GGS Spotlight: Suzanne Ko


Name: Suzanne Ko
Age: 44
Location: Chicago, IL

What does being a Girl Gone Strong mean to you?
Being a Girl Gone Strong means being a part of a community where I can have a voice. Growing up, I felt intimidated to speak up for myself. In a world where women are subjected to social pressures, bullying and body shaming, I want my daughter to know she has a community she can be part of — free of judgment.

How long have you been strength training, and how did you get started?
I was never very athletic as a child and didn’t get into strength training until after college (via group fitness classes). I grew up in a very traditional Chinese household. Instead of participating in sports, my parents wanted me to focus on academics and playing the piano. It wasn’t until I discovered kettlebells in 2012 that I got serious about strength training.

What does your typical workout look like?
Before I gave birth to my daughter, a typical workout would consist of mobility, Original Strength resets, kettlebell lifts (swings, goblet squats, presses, Turkish get-ups, loaded carries), bodyweight exercises (chin-ups, TRX rows, push-ups) and metabolic finishers (sleds, battle ropes). Postpartum, I have been focusing more on mobility, Original Strength resets, kettlebell deadlifts, kettlebell goblet squats, Turkish get-ups and movement flow. When I’m sleep deprived, sometimes I just want to work on diaphragmatic breathing, which is what my body usually needs.

Favorite lift:
My favorite lift is the barbell deadlift. The weight room always intimidated me and I always felt self-conscious. Learning this lift gave me the confidence to be able to “play with the big boys”. Walking up to the platform and owning a heavy lift is very empowering.

Most memorable PR:
I was working with a coach and one of my main goals was to learn the barbell deadlift. I fell in love with it after pulling my heaviest one rep max at the Tactical Strength Challenge (235 pounds). My next goal was to pull two times my bodyweight. I was mentally stuck around 255 pounds. I needed to get out of my own head. I walked into the gym prepared to get past 255.

After I completed my warm-up sets, several doubts flooded my mind. I knew I had to stay focused and just visualize the lift. During the sticking point of the lift, I stuck through it and completely surprised myself at lockout. I pulled 265 pounds easily! I hit this PR shortly before I became pregnant. I used this same strategy during the labor and delivery of my daughter. Having an induced and unmedicated labor required the same focus and visualization with each contraction, similar to pulling a heavy deadlift.

Top songs on your training playlist: 
My playlist is an eclectic mix of music styles. Music powers my workout and certain songs help me get into the zone with certain lifts. For example, Queen’s “Under Pressure” calms me for a Turkish get-up, while House of Pain’s “Jump Around” will get me fired up for a heavy deadlift.

  • Jump Around, House of Pain
  • P.P., Naughty By Nature
  • Under Pressure, Queen
  • Sugar, Maroon 5

Top 3 things you must have at the gym or in your gym bag:
Kettlebells, my music, and floor space to move.

Do you prefer to train alone or with others? Why?
I prefer to train alone because it helps me to stay focused. Otherwise, I can get easily distracted! Music powers my training sessions and motivates me.

Most memorable compliment you’ve received lately:
Being told I was inspiring. I have been passionate about changing the landscape in how to heal postpartum. Many women have reached out to me, thanking me for being vocal and honest about my postpartum healing. A mom told me she owes it to me for getting to her twin boys’ first birthday. She was in a lot of pain postpartum and I helped her to heal and get out of her pregnancy shell. I never expected to go down this path in my career, but my own birth experience has fueled me to help other moms heal.

Most recent compliment you gave someone else:
I often tell moms I work with that they need to be kind to themselves. When the focus tends to be on their children, I remind them of where they started and how strong they have become.

Favorite meal:
I enjoy food that is made well and sourced locally and sustainably wherever possible. I seek out chefs that source their ingredients from local farmers markets. Having a direct connection to my food is important to me, as it impacts my overall well-being. I have several favorite Chicago restaurants, but my favorite meal is at Cafe Des Artistes in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I try to celebrate my birthday there whenever feasible. It is a magical experience every time.

Favorite way to treat yourself:
Sitting at my favorite cafe — with a mocha, a delicious pastry, a good book and my favorite tunes plugged in.

Favorite quote: 
We’re not just missing movement — we’re missing nutritious movement; movement that includes all of the right bends and squishes at the right amount for all your parts to work optimally. — Katy Bowman

I just started reading Katy Bowman’s books and am fascinated about her perspective about nutritious movement. Our cells are just as affected by the movements we do and do not feed them as they are by the foods we do and do not feed them.

What inspires and motivates you? 
When I can change the life of someone I work with, by improving their overall quality of their life.

What do you do?
I am a certified personal trainer, yoga teacher, and kettlebell instructor. I teach my clients to train for everyday life, empowering them to train in any environment. I am a recent graduate of  Jessie Mundell's Postnatal Fitness Specialist Academy and recently started working with a lot of moms.

I wanted to create a class for new moms and their babies that was not your typical Mommy and Me class. The purpose is to teach moms how to incorporate movement throughout their day, safely exercise and pick up their babies, and help their babies with their developmental milestones. The last component was inspired by my daughter, as she spent ten months in physical therapy, due to being born with a venous lymphatic malformation. It restricted her movement on the right side of her neck. Her physical therapist was wonderful, teaching us how movement improved her condition. The valuable information I learned has helped me teach moms to encourage more play with their babies.

What else do you do?
As a new parent, I have not had much time these days! By the time I want to sit down to do anything, it is usually 11 pm at night. Naps are my new jam these days.

Your next training goal:
Thanks to pelvic floor physical therapy, as well as breathing and alignment strategies, I healed my pelvic floor prolapse at 18 months postpartum. I look forward to getting back to my regular lifts without any symptoms. I miss kettlebell swings. I would like to get my unassisted pull-up back and am eyeing that double bodyweight deadlift.

For what are you most grateful?
My daughter Gaby Mac. My husband and I started trying to conceive at age 42, due to life circumstances. While many couples have a difficult time conceiving, we are so blessed to be able to bring a life into this world without intervention.

Of what life accomplishment do you feel most proud?
The birth of my daughter. Becoming a parent is the hardest thing I have ever done, but also the most rewarding. I see the better version of me through Gaby Mac.

What message do you try to convey to the moms you work with?
Society imposes a tremendous amount of pressure for moms to bounce back and get their “pre-baby body” back. Instead of celebrating that our amazing body created and carried a beautiful human being, we are expected to erase all evidence of it. I want moms to embrace their postpartum bodies and give the big middle finger to anyone who may de-value this great feat. Self-care is important as a mom. Give yourself time to heal. As with any injury, birth is no different. Your body has gone through a great deal of trauma. Respect the process. Seek help and do not be afraid to ask questions. Mom and musician Alexa Wilding sums it up beautifully, “We still left Point A to get to Point B. We should be proud of the steps we took to get there.”

Tell us about a time when you overcame fear or self-doubt.
I’ve been an introvert since I was a child. I dreaded gym class. I was always fearful. It consumed me. When I started building muscle after regularly exercising, my mom told me to stop,  because my calves looked like the calves of a man. My parents focused on my weight, especially when I gained 30 pounds (from food sensitivities) before I got engaged. This reminds me of a meme that has been making the rounds, featuring artist Caroline Caldwell and a fitting statement: “In a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act.”

I compartmentalized these fears and self-doubts, until one day I finally had to come face-to-face with them. During my training for the StrongFirst Kettlebell certification, I feared overhead work with the heavier bells. When my coach asked me to perform a Turkish get-up with my eyes closed, the fear engulfed me. I felt my body tremble uncontrollably and a stream of tears came pouring down my face. I came to the realization that day that I needed to face my fears head on.

What’s the coolest “side effect” you’ve experienced from strength training?
I have a better relationship with my body. I celebrate what I can do, such as pressing a heavy weight overhead, rather than achieving a certain physique. It has been a constant learning experience. I am learning how to train my body as a whole system, rather than the individual parts. I am taking better care of my body in my forties compared to my twenties and thirties.

How has lifting weights changed your life?
Lifting weights have not only strengthened me physically but mentally. My confidence level has increased. Lifting weights have become my therapy, giving me the strength to tackle whatever life throws at me.

What do you want to say to other women who might be nervous or hesitant about strength training?
Strength training gives us the tools to be independent, confident and strong in all aspects of our life. Our life loads (bags, kids, luggage, furniture, groceries) are heavier than those five-pound dumbbells. Life is heavy, so why are we not training for life?

You can connect with Suzanne on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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