shirt, but a lot went into it because it’s such an important phrase for me and it’s been my entire journey and I’m really excited for people to wear it. Just seeing the similar font that’s tattooed on my body too, seeing other people wear that is going to be super cool.

Oh that’s cool! So it’s going to be available by the time people read this? We’ll link to it in this article so people can buy one.

Wrapping Up

You are a diet and nutrition coach. How can people get in touch with you if they’re interested in retaining your services?

They can reach out to me at www.barbellsandbows.net.

Also how can people follow your training and keep up with everything you have going on?

Instagram: @kris10Pope

YouTube: Kris10Pope

About the author

John Greaves III is a writer based in North Georgia with nearly two decades of experience in training at home. A former amateur kickboxing champion, John now competes recreationally in powerlifting. He takes a physical culture approach to training; believing that strength and health need not be mutually exclusive. In addition to his nonfiction work, John has written two fiction books, A Different Kind of Giant and A Little Lesson in Manners that are available on Amazon.com.

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I've shared my story time, and time again. I've shared it so much with others I'm practically blue in the face. I sat down to write this, looked at my husband and mentioned how I think my story might be getting repetitive at this point in my weight loss. He looked at me and said, "Why not keep telling it? It's a great story, and its yours.."

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