Super Strong The Most Powerful Women in Sport - Part 2 - Sophie McKinna

We've sat down with several inspirational strong women to discuss how and why they, and everyone, should be lifting weights. For the second interview in our series, we talked to Sophie McKinna, Team GB Olympic Shot Putter.

Hi Sophie, what are you up to at the minute?

I just finished the indoor athletics season and that started really well, I threw two PBs but unfortunately, I picked up a bit of an injury so I’m on the recovery path for that. I’ve start throwing again which is really positive so the next month I’ll be focused on healing that injury and getting stronger.

What injury did you pick up?

I broke my elbow, which isn't ideal for a shot putter.

How did you begin your Shot-putting journey?

I started doing athletics at a relatively young age, but I was always a sprinter. I didn’t pick up a shot until I was about 12/13. My mum suggested I have a go at it and, being a teenager, I said “no mum, I don’t want to do that.” She said she had already paid for the event so I have to do it, so I did.

I did pretty well, I came second in the county indoor championships and people said “maybe you should do some training at this and stick at it”, which I did. I progressed, got a coach and started specifically training for shotput. It was a quick period of picking it up, I soon fell in love with it and I stuck at it. By the time I was 15 years old I had my first Nationals.

When did you realise that strength training was important for shot put?

Sophie McKinna standing with a Mirafit Barbell and Weight Plates in a garage gym

I didn’t do any strength training to start with, as I was young. When I first got my international vest, at 15/16, that’s when I started heavily investing in the strength training side of it and that was something I really enjoyed as part of the throwing.

The gym for a long time was my favourite part compared to the stuff in the circle. I really enjoyed strength training and a few years ago I entered a competitive Powerlifting competition as something different to do in the winter. I became a British Powerlifting champion and broke all the powerlifting records, which was quite good fun.

Are you still competing in powerlifting?

I plan to go back; I haven’t competed for a couple of years now because it didn’t fit in with my schedule, but I’ll definitely go back to it. There’s a couple more British records I’d like to take. Eventually I’d like to push for the bench press record because I was only about 5kg off the World Record in my Federation.

What is your experience as a woman in a traditionally male dominated area?

Pretty negative to be honest. It is a shame, because it shouldn’t be like that, but unfortunately that’s how society sees women when they do strength and power sports. Shot-putting is typically a masculine event so that’s obviously not viewed favourably.

People make all sorts of comments on social media. In my gym environment the men are really supportive but a lot of people on the outside don’t know me and it can be quite a negative experience for a woman in a masculine environment.

Which gym do you train at?

Currently I have my own garage gym and I’ll probably be there for the foreseeable future.

Do you think that will be the way forward for athletes?

Sophie McKinna sitting on a Mirafit adjustable weight bench

I think, for me personally, I’ll probably stay training in the garage, but I will go back into the gym here and there because you need that motivation around you. I think in a big lifting session it’s good to have people around you to spur you on and people to spot you when it all goes wrong.

I’ll dabble in gyms when the time comes but for me, I think that majority is going to be done at home because of the convenience and because I’ve got equipment that I don’t want to go to waste.

When you’re in your own garage you don’t have to wait for equipment, you can play your own music, you haven’t got to worry about wiping things down because it’s all your stuff and I think that will play a big part in deciding whether or not athletes go back into commercial gyms.

Do you have a job that needs to be balanced with your training?

I’m still employed but I’m taking a leave of absence as I work with the police. It isn’t a safe job at the best of times and especially not during Covid.

I generally would balance work and training but I’m very lucky this year that British Athletics have supported me, and so has my job, and allowed me to train full time in order to stay safe and crack down and focus on the Olympics and make sure that I’m getting that good training and recovery time.

Your strength training must come in handy at work

I work as a custody detention officer. It is helpful to be able to look after myself and it does come in handy. I can use my bodyweight and strength if needs be.

Is the Olympics the next goal on the horizon?

Yes, I already have my qualification which I’m very lucky to have. Then I’ve got to come first or second in the British Championships later in the Summer. The Olympics is the big target, I’ve always dreamed of being an Olympian. I’d like to try and reach the final and be reasonably competitive. Going to the Olympics is one thing and its fantastic to even be able to qualify but, as most athletes will tell you, we’re all competitive and we don’t want to settle for being there. For me, the aim is the final and once you’re in the final it is anyone’s game.

What does your training routine look like at the moment?

Sophie McKinna getting ready to throw the shot

 I do an indoor season and then go into a conditioning phase. Now I’m back in my strength phase and looking forward to throwing again. I have three or four competitions before the British trials. Obviously elbow dependant but I’m pretty hopeful on that front. I’m back into my heavy weights which is pretty draining for my body. It fries the central nervous system when you’re lifting heavy all the time, so the throwing goes a bit wayward when you’re in the heavy phase.

On the strength side I’m focussing on getting nice and strong and explosive with lots of plyometrics and then moving on into the competitions and the Olympics.

What would you tell someone who was a complete beginner and wanted to get into Shot-put?

The first thing is to find an athletics club. Regardless of if it comes with a coach or not, it’s somewhere you can throw where it’s safe. Secondly, learn the technique; watch YouTube videos and watch other people throwing who are professional athletes.

On the strength side, start really simple. Start with a broom handle and learn the technique. You see people at the gym who try and put a lot of weight on the bar and can’t handle it. Find a strength specific gym where people know what they’re talking about.

What advice would you give to young women and girls about getting involved in sport?

I think that you have to try everything. In athletics as a whole, there is an event for everybody, every body shape and every ability. If you enjoy long distance running there’s that, if you enjoy fast sprints there’s that, you’ve got your strength and your throws and your jumps. There is really an event for every person out there. That’s the beauty in athletics, it’s a really diverse sport.

I’d say to young women not to be scared to give throwing a go because it may look masculine from the outside but hopefully, they can see from people like me and Sophie Hitchon who won a bronze medal in the Women’s Hammer in Rio 2016, that there is success to be had in the women’s throws and, if you’re strong and powerful, you can give it a good go.

In the last few years, the throwing sports, especially on the women’s side, have been a dying sport because we just haven’t had the uptake. People can fall in love with it, but they’ve got to give it a chance.

If someone were getting into throwing, what three pieces of kit would you recommend they have at home for training?

As a complete beginner the first thing I’d invest in is resistance bands [Pro LINK] because they’re really diverse. You can use them for throwing drills but also strength work.

My second thing would be a Plyometric Box, it doesn’t have to be really high. You can do weighted step ups and reactive jumps.

Third, a decent set of Dumbbells or Kettlebells, not super heavy. You can do lots of exercises with them and get that basic strength level to be able to push that into your throwing. As a beginner you need to work on getting that conditioning done. I’m probably in the gym more than I’m in the circle because once you’ve got the basic throwing down, the strength is the important bit.

What mistakes do people make when starting Shot Put?

Sophie McKinna holding a shot

They try and throw too far, too quickly rather than concentrating on technique. They just try and slam the shot and throw it further and further without worrying about what is going on in the circle. You’ve got to get the foundation right first.

I think people also focus too much on getting big and strong instead of athletic. They neglect running and jumping.

If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice, what would you tell yourself?

I’d teach myself to be a bit more patient as I’m not a patient person at all.  You have to be really patient when you’re learning technique and when you’re in recovery. I like to tackle things head on and I’d tell myself to not be so headstrong. I’m all about giving it a go and sometimes that’s not the right thing to do.

What are the best advice and tips you’ve received from anyone else?

My grandad (Dave Stringer) was a professional footballer and manager for Norwich City. That’s where I get my love of sport from. He always said to me that, as a professional athlete, “you always meet the same people on the way up as you do on the way down, so treat them well, because you don’t know when you’ll need those people.” That’s one of the big things I’ve learnt in my career from him – to be polite and kind to people, no matter how good you think you are.

What misconceptions do people have about women and strength events?

I think, because people believe throwing is a masculine event, that people assume you have to be big and huge and that you can’t be feminine at all, but throwers come in all shapes and sizes. People revert back to the image in their head of the Eastern Bloc female shot-putters, and I think that is the big stigma that we face.

We’re trying to drag the event into the 21st century to get people to realise that it deserves as much credit as any other athletic event. A lot of the time with sponsors and television coverage we’re shoved to the side which doesn’t help push that image forward. The big barrier that we as field eventers, and particularly throwers, face in sport is trying to get that coverage and trying to get sponsors on board to understand that we can be marketable.

Field events in athletics are definitely pushed to one side and it can be really hard for the female athletes to make their way unless they’ve got something unique to push them forward into the public eye. If we don’t find that niche then we’re not pushed forward enough so we have to do a lot of our own social media and marketing because, otherwise, we’re not given the time of day which is really sad but it’s also a skill in itself so it’s not a bad thing.

Who are your heroes and role models?

Definitely my grandad, he plays a massive part in that. He’s in his mid 70s and comes to every training session with me – rain, wind, or snow he’s there at the track. He’s a great sounding board if I’ve had a bad session or I’m injured as he’s experienced that in his day. He’s a big role model for me and I feel very lucky to have him follow my career so closely.

What’s your favourite moment from competing?

Sophie Mckinna after throwing a shot

My first one would be my British title because I’d taken 12 attempts and had always won silver or bronze and never the gold so it took me 12 years to win the title. The second one was qualifying for the Olympics. As soon as that distance came up, knowing that I’d achieved a lifetime dream, I don’t think I’ll ever top that. I didn’t sleep for three days!

After the Olympics, what are your next steps?

It will be the Commonwealth Games next year in Birmingham, as well as the European Championships and the World Championships. There’s a lot to look forward to next year. After that I’ll go back into training for Paris 2024. Between then, I want to do some more Powerlifting competitions.

How do you find juggling two separate sports?

As an athlete it’s easy to get stagnated into one thing but if throwing isn’t going well then Powerlifting gives me a chance to have a positive outlet and if my lifting’s not going so well, I can put more effort into the throwing.

And finally... what is on your gym playlist?

Sophie McKinna bench pressing a Mirafit barbell and weight plates

It’s really eclectic – my music taste is probably horrendous. I normally put my competition playlist on; a bit of Whitney, The Greatest Showman, Elbow, Sam Smith, Katherine Jenkins. That’s the beauty of having a garage gym, you can play really awful songs, and nobody can abuse you for it.

Want to discover more super strong women? Read the rest of our series here -

Sarah Davies (Olympic Weightlifting)

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Tags: Misc > Lifestyle