Setting A New Standard: How Liefia Ingalls Made History

Long before she was crowned the first-ever Arnold Pro Strongwoman Champion, Liefia Ingalls was just a CrossFit athlete who wanted to do strength stuff in her backyard.

Ingalls had seen YouTube videos of Strongman competition so, about four years ago, she bought some molds and Googled “make your own atlas stones”. It wasn’t until about a year into her little California backyard experiment that she came across a video of women doing stones in a competition.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, women can compete in this!,” said Ingalls, who had always preferred deadlifts and pressing over running and burpees.

She did some digging and found a local competition in March of 2014, thinking if she embarrassed herself she’d never come back. Ingalls placed fourth. People kept approaching the new, strong girl and asking, Who were her coaches? Where did she train? 

“I was like, uh at home,” Ingalls said, laughing. “Literally.”

The two original homemade stones are 90 lb. and 115 lb. Nowadays, Ingalls has no use for them. Pro Strongwomen routinely get up and over the 300 lb. mark in max stone events and Ingalls — who can log clean and press 250 lb.— can’t think of a scenario where those smaller ones would ever come into play.

There are much heavier things to carry now, inside of the gym and out, as Ingalls —and the group assembled at the Arnold earlier this month— push to make history in a male-dominated sport that is finally paying attention.

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(Photo: Michele Wozniak)

She wasn’t supposed to win the Arnold.

Ingalls knew that she wasn’t a favorite, that there were competitors with 50-plus pounds on her as this year’s Arnold didn’t have a weight cap.

When she started, Ingalls would compete as a 160 lb. athlete, but that doesn’t exist at the higher levels, so she typically competes in the 180 lb. division instead.

It used to bother her, competing in a strength sport against significantly bigger women.  Now, it’s simply motivation.

“For my first big competition, I tried to get as big as I could. Ended up getting pretty heavy because I was panicking about my weight. I put on some good weight and a lot of fat as well and, mentally, that [messed] with me,” Ingalls said.

“It was back and forth. On one hand it was like, ‘I’m not big enough, I’m not strong enough.’ And as a women you have that stupid voice in your head that’s like, ‘You are not good enough and you are getting fatter’.

But I did way better than anyone else expected of me. As soon as I saw what my performance was like I didn’t mind anymore. Once you start measuring stuff on your performance [and not your weight] it’s way more satisfying and you stop caring about other stuff.

I get clients all the time that are like, ‘I want to get in shape but I’m afraid to lift because I don’t want to get bulky. And those are fun because I get to explain to them its actually really, really hard to do that.”

Ingalls still actively tries to add mass for a week or two before a big meet, but she isn’t consumed by being one of the smaller national-level competitors. The self-described science nerd is more concerned with getting an edge elsewhere.

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Ingalls, who left the medical field to become a trainer a few years back, takes a strategic approach  to her training. The 28-year-old is an avid studier and make lists after every competition of mistakes made, regardless of if she wins.

I didn’t just know how to move,” said Ingalls, who had no athletic background up through college.  “I had to learn how to get strong by analyzing the movement and studying how to make it improve. That’s kind of what has helped me close the gap as a competitor.”

Ingalls knew after Day 1 at the Arnold that she had made mistakes, particularly on the keg run.  But she also knew that the two remaining events on Sunday favored her against the rest of the competitors. In her mind, it was her competition to lose.

It was that confidence that lead Ingalls to pick up a 500 lb. bar for tire deadlifts —a weight she had never lifted in training— six times. A month ago, she would have been happy to get one. But, like her first set of stones, Ingalls had once again blown past what she thought was possible.

(Photo: Michele Wozniak)

“It’s the extremism I’m attracted to. When I lift I’m always like, ‘I want to lift this weight and then when I do, I want to know, how much more can I do?,” said Ingalls, who edged out Kaitlin Burgess for the first-ever Arnold crown.

“I think Strongman reflects that. Every time you go in, something different is going to be expected of you. There’s always a little bit of a surprise factor, where you’re like, What’s going to happen? How will I respond?’”

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The immediate response from winning the Arnold was hundreds of messages, a place in Pro Strongwoman history and meeting the man himself.

The long-term response, and what the growth of women in strength sports can do for the sport of Strongman is less certain for athletes like Ingalls.

“This event isn’t just about me and what I did,” she said.

“I hope someone was watching at the Arnold, thought they could never do this and then saw us, and was like, ‘Fuck yeah, I can!’ and gets on the path. It’s totally life-changing to get physically strong.”

Ingalls, who runs her own training program called Unicorn Strength, has seen firsthand the power of women. She, along with brother, Charles, were raised solely by their mother, Leinaia.

Like CrossFit has done on a grander scale, Ingalls —who met boyfriend Chris Burke through Strongman — hopes more for more opportunities for Pro Strongwomen and that female interest can help spark overall interest.

“The whole sport has to grow on both sides for us to get to where we want, but I think women are going to be the big piece to that,” she said.

“Strongman is really extreme, that’s the point. But then you go and watch some 120 lb. women do the same event on the same scale and you’re like, ‘Oh wow, it’s not just giants that can do this it’s everybody. That’s what’s going to bring a wider audience in, it makes it more relatable.”