Making Powerlifting More Approachable: An Interview with Female Powerlifter, Jean Fry

by Jordan Syatt October 17, 2011

Jean Fry is one of the strongest women in the world.

Jean’s a professional Powerlifter, health and fitness pro, and oh yea…she’s damn good looking, too.

As I made clear in my most recent article, Myth Busting 101: Fat Loss Edition (which is still getting a fantastic response), there’s so much cock and bull within the fitness industry, it’s getting increasingly harder to separate the truth from the b.s.; to distinguish between what truly works and what’s purely a marketing gimmick.

Fortunately, Jean was generous enough to answer some of my questions in regard to Powerlifting and strength training in general. Through this interview, her and I hope to de-bunk some of the most commonly misunderstood and misinterpreted areas of physical fitness, as well as make Powerlifting more approachable to the average, every-day trainee.

Whether you’re a college girl just looking to “tone-up,” a bro trying to get your “swole on”, or you want to be so strong that people lose control of all bodily functions at the mere mention of your name, Jean’s provided a ton of great information.

I can’t express how fortunate I am to have such a great friend and mentor in Jean, and I seriously hope each and every one of you take advantage of her knowledge and implement her recommendations appropriately within your own, individual training regimens.

Anyway, enough babbling. Let’s get to the interview:

JS: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview, Jean. You’ve honestly been a huge inspiration, not only to me, but to thousands of people world-wide as a strength athlete and fitness professional. I know my readers will tremendously benefit from listening to what you have to say.

JF: That’s so sweet, Jordan, thank you! I really am incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to train where I do, to have a loving family that supports me, and to be able to teach and affect so many people with my work. I sure hope they benefit from what I teach them…. But truth is, they are really the ones who inspire me!

JS: Alright, well before we get into the meat of the interview would you mind briefly telling everyone a little bit about yourself such as who you are, what you do, where you train, and why you began training in the first place?

JF:  Well, I got my first taste of the gym at 15; I was the extremely sheltered, shy only child who had always wanted to be a track sprinter, but therefore lacked the confidence to do it until high school. When a coworker introduced me to my now-good friend Scott Vickery, a gym owner and GREAT trainer nearby, it was game on! He took me under his wing and not only got me ready for track, but taught me how to TRAIN, which developed into competing in powerlifting.  Keeping a consistent schedule was tough once I joined the United States Air Force (USAF) and then went off to school at Ohio State, but I never stopped!

Ten years later, I have since graduated, gotten married, become a personal trainer/ nutrition coach, and most recently accepted a position as Health and Wellness Director for the YMCA. Since getting the invite from Louie Simmons himself at the Pro/Am in 2007, I have trained on the morning crew at Westside Barbell, and couldn’t be more grateful every day I walk into that place! It’s so humbling to know that so many of the greats were/ are there, too!

JS: And just for the record, would you mind telling everyone your personal best 1 repetition maximum (1RM) in the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift?

JF: Of course! My most recent meet was about 6 weeks ago (at the Powerstation Pro-Am), marking my 4-yr anniversary at Westside. I squatted 415lbs and deadlifted 375lbs at a body-weight of 123lbs; I also scraped out a pro total with 1025lbs (despite having a terrible bench day). My best benches to date are 250lbs at a body-weight of 123lbs and 230lbs at a body-weight of 114lbs.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s 415lbs on her back.         What’s your excuse, now?

JS: Many women tend to shy away from Powerlifting and strength training in general as they’re under the impression it will cause them to instantly bulk-up. Instead, these women feel their time would be better spent on cardio machines, while occasionally making use of those neatly color-coordinated 2.5-5lb dumbbells. If you could give these women any advice, what would you tell them?

JF: Ahh, the CARDIO QUEENS! Look- here’s the deal… and you may have all heard this before but let me re-iterate. We as natural-borne females have not had the same amounts of testosterone “bestowed” upon us that most males have been. Thus, our ability to build muscle to those extremes is non-existent. So get off your pretty little machine and DO SOMETHING worthwhile! I am living proof. I started the sport when I was 15 years old and 117lbs (keep in mind, I was burning more cals via track, too). Ten years of heavy-lifting later, I am 5’5 and 130lbs, and wore my high school prom dress to a USAF formal dinner last year.

This is what a healthy diet of squats and deadlifts will produce…feel free to wipe the drool from your face at any point in time.

JS: What about the women who do cardio because they legitimately enjoy it? Is it possible to incorporate strength training and cardio at the same time? Should one be made a priority over the other?

JF: Sure! Lots of people do cardio for fun (not my preferred method of enjoyment, but hey!). Some people like it because it enables them to “zone out,” which is fine. Others do it just because they like how jacked their heart rate gets and the sweat that starts rolling in a brief amount of time. For those people, circuit training with weights would really be a great option to get both aerobic and anaerobic in at once.  Even if you are competing in marathons, a well-balanced training regime should NEVER consist of cardio alone.

However, in my opinion, I do believe strength should take precedence (for example, my cardio consists of dragging a sled, weighted box jumps, and a long, high-incline hike on the treadmill a couple times per week or cycle interval if I want to burn some extra body fat). Strength training =more muscle mass= higher metabolism = more cals burned at rest. So not only are you burning cals while you train, you burn more the rest of your day as well. Sounds like a no-brainer to me! BUT don’t forget about diet- it will stop any composition change from happening dead in its tracks.

Maybe this whole “training for strength” thing isn’t such a bad idea after all…

JS: Many women are simply looking to get “toned,” and don’t care about being strong. Why might this be an issue and what do you tell women who express this as a major concern? 


JF: Again, most women assume that cardio will get them “toned”- much like not eating will. Although both may result in a minimal loss (followed by a plateau) on the scales, the body will begin to eat its own muscle to live. Most women will not be pleased when their hair is dull, nails thin and break, and they develop skin issues as a result. I like to spin the “toned” look women want into a “healthy” look. In other words, we have to focus on burning body fat, while ALSO building muscle to be healthy and get results. In addition, lifting weights is important for women from their 20’s and older to ensure that our bones stay strong and healthy!

Yes, she eats lots of protein and trains with heavy weight. I suggest you do the same.

JS: For the general fitness enthusiast, female or male, do you think basing the majority of their training routine on the principles of Powerlifting and/or strength training would be beneficial? Why or why not?

JF: Absolutely! In our (powerlifting) training, we obviously physically condition the body, but what some fail to realize is, we train to condition the mind as well. One aspect of how a Westside “template” is set up, so to speak, is in a way that we are constantly setting and breaking PR’s (personal records). We rarely do a 1RM of the  “Classic lifts” (i.e. Squat/Bench/ Deadlift) as we would in a meet; rather, we do a rotation of similar lifts, establishing separate PR’s with different bars, bands,  weight releasers, and grips. This enables our lifters to consistently build confidence levels as well, allowing us better focus at a meet.

This relates well to the general fitness enthusiast, because from my experience, people are driven by results. This method of training (referred to as The Conjugate System) allows them to see new personal records on a regular basis, motivating them to stick with their training program consistently for a longer period of time.

JS: What, in your opinion, are the biggest misconceptions in regard to strength training today?

JF: Well, we already discussed the myth about females, so let’s continue with the rest of my Top 5 Pet Peeves:

  • Guys who think they are going to get a bigger bench press by coming in every day and, you guessed it, bench pressing.  As discussed in the last question, our training utilizes The Conjugate System, rotating major exercises every 1-3 weeks (depending on if we are training maximal strength or speed-strength) to consistently hit PR’s for the psychological aspect. However, we do this for the physical benefit, as well. You will not get stronger by doing the same exercises over. And over. And over. It’s the law of accommodation- you must switch it up every 2-3 three weeks or your muscles will adapt to what you are doing and stop responding via hypertrophy!
  • You can’t work the same muscle every day. PLEASE wait 48-72 hours. Enough said. Oh- and while we’re at it, please don’t rep like a speed demon and heave the weights via momentum and think you are doing anything other than hurting yourself. Thank you.
  • The “followers.” Learn what YOUR weaknesses are and do supplemental exercises to bring YOUR weaknesses up to par. I see way too many guys out there who think just tagging along with a friend’s routine will get them optimal results.
  • DIET! It is NOT a myth that you need protein post- work out to achieve the maximum muscle gain. A good rule of thumb is to give yourself ~ 1hour window upon completion to get protein back into your muscles and rebuild over what was broken down. Avoid skipping that post-work out meal; sure, you’ll still burn calories, but you will do more harm than good in the long-run.

JS: What does strength mean to you, and why is being strong so important?

 JF: Strength is a combination of willpower and physical talent. You can’t go wrong in life by having both of these in your back pocket!

JS: Jean, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to answer my questions. You’re truly beyond inspirational and a great friend. I know everyone (myself included) has thoroughly benefited from your generosity and knowledge. I’m very excited to see what my readers have to say in response to this article. Thank you so much, Jean!

JF: No problem, Jordan- thanks for the opportunity! It was great getting to work with you while you were in town, and I wish all the best to you in life, health, career, and training. To everyone else reading this, TRAIN HARD! Whether it be your own health, or in competition, take control of your own destiny.

In the words of Louie Simmons, “the real contest is within yourself.”

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