Stefi Cohen Talks Cardio, Powerlifting Myths, and 4X Bodyweight Deadlifts

Stefi Cohen isn’t just a strong powerlifter. She’s an unusually well-rounded athlete and coach who, through the online coaching platform Hybrid Performance Method, is committed to learning the most effective ways to combine powerlifting, bodybuilding, and Olympic weightlifting.

As a state record-holding weightlifter, former team member of the U17 Venezuelan soccer team, and world record-holding powerlifter, she seems to know what she’s talking about.

We spoke with Cohen just a couple of days after she set an all-time world record with a 485-pound (220-kilogram) deadlift at 121 pounds (55 kilograms) bodyweight. The lift, which she had been publicly working toward for months, shattered the previous record by over thirty pounds and may have been the first ever quadruple bodyweight deadlift performed by a female in competition.

BarBend: Congratulations on finally hitting the lift, Stefi!

Stefi Cohen: Thank you, I appreciate it.

BarBend: I know there’s a ton to talk about with regards to how you broke a deadlift world record. One question we hear a lot is, when you’re specifically working on increasing your deadlift, do you train differently to a male athlete? 

There’s no real difference between training for guys and girls as a general rule. Research says that girls tend to handle a lot more volume than guys, we’re just naturally able to recover from training a lot better. But that’s just some of the research and a bit of anecdotal evidence.

BarBend: What’s one of the most important training lessons you’ve learned on your road to the world record?

I think an important to thing to note is that as an athlete, we go through different coaches and try different programming, but at the end of the day what’s really going to make the difference is training years, your experience, and you learning to know your body and what works best for you. Being able to know when to push training, when not to, and what you personally need to add in order to achieve your goals.

I think that’s the mistake most people make: they do what I call “coach hopping.” When you think the answer’s gonna be in the next programming, when you think that this guru’s program will have the answer to all your problems. And it’s not really like that.

I’m really big into autoregulation, and that’s basically getting to know your body and what works for you. But I think a lot of people aren’t in tune with their body and with what they need to do. Maybe they don’t pay attention, they’re lazy, maybe they want to be told what to do how to do it at all times. And that’s cool for a little bit, but eventually, you’re going to have to figure out some things on your own.

I talked a lot about this with Dan Green, Ed Coan, Rob Philippus, and what really struck me is none of them takes programming from someone else. They might have a coach, but they do their own programming — and it’s not written in stone. They almost play it by ear, week by week, based on how they feel.

BarBend: Can you give us an example of how you’ve used autoregulation? 

I got really injured at the beginning of the year and I was the type of person who wouldn’t want to deviate from my programming even the slightest bit. I wrote the Hybrid Powerlifting Program with Hayden (Bowe) and it’s a good program so I was following it to a T, to a point where I was pushing it on days where I wasn’t ready to push myself. For example, I was pushing sumo deadlifts on days I was having a lot of back pain.

It got to a point where I literally couldn’t walk without pain. And when your quality of life decreases as a result of training, you have a problem. It was like I was blind to it, just telling myself I was fine and I just had to make it through the US Open, which I was training for. And that’s just not OK.

So I bombed out of the US open and I took some time off, and started doing autoregulation out of pure necessity. Some days when I had sumo deadlifts and my back was bugging me I would do them off the blocks, high blocks even — literally a 5-inch pull. And it was fine, it was what I could do without pain. It was just what I could do on that particular day.

BarBend:  Yes, knowing when you can and can’t push yourself is really important. Last month, when you were repping 440-pound deadlifts, you said that doing more cardio really helped your lifting. Can you tell us what that looked like?

I started doing a combination of low, slow distance training — maybe twenty minutes a couple of times a week — in combination with circuit training.

So, let’s say I had four accessory movements that day, doing chest and triceps. I would incorporate that into it so that I’m doing a single-arm press and a tricep kickback and in between, I’d do something like a trap bar carry or a heavy kettlebell swing, something to get my heart rate up. And I’d do that in the form of a circuit.

It gets me a little out of breath, helps me get a more anaerobic, burn some more calories, improve my work capacity, and just breathe a little bit harder. I feel like people don’t do that enough, and it’s important for health and also to improve your mental strength: to go through circuits that are so f*cking hard you want to quit but you don’t. It’s not the same feeling as a heavy squat. They both build resilience and mental strength but in different ways.

BarBend: It’s so common to hear people think that powerlifters shouldn’t do cardio. What are some other myths you’re tired of hearing?

The myth of overspecificity. I think a lot of people miss the fact that no athlete in the world trains the same way 365 days a year. A football player doesn’t train for a football game all year round, they have times they build up aerobic capacity, times for strength, for some rehab stuff, and so on. People think that the only way you can get better is through squat, bench, and deadlift, but they’re missing the point. The person who wins the race or the meet is the person who can last the longest. It’s impossible to make progress if you’re not healthy.

Ed Coan, for example, he has over 70 world records. How many years did it take him to do that? Well over a decade. He lasted a long time and that’s the difference. You need to be able to last, and cardio and accessory movements and circuit training, all those things can help you in the long run. And you need to add them into your training.

BarBend: You’re known for “hybrid training,” and when I think of that term my mind goes to Alex Viada deadlifting 700 pounds and doing an ultramarathon in the same week. How do you define hybrid training?

To us, hybrid training combines powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, and bodybuilding into one program. Because that’s what we did when we started hybrid, we were competing in Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting. So the motto is look like a bodybuilder, lift like a powerlifter, move like a weightlifter.

Hayden and I write the programming online, we have a bunch of programs and people can just sign up online. It’s not individualized, but we respond to people’s questions in the private Facebook group so they know what to do when they don’t have access to certain equipment or they have back pain, things like that.

BarBend: You’re studying to be a Doctor of Physical Therapy, right? 

I just started my last semester, so I have less than two months left of school. Then I have a six-month internship and then that’s it. I’m meant to graduate next April.

BarBend: Do you think you’ll keep competing after that, or be a full-time physical therapist, or is something else in the cards?

I definitely won’t be practicing physical therapy full-time. I might do it part-time to polish my skills and learn a little more about clinic life if I feel like I need it after the six months of working for someone. But I definitely do want to implement the things I’ve been learning. I just opened a gym in Miami, we have a table there so we might have a place where I could have an office.

BarBend: Awesome, good luck with the rest of your studies. Is there anything else you’d like to tell our audience?

My next meet will be the Reebok Record Breakers in November — and I’m planning on making a 500-pound deadlift.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Featured image via @steficohen on Instagram.