Beautiful Badass Profile: Jen Sinkler
Today I have another Beautiful Badass Profile to share with you: Miss Jen Sinkler.
First of all, a big, BIG thanks to Nia for asking me to share my story in her fabulous space. I’ve got mad respect for her approach to fitness badassery: lift heavy, eat actual food, feel good about yourself. I’m honored to have bestowed upon me the title of Beautiful Badass, and happy about the company I’m keeping there. (For example, check out the profiles of fitness and nutrition experts Kellie Davis and Molly Galbraith).
If we don’t know each other just yet, by day and all hours of the night, I’m the senior fitness editor of Experience Life magazine, a national publication with a circulation of 650,000 and a reach of 2.8 million. We’re based in St. Paul, Minn., where summertime is spectacular…for the two months it lasts. We’re a pretty unusual health and fitness magazine in that we never, ever try to sell you that bullsh*t about getting flat abs in just five minutes a day. (For the record, nice abs are mostly about what you put in your mouth, and secondarily about lifting heavy things that make you work very hard to stay upright.) I have to admit, I’m proud of the authenticity of the content we produce, the know-how of the experts we include (look for Nia in an upcoming issue and on our “Contributor’s Corner” blog), and the intelligence and interactivity of our readers — they demand in-depth information about fitness, nutrition, and quality of life, so that’s what we give them. If you want to read more about what Experience Life is about, click here.
To expand my knowledge base and become better at delivering the level of fitness info our readers want, over the past few years I’ve become a senior-level USA Weightlifting coach, RKC, KBA (the cert from Kettlebell Athletics), CrossFit L-1 and L.I.F.T. Ultimate Sandbag instructor. A rather eclectic mix, I realize, but it almost perfectly reflects my current fitness interests, and also probably illustrates what I’m less interested in anymore (traditional programming).
Before that, I played rugby for 13 years, many of those on the U.S. national team. I finally retired in 2009 after the Sevens World Cup in Dubai. In short, I’ve been blessed enough to travel the world playing a sport I love, and I am working a job I’m hugely passionate about.
Caption: The U.S. Women’s Sevens Rugby Team outside Hong Kong Stadium in 2003.
But let’s back up a step, because it wasn’t all sweetness and light.
The Dark Years
I’m about to tell you secrets. Secrets I can’t believe I’m confessing in print.
Secret 1: I didn’t always like to train. Beyond that, I didn’t even do it. Not really.
I’d played organized sports since second grade, but I tended to use whatever sport was in season as my primary training vehicle. Including rugby. I still remember, at age 20, doing a barbell squat test during my first tryout for the Under-23 National Rugby Team. I just did what the girl ahead of me did. Unfortunately, I followed the starting fullback and fit monster Ashley English. I was so sore I could hardly move the next day, but I squatted that thing. I was aware even then that admitting I didn’t do much besides practice and the occasional sprint workout wouldn’t fly.
But I was playing well, so this shiftiness continued until my second senior year of college (hey, I had two majors and a minor), when at age 22 I met the dude I would date for the next 5 years. He had a degree in kinesiology and had spent a few years post-college doing personal training, so he had the background and foresight to correctly identify a not-minor flaw with my plan of making the senior national team: I was never gonna get there on guts alone.
I moved to Des Moines in 2001 and we began hitting the gym together six days a week, focusing on building my strength and power through squats, deadlifts and power cleans. My weight moved from an unremarkable 135 at 5’6” to a lean, mean, muscular 145.
Side-steppin’ in a game vs. Canada. Photo credit: Jen Doan Photography
I owe my then-man-now-friend an enormous debt of gratitude because I was a whiny little witch who fought making fitness a lifestyle every step of the way, and that dude would literally stand beside me and push the buttons on my treadmill. Or drive me to the track and time my sprints. Naturally, I hated him for it (then). I now tell him regularly how much I owe him. I mean, honestly, what a brat I was.
Secret 2: I used to eat like an absolute idiot.
I would get home from the gym and eat Oreos. I thought Mountain Dew was a delicious elixir. I subsisted mainly on sugar. My then-boyfriend was horrified. But for some reason he was fine with Easy Mac, so we mixed in some tuna and called it totes healthy. (Eye roll.) But I was young and still capable of out-training a bad diet.
Secret 3: I stopped training. Again.
I did make the sevens national team in 2002. And I was the leading try-scorer on our tour of Fiji and New Zealand at the beginning of 2003. I was also selected for the other national team (there is both a women’s national sevens and 15s team in the U.S.). I was strong. I was fast. I was fit. I was damn near impossible to tackle.
Caption: Slippery little sucker. Photo credit: http://dobsonimages.smugmug.com/.
Caption: Fending off a teammate during a practice in Fiji.
But, it turned out that I was doing too much of the same stuff in the gym, too often, and my natural tendency toward quad-dominance manifested itself. Shortly after I arrived home from New Zealand, I developed chondromalacia in my left knee — that oh-so-pleasant condition where your kneecap tracks out of whack and grinds out painful new patterns in your cartilage. It was the first time I’d ever been injured, so I hit physical therapy hard and tried to get right again by focusing on VMO and hamstring development, as well as loads of eccentric exercises (the latter two, especially, plus glute development, is where it’s at now for treatment; VMO development was, to my understanding, somewhat overblown). But my cartilage was still crunchy, I wasn’t used to playing with pain, and my gait was sufficiently altered that two years later, in 2005, I developed chondromalacia in my right knee, as well.
The result was, I decided I didn’t really want to lift very often anymore. By this point, I was living in the Twin Cities and a good two years into my time at Experience Life (first as associate editor, then senior associate editor). I loved my job, so I did that. Just that. I would leave the office at around 9 p.m. each night, grab a rotisserie chicken, some goat cheese, and a pack of pita chips on the way home, chow down, then go to bed and repeat it all the next day.
My weight started to creep up from that lean, mean 145 to a rather puffier 150. Then a somewhat marshy 155. I was still playing rugby for my local club team, and still on both of the national teams…kind of. I was selected only as an alternate to the 2006 Women’s 15s World Cup in Edmonton, Canada, and didn’t see a minute of playing time. Nor should I have: I wasn’t the same player I’d been a couple years before. I didn’t even bother trying out for the U.S. sevens team in 2007.
By this point, I was miserable and weak. I felt sick to my stomach after almost every meal. My whole face and back broke out in a terrible acne-like rash that a dermatologist told me was rosacea, and caused by hormonal changes. I was regularly having what I thought were muscle spasms in my midback, for which I sought help from sports medicine specialists, general practitioners, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and two ER docs. Finally, I was correctly diagnosed with gallstones. Like a little old lady, at age 28.
I had surgery to have Gary the Gallbladder removed (R.I.P.), and I saw 164 on the scale for the first time.
The moment everything changed followed shortly, when I put on a dress I remembered as being flattering. It really, really wasn’t anymore. I remember touching my midsection, trying to figure out if that bulge was me or material. (Verdict: me.) And I realized that that there was nothing stopping me from a long, slow decline unless I completely overhauled my outlook and approach. Immediately. It was May of 2008, and I was so very tired of myself, of the excuses I made to myself and others about why I was so rarely working out, of feeling terrible both physically and emotionally, of dressing to try to hide my body when I’d always been the most naked and body-confident of my friends. I felt like an imposter, calling myself an athlete when I was clearly not training like one. Nor was I acting like one, by these standards. I was finally, suddenly ready to take full responsibility for my own health.
Caption: I scoured my own photo archives, but did an impressively thorough job of eradicating any evidence of this time period. So, I asked my friend Pam to take a photo of this photo, which is hanging in her house and which we get in a fight about every single time I see it hanging on her wall. Check out my chin(s). Photo blame: Jen Doan Photography
First thing was figuring out food. In working for the magazine, I had an incredible holistic nutrition resource at my fingertips. So, I started with a monthlong elimination diet recommended by one of our oft-quoted sources, functional medicine guru Mark Hyman, MD, author of Ultra-Metabolism and editor in chief of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. (Seriously, search our archives at ExperienceLife.com for mentions of his name, the dude is a visionary and lays some serious education down.) I cut out all grains, dairy, soy, and other common food allergens, adding each back in one at a time and taking note of how I felt.
Guess what: I’d eaten such a tremendous amount of cheese over the past few years that I’d managed to make myself allergic to dairy. (No wonder Gary G. freaked out and bailed.) And once I permanently removed milk products from my diet, my “rosacea” cleared right up, too. Huh.
I was living in Philadelphia, working from home, and discovering work-life balance for the first time. Or rather, I was redefining what was work. I decided it was unseemly for a fitness editor to have to beg, borrow, and steal ideas off friends, books, and websites, and I went in hunt of fitness for myself. It was going to become part of the job, and I vowed to be in the best shape of my life by my 30th birthday, a scant 3.5 months away.
Here’s what I discovered: I adore group fitness. Not dance-y stuff, or step aerobics, but hard-n-heavy-lifting, totally sweaty circuit training among others who are suffering alongside you. I want to be in it together. And I happened to discover this at Urban Athlete, the renowned training facility in Philadelphia then co-run by kettlebell aficionados Jason C. Brown and Pamela MacElree (MacElree now runs it on her own). A group of my friends had all hit the same low point at the same time, and we joined together en masse, if you will excuse the pun.
At first, I had to do flexed-knee pushups, and I could barely eke out a single pull-up. But within three weeks, for the first time in my life I started to genuinely enjoy working out. I wanted to go to the gym, both for the workouts, which were tough but extremely well-programmed, and the community, which was warm and welcoming. So I went, four to five times a week. My knees felt great — again, a nod to the spectacular programming and coaching. (Perhaps also to the hyaluronic acid injections I’d gotten in the joints to provide lubricant.)
I was truly tuned in to my body for the very first time, and I paid attention to how what I ate made me feel. Without yet having a name for it, and based on feel alone, I transitioned into a Paleo-esque type diet full of high-quality meats, good fats, lots of veggies, few grains and very little dairy. During those months leading up to my 30th, I also cut out all alcohol. (Since that time, occasional alcoholic beverages are welcomed, and intermittent fasting has been added to the regimen.)
In the span of three months, I shed a little over 20 pounds, settling in at 143 and, much more importantly, completely changing the way my body looked. Disclaimer: I would normally say the scale ain’t a good gauge of fitness, but from years prior, I knew what my body weighed when I carried the amount of muscle and fat I wanted to.
I decided to make another go at high-level rugby. At the tryout for the U.S. Sevens Team, I clocked a 40-yard time the same as it had been at my very fastest, and I had indeed managed to become stronger and fitter than before. I made the team, and was able to end my rugby career on a high note the following year.
Caption: As a fundraiser, the U.S. team compiled a calendar. I was Ms. June, and Urban Athlete was my ad sponsor.
Once I felt more at peace with my departure from the game, I started to shift my attention to other fitness pursuits. I discovered CrossFit, and CrossFit done well (my gym had a bias toward strength, followed by the quick-n-dirty stuff that’s more my speed than those long, hateful WODs). I reveled in the return to a more competitive mindset, I developed better range of motion, got stronger yet in all of the powerlifts, and gave my heart away to the full versions of the Olympic lifts. (I know CrossFit is controversial, and I take a lot of heat for my affection. See my blog post on that topic here.)
Caption: Together is better, when it comes to my fitness log.
I also met friends for sprint workouts. Signed up for some sessions at a boxing gym. I entered — and won! — a push-pull meet with a deadlift of 303 and a bench of 143 (shoulda benched more than that but I got too greedy with my third attempt). I went to yoga at Life Time Fitness when I was back in the Twin Cities for magazine meetings. I tried resistance stretching. I entered a couple of CrossFit competitions. I tried (and hated) rock climbing for the first time since college. Ditto for a mud run. I participated in several MovNat workshops, a woodsy sort of fitness system involving rocks and logs. I swung by gyms I’d only read about when I was on the road for fitness conventions (like the stellar Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Cali.). Most recently, I entered the Tactical Strength Challenge (TSC), which consists of a max deadlift, max number of pull-ups, and a 5-minute kettlebell snatch test without much preparation at all, and got second overall.
I continued to train four to five times a week, and my horizons blew wide open. I began to fancy myself a fitness explorer, and my experiences became rich fodder for article ideas. I was constantly and voraciously learning, and as a result became better at my job. I was open to trying anything, because fitness had become fun. (I should probably note that my idea of fun tends to revolve around functional, multi-joint movements and heavy loads — I remain reluctant about dance-y.)
Secret 4: I still train in a way that Martin Berkhan might very well classify as #f*ckarounditis. And frankly, I don’t care.
To be clear, I don’t qualify as a #f*ckaround in terms of his strength guidelines. In fact, I meet his “advanced” criteria for women there. But Berkhan — and many others in the industry — believe fitness should be rote and methodical. To quote him: “The only thing that should be changing from week to week is the load on the bar or the reps with the same load you used last time.” And, if I were training for a lifting meet, a physique competition, or an athletic event, I would absolutely want to train more systematically. But I’m not. I’m training for pure enjoyment, and experimentation, and to be pretty darn strong in whatever it is I choose to do that day.
Caption: My hard work is often disguised as play. Photo credit: CrossFit LAX.
I like Olympic lifting. And kettlebell training. And CrossFit. And powerlifting. And gymnastics. And messing around with sandbags. And pushing or pulling sleds. And climbing or shaking ropes. So I do all of those things. I almost never have more than a vague idea of what I’m going to do in the gym ahead of time. If one of my workout buddies has what seems like a fun idea involving things I like to do or would like to try, I will likely do that. Or I’ll pick something up from my daily reading of fitness resources. CoachDos.com is always great for ideas, and I nabbed Martin Rooney’s 4-minute pushup test from Julia Ladewski on Twitter the other afternoon and did it that same evening.
I train hard, and often, and with enough variety and novelty that I never get bored. Or injured, for that matter. (Knock on wood.) And since my focus is on full-body, multi-joint resistance exercises, there does tend to be enough repeat that I see progress in my basic lifts. Lastly, I listen to my body. When I need a little break or a change of gears, I comply.
But who knows. Lately, I have come up with a few specific goals: 1) Become an Iron Maiden by 2012 (this involves pressing a 24kg kettlebell, doing a pull-up with it strapped to your waist, and a pistol holding it out in front — read Neghar Fonooni’s fantastic post on it here); and 2) Train properly for the next TSC, which is in the spring. So, my training may be about to take a turn for the more specific.
Caption: The goal for 2012’s TSC: More snatches, more pull-ups and a bigger deadlift.
Happily Moving Forward
It’s been almost three and a half years since Getting “Dressed,” and I’m happy, healthy, and strong in mind and body. Beautiful Badassery abounds, and I’m confident the future holds more of the same.
Thank you again for letting me share my story — really looking forward to feedback and questions!
Places to find me:
Expert Answers (fitness advice column in Experience Life): www.experiencelifemag.com/departments/expert-answers.php
Survival of the Fittest blog: http://blogs.experiencelifemag.com/survival-of-the-fittest
YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/jensinkler
Caption: Putting on a dress is again a happier occasion. Photo credit: Sabrina Asch.