Interview with personal trainer, manager, and powerlifter Sara Cichorek! Sara shares with us her experiences with powerlifting meets, changing client behaviors, programming, great questions she uses with clients, and so much more!
On to the interview with Sara…
Thanks for doing this interview with us Sara! Can you tell us a little about how you got started in personal training?
Movement was always a major part of my life. I started dance at the age of three, danced 15+ hours a week in high school and college. My foray into the industry started when I was a student at Marymount Manhattan College. I was a BA dance student and minors in business and biology with dreams to go to physical therapy school.
A friend in my anatomy class, Vanessa Gale, had started at Equinox as a trainer and invited me to workout with her. At that point in my life, I was in a pretty dark place and I thought, “What do I have to lose?”
That was the first day I touched a barbell and I think I squatted at least body weight my first day. Vanessa and Jorge, my now fiancé, invited me to train with them for a powerlifting meet seeing that I was a natural.
I began my career with Equinox shortly after as an outreach assistant to a membership advisor in exchange for a membership at the club so I could train with the team. During that training period, I became certified by NASM and was given a chance to come on board as a trainer.
I thought it would be a great place to start and go to PT school later, but, I fell in love and decided that the western medical system might not be the right place for me. I found a family, a community, and a way to impact people’s lives at Equinox.
It sounds like you found your calling. Since that first day you touched the barbell, what are some big things that you have learned about lifting?
The power of visualization and believing in your own success. If you don’t see yourself successfully completing the lift and believe that you will be able to take 101% of your previous max, you won’t.
Even if your doubt is only a millisecond long – you can sabotage your success. I think that training under the bar has given me countless opportunities to practice dropping into that mindset. The practice has given me confidence that I can use it in other areas of life.
Talk to me about your experience with powerlifting meets.
I’ve been competing on and off since 2010 and am also a state level referee for the USAPL – the top drug-free organization in the United States. I’ve competed in many local, state, and national level meets.
I took a break for the last two years from competition and have registered for a meet this coming spring to make a return. I’ve gone into meets with different motivations – to beat someone whose total is neck-and-neck with mine, to beat myself, to have fun, to prove I can do the things I say. I think the list goes on.
There’s a lesson in being able to show up on game day, believe you can do what you’ve set out for, and make your lifts. I’ve had meets where I made bad choices and performed terribly, meets where I went in without confidence, and meets where I totally crushed it. I am responsible for the outcome of every single one of those performances – regardless of what happened.
I would be lying if I said the process wasn’t exhausting sometimes. I’ve landed in a place now where I want to do it to have a reason to be accountable to my workouts – sometimes we need that – and to have some fun. I learn every single time.
What excites you right now?
Games of Thrones!
I’m thrilled that the fitness industry is moving in the direction of more of an emphasis on behavior change. The 160-ish hours per week that we and our clients are not in the gym have a huge impact on their health and their results. We have the power to give them so much more than a sweaty workout or a heavy deadlift. Changing lives!
Can you give me some examples of how you are changing your client’s behaviors in those ~160 hours you are not seeing them?
The real answer is they are the ones changing their behaviors, not me. 😉
It begins with some dialogue around where they want to go and acknowledging all of the things that they need to do to get there.
Sometimes I have them journal, use an app, or make lists/diagrams together. My experience with my clients is they are all different people in different places.
I have clients that will implement the things that we talk about with vigor and others will have a process of trial and error until we pick a step that will stick. I find the most success comes from asking them which step feels like the easiest to tackle and have them come up with how to do it.
My job is not to tell them what to do, but teach them how to do it; help them figure out which road to take and give them the tools to make it down the road with confidence. It’s my job as their teacher to figure out by what means they will be inspired to get going and then how they will best learn the lesson.
It’s fun, really. I get to think outside of the box.
My job is not to tell them what to do, but teach them how to do it; help them figure out which road to take and give them the tools to make it down the road with confidence. It's my job as their teacher to figure out by what means they will be inspired to get going and then how they will best learn the lesson.
So Game of Thrones is not your favorite show, hah! What are you watching now?
I am absolutely in love with Chef’s Table on Netflix. The chefs that are presented in the series share that what they do goes so far beyond what is in the food. They all have their story of how they got there and how their experiences shaped their art and it is presented in a beautiful way. I love food – so that helps too.
You mentioned that on Chef’s Table that their experience shaped their art. What’s one experience or obstacle that shaped you?
An obstacle I faced in my own journey would be the time that I was injured. I suffered from back pain on and off for a few years and there was a solid 9 month period that had days where I couldn’t touch my own kneecaps without crumbling.
This meant I couldn’t train, I couldn’t compete, was in constant physical pain, and questioned what I was doing as a professional that even I ended up where I was. It took me some time, but, I decided that I would begin training for another goal – lifting heavy things was not going to be possible or serve me at that time.
It was humbling to go back to the basics and do a hypertrophy program. I must say I was skeptical, but, was willing to give anything a try. Once I changed up my diet and got back to training 4+ days/ week, the pain slowly went away.
I stepped my ego to the side, placed emphasis back to the basics, breathed, took things slow, and a semblance of my old normal returned. It was not an easy road – but brought me to the next lesson. That’s what counts.
Do you still alternate between hypertrophy and strength programs? How does your programming look now?
I would say yes. I totally get why people go into the gym and do ‘bodybuilding splits’ for eternity. For a short while it did feel great to be in the middle – not unloaded or loaded by gravity but also not as heavy as strength.
I was skeptical at first for sure. I always have some element of strength in every program, even if it’s one lift. Right now, I’m just getting back to training consistently. I faced a bit of a burnout coupled with being part of a new club opening.
I’m working with a submaximal strength program built off of Prilepin’s chart and modifying/progressing using an RPE scale.
I agree and the more research I do it seems like a lot of strong and powerful people out there do more ‘bodybuilding’ work than we think. I wish someone told me that when I was starting out! What is something in the fitness industry that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
Oh, that’s a tough question. I think that everyone has a process in which they grow and learn. If I learned some things out of order, I wave no way of knowing how significant they are or if I would even be able to make use of it where I was. Maybe that’s what I wish I believed – Trust the process.
“Trust the process” comes up a lot in these interviews. What does it mean to you?
Stick to the process and don’t reinvent the wheel. Watch what happens, understand how to take responsibility for your part in it, and watch for when you might do it again. You might watch yourself do it 100 times over before you do it differently.
All 100 times are worth it. Yes, it will be hard, but it’s worth it.
What’s one book that changed your practice or mindset, and why? What’s the one thing that you took away from it?
Oooh – great question. I’m a tough sell on a book. I will only read what peaks my interest and feels like the next thing that will feed me. No force feeding here – I totally read the cliff notes in high school where possible.
Because I choose carefully, I’ve had many that shifted my mindset over the years. One of the most significant as it pertains to my life and career would be “Leadership and Self Deception” by the Arbinger Institute.
We know that change is real hard for everyone. I think that what is the most challenging for managers and trainers (and homo sapiens!) is to really see themselves clearly in the interactions that they have with the people around them that matter.
This book was part of the beginning of my path to start learning about how I do things, the role that I play in interactions, and how to take responsibility for it.
Can you talk about one of these “change is hard” challenges you had with a client of yours?
I have a client that is what I would call a typical finance guy. He came to me wanting to learn how to Olympic lift. When I started working with him, he was a walking stress storage unit who had zero body awareness and got pinned under a 185lb squat after years of lifting. His posture and mobility left a lot to be desired and I knew I had my work cut out for me.
When I told him that he couldn’t do what he wanted until he got stronger and moved better, he reluctantly went along. We tackled mobility, started a long road to building strength, getting him to eat what he needs to perform and recover, and how to breathe.
Fast forward a few years, many secret workouts that he did off-program, many setbacks, and a few hundred pounds on his total, and he is now 100% bought into being responsible for his process and continuing habits that really stuck.
Intensity is in his nature, so, he liked the challenge of adding new habits to his life. The power is in consistency and commitment to the process. I’m not sure there was one moment that was a breakthrough but rather being hit over the head with a brick so many times that he made the changes.
He even takes yoga once a week without prompting after giving me a hard time about it!
I want to dig into your process a little more. What are the top 3 questions when meeting a client for the first time, and top 3 questions for someone you’ve been training for a while?
Meeting a client for the first time:
– What made you want to meet with me today?
– What is one thing that you can start today that will set you on the path towards your goal?
– What is the most important thing to you that you think I can teach you or help you explore?
Someone I’ve been training for a while:
– What went well this week?
– Where do you need some support this week?
– How can you do X habit 5% better this week?
What do you wish your clients asked you?
Asking what my process and journey to building a healthy lifestyle has looked like versus asking what I do. My habits make sense in MY life where I am right now. My habits are not optimal and many times not sustainable.
For example, cutting for a meet looks different than everyday life. The ones I’ve gotten to stick, like getting enough sleep, took a long time to figure out. Others, like food prep, I truly go back and forth on.
There’s plenty of things I don’t nail that I know are part of a healthy life. Their version of success and how it fits in their life will look pretty different from mine. Where we are the same is that we all have struggles and wins. Not feeling alone can help get through the tougher spots.
What do you wish people knew about you but probably don’t?
I find people and life fascinating, but, exhausting. I’m very shy and always have been. I am a textbook introvert. My alone time is VERY important for me. I’m also obsessed with NPR and Jorge and I have peanut butter banana pancakes every Friday for breakfast.
Umm…How do you make these peanut butter banana pancakes?
I don’t! I do a lot of cooking – this treat is my break from being in the kitchen. We order in from our favorite local place and enjoy having a lazy morning. Part of why I look forward to it so much.
Sorry folks, no secret pancake recipes here! So besides ruining a lot of people’s days, what else are you proud of? Haha, serious now, what’s something special that you have done and are proud of?
Changing a culture.
One of my proudest moments was what the team of crazy humans was able to do at Equinox West 50th during my time with them and beyond. When I first arrived at that club, the culture was lackluster, tired, and negative.
I was working hard to give them my best, but, I was also new to the role I was in. Within a year of putting the right people in place, shifting the mindset to become a crazy and dysfunctional family ( I say that in the most loving way possible), we created a space that our members wanted to engage in what we were doing and had to offer, again.
We brought new life to our home. It was a road where I made many mistakes and fought hard, but the payoff was huge.
What’s your #1 management lesson you took away from 50th street?
We create our successes and our failures and we also put ourselves in situations to learn from it; both consciously and subconsciously.
What my team does is very often a reflection of what I’ve created. They are all individuals with different motivation, but, our performance is dictated by how well we can collaborate, inspire, and get things done.
Their job is to jump and mine is to figure out how high they can jump, teach them how to jump a little higher, and understand why they want to jump in the first place in order to set up the next step.
Asking employees “Why” is usually a big miss by managers as well as realizing that like clients, they all start at different levels. That’s one big important thing I’ve learned over time. What’s your “Why’ in all of this?
Fitness helped to change my life and I used it to help pull me out of a depression. Even while I was in the process of learning, I knew I could in some way give other people the tools, much like I learned, to use fitness to make significant changes in their lives.
It’s an amazing reward to be a catalyst for change in someone’s life.
How has your programming for clients changed over time, what have you learned?
It’s gotten simpler and simpler over the years. Mastery of simple things breeds lasting changes in my client’s movement. Working hard is important, but, you can have a big impact without killing someone with their workouts.
Can you tell us about any continuing education have you done that you really enjoyed.
I am almost finished with a 150-hour course in Ayurvedic Nutrition Counseling. Not only is it informative on how to care for myself (and Jorge) in a holistic way, but, it has shifted the way I see my clients and my trainers.
By being able to understand their ‘nature,’ I can better meet their needs as their manager. If I know they present as having more air and space in their constitution, I know I will likely need to help them create structure, make and stick to a calendar, or make more time for sleep.
If they have more fire, they will likely totally think they got it and will get to work- they might make mistakes because they went ahead, but, I only need to give feedback once and they will understand.
What’s one thing that you think is really easy, but works well with many of your clients?
Breathing. Positioning them properly and breathing optimally changes the game for many.
Can you expand more on “positioning them properly”?
I am by no means a PRI whiz, however, taking a myokinematics course with the Postural Restoration Institute changed the way I look at corrective strategies and the function of your ‘core’. How I explain to my clients is we are all a bit twisted by nature.
We live in a right-hand dominant world, many of use our right side and left side differently with consistency, and have organs positioned asymmetrically. This along with being in a sympathetic state – hello New Yorkers!- puts us in a compromising position to move.
Many people have a rib cage and pelvis that are oriented in a sub-optimal position. If the pelvis were a bucket and the rib cage a lid, they should line up one on top of the other. If they aren’t, you aren’t set up to function properly. You certainly can’t change that if you are stuck in sympathetic – think fight or flight – tone.
That’s where breathing comes in, we can shift into a more parasympathetic state utilizing the breath. You see this in yoga as well.
There’s a big emphasis on the practice of breath to awaken the body, put the body at ease, and many things in between.
Breathe In, Breathe Out. Thanks so much for telling us your story Sara! How do we get in contact with you?