Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 59 - Claire Zai - OWN YOUR STRENGTHS

Yeah. So, I went to school at CU Boulder. I was really interested in physiology and neuroscience. So, I got my majors there. And then I ended up, continuing into a one year master’s program through the applied biomechanics lab there.

 “Yeah. So, I went to school at CU Boulder. I was really interested in physiology and neuroscience. So, I got my majors there. And then I ended up, continuing into a one year master’s program through the applied biomechanics lab there. I loved what I was doing, loved working with the people, and realized that maybe academic research wasn’t my end all be all and so kind of shifted more towards the clinical work. And ended up getting lucky, getting a job out here in San Diego. So, I picked up and moved across the country, and now I’m a Clinical Research Coordinator.”

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JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host, Jesse Funk. My guest today is somebody I’ve been wanting to talk to, at least for this sport, referred by Melissa Mazzo back on Episode 52 with Dan and Melissa. She’s a competitive powerlifter and is a Clinical Research Coordinator at the Geneva foundation in the gait lab. She is a graduate from CU Boulder, technically an integrative physiology, but she worked in the applied biomechanics lab. I’m sure she’ll tell us more about that. If that wasn’t enough she’s also a powerlifting and strength coach for Bullseye Strength and Barbell Medicine. Welcome to the show, Clarie Zai.

CLAIRE: Hi, thank you.

JESSE: I’m glad I got through the mouthful. I always love people that have a mouthful for me to say, but I’m always worried I’m gonna stumbling over it.

CLAIRE: You did great. It sounds awesome.

JESSE: Thanks. Thanks. And thanks for having a relatively easy name to pronounce. It’s another thing I try my best and anybody who’s listened to the show for a while knows every once in a while I just like stumble over myself as I’m trying to say names and I’m trying to be respectful but I’m like, please have an easier name for me.

CLAIRE: I always tell people it’s Claire Zai like apple pie. So, [??? 02:35] pretty well

JESSE: Yeah that works. So, we’ll start off with this so we don’t get too far. You’ve got to give a disclaimer and I’ll ask you why here in a minute.

CLAIRE: Yeah so none of the following podcast is that, or represents the views of the Navy, the DoD or the government, and all of the views. And opinions that are said here are my own.

JESSE: Or my own, in this case.

CLAIRE: Correct, yes.

JESSE: Although I have no affiliation with the Navy and Department of Defense or any of the other ones you’ve listed. So, exactly why do you have to give a disclaimer because that doesn’t come up very often with the show?

CLAIRE: Yeah. So, I work in a biomechanics lab out of the Navy. I work at the Naval Hospital here in San Diego. And so what we do is, as a group, there’s like eight of us– six to eight of us depending on the time of year. We evaluate persons with amputation or traumatic limb injury and help to rehabilitate them back into whatever activities they want to do. Whether that’s running or lifting, or whether they want to return to duty or not. So, that’s why the disclaimer.

JESSE: It’s always interesting to me just like how much I don’t know. I know that sounds simplistic but just like things you don’t even think about not knowing. To me, [crosstalk]

CLAIRE: You don’t know what you don’t know.

JESSE: Right, right. Because on the surface, it just seems like we’re chatting like whatever you say, it’s just you. But then there’s all kinds of like legal games that get played that I’m not even aware of. So, then you have to give the disclaimer, just to clear up any issues that might arise. So, how do you get into doing what you do for work at least in this capacity?

CLAIRE: Yeah. So, I went to school at CU Boulder. I was really interested in physiology and neuroscience. So, I got my majors there. And then I ended up, continuing into a one year master’s program through the applied biomechanics lab there. I loved what I was doing, loved working with the people, and realized that maybe academic research wasn’t my end all be all and so kind of shifted more towards the clinical work. And ended up getting lucky, getting a job out here in San Diego.

So, I picked up and moved across the country, and now I’m a Clinical Research Coordinator. And I do lots of paperwork actually. Ended up doing more paperwork, but it’s okay. I still work with some people.

JESSE: Do you get hands-on– Are you more shuffling papers or are you more hands-on?

CLAIRE: It depends on the project. So, we have about 12 to 13 projects going at one time. But they’re not all like recruiting or active, and some of them are like 10 year studies. And so our 10 year studies, we’re doing like gait biomechanics in the lab. So, that’s when you have infrared cameras everywhere and reflective marker dots, and you’re measuring joint angles and power and work and stuff like that.

So, that kind of stuff I’m not as involved in. I’m doing more like clinical research on my side. So, I do– Right now I’m doing a phone interview study. The end of the study, the goal is to create this questionnaire. So, when patients come into a clinic or like, if you’ve gone to a doctor’s office you know you have those questionnaires you have to fill out.

We’re trying to standardize it for persons with amputation and traumatic limb injuries. I end up talking on the phone with a lot of people and interviewing them doing that. So, that’s my more clinical side. And then we have one where I was very hands-on where I was tripping people who were missing limbs, which sounds really mean, sounds awful. But, yeah, my coworkers like to tease me that I’m very mean to our patients.

But they’d come into the lab and we were trying to come up with a way to rehabilitate more quickly. And so we were tripping them on this treadmill to see that if they could get used to these trips and these falls, because that’s an at-risk population if we could get them rehabilitated faster. So, yes and no is the short of that long answer.

JESSE: This is kind of maybe a nerdy question of mine but how do you use standardized a questionnaire for people missing various limbs? I guess on the surface you could say, well though you only have four limbs you could be missing. But at the same time, it seems like you still would have sub-classifications of like below the knee, above the knee, whole leg, two– Obviously, there’s a finite number of variations, but it still seems like a pretty large data set to try to have just one questionnaire.

CLAIRE: It’s a very large data set. So, we have to have about 650 people or that’s our like recruitment goal. And so we have to ask a lot of questions. We also end up asking 300 questions in these interviews. So, the very long interviews, we’ll do them over multiple years to get all of the data to see how those change over time. And so the goal is to be able to see how the patient-reported outcomes track with physical outcomes.

So, how people feel about how they’re doing versus how people are actually doing in the eyes of the provider. So, the goal is to make it– We can shorten the test by doing this. We can create computer-adaptive tests and those tests allow us to like– Have you ever done, like in an old magazine you can do those like three questionnaires and it leads you down a certain path.

So, this just like cuts off half the questions if they don’t apply to you. So, all 300 questions are going to be in this computer adaptive test, but it knows like, oh, you answered this way so we can just skip some of these questions. And it ends up taking two to five minutes instead of when you go to a doctor’s office, it can take you 15 minutes to fill out forms. So, it just drastically cuts the time in half. And it makes it easier to track that progress, like I said, over time, and see how they progress through the care.

JESSE: Okay. So, I mean, I guess that makes a little more sense. You’re making like a flowchart and it’s like– [crosstalk]

CLAIRE: That’s the word I was looking for. Thank you.

JESSE: Yeah. Yeah. So, it’s like if somebody is missing, like have a below the knee amputation and you have questions about missing a hand, you’re clearly not gonna be asking them– it doesn’t apply. So, you want some way to skip that.

CLAIRE: Correct. And we know that people who are missing, they have a below-knee amputation, they probably aren’t going to have the same challenges cooking as someone who is missing a hand. So, those kinds of differences are just not included. Or you can automatically say, oh, I have a low problem or very little problem doing these activities, and that’s okay and you just continue on, or they’re not asked, so. But yeah, we have to have a very large sample size so we cover, we get a lot of people with a lot of different kinds of amputations.

JESSE: I mean, so I guess the sum up version is you’re trying to improve patient care and long term positive outcomes for people with amputations, right?

CLAIRE: Correct, yes.

JESSE: So, I know somebody who went to college with the intention of trying to change healthcare for the better, which obviously is a very large–

CLAIRE: It’s quite a lofty goal, yeah.

JESSE: Right. Right. And they kind of feel stuck. Do you feel like what you’re doing makes some of that impact?

CLAIRE: Yes and no. The impact that I really see in healthcare is more on the person to person level. So, between a provider and a patient or like our lab is so small and we work very closely with our patients, we have these like hour-long one on one interactions with them. Or it’s more like six on one interactions with them that allow us to like really provide a good base of care for them and help them get back to these activities they want to. And then we work with the entire Physical Therapy Department of the Navy.

The whole department meets every other week and we talk about all the patients and help them progress through care. So, I think that having that like one on one time is really important. Whereas this study will probably give us more information to help them, but it’s not the thing that I’m like this is what makes healthcare good.

JESSE: Right, right. Well, I don’t have the expectation that one person or even one company can really overhaul healthcare. But I kind of think about, I guess humanity, I’m being a little esoteric as a collaborative effort. We’re like a pile of ants basically and we each have our individual functions and duties and together we can build that anthill and change it. But you’re not gonna have one amp that builds the entire thing by themselves.

CLAIRE: Yeah, one ant can only carry one grain of sand at a time.

JESSE: Right, right. So, I didn’t mean to be like, Claire, are you gonna overhaul our whole healthcare system?

CLAIRE: I’m trying. But yeah, I think the one on one interactions is more of what I think makes a big difference. But that is also biased by the fact that I want to be a healthcare provider and that’s like a path I’m working on walking down right now myself. So, that also colors my experience.

JESSE: I think I saw maybe on your personal coaching site that you’re applying to medical school or trying to go that direction?

CLAIRE: Correct. I just finished one application cycle and I got waitlisted. And so, I’m reapplying and working on trying to get accepted. So, I’m currently sitting on an active waitlist hoping for that to come through. I look at my phone and check my email a lot hoping that email comes through. But other than that, I’m reapplying, turning around and trying to, I want to be a doctor. So, that’s the end all be all.

JESSE: Now obviously plans can change when you get to residency, you’re doing rotations, all that kind of stuff. But do you have an intended field of study or specialty?

CLAIRE: I don’t yet, but I kind of flip flop between a bunch of things. So, I’m really interested in internal medicine. I’m interested in family medicine. I want to be able to like develop a longer relationship with that patient. And then I also am quite passionate about women’s health.

Since you have been digging around on my Instagram, I talk about periods a lot kind of to the point where people are like “Oh my God, stop talking about periods.” But it’s just something that I’m really passionate about and I get very frustrated by women being told that they’re incapable because of their period for any reason. So, I’m also interested in obstetrics and gynecology. So, I like women’s health.

JESSE: Well, I mean, on the one hand, you may have some people that are like, “All right Claire, that’s enough. We’ve heard it, you could put it aside.” But no matter what it is, now obviously, this affects half the population. But even if it was a matter of you loved model trains or something, I’m trying to think of something very benign but not super impactful. But something that doesn’t really matter but you’re really into that like things need champions. You know what I mean?


JESSE: So, I feel like just continue to toot your horn– [crosstalk]

CLAIRE: Thank you, I appreciate that.

JESSE: [??? 15:20] do your thing.

CLAIRE: Yeah. My powerlifting coach makes fun of me because I say I’m passionate about periods. So, here I am the passionate powerlifter passionate about periods.

JESSE: That’s all right. That’s all right. I haven’t really talked about this on the podcast before but I did originally, so I mentioned before we got going I majored in math and psychology. And I mentioned that before, I’m an oddball. I don’t know, math and psychology doesn’t really fit into anything. But I actually was interested in sexual health or sex research at some point.

Originally I thought maybe I could try to work with the Kinsey Institute. And I kind of came at it from, I always said it because– I said it with people I just meet at college because it’s a good gauge. Like, what kind of person am I talking to, right? And you may get that as well.

Am I actually gonna be able to have an open, honest conversation or is it gonna be like, alright this is not the kind of person I’m going to connect with? Because I came at it from a place of like, it’s a normal function that happens with the vast majority of the population. But yet, at least culturally, we’re so shut off from talking about it. So, I obviously went a different track but I kind of feel like you’re maybe in a similar lane where it’s like “Ugh, periods are gross. Don’t talk about it Claire.” And you’re like guys, “This is normal. It’s fine.”

CLAIRE: Yeah, I think part of it is normalizing that it happens hopefully, once a month, that’s the goal. For normal health reasons, it should be happening once a month. And it does have effects on training and how we feel and it is impactful in our training in some ways. And in some ways, it’s not and you don’t need to worry about it but you need to be aware.

And powerlifting is a male-dominated sport. There’s two men for every woman who’s competing. And that is a recent change. So, it used to be four to one, a couple years ago. 2008, it was four to one, which isn’t that long ago. That was only 12 years ago, that it was a lot different.

And so there’s a lot of men who kind of are gatekeepers for the sport, and they are. Most of the coaches are men and they’re coaching these female athletes, and they maybe don’t understand what a period is or how it works. And so it’s also just really important to understand the physiology or even the humanity of the lifter in front of you and the person you’re working with. And unfortunately, that’s what we deal with every month, hopefully. Yeah.

JESSE: Right. Yeah, I know that’s one of the things. And I haven’t really been in a, I’ll say a superficial coaching position. I haven’t been hired by a college or built my own practice or anything. But I know just as an athlete, athlete/leader of a collegiate team that– I was mostly in charge of the guys’ team and the girls’ teams had their team captain and things.

But it definitely wasn’t on my mind as a man. It’s not something I deal with, so it’s just like, do the workout. So, I’ll give you this chance, enlighten me. Why does it matter, I guess? And I say that lovingly. I don’t mean to [??? 19:03] But why does it matter? What happens? How does it affect you physically as a lifter?

CLAIRE: Yeah. So, those are all great questions. So, there are normal hormone fluctuations that happened during a period. Also, I’m not a doctor yet. None of this is medical advice. But there are normal hormone fluctuations through a period. And there is some evidence in the literature that shows that there’s an effect of estrogen on the muscles and tendons and on how we feel. And there’s been self-reported outcomes from high-level athletes, not just powerlifters that they feel changes through the different phases of their cycle.

And so there’s also evidence, and I’ve read a lot of the evidence on it, and I think it’s spotty and there’s some new stuff coming out. There’s evidence that right before our periods, we might be a little bit weaker and during our periods. So, from the start of menses to ovulation, we might be a little bit stronger. So, there might be like this cyclical change. But that’s shown in one joint and two joint muscles. I’m sorry, one joint contraction. So, the bicep curl or the knee extension. But it’s maybe not shown overall in powerlifting. And so we talk about this thing called–

So, that’s why it might matter, but it also there’s a lot of stress that’s imposed on an athlete or a lifter during any time of training. And so the group I work with or the circle of friends that I have who talk about this, we call it allostatic load. And it’s just all of the cumulative stress in your life, including like, how well are you sleeping, how well are you eating, how’s your job, your kids, your work? All of that powers like how was your drive to the gym, was it stressful or not? All of that has an impact on how your training goes because we as humans have a limit for stress and your period is also included in that.

And there are people who are like you must periodized training based on the period. So, you have to train heavier when it is your period and lighter when it’s not or right before. And that’s probably not like the biggest contributor to stress in your life during that time period. So, we want to allow for greater increases and decreases in stress based on your entire life, and not just base it around this one thing that we use to like define a woman or that’s how society does it. It’s just not the best way to measure stress because it’s not the only thing that stresses women or men, people. Yeah. So, that’s why it matters, it doesn’t matter.

JESSE: Right. And the trouble obviously is trying to, much like your study with the amputees like putting together a study, funding it, finding participants, getting the data to back up. And then even after you’ve done one study, it’s really better to have multiple studies that can confirm the same outcomes to get over any potential biases that may have happened within that– Science takes a long time.

CLAIRE: Science takes a long time, and you also have this issue of all of the studies are really small. Most of them are like 14 or 15 people, women r people. And then they’ll compare it to women who are on birth control and not all the birth control is standardized. And that’s a whole nother can of worms that I’m trying to dig into of how your birth control affects training. There’s a lot more studies on that so it’s going to take a lot longer.

But those small studies are a problem because you’re more likely to publish the things that are very different because of that small study bias. And for those who listen to this podcast who don’t know, that small study bias is when you have like a small study that has a big effect. The difference between the two groups has to be very large to have significance.

Whereas that difference might even out if you have more people in the study. And then also we don’t study or we don’t publish studies that are negative, that have no, or they prove the null hypothesis that there was no difference. So, there’s a bias in the literature towards this difference, and it’s exciting to talk about. You’re like, oh, we found it, we figured out why women are weaker and it’s like, probably not. There’s a lot else, a lot of other things going on that can limit and keep women from reaching their full potential.

JESSE: Yeah. Of the various researchers I’ve talked to since they started the show, that’s one of the like biggest issues I feel like they’ve all kind of agreed on is that sample size is always so small; a dozen people, 10 people, 15 people. And it’s like you if you have an outlier physically, for whatever reason, genetics, training and you try to control for those things but just, it allows because of that sample size, you don’t get the nice smoothing with large numbers. Like, I was thinking about it for the layperson, which is still a little technical. But I liked to play poker in college and there are variations in how you play.

Even if you play perfectly, sometimes you’re going to lose. And anybody you talked to you basically said you need to play 10,000 hands before you can determine whether you’re a good player or a bad player. Because your tendencies over a large number will show what actually going on versus you had the best hand and still lost, and you thought you did poorly. So, the same thing can happen with those small numbers. It’s like yeah, something weird went on with this one person in the study and that threw off all of the results. But then if we add another 10,000 people, it’s just a little piece of noise within all the data that doesn’t matter anymore.

CLAIRE: Exactly. Yeah. And the fact that we’ll publish studies that are small and have a significant difference between the two groups, this is obviously a simplification of what researches. But then you don’t publish the studies that don’t have a significant difference between two groups. Thank you. Then you’re just only publishing half the data.

So, for me, when I’m going through this stuff I’m like, you have to give me an overwhelming amount of evidence that there is a difference between two groups. It can’t just be one study, it can’t just be one little piece of information. It has to be big enough that we can extrapolate it to the entire population. And we don’t have that for periods or for a lot of science.

JESSE: So, how do you approach– Since you actually coach people, both powerlifters and just kind of, I’ll say general strength although it’s more technical than that. Since you’re the champion of this how do you approach it with your clients?

CLAIRE: That’s a great question. So we– I, I don’t know who we is, I. And this is true for both the company that I own and the company that I work for, I use RPE. So, RPE was originally developed for running and more endurance exercise on a scale of eight to 20, 12 to 20.

JESSE: It depends on– [crosstalk]

CLAIRE: It depends on who we talk to.

JESSE: The [??? 27:19] RPE scale, I’ve seen it from like– Typically, it goes to one but I’m always like if you’re zero or one, you’re dead. So, it goes to 21 or some odd number. I don’t know what [??? 27:32] was doing.

CLAIRE: It’s a weird– It is supposed to track with heart rate. We as like a powerlifting community. This guy named [??? 27:40] modified it to be a one through 10 scale. So, it’s easy to conceptualize a 10 as a one rep, or is your max for any rep range. And so we base everything off of RPE.

And so your first lift of the day will be anything anywhere from a single at like an RPE eight, which means it’s difficult, but not like a grinding lift like if you saw– if you think of like an Olympic lift, as they’re like coming up out of the hole they’re just like grinding through it. It doesn’t look like that. It’s difficult and you feel it but you’re not– you could do two more is technically how we try and conceptualize it.

And so you’ll either do a single or you’ll do like a set of five at like six, seven and eight; RPE six, seven and eight. And then that controls for whatever is going on in your life. Some days, it’ll be really heavy and you’re not going to be able to move as much weight. And some days, it’ll be really light and you’re like, “Oh, I can go up, I can put more weight on the bar.”

And this allows for this kind of modular prescription that we’re getting within this like target percentage range of your one rep max. So, usually, it’s between 75 and 85% that we’re aiming for and we’re just going to kind of push you on this as long as we can. And then we deload every four or five weeks and then start over again.

And so by letting the lifter dictate within the session, how they feel and how they’re gonna perform each lift; it gives some wiggle room for the days where like you come into the gym and you start. And you’re like, I feel great this is gonna go really well and then it just like tanks. Or you come into the gym and there’s a lot of lifters who are like, “Oh, I’m hung over” and then they end up hitting prs that day. And so it just allows for that day by day prescription, which encapsulates your period, your stress, your job, all of those things– all of that allostatic load that should be included.

JESSE: Yeah. I’m a big proponent of RPE and I talked about that on my kind of running show for a fair amount. Just like trying to get people to pay more attention to that. Because it’s like you can have a plan for the day and say this is what I’m going to do. But if you didn’t sleep well and your kids are nagging you and you’ve got work to get done; there’s all these other stressors that are going on, and you’re just fried, then maybe doing mile repeats that day is not the best thing.

But at the same time, as an example, I did mile repeats last Friday. I did not sleep well the night before. I think I had food poisoning. I got up, I’ve basically had the best set of my season so far. So, it doesn’t always correlate that you did or didn’t do something well, and then feel good or bad.

CLAIRE: Yeah. And what I like to do is I like to have an athlete come and do training warm up. And then they have something that acts like a test to say, okay, are we going to push RPE today or are we gonna have to drop it a little bit? So, that’s usually the– So, if they’re doing singles for their first set, they’ll do a single at six, a single at seven and a single at eight. And the single at seven tells us do we need to push this one to eight? Like was the single at seven super easy this week, or did that feel really heavy and maybe we just need to take a small jump to get to that one eight?

And so that acts as a test to say like, this is how I am in real time feeling today because probably in the next five minutes, nothing is going to change. But from the time you start warming up, things are gonna, once your blood gets moving and you feel a little bit better, things might change. So, you can’t know until like right before you’re going to do it.

JESSE: Yeah, yeah. I’m actually gonna jump back a little bit, because I’m curious how you personally got into powerlifting. As far as I know it’s not really, most schools don’t have a powerlifting program. Like, there’s lifting classes. I took lifting in high school and we did some Olympic lifts, but it wasn’t like we were training for a competition or anything. So, especially sports like powerlifting I’m like, how do you even get into it?

CLAIRE: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So, I started lifting in high school, just like I was a soccer player and a diver at the time. So, lifting was like an extra thing I did to supplement those sports, and I hated it. I enjoyed being in the gym but I was super self conscious. I’ve always, for those– For the people who are listening who’ve never seen me, I’m short, and I am substantial is the best way to describe it. I’m just like a thick human. And I’ve always been that way. I’ve always had big legs and so I was always really self conscious about the fact that my legs were getting bigger.

Or, I thought they were getting bigger as a 16 year old in high school. And so I ended up, continuing to do it and then I got to college and I ended up quitting soccer. I didn’t like the girls who played on the team at my school so I didn’t do that.

And then I started diving. And, or I kept diving and I liked that well enough and then after about a year I was like okay, I don’t really want to play sports in college. And then I ended up being a gym rad. It was like the only thing that I was like decently good at and still could do. I’m an awful runner. My legs are too short and I’m built for sprinting as hard as I can. So, endurance running wasn’t my favorite thing and if I tried I could have maybe gotten better at it, but I just didn’t want to. And so I maintain my gym rad status, up until my Masters year.

And during my master’s year I had a friend who was like “Hey, you actually have competitive numbers. We should train you for a meet and you should compete.” Because I was still squatting and deadlifting and benching, which are the three main powerlifting movements. And so I signed up for a meet. It was actually in Kansas so we drove six hours to Kansas. I competed, and I just caught the bug and I haven’t stopped since. I love it. So, that was almost two years ago now that I competed for the first time. And now I coach and train people and compete at a very different level than where I started. Yeah, yeah.

JESSE: So, give me an insight of how does the competition run or how does it work, how is it scored? Is it just purely one rep max or how does that work?

CLAIRE: So, for a meet, you usually will show up about– So, for the federate, there’s a ton of Federations. But I’m going to describe how my Federation works. Its biggest Federation for powerlifting. So, you’ll show up about two hours before you’re supposed to start lifting, and you’ll weigh in. You have to weigh, there’s weight classes, so you have to weigh underneath your weight class. So, I’m a 72 kilo lifter, which means I weigh about 158 pounds, a little bit less when I weigh in.

So, I’ll weigh in and then I have two hours before I’m supposed to step on to the platform. And so what you do is you have, you start with squats, and for squats you have three attempts. For each of the lifts you have three attempts.

So you’ll head out onto the platform, you’ll have warmed up during those previous two hours from weigh in until first lift goes. And then you’ll do your first squat, and everyone who’s in your flight will go at the same time, well, you go into successive order. And then you’ll do your second attempt and it’s all like one after another. So, you’ll do all three of your squats.

And then usually there’s a second flight that will come out who’s been warming up while you were lifting. And then you’ll go back and do a warm up for bench in the warm up room. You warm up for bench, you’ll come out and you’ll do your three bench attempts.

And the goal is to like you start, your first attempt is usually like pretty easy. You could pull or push three of those, that lift three times in a row and it would be fine. So, they’re all really quick, you just want to get numbers on the board. And then at the end you’ll do deadlifts, same process. So, the goal is for your first attempt, get numbers on the board.

If you don’t get numbers on the board for any of your lifts you’re disqualified. So, you have to get numbers on the board, and then the goal is to increase them with each attempt. So, that last attempt, attempt number three is usually like a PR, a big number, something you’ve never hit before, and you’ve like set yourself up. The goal is to lift more than anyone else in your weight class. So, it’s all based on weight class for that.

Then at the end, they do some fancy calculations to see if you are technically stronger than people in other weight classes. So, they control for weight and sex, and usually they will score men and women separately, but the calculation accounts for that. And then the goal is to be stronger than everyone else. So, as like 158 pound lifter or a 72 kilo lifter, there are women who weigh 100 pounds, who deadlift almost as much as I do. So, they are technically stronger than I am, because with more muscle mass, I should be able to move more. But the best dead lifter in the world who’s a woman, she can pull four times her bodyweight, which is incredible. It’s absolutely amazing.

JESSE: Yeah. So, is that calculation, do you know I guess I should say, is that calculation just a straight like power to weight ratio or there’s more to it?

CLAIRE: There’s more to it, it’s called a Wilks formula, that’s what they used to use. And they’ve successfully changed it three times in the past year for what they use. But we just still call them all Wilks, so it’s a Wilks formula. It includes some modifiers for if you just controlled for weight. They’re trying to control for muscle mass, not weight, the same way. So, there’s more going into it than just the weight, and the pound on the bar or the load on the bar.

JESSE: Yeah. Do you see the– Will that formula skew one way or another? Is it often that like the lighter lifters end up with the better numbers?

CLAIRE: It’s actually the middle lifters who end up profiting from that. So, women’s powerlifting goes from, I think it’s– They’re so small I can’t even remember the number. It’s like 48 kilos, all the way up to 84 kilos. So, it’s like a big range. And then the 60 threes and the 70 twos are the best two spots to be in unless you’re this one girl who can pull four times her body weight, she has the best Wilks in the world.

So, you’d never know how it’s gonna work. And then yeah. So, after all of that has been done, after all of the medals have been awarded, they just randomly select lifters who they think might need drug tests and then you have to go pee in a cup. So, that’s fun too.

JESSE: Yeah, as a random sidebar, I always felt a little left out because I never was good enough at the National Championship to get pulled aside to be drug tested.

CLAIRE: Yeah, [crosstalk] it is interesting how it’s always one, two, and three, they’re like yeah, these three people, the top three lifters, we’re going to take them.

JESSE: Yeah, that’s always… Well, with triathlon, it’s not always the top three. On [??? 40:25] so episode number three and 29 Todd Buckingham, my friend, he’s been National Champion and World Champion before, he’s been drug tested a number of times because he’s always at the top. But then I know there’s like, even through like 15th place they pulled people just to check. And the highest I ever finished a National Championship was like 50th. Keep in mind, there’s like 2,000 people. But–

CLAIRE: I mean just the fact that you make it to Nationals, the National– If it has the word national champion in it somewhere, it’s a pretty good accomplishment.

JESSE: I suppose, but it’s just a weird thing I keep in my head where I’m like, I’ve never been drug tested. I wish I was good enough to be drug tested. It’s just this weird mark of pride I picked out for no reason. I am wondering about putting on weight though. I didn’t read it, I got busy today. I saw you’d written an article talking about the factors in body composition and those kind of things.

And please correct me if I’m wrong but I understand that it takes some time to put on weight and put on muscle. Like right now I’m a little heavy for where I want to be. I’m like a little over 170. I’d like to get back down to like 160. That’s gonna take a lot of food discipline.

CLAIRE: You can join me in the 72-kilo weight class.

JESSE: Yeah, I’d like to get back down. I’m– [crosstalk]

CLAIRE: We can cut together.

JESSE: Yeah, I’ve gained 20 pounds since college, yet somehow I’m putting up similar numbers. I don’t know. It’s just beyond me. But I mean, it takes time to put on weight, right as a lifter. So, is there when you’re training people or even doing your own kind of calculations for yourself; are you looking at, okay– Obviously, right now you’re kind of in your sweet spot. But as you’re building you’re like, I can only gain 10% of my body weight in a year, or is there any kind of calculation like that that comes into play?

CLAIRE: There is. I know what I like to weigh for training. So, I actually don’t weigh 158 pounds right now. I weigh 167, 166, and I got up to 170, a couple weeks ago and then I was like okay hold on I can’t keep eating ice cream every night no matter how much I love it. And so I– [crosstalk]

JESSE: [??? 42:53] problem too.

CLAIRE: Yeah. I don’t like cutting more than 10 pounds. Usually, once I get to that point, I’m like, this is starting to be uncomfortable. I’m just, one, not fun to be around, and two, I don’t like having to work this hard. But there is– Some people say like don’t cut more than 10% of your body weight. I don’t actually like to have lifters cut, especially if they’re new.

Powerlifting or any sport can be very intense the first time you do it. And a powerlifting meet is very loud because you’re all trapped in a room together and everyone’s yelling about something. Whether it’s the lifter out front, who’s lifting and the crowd yelling at them, or there’s like 700 people in the backroom trying to get lifters warmed up.

And there’s so much else going on that you need to focus on, you don’t want to have to worry about weigh-in. So, just like show up at whatever you weigh. And so I don’t start worrying about what lifters weigh until we’re trying to figure out one, if they need to lose weight for health concerns. Or two, if you need to– if you’re like good enough that it’s like okay now worrying about this weight cut is actually going to put you at the point where maybe we’re getting into nationals, maybe we’re looking at winning nationals.

So, I took a lifter to national. She went to Swedish nationals, Finnish nationals? I don’t remember which one. I should know. But I was like, “Do you have goals of like winning nationals?” She’s like, “I’m nowhere close to winning nationals. We’re just gonna go as we are.” And it makes it more fun for the lifter. Because lifting is often just about competing with yourself. There are so many people who say, I just want to see everyone do well because it makes me be better. That’s one of the things I love about powerlifting. So, there’s just no impetus to go in there, starve yourself, and then compete. So, as I’m sure it’s the same with all the sports.

JESSE: Yeah. Right. Well, it’s like– It probably happens across the board. I know wrestling is notorious for bad habits, in terms of weight management because weight classes matter so much. But I mean, you know what happens in running too, this thought that lighter is always better, which is not the case. In my particular case, I can lose some weight. I’ve gotten a little flabby. But it’s always tough too because then there’s like the issues of body image that go into it too as athletes.

I’ve always focused on I want to be faster. If I look good, that’s a nice side effect but that’s not my primary purpose, but it still seeps in, right? You still see yourself in the mirror and you can see like building muscle and you’re like I look better than I did before or worse or whatever you think. And that starts to play a factor. So, I just got off on a tangent. But–

CLAIRE: No worries.

JESSE: Yeah, just like weight is difficult I think for every sport. So, I just didn’t know if there’s a good like green flags, red flags I suppose in powerlifting where it’s like you have somebody new. Say you took like me, I’m not built like a powerlifter at all. If I was going to do that I assume I– [crosstalk]

CLAIRE: You look like you’re over six feet tall.

JESSE: 5’10, but getting there.

CLAIRE: Just take it and run with it. It’s okay.

JESSE: Yes, I’m six feet tall. But I mean I imagine like if I was gonna be a powerlifter I’d have to put on 20 pounds to kind of maximize my own frame. So, that’s what I was kind of curious about. Say you took me as a freshman in college, I weighed 142, and you’re trying to get me to my quote-unquote optimal range of like 190 or something. Is there a progression there where it’s like, we only want you to put on five pounds every quarter or that kind of thing?

CLAIRE: Yes, there is. Because there’s like a maximum rate of muscle building– muscle mass accrual that you can achieve, and then otherwise you’re just going to, when you put on muscle you’re also going to put on fat. And we want to maximize the muscle and keep the fat as low as possible. So, we’ll probably bulk and then weight and then re-comp, trying to like continue to build muscle and lose some of that fat and then we’ll bulk again. So, that would be the process for like gaining weight.

So, I think a lot of people who start powerlifting they’re like, “Oh, this is where I am. This is where I’m going to stay.” And a lot of women especially that I talked to, they’re like, “I want to lean up and tone up.” And I’m like, if you’re gonna be a powerlifter, you’re probably going to lean up in tone, but you’re probably not going to go down a weight class, and more than likely you’re going to go up a weight class.

So, in the last two years, I’ve gone up to weight classes. I started at… It’s confusing because I was in a different Federation but I started at 138 pounds and I now weigh 158 pounds. So, there was a big difference in like how much weight I gained and most of its muscle mass. And it’s different for– Most guys are going to increase weight, as are the women.

But I think the guys want to increase weight and the women are like, “No, I don’t want to get any bigger.” So, it’s challenging to help women get into powerlifting because there’s all of these other social stigmas that are coloring their desire to be strong or big or whatever it is.

JESSE: Well, I kind of wanted to ask you about that a little bit because like I don’t know if you’ll share your Instagram here at the end but…

CLAIRE: Yeah, I will. Yeah.

JESSE: But I mean, looking at your Instagram, you’ve got plenty of photos of you and you’re a good looking lady. It’s not the, you know like– But it’s like you’ve maximized your look. It’s not or I’ll say like the mainstream look. But I think you look good because you do your thing, right and you own who you are.


JESSE: So, how do you approach that since, I mean you’re big into women’s empowerment and you want to get more women in the sport. But obviously, I experienced this in the tiniest, tiniest avenue when I worked in a shoe store. And all the women that came in wanted to were size six. Something about size six. I don’t know, don’t know why. And the thing is with shoe sizes, a full shoe size is only a third of an inch. We’re not talking about a very big difference.

But something about that number stuck in a lot of those women’s heads. So, I know there are a lot of images and ideas thrown at women about how they should look. So, how do you approach that both on a personal level, on a coaching level being in a sport that doesn’t lend itself to kind of a wafer-thin look?

CLAIRE: Yeah. I don’t know any powerlifters who are wafer-thin. Yeah, we’re all substantial women. Personally, it just took a lot of time focusing on what my body could do over what it looked like. And just continually focusing on I can pick up 420 pounds. I’m not going to be able to be as skinny as what the like ideal American woman is supposed to look like, it’s just not gonna happen.

I also have some fantastic mentors who are women who have shown me that that’s not what a powerlifter looks like. And so I’ve had women that I can look up to say like, “Oh, this is what a female can look like.” And there’s nothing wrong with that and she’s perfectly happy and gives no credence to what other people say she should look like or what society deems she should look like.

And with my athletes, sometimes when they come to me they’re like, I’m really nervous about gaining weight. I’m like, okay, we can talk about that. I’m not gonna force feed you to eat. But, why don’t we instead of worrying about the scale right now, let’s focus on hitting these PRs? This is where you’re at right now, let’s focus on these numbers, the load on the bar numbers over what the scale says. And oftentimes that ends up helping them redirect what they want.

They’re like, I don’t actually care what the scale says, I want to be strong. I want to be able to pick up that much weight. And that’s like really empowering to say, hey, I’ve actually changed my mind. I don’t need to be skinny, or have a six-pack. Because I see the changes in my body that are helping me be strong and capable and live this life.

And then I have women who are like, oh yeah, my friends asked me to help them move the other day. And I was like, that’s what we want. So, you know you’ve made it when your friends start asking you to help move. But it’s more– It’s helping them just like refocus and reframe to focus on things that are probably more important which is living a life that brings you fulfillment and focusing on– And also as a powerlifter, you get to eat a lot so that also helps.

JESSE: That’s always nice.

CLAIRE: Yeah, so, focusing on things like go enjoy your friends and have that kind of– I don’t like using the word balance, but give yourself the ability to go do other things, and don’t focus on the number on the scale. It is literally just your relation to the Earth based on gravity. It tells me nothing about your worth. So, it’s challenging and with each person you have to approach it a little bit differently. But it usually ends up in a like ‘look at what you can do’, not what this weird machine that humans made says.

JESSE: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it’s like everybody comes with their own issues, right? I obviously simplified my shoes situation with everybody who wants to wear a size six which that was a common trend. But the reasons that those women would come in and have those thoughts varied. So, it’s like– But when you kind of come down to it, it’s a matter of like you said, what do you actually want?

And then when you’re focused on this thing, be it weight or shoe size or fitting into a pair of jeans you wore in high school or whatever it is; why do you feel that way and is it justified? And I mean that by like, so say somebody is I don’t know, 150 pounds and they want to be 130; do they think it’s gonna make them happy? Then they’re probably not justified because it’s probably not going to make you happy in and of itself. Right?

CLAIRE: Yeah. I think there are a lot of people who say, I was happy when I was 130 pounds. I’ll be happy when I’m 130 pounds again. And I’m like, but you’re probably only remembering the good things about being 130 pounds. So, it’s just instead of telling people that they’re wrong, like “No, you’re wrong. Your weight doesn’t matter.” I try to gently push them in the direction of like hey, look at what you can do right now. And as long as we’re in like the for health outcomes there are, waist circumference is a really good measure for later comorbidities and later issues with your health.

Specifically like heart disease. So, there’s just like this central adiposity related diseases that come with extra central adiposity. And so as long as we’re in a waist circumference range that is healthy and we aren’t putting you at higher risk for these other things, live your life the way you want to. We’re not gonna push for this like 18% body fat that you have to have to be quote-unquote ‘happy’.

JESSE: And to translate that and make sure I got it right, you mean internal body fat, right?

CLAIRE: So, centrally located adiposity is like adiposity that sits around your midsection that is much more likely to result in negative health outcomes in the future. Whereas like adiposity that maybe sits around your hips or on your legs is less likely to do that. So, your central adiposity– And men, actually are more likely to carry their weight in their stomach and that it’s just more challenging and has a higher risk. It doesn’t mean you’re unhealthy now, it just means that like you have an increased risk for being unhealthy later.

So, as long as you’re within those healthy ranges, I really don’t care what your weight is. And I also don’t care what your BMI is because especially for powerlifters it’s like probably the least helpful thing. So, I like to use BMI first and if then we’re getting a reading that says like hey, you’re maybe heavy or you’re maybe like increasing your health risk, let’s do this waist circumference measurement. And then we know oh, it’s either just, you have a higher muscle mass than what BMI accounts for, or you’re fine, or we need to change something. So, just like again creating a test that lets us know exactly what’s going on.

JESSE: Yeah. So, I don’t know if you got to the part in my episode with Dan and Melissa where I asked them the question I asked everybody this year. If you didn’t, then this would be a surprise but if you did then [??? 57:34] the end. Nobody makes it to the end. I’m going to do stuff with this question though. So, I’m asking everybody this year, what do you think the purpose of sport is?

CLAIRE: That’s such a good question. Give me a sec. I think the purpose of sport is to help people find– This is I think maybe what I want the purpose of sport to be, help people find what they love and find enjoyment in what they do. And help them create lives that they can carry on for a long time and help them be successful in other avenues, and connect with people and build community. Community, there it is. That’s what I want. I want it to be a community. Forget all the other stuff I said, it’s community.

JESSE: Okay. I’ll mentally edit that out. If you’re listening or watching just disregard everything else that Claire siad.


JESSE: Go with community. Okay, Claire, so if people want to find you, if they want to get into powerlifting, if they want to see photos of how jacked you are, where can they do that?

CLAIRE: So, the best place to get in contact with me is probably either on my website I have an email there, it’s And then my email is And that’s B-U-L-L Z-A-I Strength. And then if you don’t get a hold of me there, I’m really active on Instagram. So, that would be Claire_BullZaiStrength on Instagram.

JESSE: That was good. Thanks for hanging out with me today.

CLAIRE: Thank you for having me. This was so much fun.

JESSE: Take care.

CLAIRE: You too.

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