Having a positive body image can be easier said than done. Unfortunately for many young women, struggles to look perfect are a way of life; their body size or shape a sign of personal failure. Their body becomes a place for punishment— how little can I eat? how much cardio can I do? —rather than something to be proud of.
Competitive powerlifter Leanna Carr was one of those women. Until she discovered lifting and realized that what her body could do— which includes an impressive 305 lb. squat, 170 lb. bench, and 350 lb. deadlift— was far more important than any number on the scale. Carr, who balances powerlifting with being a WNBF Pro Figure competitor, is also one of the creators of Iron Woman Strength and has become a powerful inspiration on social media.
Here, Carr delves into how she stumbled on powerlifting, her past issues with body image and becoming comfortable in her own skin.
Athlete Daily: You’ve competed in both powerlifting meets and figure competitions? That’s not very common. How did this all start?
Carr: “I started working out in college (as an undergrad at University of Georgia) after gaining about 30-lb. I made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight for Spring Break, did a lot of cardio, did some cable/isolation stuff. I had some friends that actually competed [in figure competitions] so I decided I wanted to do one. I continued dieting to prep for my show—probably had no business stepping on stage since I had no muscle maturity since I hadn’t been training that long—but luckily I had a coach who prepped me into the show and I got really lean.”
Carr ended up winning her division at her first figure show.
“I went out to eat after and had my ‘cheat meal’. I did a very restrictive prep, did not count macros. I remember sitting in the car in traffic on the way back from the gym eating a bag of lettuce and crying. I was supposed to do another show after that, but just couldn’t get back on it.
I had that one taste of a “free cheat meal” and because of how food-focused I was during that entire prep and how deprived I was, I just couldn’t do it. I felt like everything I had learned about being healthy and about nutrition went out the window. I put back on 10-lb., I was probably in the best shape I had ever been in my entire life, but I was also probably the most critical of my body, of the way I looked.
I was so focused on how I looked, afraid of people possibly judging me for gaining some weight. Just a very unhealthy mindset.
I decided to just start lifting weights and was actually at my university rec center squatting when a couple of guys on the UGA Powerlifting team approached me and said ‘Hey you look strong, have you ever thought about powerlifting?’
At the time, I hadn’t ever really thought about it, it was way before powerlifting was even big. There weren’t very many females who were powerlifting at the time.
In my head I was just like “Oh, you know, I don’t want to get too big’. Just thinking about of the stereotypical powerlifting woman—huge. I was very hesitant, but I ended up going to a practice and I squatted 225-lb.”
Athlete Daily: That was your first time lifting?
Carr: “That was really my first time really squatting heavy. The guys on the team were like ‘You have to keep doing this!’ So, I did. Ended up going to practices over the summer, fell in love with lifting in general.
Instead of focusing on how much I weighed or how I looked in the mirror I was focusing on going to the gym and hitting PRs, getting stronger, seeing what my body could be capable of, instead of just trying to get smaller, and keep losing weight. I did my first meet shortly after that and I was hooked. That was my first season of powerlifting.”
Athlete Daily: And you continued to do figure competitions?
Leanna: “About two years later, I felt like I was in a good place mentally to do figure again. I had a bad first experience, but being on the stage was something that I really enjoyed, too. I liked the dedication and the discipline being in the contest prep gave me.
I used flexible dieting for my second prep, had ten times better experience. I ended up doing three shows after that—won my WNBF Pro Card—and continued powerlifting the entire prep. I did a show, then a powerlifting meet, then another show. Compound movements in powerlifting didn’t ruin my physique for figure.”
Carr’s first coach told her not to do both and that a jack-of-all-trades is the master of none, meaning she would never be a top physique competitor or a top powerlifter. But Carr didn’t care to be either at that point in her life.
“Powerlifting saved me from an eating disorder that I was on my way to getting,” Carr said. “Saved me from body images issues that I had—I needed something [besides figure competitions].”
Athlete Daily: What mistakes do you see in powerlifting training?
Leanna: “A lot of powerlifters train with specificity—bench, squat, deadlift—BOOM. Because that’s what you’re trying to get good at. You’re not trying to get good at bicep curls. So a lot of powerlifters won’t do any accessory movements, because they think the extra volume isn’t going to do anything. [They think] it’s not helping them achieve what they want to achieve. But obviously the bigger your muscle is, the stronger it’s going to be.
And I think a lot of girls who start powerlifting don’t really have a lot of athletic background, and one of the problems they run into is they just say ‘OK, I’m going to start lifting heavy’. And then they get hurt, because they don’t have the muscular capacity to withstand their training and protect their joints.”
“Powerlifting saved me from an eating disorder that I was on my way to getting. [It] saved me from body images issues that I had—I needed something [besides figure competitions].”
Athlete Daily: Do you use accessory lifts a lot?
Leanna: “Pretty much every day. Also, I start my training with a compound movement—squat, bench, deadlift. On a day geared to squats, I do my squats and then follow it up with something quad-centric or hamstring-centric to accompany that. If I’m starting a 12-week training cycle, obviously I’ll do a lot more accessory work in the beginning of the cycle. And then once I get closer to my competition I’ll taper it off —so as it not overly fatigue the muscle— especially in my offseason. When I have no competitions, no meets I’m just trying to get as jacked as possible.”
Athlete Daily: What prompted you to start your own business, Iron Woman Strength, geared around programming?
Leanna: “I knew nothing about the sport of powerlifting [when I started.] It was, ‘this seems fun, let’s lift heavy’. That’s why I started my business (Iron Woman Strength) because whenever I got into powerlifting, I didn’t really know where to go. Obviously, you can Google powerlifting, or look on YouTube, but I had no idea where to begin.
When I started, I got a lot of emails from women saying ‘That’s so cool what you’re doing; I want to get into powerlifting too, but I’ve been looking online and this website says one thing and this website says another.’ So, that kind of inspired the idea behind my website, which is a member website, an all-encompassing resource for members.
I’ve recorded multiple videos, and forty-plus topics ranging from technique, form, how to program powerlifting, why programming for powerlifting is different than others, what to expect at your first meet. All the basic information about powerlifting in general all on one website, so they don’t have to look around and be bombarded with all the other information out there that may or may not be correct.”
Athlete Daily: Who does the programming?
Leanna: “Myself and my coach/business partner Brian Minor. What really stuck out to me was that, he’s the kind of coach that didn’t just say ‘Here’s your program, here’s your nutrition’ and just have me blindly follow it. From the get-go he was really good about describing and explaining to me why he programmed this a certain way. [He] basically gave me the information I needed not only to do the program, but to progress on my own as an athlete.
That really stuck out to me and just the relationship I had with him, I want to be able to offer the same experience to women newer to powerlifting. To offer them the same coaching and guidance as I got. Membership includes 15 weeks of programming, with 14 different templates based on volume, and number of training days. Each week programming is released and a set of videos is released. We teach them how to adjust their loads/percentages based off previous weeks.”
For more on Leanna Carr’s programming check out Iron Woman Strength.com.