Name: Steph Ondrusek
Location: Philadelphia, PA
What does being a Girl Gone Strong mean to you?
Being a Girl Gone Strong means embracing possibility. It means knowing that each one of us has a purpose in the world, waiting for us to find it. It means showing up as you are and allowing others the space to do the same.
It means acknowledging that we may have different experiences of the world, but there is room for all of us to listen, learn, and grow together, with all of us becoming stronger and more whole as a result.
How long have you been strength training, and how did you get started?
It depends on what you count as strength training! I started competitive swimming when I was six, and we started lifting weights to supplement when I was fourteen. I wasn’t allowed to do much then, because I trained with an older age group. I wasn’t technically “supposed to” be in the weight room at that age, so it was mostly dumbbells, medicine balls, and bodyweight training.
I walked into the weight room and picked up a barbell for the first time my freshman year of college, and, even though Health and Exercise Science was my major, I was really intimidated! No one had ever actually shown me how to lift before.
I finally got the courage to ask someone to show me how in my sophomore year, kept running with some friends and doing my swimming circuits instead, and started taking it seriously my senior year of college (nothing like some lag time). I never looked back.
What does your typical workout look like?
These days, there isn’t really a “typical.”
I’ve tried quite a few programs and styles of training, from the more functional/athletic training to traditional body part splits to powerlifting, and I have enjoyed them all immensely. Each different type of workout has been an opportunity to learn something new about my body and its abilities — to explore its edges and push them out a little further.
Right now, I’m in a pretty busy season with a lot of adjustments, and I just moved! So it’s a little bit of everything. I begin most days with some sort of movement, usually 15-40 minutes of (mediocre) yoga, mostly to combat my (mediocre) posture and to get my day started with some quiet time and space.
Sometimes beforehand I’ll do a kettlebell or bodyweight circuit in “lift weights faster” style, because I’m really digging the quick and intense weight training these days. I focus on big, compound movements (squats, swings, deadlifts, rows, presses) and, currently, I’m paying attention to my recovery time (and seeing what happens if I decrease it).
If I’m working out in the middle of the day, it’s the same style that I’m using to inject some energy and movement into an otherwise sedentary day.
I also do my best to go for a lot of walks!
Deadlift. It was the scariest for me, and it became my strongest lift when I was powerlifting, because I was so determined to not be afraid of it!
Most memorable PR:
I dealt with an old back injury that had been acting up and prevented me from comfortably back squatting for almost a year. I spent a lot of time and attention caring for it, because until the point where I stopped back squatting, I had only cared for it with rest and avoidance — which didn’t really help it feel better, and actually made me more afraid of it.
I got tired of being afraid and didn’t want to feel injured forever at the age of 25 if I could avoid it, so I made some appointments and really dedicated myself to healing.
I eventually started back squatting, on a powerlifting program where I was adding weight and feeling good. A few months in, finding myself squatting at 85 percent of my old max pretty comfortably for a few weeks, I thought I’d use the extra energy I felt and see what I could do. I don’t know that it was a true max, since it wasn’t planned, but I worked up to 210, which was 15 pounds over my previous max in a gym without a spotter.
The rush of relief I felt when I re-racked the bar and didn’t feel a searing pain in my back was a feeling I’ll remember for the rest of my life. (I was that person telling the person next to me to take out their headphones so I could tell them about it.)
Do you prefer to train alone or with others? Why?
It depends! If I’ve done a lot of “people-ing” that day, I prefer to train alone. I coach and interact online all day long, so sometimes I need the time and space to disconnect and put some energy back into me, rather than give it out.
But sometimes, I’ve had a lot of virtual interaction, and I crave real connection, in which case I prefer to train with others (hi, neighborhood workout group!) It just depends on the state of the internet that day.
Most memorable compliment you’ve received lately:
A couple of people paid me the same one in the last few days: I helped them see themselves differently.
One of those people told me that they think of me every time they realize that they can wear short shorts, and someone else told me that they hadn’t seen anything on Instagram yet that had inspired them to get back in the gym until a story I made (which was so wild to me, because it was the first time I had ever actually spoken about anything real on my stories, and I had no idea if I even made any sense or not!)
I shifted a lot of the focus of my coaching in the last two years, and whenever you do anything that’s new to you, it can feel a little scary. I’m no stranger to the voice hiding out in all of our heads that says, “who am I to be talking about this?” But knowing my work resonates and helps even one person feel more powerful in and curious about her body is better than any other recognition or compliment I could receive.
Most recent compliment you gave someone else:
I let someone know that the way they conduct themselves helped me know how to better handle a situation. I have a tendency to take things personally, especially when I care very deeply, and when I’m in that state, I either freeze and give up, or freeze and get so worked up that I can’t make an intelligible point.
One of my friends is so graceful and businesslike, especially when faced with discomfort and emotion, and I am in awe of her, so I made a point to tell her.
I think we default to complimenting appearances or achievements, and we don’t let others know when we admire their behavior or composure often enough.
It’s a tie! I love chicken Parmesan and could eat it five nights a week, but my yiayia also makes the most amazing pastitsio, which is kind of like Greek lasagna, and I will never say no to that.
What inspires and motivates you?
I’m inspired by people who do things even when they’re not sure, whether that’s a new strength training routine or a new business idea or standing up for themselves for the first time (or really anything).
My clients inspire and motivate me all the time, and so do my coworkers!
It can be a terrifying place to be trying a new thing, totally unsure of the outcome, and giving it your all anyway. There’s something so refreshing about that level of honesty and awareness.
I also am super motivated by that feeling, because I find it exhilarating, even when it’s not the most fun. I always learn a lot about myself, and a lot of ways to do things that might not work. Looking at life as a puzzle in that way keeps things interesting.
What do you do?
I’m a personal trainer and body image coach. I used to do both in person, but I’m now exclusively online. I also take care of all the social media at GGS! If you’ve DMed us, you’ve probably chatted with me (I tend to use a fair amount of caps, and I get really excited about the things you do, so feel free to pop in and say hi or ask for someone to celebrate with you!)
What else do you do?
I am almost never not working, but not in the “glorification of busy” way, but because I love what I do.
I spend a lot of time educating myself so I can best help all female-identified folks — regardless of race, class, size, age or sexual orientation — take up space on our platforms.
I love to write, and I’m also always reading. I usually have one fiction book (I’m into dystopian-future young adult and fantasy novels, as a full-fledged member of the original Harry Potter generation, so feel free to send me any recs) and one non-fiction book (I’m into a wide variety of topics, including but not limited to social justice, HAES, cosmos stuff, spirituality, food/cooking) going at any given time.
Your next training goal:
To stay injury-free and on an upward swing! I have a few overuse injuries from years of swimming and a lot of tunnel vision (and stubbornness) in my training, so to continue to take care of those while exploring all the shapes “fitness” can take.
For what are you most grateful?
My family. My brother is one of my best friends, my dad and I are really close, and it took many years of work for that to happen. We’re very honest with each other, and we respect each other all as independent adults. I trust both of them to have my back in any situation.
Not a lot of people have that sort of relationship with their siblings or a parent, and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to cultivate that.
Which three words best describe you?
Passionate. Empathetic. Curious.
How has lifting weights changed your life?
I struggled with a lot of insecurity growing up, and I got a message early on (like so many of us do) that I’m not good enough, and it’s my fault. I internalized that message somewhere along the line and was instilled with this sense of ownership of bad things, while simultaneously feeling powerless to do anything about them (without realizing that that was because they weren’t my things!)
Lifting weights taught me that I have power: that I can do hard things, and that I can put in an effort and expect a result.
It helped me discover that even when I don’t reach a goal, I still learned something, I still did something, and the effort was still worth the process.
Lifting has also shown me that not everything turns out the way you think it will! It’s given me the opportunity to ask myself a lot of questions and discover what it is that I truly care about — which happens to include autonomy, exploring possibilities for myself and others, not doing things just because someone told me I should, and having fun with it all.
What do you want to say to other women who might be nervous or hesitant about strength training?
There’s no “right” way to approach strength training, except to just show up! I was on the “Just Show Up” plan for a long time, and I have recently returned to it. It’s empowering to know that all I have to do is get in there, pick up what I want to try, and see how it feels.
You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) approach every single session hoping to hit a PR or complete it in record time or be the “best” at anything. More progress is made in consistent “OK” workouts than in one “kickass” workout a week.
You have other options than fat loss. You don’t have to count calories, or minutes on the treadmill, or anything else.
You’re allowed to start strength training just because you want to try something new, or because you want to gain size, or because you want to see what it’s about.
There’s no pressure. You belong here.
You can learn more about Steph on her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.