Athlete Interview - Joan Jennings

Posted by Raeanne Pemberton on

Joan doing a heavy deadlift

It was inspiring and insightful having a conversation with Joan Jennings to ask her some questions about how she became such a well-rounded, incredibly talented strongwoman and record-breaking powerlifter. You'd be surprised to hear how often she trains, and at how she admirably expressed her strength goals up front when she first met her husband. She is a fearless competitor with a fierce heart, and we at Belle of the Bar love how she advocates for women to be more.

We discussed how her journey lead her to become such a badass competitor, and how she was taught the value of strength from a young age. I especially loved hearing about her family and her biggest fan, her daughter. As serious strength competitors, it is a constant challenge to balance training, a career, and time with family. Joan seems to do this with ease.

If you ever get a chance to talk to Joan in person, I highly recommend it. She is the sweetest competitor I have ever met and she gives great hugs. <3 Thanks again Joan, good luck next month at the Arnolds!

Read the full transcript below, or scroll to the bottom of the transcipt to watch the video interview on our YouTube channel. Be sure to follow Belle of the Bar on Facebook and join our online group full of amazing women just like you!

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R: I am here with Joan Jennings and I’m super excited because she is our second featured athlete. I’m really glad that you took the time to do this, because I know you are extremely busy.


I am very excited to be asked. This is very exciting, and I’m a little bit nervous.


R: You’ll be awesome. You’re already awesome! So, you just got back from traveling? You went to see your coach Jill Mills, is that true?


Yes, then after that I had to go to work and I just got back a couple days ago.


R: Ok, awesome. So, Joan, we are just going to go through some questions about your athletic history and people want to know things like: How do you eat? What do you train for? What sports have you done in the past? And there are also some potpourri questions that we’ll get to.


R: What is your athletic history like? How did you get started?


Well, my father was Air Force Special Forces. So, he kind of always had this “I could do anything the boys could do” mentality for me. I think at the age of five, he literally would have me do one hundred push-ups. And, every time his buddies would come over he would drop me. I would just do one hundred push-ups. If I got in trouble, I was sent to my room, and I would have to do numerous exercises with these little weights he got me.


Then, just off and on I did a little weight lifting in high school and joined the Navy when I was twenty. I did play soccer in high school. In 2008, when I was in Iraq, in Baghdad. Everyone was talking about Crossfit. I was like, oh that sounds really awesome. That’s when I actually started getting into weightlifting. I got into all of this after I was married to my ex, he wasn’t into girls lifting.


While on that deployment I began looking into a Crossfit gym for when I got back home that I could bring my daughter too, also. I found this awesome gym and met my husband there, three weeks from when I got there. I just really enjoyed it. I was pretty competitive with Crossfit. I was doing the opens and stuff and I realized, these girls are snatching 125 pounds. I’m like, man that’s my body weight. So no excuse, let’s just get stronger. Once I started getting into a powerlifting program, or any kind of program, I just really started focusing on that and then shied away from Crossfit and here I am.


R: That’s awesome. So, I started out in Crossfit as well. I was a runner before that, but I got into Crossfit which is kind of how I met “the bar,” so to speak. So, I think that’s really cool that it’s similar. You said you started lifting more so, in the Navy. Is that right?


Yes, while I was deployed. The point of that was I was doing a lot of running, swimming, stuff like that. That kind of endurance just had to be built up to do the job as I was asked to do.


R: For sure, and that probably definitely helps with what you do as a sport as well.


Yes, the endurance and that part where you have to dig deep


R: When you were in Baghdad did you have a program to follow?


I just ran into a couple buddies while I was at the gym there and he had this little green book. It was like “suck,” “suck more,” “suck most,” and he was like, which one do you wanna do? I was like, “suck most.” You know? We just did it from there. As we were doing this group workout stuff, more people would kind of join us. One of them was actually a Crossfit coach. This was something, really new. I think it was kind of new to the United States or worldwide at that point as well.


Very cool. So you started crossfitting around 2008? How did you, was it hard for you to transition? Or was it based on the fact that you wanted to get stronger, when you started transitioning away from Crossfit?


I wanted to start lifting to get stronger so I could get better at Crossfit. I felt like if the weights felt lighter, I could move them quicker. But, the shift was almost immediate, I signed up for my first olympic meet soon after. Two weeks later I went to my first powerlifting meet. Five months after that I went to my first strongman meet. I’ve kind of been bouncing between strongman and powerlifting ever since. I suck at olympic lifting. There is nothing pretty about my lifts on that.


R: They are definitely an art. The snatch and the clean are definitely an art.


Oh it’s beautiful. Beautiful. Not when I do it though. (laughs)


R: So, I know you’ve set some pretty awesome records in powerlifting right?


Yes, I have a retired deadlift record in California, just mainly because the USAPL moved into different weight classes. Not huge, but for me it was pretty big. 325 lbs and my max is currently is at 331 lbs at a 132 body weight. Squat, I haven’t really checked where I am at now. I haven’t competed in powerlifting in about two years. I want to try again before I deploy in August to try and get my numbers back up there.


R: You mentioned strongman. That’s actually where I met you. I met you for the first time in California. Then, again at nationals where I had a mini break down and you gave me the best hug ever. I will never forget that moment, you are so kind. My question, I guess is, how did you stumble upon strongman? Was that built into your Crossfit gym? Did you find a competition posted and kind of, go for it?


Actually, Brandon Morrison from Lift Big Eat Big, I was living in Washington State when I was stationed in Whidbey Island. I would drive down two hours to train with him and his crew on the weekends and he got me into my first lifting meet and he was actually the first person that started programming me. We actually did our first strongman competition together and really hit it off from there.


R: That’s awesome. I love, love, love that company. It’s a very cool brand. I like what they stand for.


Yes, great people too.


R: In general, can you think of a tough moment for you as an athlete? In a competition? What has been one of your toughest moments? You know, I mentioned me crying at USS Nationals. That would come to my mind, feeling defeated. Is there something that sticks out for you?


That same nationals, actually. I zeroed on the fingal feether? Fingal … (stumbles). Yeah, I don’t even know how to pronounce it correctly. (Laughs) I don’t even like looking at it when I see people on Facebook doing it. It’s not my favorite. I try to hold “my face” when I’m in front of everybody. But, my husband’s seen me crash a few times behind the scenes.


R: Ok, so you don’t normally zero events? Maybe you didn’t expect to on that one?


I didn’t expect to on that one. I hit it during training. Obviously, the implement was a lot larger when we went, and I don’t know (in my head) what happened. I replayed that moment a lot. My first NAS Nationals, I placed last. Not that I was expecting to go in and do really well. I just wanted the experience of it. I was like, holy crap! I have this awesome opportunity. I need to do it, you know? I was just like, don’t place last. Don’t place last! (laughs) So, that was a tough airplane ride home. I was the strength coach at my gym, and everybody was really rooting for me. I felt like I let a lot of people down.


R: That’s tough. Do you feel that way a lot? As a coach? That people look to you for nutrition? Or, just setting examples of how to be?


Yes, for sure. I’m also a command fitness leader in the Navy. I kind of feel like I’m really empathetic. I give a lot to that. It’s kind of hard. I always tell people I will give you as much as you give me. But I Think I care more, when I try to help people sometimes.


R: I get that, as a teacher. So, you travel a lot. Do you have a home gym that you train in?


Currently, I train at three different locations here in San Diego. It kind of depends on the programming or what my buddies are doing. I was training at S10 Fitness since I got to San Diego and then currently, at Deadweight Strength which is a great powerlifting and strongman gym. Then, on the weekends I train with Kristin Rhodes and her crew.


R: Nice, okay, I have seen some of your posts with her. She is amazing! That’s an awesome opportunity.


Yes, I truly feel blessed to have the people I have going on in my life right now. My coach, Jill Mills, my training partner Kristin Rhodes. If I ever thought I wasn’t in the right sport, looking around me kind of rectifies that.


R: Have you been working with Jill Mills for a long time?


Before her I worked with Brandon Morrison with Lift Big Eat Big. I was with him for a few months in the beginning. Then, two or three months right before my first nationals, I asked if Jill would be my coach. I saw those weights and I was very far away from them. I thought, if I have a chance, she will be the one that can get me there. So, I placed last. But I actually PR’d and hit those weights while I was there.


R: That’s awesome!


Yeah, take those small victories when you can, as well. We’ve been together four and a half years now.


R: Coming in last isn’t fun! There are so many mental things we think to ourselves. But to say that you PR’d on things. That’s what it’s all about! It’s super important to remember that. NAS Nationals isn’t light! That I do know.  My next question is, what do you eat? Do you eat a certain way when you’re training?


I actually follow RP (Renaissance Periodization) right now. I was with Team Wag for about a year, and now I’m doing RP. Which I really like. I felt like Team Wag was really good. They gave me my macros. I started on deployment with them. It was easier to do on deployment. But now that I’m back home, doing RP, he is able to help me with food timing and things which I wasn’t that great at.


R: I know it gets specific. I have heard great things about RP.


Oh yes, it’s a lot more specific than what I was used to. It’s just growing pains. (laughs) I am only concerned in making sure that I eat enough. I am always worried about bonking or something.


R: That’s a huge concern. I think most people if they don’t pay attention, they don’t eat enough. So, my next question is, do you have a favorite or most unique thing with training or even with food (or a food item) that you can’t live without?


Ice Cream! I love ice cream. Ice Cream is my jam! Either froyo or Halo Top at least goes down weekly.


R: It’s probably warmer there and sounds better this time of year than in the Midwest.


I could eat it in the freezing cold though! (laughs)


R: So what is your next upcoming competition? Are you training for something right now?


I’m currently training for the Arnolds. It’s my first time qualifying for that, so I was pretty stoked. It’s coming up in March.


R: You are into your final month of training which means deload is ahead. Are you excited?


Yes, and I am extremely nervous. It brings me back to my first nationals. Like holy fuck, a bit nervous, a little scared. I kind of just want it for the experience of it. The platform there, I hear is nothing I can ever imagine. Just so many people. Not that I recognize everyone that’s there when I’m lifting. I kind of go zeroed in, into a cloud, of focus. I’m pretty nervous but excited at the same time.


R: Awesome. So you are doing the strongman side of the Arnold? So what are the events?


First event is keg carry, then press. Second is yoke. Third is deadlift for reps, about a 13 inch. Fourth is axle clean and press away. Then, it breaks to the second day for the qualifiers. It will be stone loading to a platform and they still haven’t announced the second event.


R: Which one do you think is your strongest?


Axle clean and press.


R: That doesn’t surprise me. Watching your videos, your upper body is awesome. It’s probably all those push-ups your dad made you do back in the day!


He’ll tell me, aren’t you glad I made you do those push-ups? Still to this day. (laughs)


R: Do you get, like most of us get, post competition blues? And, how do you handle that? When the party is over, you worked so hard and competed, you might need down time to recuperate. Do you feel down, or lost? Do you have that valley after the highs of competing?


Actually I really look forward to that week of recovery afterward. I push hard because I know I’m going to have a whole week. I’m a big believer in a week off before and a week off after. Just for longevity, I think recovery, it’s huge in what we do. I sometimes look forward to not having to eat everything. Just a week of trying not to care, that’s honestly is hard too. A week of deprogramming my mind, and then getting back on it.


R: What is your proudest moment so far? In strongman? Powerlifting? Crossfit? One specific competition? Or maybe something someone said to you?


There are always so many awesome moments. Most recently would be getting second place at the 120 weight class at nationals. That’s what qualified me for the Arnold. We sacrifice so much time and energy, family time, and I felt like my husband was proud. I felt like I could come back home and tell my family I work with.


R: You’re cutting out just a little bit there, but I think I got most of it. I think it’s our connection. There you are! That’s exciting!


R: Do you have any advice you could give yourself if you could go back to your younger self?


I think I would have tried to have been a bit more focused. I kind of had a hard childhood growing up. My father was really on me, they split up when I was really young, so it wasn’t my entire life I had him in my life for that. I didn’t really know what i wanted to do (which a lot of people don’t). I would have been more focused and more positive. When I say positive, I was kind of insecure. I think everybody has body image, self image issues. I would have been much kinder to myself then.


R: As women, I think we all deal with that. Luckily body image issues are getting better. I think strength sports are helping with that. I’m really thankful for that.


R: So, do you have bad training days? Or are you just a super woman? (laughs)


(Laughs) I have bad training days too. Last, I think it was Monday, it wasn’t the whole day that wasn’t great. I went for a PR (an old PR) on bench and I didn’t get the PR. I went to deadlift and I couldn’t even do 90% of what I was supposed to do that day. I feel like I redeemed myself that day with squat. I always try to look at the silver lining of anything. I can be really hard on myself. One of my new year’s resolutions is to be kinder to myself. I had to bring that to reality. Sometimes I have a bad training week. Sometimes I have to figure out what was going on for that week.  Sleeping, eating right, work is super crazy, that kind of stuff.


R: So figuring out what you can dial in? And knowing we all have bad weeks, too.


Then, dropping that ego. If I am supposed to hit 250 for squats that day, but I can only hit 195, just stick to 195 and use that same rep scheme. I’m trying to learn to listen to my body more in that respect.


I like that. “Dropping that ego.” Kind of getting over yourself and the fact that it’s just a number and putting work in anyways.


R: I definitely think it’s awesome that your husband and daughter are so supportive of you. I know they were both with you when I met you in California. Are they super supportive? Does that help you balance being a mom and an athlete? That’s a huge task being a mom and a wife and being as busy as you are. How does that work?


Well, when I was dating my husband, I was like, “Hey these are my goals. I want to be one of the strongest women in the world for my size. Are you in or are you out?” I was like, if you’re in let’s do this. He was in. You know, we met at the gym. When I came home in 2008, my daughter was 2 and that’s always what she has known. I bring her to the gym and sometimes she works out and sometimes she doesn’t.


They have to be my number one and my number two support. My husband is so incredible with me when I’m at my meet. I’ll get hyped up after an event and butterfly off to talk to everyone. He tries to help me remember to eat right away, reminds me to stay out of the sun helps me focus, and brings me back in. My daughter is hilarious, you know, it’s all she has seen. She is hard on me, she’ll say “you didn’t get first?” I’m like, “Hey these women are really strong!” To her, she thinks I’m the strongest mommy in the world. She thinks I’m huge, so that’s always awesome. I’m only like 5 feet. (laughs)


R: It’s really pretty magical to watch your daughter cheering for you. Knowing what she sees through her eyes. It has to be so cool to be showing her what it looks like to be more, and to be more than your body, and to ignore limits (within reason of course). To do more for yourself. I applaud you as a mom. That’s just so cool.


It’s definitely one of my biggest goals. With that, I am always trying to say “you’re very fit, or you’re very strong.” Trying to keep some of those other words away from her. With my father, I was a very chunky kid. He would say things that I was chubby or fat. I try to, with my daughter, to stay away from negative words. That way it’s not even in her head. I say strong, and fit, and smart and things like that. But hearing her cheer for me? I couldn’t ask for anything more. Anything I win, I just give it to her. She has all my plaques and medals in her room.


R: That’s adorable. I love that. You’re right, from an early age we all remember how we were defined by other people. As women, especially. I think that’s super important. You know, as a teacher, I do similar things. But it definitely starts in the home. I kind of can’t wait to see what she grows up to do. If she is anything like her mom, she’s going to be amazing.


I’m looking forward to it too. She is going to be a little beast. It’s going to be awesome.


R: Awwww. I love that.


R: My next few questions are kind of general, and a little bit random. The first one is, what do you do for fun outside of lifting and outside of your sport and working.


My husband is really into rock climbing. We’ll do a climbing date. We try to once a week. Or we’ll do yoga. We try to stay away from strength yoga. We’ll do Yin Yoga, where you hold a move for like five minutes. Which is hilarious because I look over and he is, like, passed out. Every move, we’ll move on to another move and he wakes up and then he sleeps through like two moves. (laughs)


R: Haha, that’s awesome.


But being in San Diego, we love paddle boarding. I love hanging out with my dog and my daughter. We kind of try to do one really cool thing for her every weekend.


R: Nice, so I guess that answers my next question which is how do you recharge? Sounds like a lot of those things are calming and relaxing and would help you get centered.


Yes, and my training days are just three days a week. Again, that recovery and mental balance. Because my husband does give so much to me, on those days where I need him, I feel I also have to give the rest of my time to him. Just in appreciation of his support. The same with my kid.


R: That makes sense. That’s where the balance comes in. Three days a week, I think that’s important too. I think a lot of people think they need to train everyday to be strong or maintain strength. I think you’ll agree once you get to a certain level, less is definitely more.


Yes, for sure.


R: I just have one more question. If I was to come to your house for dinner, what would you make me?


Ah, I can make you a lasagna. I make a very mean lasagna. I go all out, I get all different types of beef and cheeses. All hand made, also the noodles. Everything is a production.


R: Nice! That’s awesome! Well, those are the questions I have. Is there anything else you’d like to share?


One of the things I always try to remember, is never forget where you came from. Never forget where you started. I think I mentioned that to you on one of our Facebook posts. Mainly that. And never forget the people who were with you at the beginning of the journey as well.


R: Yeah, that’s a good one. Definitely. So do you still do Crossfit these days? I know we talked about that the other day on Facebook. Do you use that for conditioning?


I’m starting to! When I was doing Crossfit I had an awesome engine. I kind of miss that right now. He (my husband) is really strong, he is more into gymnastics and conditioning. So once or twice a week I’ll ask him to put a bodyweight metcon together. He’ll come up with something really creative and we’re sucking wind in the garage together. (laughs)


R: (laughs) Awesome. I want to thank you for taking time to talk with me because I know you’re extremely busy. I want to commend you for being so positive on social media. Whenever I see you in person, you’re such a light. You really do shine and you influence other people in such a positive way. That’s why we wanted to chat with you. Good luck on your future endeavors. You’ll do great at the Arnold! Will you be at California’s Strongest Woman again? Will I get to see you there?


I really would like to make it there. I think it’s awesome with all the women there. I think we have a couple girls from our crew going. Thank you very much for the opportunity. I love what you guys are doing. I am definitely one of your biggest fans for what you guys stand for.


R: Aww thank you! Thank you so much. We’ll be in touch. Take care!


Take care.




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