Interview with Shannon Hartnett
by Steve Cotter
SC: Hi Shannon, thanks for allowing me to interview you. I think you are a tremendous role model, and I would like for the readers to be able to gain some insights about your training, so that we can model after your success as much as possible.
SH: Sure, of course.
SC: Shannon, you are a pioneer in what was historically a male-only sport. You started beating some of the men and that opened some doors for women competitors. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
SH: Yeah. When I first started competing, I asked the guys where the next competition was and they said, "We have a competition next week in L.A., but you're not allowed to go". I asked why and they said that there was no women's division. So I asked when was the next women's one and it was like seven months away. So I asked what if I qualified in the men's standards and go into the men's division. I called a couple of the people who were putting on the Games and they said that was fine. So I just started doing it that way and the next year they started the woman's competition. Not necessarily to be chauvinists, but more so to save the shirts of the guys who weren't doing as well as I was.
SC: That's awesome. What would you say are the most important athletic attributes that a Highland Games athlete needs to possess in order to excel in the sport?
SH: I would say in Highland Games it definitely helps to be explosive, just like as if you were a shot putter, or a discus thrower or something. The explosiveness really helps out. Always, of course, being strong in the head. You'll notice a lot of the guys who are tops in the world with their numbers — again and again when they get into a really big competition, they tend to be weak in the head and they're not able to put it together. So, I think that's definitely an important attribute if you want to be at the top.
SC: I'm really glad you brought that up. Do you have a particular ritual or approach that you incorporate with your training going into competitions, in order to better prepare yourself mentally?
SH: Yeah, definitely when I train because I'll sometimes go out and train with other people and they're taking 20 and 30 throws with each event. I don't like to throw quite as much and then when I get close to a competition I like to simulate competition type throwing, which is maybe 3 or 4 warm-ups and then 3 hard ones. Because that's difficult, sometimes a lot of these guys need to take maybe 10 or 15 throws before they even get warmed-up. So, therefore they throw great in practice, but then when it comes down to competing, they never really get it together. I think it's important to kind of simulate what you're going to do on the weekend, and start at least a couple of weeks out with that. Also, I like to train heavier so some of my weight for distance are heavier, my hammers are heavier. I do a lot of strength training so when I do come into a competition, the weights feel light and I'm able to push through and throw well throughout the entire day, even though you do so many events in one day.
SC: Highland Games seems like a really well-rounded strength sport. Would you say that power wins out more than any other factor — more than endurance, more than technique?
SH: I think power with technique does help, especially when you get into the higher levels. Because you'll see a lot of the powerlifters come out and try this sport and they might be pretty good with the stones and maybe the weight for height, but they just don't have the technique for the weights for distance and the caber and the hammers and such. So, definitely you need power but, if you want to get to the higher levels you really need to have that technique dialed in, and the speed, as well. You can be explosive in the turns but if you're not as fast as the next guy then you're not going to be moving the weight as fast and it's not going to go as far.
SC: Shannon, for the strength and conditioning training that you do outside of the actual practice for your sport, what tools do you use, and what is your training approach? By that I mean, do you focus on general conditioning, what some may call GPP, or are you focusing on sports-specific type of movements?
SH: I pretty much always do sports-specific type movements and I think because I do so many sports that I don't really have time to do some general type of stuff. Usually, whatever I am training that is not a direct correlation — like going out and throwing, is somehow related to whatever sport I have coming up, or my next competition. So, I definitely try to do more sports related type of training. If it's sprints or if it's a harness truck pull, I really try to make it very sport-specific, rather than general.
SC: It seems like you're conditioned all year round. Is that the case?
SH: Yeah, I definitely am, and also I don't really have a down season. You know, December, January, February I'm usually over in New Zealand, Australia — competing over there, too. Then February is usually a World Championships for Scottish Games. December of last year was the Americans for Olympic weightlifting. I really don't get a down season, per se. So, in order to stay on the top, since the sports are kind of alternating, you know, I really have to stay on top of each different sport.
SC: With that type of year-round activity you must have, even for an athlete, a very disciplined lifestyle in terms of your rest and your recovery and things like that.
SH: Yeah, I'm definitely — I've always been an over-trainer. But, I think one thing that I do well, is I stay fairly injury-free. I'm able to recognize, you know, if something goes wrong with my shoulders, or if I can't get the swelling down in my knees, or whatever it is —I'm not obsessed with working out. I just love working out to become better and because I have a lot of fun at it. So, if I do feel something coming on, I'm very good at reading my body and able to manipulate my workout. They're the best that I can be right then and not sticking to a piece of paper which might not fit how my body is feeling.
SC: That's awesome. That's a high level of body awareness and sensitivity.
SH: Yeah, and I think that most top-level athletes — their biggest problem is injuries. You look at all the top Olympians and they would all be top in the world, but, one guy pulls a hamstring and another does something to his hip flexor, and you have all those little injuries that take you out of training and you're always constantly rehabbing and starting from page one again. I think the key to really staying at the top is to stay injury-free and to continue to carry that level without anything bringing you down and having you start over again.
SC: Do you have a team of specialists to help you with staying healthy? Do you follow a holistic approach, like acupuncture, massage, or anything like that?
SH: I don't really follow anything. I'm sponsored by a company called Game Ready. They have this ice machine that does pressure at the same time that it's running ice through the injured area, and I use that quite a bit, and that's really helpful. It's much better than throwing on an ice bag and wrapping it on the knees. I also go to Dr. David Cruz, and he'll usually do ultra-sound on my shoulder and try to fix up my neck and stuff like that. I do stuff here and there but, to be honest with you, I'm quite lazy when it comes to getting treatments.
SC: As fine-tuned as you are, you probably don't need it very much.
SH: Yeah, and I hate to make appointments and have to go see all these different people. Dr. Cruz is great because he's right next to one of the gyms, so it's just nice to be able to go in there after my workout and have him adjust me or whatever.
SC: You've had an incredibly diverse sporting career, which is very unusual. I'm probably missing some things here, but, among other things, you were a college heptathlete, you've done competitive bodybuilding, you're a deep-sea diver, you play women's pro football, you were very close to making the 2002 Olympic bobsled team, you've climbed Mt. Everest, you've won the World's Strongest Woman competition, 12 time USA and 10-time World Highland Games champion. You also run a gym in Santa Rosa, California, and there are some other things that I'm not including. What would you say are your most significant accomplishments in the various sports you've competed in?
SH: Well, definitely I'd say when I hit my 10th World Championship in the Scottish Games that was something that I really wanted to do. I think just being able to compete in Olympic lifting and go to Nationals in the Americans after 6 months of competing. I hadn't ever done it before and I went to a meet in San Francisco after 1 day of training in the gym and qualified for the Americans in the Nationals.
SC: That is incredible, and goes well beyond just having natural talent.
SH: I think because I do stay at such a high level of conditioning that it allows me to kind of mix around and jump from sport to sport and do well. I also like football a lot, but the injury rate is really high. I love competing at World's Strongest Woman and I was supposed to go this year but backed out because it was so close to some other competitions. The training for World's Strongest Woman, for somebody who weighs 140 pounds — it's tough to train for that day in and day out plus keeping the other sports and stay injury free. And Strongwoman stuff has gotten very heavy. It used to be kind of athletic where you had to drag an anchor, or you know, lift a bunch of stones and kind of run around, and it's changed a lot to max lifts, which makes it a bit difficult for someone like me.
SC: So, you really like to use your athleticism as an overall approach?
SH: Definitely, yeah.
SC: I'm with you. That to me is the most impressive. Limit/max strength is always impressive, but to be able to do a lot of different things well is a really unique talent.
SH: So, in a way I think I was gifted. I've always been athletic, so that kind of helped. But I think also staying in very good, you know, sprinting shape and with good muscular strength, and I always eat well. So, when a new sport does come around I don't have to train for 6 months to get ready for it. It's usually just figuring out the technique and jumping into it.
SC: Do you play golf, Shannon?
SH: No, but my dad's a really good golfer. He's always trying to drag me out there.
SC: I asked because you remind me of a modern day Babe Didrickson.
SH: Yeah, I've been told that.
SC: You know, she was that way — just a natural at every sport.
SH: And you know I'd love to play golf.
SC: You'd probably pick it up well. Is your hand-eye coordination good as well?
SH: Yeah, my hand-eye coordination is good, but you know, at this point all I'd want to do is just smash the ball as hard as I could, so I'd have to wait until I got that grace thing (laughs).
SC: It seems like you're really mellow — I guess that's because you get to take out your aggression on the heavy iron (laughs).
SH: Yeah, you're probably right!
SC: When I first heard of you, it was associated with that picture of you, where you're tossing the weight on the cover of MILO. When I saw that picture, I said "wow that is one powerful, conditioned athlete!" And I think that picture has got to be one of the greatest action shots ever. Do you get a lot of feedback about that picture in particular?
SH: Yeah, and I think it was kind of good because I think a lot of people didn't know that, number one — women threw and that, number two — women were serious about it and kind of in good shape and knew what they were doing, technical-wise. Because technically that's a pretty good shot.
SC: That's an amazing shot — I know you're being humble.
SH: Well, it's Randall's shot, I mean, Randy did it. I think in a way it was kind of good for women's sports and especially women's strength sports, because I think a lot of times people think of women's strength sports as you know, 6'3" and 240 pounds. I think it's good for the younger girls to see and realize that they don't have to be huge to be able to do these different sports — Scottish Games or shot put, or stuff like that.
SC: That totally leads into the next question I'm going to ask you. You're often competing against much larger women. As I myself am not a giant, I always like to hear from the smaller people who can still dominate. How come you can beat much larger competitors? What edge do you have?
SH: I think number one, what's helped me out a lot is, my technique is very sound, and I tend to have a lot of fast-twitch. Having a lot of technique but being able to move as fast as I can in whatever sport it is. Whether it's shot put, or whatever, I'm able to beat the women who are slow but have all the weight behind them. I always say that if one of these big women that I'm always throwing against gets their technique a little better and get a little bit more fast-twitch, I'll be killed. I don't try to go to the gym and get 100 times stronger or put on a bunch of weight. I know what my attributes are and so I try to work on those and try to enhance them as much as possible because I think that will give me the edge and has given me the edge in the past. So, I stick with that and try to perfect it as well as possible.
SC: What words of advice or encouragement do you have for women with regards to training, consistency and pursuing their goals?
SH: I think it's really important. For me, I'm just so motivated normally. Everyone is always asking me what my goals are, but they change day to day. I'll see a powerlifting competition and think, "oh, next one that's local I'm going to try that". So I just kind of jump into things. But, I think what's important for women — and I've noticed this — is that a lot of times, and definitely in my life, people will rate you and they'll love you for your sports. But as soon as you start getting any type of press or attention they — I think it's kind of a jealousy thing — and they're constantly trying to drag you out of the sport. I notice that with a lot of my girlfriends that are elite athletes as well. It's really about trying to stay focused, no matter what anybody says, don't let them get you off of your goals or your training, or whatever it is. Because it's so easy to get off of that. As long as you stay focused, and you come from your heart and you're not doing it to prove something — you're doing it b cause you really love it, just sticking with it. I've noticed, at least with the more male-dominated sports, you're going to put up with a lot of crap, you know. Just like a woman who is high up in the business realm. So, I think allowing all that stuff to slough off and really trying to stay focused on why you're there and what you're going to do, and really not let those people affect you.
SC: You are a tremendous role model for men and women alike. I think the intensity, focus and dedication that you apply to your training and your body is inspiring. Do you have any funny stories about times when maybe you've humiliated men by being stronger? You know, we men can have very fragile egos. The thought of a woman being able to physically overpower him is not very comforting to most men (laughs).
SH: There is a lot of times where I'll go into the men's division when I'm over in Scotland. They'll see this female come up and they'll always think I'm going to be a dancer or whatever. I sign up for the athletics and they'll you know, sit over there and giggle. Then I'll beat them in the first two events and it's always, you'll always have like, three torn hamstrings and tendonitis in the elbow. The next thing you know, everybody packs up their bags and it's just the top pros and me left throwing. That happens a lot of times and I always find it humorous. Instead of — I would just stick in there and keep competing, I mean, who cares? Well, I'm not a guy, so I wouldn't know. You know, it's amazing all the injuries that occur when I show up to a competition and start beating people. I try to always lessen it because, whether or not it's a male or female, I hate discouraging people. A lot of times in the gym when I do Olympic lifting, a lot of times I can clean or snatch more than the guys. And it does, it just kills them ego-wise. So, and I know I shouldn't do this, but I try to lessen it because I don't want to discourage them from the sport.
SC: Well, that's kind (laughs).
SH: Yeah, well I figure — it's tougher in the sports that I do — I think there is a lot more ego in the sports that I do. You know, if I was playing golf or tennis, or something like that, the ego wouldn't be so big. But when you've got a bunch of guys that are lifting weights and trying to get bigger, whether it's bodybuilding or powerlifting, or strongman.
SC: There's major testosterone involved, that's for sure.
SH: Yeah, I think there is a lot bigger ego and I think they get crushed a lot easier. You even notice it on the internet. You know, Jill Mills, who is the best Strongwoman in the world — they'll talk all day long about the Strongmen. You know, some guy's placed 36th in the division. But they'll never give kudos to Jill or anybody else, and I think they're intimidated by her. She deserves a lot more honor than she gets, and I think in these types of sports, the men do not often want to give props to a woman who can bench press and squat more than them.
SC: Well, there is no stopping you, that's for sure. You have tried and excelled at so many different sports. Of the sport you've trained for and competed in, would you say that there is one that requires more grueling training than all the others? The one sport that is the most physically demanding?
SH: They're all very demanding in different ways. When I'm getting ready for a Scottish Games, there are so many events, and I'm out there always on Christmas Day practicing and Christmas Eve, so as far as time commitment, that's a tough one. Gosh that is a really good question!
SC: It seems like you just give it your all in everything, so it never gets easier.
SH: Yeah, and they all have their demands. In bobsled you have to sprint day in and day out and do agilities and plyos. But then you have something like Strongwoman, where you're always doing different events. I would say the most grueling would probably be bobsledding in the way you're always on the go and you're always doing sprint workouts. We were always in Germany or Austria and eating weird food and you know, one competition here and the next day we have a competition in another country. But, that's a tough question — they all are in their own different ways, you know.
SC: What is your familiarity with kettlebell training?
SH: You know it's so funny. Remember I told you the guy from Ironman? There was a whole article in the Australian Ironman. Arnold was on the front cover, did you ever see that one?
SC: No, I didn't see that.
SH: There was a huge article showing all of these different exercises. It's funny because it looks a lot like the indoor weight you throw in track and field. I used to take the indoor weight and do all these type of things and a lot of the exercises that you guys do with kettlebells, I do with dumbbells. I do overheads, one-handed cleans, a lot of overhead presses, because I'm always throwing stones, cabers, the weight for height. So, a lot of that training I do, but I would love to-now that I've been talking to you-I would love to do some of that training,
SC: Well, you're in luck, Shannon because I'm going to personally give you an introduction to kettlebell training. I believe you would love it, and it very well could benefit you a great deal in your training. Also, it would be frightening, in a good way, to see you give it a go at Girevoy Sport. Are you familiar with that lifting sport?
SC: Girevoy Sport is a traditional Russian sport and it is repetition kettlebell lifting.
SH: Oh, really?
SC: The women use a 16kg, which is about 35lbs. In Russia they only allow the women to compete in one arm snatch. There is an organization in the US, the North American Kettlebell Federation (NAKF), and we give women the option of also competing in the jerk. Traditionally in Russia the men compete in clean and jerk and snatch, and woman snatch only. You snatch for 10 minutes, as many reps as you can in the 10 minutes.
SH: You're kidding.
SC: I think you would just excel at that. I would love to see you give that a try and I think with just the basic techniques you would be world-class very quickly.
SH: I think kettlebells is such a good thing because it's all about balance and evening out your body. So many of our exercises aren't about that. But I noticed, when I went through that article, a lot of them engage strength, with speed and power, rather than just a straight dumbbell press, or something.
SC: Absolutely, the strength-endurance, and there are a lot of benefits. For example with the hand position, you don't have to overextend the wrists like you would with the dumbbell in certain positions — the kettlebells you can keep the wrist neutral. Also, the ballistic rotation with the thick handle gives the kettlebell some unique benefits to the grip. One of these days soon we will set up a few training sessions.
SH: Oh, I would love that!
SC: Do you structure you own training, or do you have a coach who designs them.
SH: I pretty much structure my own training. I do have a guy who is now starting to work with me on powerlifting, so he'll tell me what to do on a couple of days, or give me technical things. But, because I do so many sports I've got to make my own program with what fits in with my schedule. I definitely structure my own, but I'll fly across the country to meet with the best guy in a certain sport. Whether it's Scottish Games — I trained a lot with Ryan Vierra and Matt Sanford and all the top guys to get as much technique — Jim McGoldrick. In bobsled, they flew me aroun' to go with the best sprinters and learn certain techniques with that, so that's what I love doing. I don't like just going out there and kind of spinning my wheels. I love working with the number one, top people, having them give me a structure — you should be doing this on Mondays, this on Wednesdays — and then kind of blending it in with all my other sports and really trying to make it work. Every coach always wants me to quit all my other sports. It's kind of taking the best advice from each coach and making my own plan from that.
SC: I love that approach — that's progress. Please give an example of a training week. Just a sample.
SH: What's today, Monday? So, tonight I squatted and I went about 70%. My last 4 sets were just sets of 1, and they were squats that were all the way down-crush beer can front squats.
SC: Like an Olympic Squat?
SH: Exactly. Then I went from squatting and then did some jump squats after that with the bar behind me. Then I did standing military presses, some low back exercises — heavy Good mornings, straight leg Deadlifts, then a couple of exercises, like leg extension, leg curls — some of those types of exercises just to finish it off. Then I did hill repeats — 10 pretty steep hill repeats with a minute between each one.
SC: Wow, and that's just Monday?
SH: That's Monday, yeah. Tomorrow I'll do upper body. I'll bench fairly heavy, and then some assistance — working on my lockout — put it pretty high on the rack and just lockout from there. I'll do some close-grip bench work as well, some weighted pushups, some upper back exercises, then some added triceps work. Then I'm going to throw both hammers — the light and heavy hammer, and then the heavy weight for distance.
SC: How many days a week do you train?
SH: Seven, right now.
SC: 7? Is it always that much intensity or do you have a back off week?
SH: Yeah, I'll take an easy day. Maybe Wednesday, I'm going to take a swim in the ocean because I live on a house boat, so I just dive off the houseboat.
SC: Wow, that's great!
SH: Yeah, it is and it's like taking an ice bath. Because, you know, it's like 50 degrees.
SC: So, you get the dousing effect as well — good for the immunity.
SH: Exactly. So, it's nice.
SC: What a life!
SH: Yeah. I'll swim a bit, go for a long run and then just do a little bit of easy weight for height work on Wednesday. Then on Thursday I'll start up with the same intensity. I'll Deadlift fairly heavy.
SC: Do you use any wraps or anything when you Deadlift? Everything raw?
SH: No wraps, I only wear a belt. I've been doing Sumo as well as standard, just to work both ways. I'll also do some 18 inch rack pulls and then Clean & Jerk after that.
SC: That's an amazing half of a week already!
SH: Well, Wednesday was easy.
SC: Yeah, Wednesday I guess was easy. So then what comes next?
SH: On Friday I'll do some track work. I'll do some 50s, some 100s, a lot of warm-up stuff: high knees, butt kicks and all that kind of stuff. I'm usually at the track for at least an hour. Then I'll do a lot of throwing stuff in the gym — a lot of cable work, like working on my hammer technique, then I'll do, kind of like with the kettlebell, but I swing it between my legs with the dumbbell and shoot it over my head, over and over. I'll work on some weighted footwork — put ankle weights on and work on my stepping through for weight for distance, to work on foot speed and position. I'll do a lot of that kind of stuff, usually about an hour in the gym, just working on technique for that. Then Saturdays is always a big throw day and I usually Snatch on Saturday. I'll throw the stones, both the light and the heavy stones, I'll do the caber, then I'll do whatever event I feel like I didn't do well that week. Always within my weeks, I'll throw in a truck pull or maybe do a stones workout where I'm lifting them up onto the barrel. I just like doing that kind of stuff too, because it just adds a little bit of different training.
SC: That's awesome. And then a little bit of rest on Sunday, hopefully?
SH: Yeah, I'll have a little bit of rest, but again on Sunday I like to hit all the muscle groups I hadn't yet during the week. Like yesterday in the gym I did a little bit of calves, sprinted a little bit on the treadmill, and did some high pulls. You know just some little things that I think I missed. I went for a swim as well.
SC: Your training is awe-inspiring! I would love to train with you some time, although I must admit, I'm probably not ready yet!
SH: (Laughs) We'll do one day and then I'll do a day of kettlebells with you, and then I'll be beat up.
SC: OK. That will finally push you over the edge?
SC: (Laughs) It could be.
SH: Well it is — it's something new, you know.
SC: Your story is fascinating. You are very humble, and a lot of times, at least in America, our better athletes are perceived to be very arrogant. At least that's the media perception. In the US, the general public does not embrace strength athletes like in other countries. You are a living legend in Scotland. What's it like to be so revered? Does the celebrity ever get to you? From what I've heard you get hounded for autographs and things like that quite a bit over there.
SH: Yeah, but they're always so appreciative. I mean we're out there doing it to put on a performance for the people, so it's for them anyway. The people are always so sweet, and you have a lot of them that follow you from games to games, whether they follow you from the US over to Scotland, over to Canada. So, it's nice. It's almost like a group that I see all the time, different people. You have the occasional wacko but, all in all, they're just really great people that love following someone. I'm sure it's just like people follow pro football or whatever, it's just something that is a little different, a little odder. But, I love the people. They'll come up to me if I'm at a restaurant or something, but they're just really sweet and nice.
SC: That's awesome, Shannon. Do you have any videos of your training? Any footage of you working out and competing?
SH: Yeah, I think I might. Do you want me to check through all my stuff?
SC: Well, yeah when you have the time. But I'm interested in finding out if people can buy these, just to be inspired by watching you train. Do you have those types of videos?
SH: Let me look through them, because I videotape myself a lot just to watch and see what I'm doing technically wrong. But I'll see if there are ones without swear words. No, I'm kidding. I'll see if there is something that could be made for that.
SC: Do you offer training to others? Any personal training or consulting services?
SH: Yeah, I am a personal trainer. I own the gym up in Santa Rosa and I am a personal trainer as well.
SC: What's the gym called?
SH: It's called Body Central.
SC: What's the website for that?
SH: It's http://www.bodycentralwomen.com. It's a gym exclusively for women in Santa Rosa, California.
SC: What about consulting? Do you offer online or phone consulting for people who want to improve their fitness and exercise training?
SC: Where should someone go to keep appraised of your career and learn more about your incredible training programs?
SH: The best way is to go to my website, http://www.shannonhartnett.com.
SC: Do you ever think about not competing any longer? Do you think such a day will ever come?
SH: I think I'll always compete, because I love it so much. It may be down in the city league of tennis, or something like that. But, I just really love sports and I love being outside, and I love competing. People always tell me that I never put on any weight and what if I start putting on weight. That's not my big concern. I have to work really hard to even stay at the weight I am now, because I'm so active. So, I think I'll always be competing in something, and I want to make sure that I'm not one of those people that competes way too long, so that I can't walk by the time I'm 60. Just be smart about it. I think one part about me, which I'm glad about, is that I have a lot of other things going. I'm involved in a lot of the politics in the community, and a bunch of children's groups. I sponsor and lecture at a lot of schools. Because I don't see my whole life as being sports, I think when I move onto something else, I don't really have a problem with that. I notice a lot of my friends, when they retire from a sport, they kind of go into depression. I've got so many things I would love to do, when I have more time.
SC: That's a really great outlook. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your experience with us. You've been really generous. I look forward to working with you with the kettlebells. I have a feeling you will really take to it, and I think you will be a great ambassador for the use of the tool.
SH: I really look forward to it, Steve!