Sabrina Madsen is an entrepreneur, an athlete and co-owner of First City Fitness, a personal training studio in Savannah. She has her pro card as a figure competitor with the National Gym Association, and as the numerous trophies at her studio can attest, she has successfully competed in bodybuilding, figure, fit body, and pole fitness competitions.
Outside of her work at the gym where she trains clients and teaches pole classes, Sabrina helps to coach and strength train gymnasts.
She sat down with me to answer a few questions.
Talk about your background. What led you to this particular line of work?
I was a gymnast my entire childhood and I got a scholarship in gymnastics to college at Southern Utah University. So I’ve been very active and an athlete all my life and I was interested in doing something in the science and health field. When I was at Southern Utah I enrolled in their Athletic Training degree program and began working with athletes to help them perform at their best and stay healthy. Then when I moved to Savannah I initially considered getting into physical therapy but ultimately decided that personal training would be something I would really enjoy.
I actually started out by going to a gym and asking what kind of certification they were looking for in their trainers. Then I went out and got certified based on their recommendation. With that complete, I started working at Armstrong State University in addition to two personal training studios to get some experience. I loved it immediately. I was helping people change their bodies but more importantly their overall quality of life was improving because they had more energy, they were sleeping better, they had less pain in their joints, and they were able to do more.
Then two and a half years ago I had the opportunity to buy one of the studios I was working at. It got me thinking that I could start my own in a more cost effective way and as a different style of studio. I wanted to create a strength and conditioning facility where I could still personal train everyday people, but I could also train athletes to help them improve their performance. The gym I set up has the same type of equipment you might see in a weight room at a college or at a pro facility, just on a smaller scale. I consider myself a personal strength coach, not just a personal trainer.
Why did you choose to create a personal training studio rather than opening a traditional gym with membership subscriptions?
I love working with clients one-on-one. I like knowing I am in control of helping each person that comes through the door, to actually get the results they’re looking for. This appeals to me more than selling a gym membership with people locked into a contract where they may or may not use the membership, may not know what to do or maybe don’t know how to use the equipment. So I love the personal training studio approach. My clients benefit from my expertise to help guide them to achieve the results they want.
Can you talk about what you offer?
I help clients build muscle therefore increasing tone and strengthening joints. The muscle building itself boosts their metabolism and burns fat while it also helps to support their joints so they have less joint pain in general. Strength training can even increase the density of bone for my aging clients. I provide nutrition guidance to help clients with fat loss and improve energy, and I provide the opportunity for clients do to their aerobic cardio to help burn more fat on top of the strength training that they’re doing.
Beyond the personal training I also teach both pole dancing and pole fitness.
What are the hardest and the best things about owning First City Fitness?
The best part is getting to know so many great people and helping them on their journeys. My clients tend to be really hard workers. They are consistent and dedicated. All of them are driven in some way, shape or form, in whatever they’re doing in life.
The hardest part is probably working on the business as well as working in the business. I have the knowledge to train my clients, but then it’s hard to do things like networking and being the face of the business, going out and getting my name out there. Finding the time to go to social functions is difficult because they often overlap with times I am training my clients or teaching classes.
Pole dancing is a non-traditional type of fitness training that’s become popular in recent years. How did you become interested in pole?
I saw a report about pole dancing for fitness on the news and decided to go to a trial class. It was a lot of fun. At the end of the class we did handstands and it became obvious to the teacher that I was a gymnast, so they recommended I try out the advanced pole class. I’d been out of college gymnastics for two years at that point and that advanced class was really physically challenging.
They threw things at me that couldn’t get even after a few tries, things I was comfortable doing like going upside down, but it was on a vertical bar instead of a horizontal bar like in gymnastics. The dance part was fun, but what really hooked me was the physical challenge. I hadn’t been physically challenged in that way since gymnastics, and I was craving it.
What I find now in teaching pole is that my clients become comfortable in their own skin, and it makes them more motivated to make other changes in their lives. Some ladies come to improve their self esteem, some come to mix things up for their significant other at home, some just want a fun new way to exercise. Often people start out learning about pole dancing, and then they want to learn some of the advanced tricks. Well the more advanced the tricks get, the more strength is required to actually do them successfully. So my dance students who are serious about learning some of the harder tricks actually personal train as well to become stronger. Then it becomes and mixture of pole dancing and pole fitness.
In addition to running the business and training clients you are also actively competing in pole fitness competitions. How is pole fitness different from pole dancing?
With pole fitness competitions you leave the sexy dancing part out. It’s nothing like you might see in a strip club. It’s purely about the athletics, so your routine cannot be too suggestive. There is a dress code, usually sports bra and shorts that cover your buttocks completely. Some competitions have strict requirements that your sports bra must go up to your collarbone and your hair must be pulled back, very much like a gymnastics competition, so the judges can see your lines. You’re judged on execution, toe-point, legs straight, difficulty of tricks, artistry, moving with the music and theme.
Given how demanding your schedule is, why is it important to you to continue to compete? What goes into your training?
I think it’s important to do things you’re passionate about. It’s important to not lose your identity over time. I never want to just be a personal trainer or just be a business owner. I always want to be pushing myself and being example to others. I want to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. And the truth is I really love it. I love the challenge. It satisfies the gymnast in me, being challenged, working on perfecting skills, being competitive.
There are a number of components that go into preparing for a pole fitness competition. The first is getting strong enough to do the tricks. So I lift weights just like my clients do, about three times a week. I do very intense gymnastic-style core work as well. And then I work on the tricks themselves individually before putting combinations together.
Another big part of training is working on the anaerobic endurance of performing a full routine (2.5 – 4 minutes depending on the competition). To help with that I often do rowing intervals which is a total body cardio exercise, but I’ll do them in high intensity intervals, so one minute of rowing and one minute of rest and I build up to two minutes of explosive rowing with one minute of rest to help with endurance.
Finding the time to train myself is very challenging while being business owner and training clients. Sometimes the weights have to go on the back burner as I get closer to a competition and the pole practices become top priority, and sometimes when I have to, I let the paperwork stack up on the desk until I can get to it because I am trying to get in the hours of pole training.
I do everything myself, so not only is finding the time to train challenging, but I am both coach and athlete, staying motivated when I don’t have anybody there cheering me on when it’s hard. I am accountable for all of it. Being motivated and sticking to the schedule gets tough, but also since nothing ever goes exactly according to my timeline, I’ve learned that I need to give myself a little extra time to get ready.
The one coach I do work with is a silks coach. Silks (like what you might see in Cirque du Soleil) require a lot of strength, so in many ways it’s cross training for pole. I climb the silks. I do conditioning exercises. We work on specific things I am having difficulty with. So if I need to work on handling a spin better on spinning pole, then there are certain tricks that I’ll get into on the silks where I’ll create a spin to improve my spinning momentum tolerance. Same goes for when I am working on flexibility tricks. If I am working on a pole routine, my silks coach will put together a silks routine to work on the endurance in my forearms and to help improve my muscular endurance overall. She makes it as specific to my needs as possible. It’s also really nice to learn something different and be challenged, and frankly to have someone teach me and be in charge for that one hour each week.
You recently competed in Arnold Sports Festival Open Pole Classic. Can you talk about that competition and specifically the very challenging trick in your routine?
The competition is open to anyone who’s been competing for more than a couple of years but has not qualified to the pole championship series as a pro. There are pole competitions that are qualifiers to the big one at the Arnold Classic and you have to compete in each of those qualifiers to get in.
For this particular competition I’ve been training for a new trick called a shoulder mount flip, where I hold on to the pole and do something similar to a flyaway off the bars in gymnastics, meaning that it is a backflip off the pole to land on the stage. This was the first time I threw it on the competition stage. When I warmed it up it was perfect, but then during the competition when I had all the adrenaline coursing through my system, I over-compensated and held on to the pole a little bit too long. I ended up doing a backflip into the pole instead of off, and face planted after I hit it. But it’s a new trick, and it’s a particularly risky trick. I am only the second woman to have done it on a competition stage. I hope to nail it one of these times. Men did it first, but until this year no women had attempted it.
I’ve seen the video of your routine including the crash into the pole. You were able to pick yourself up immediately. There was almost no pause between when you crashed and when you got back on to the pole. Is it the training that enables you to absorb that kind of a physical shock to your system? Is it more mental?
I think a lot of it has to do with my body being so strong from the weight lifting. My joints are strong. I have a lot of muscle surrounding each joint so they can absorb the force of a crash like that without causing serious injury, like breaking bone for example. Even after I hit the pole and landed on my hands and knees and face on the stage, which was hard, my body was still able to absorb it because of all the muscles that are supporting my joints. So I bruised up but that was it.
Also, pole fitness is so much like gymnastics and I still have a lot of the gymnast reflexes. It’s not the first time I’ve crashed and my body knew how to crash as safely as possible. So instead of hitting the pole and falling head first, I was able to hit the pole and flip onto my hands and knees, even turning my head so that my cheek hit the floor but I didn’t hit my nose.
You’ve been sharing video of your impressive routine, crash and all. Why is that important? What kind of feedback have you been getting?
Honestly at first I didn’t want to share it because I was embarrassed about the crash. I scared people. In the video you can hear screams from the audience. But when I watched it I felt the rest if the routine was great, and I did try the trick which was important. It didn’t go as planned, but it was a risky trick and therefore there was always the possibility of a crash. Ultimately I was ok. No serious injuries. Just a little bruised up.
I’ve actually gotten amazing feedback from the video. I wasn’t quite prepared for such a positive response. Many people that have watched it said it was inspiring that I crashed that hard and just got back up. To me that’s just who I am, but I guess it could go a bit deeper than that. How many times do we prepare for something in life and it does not go according to plan, or is an absolute disaster? When that happens we can stay down or pick ourselves back up. So even though I was embarrassed at first, now I am really glad I shared it.
And I am happy I went for it. I would much rather have gone for it and crashed, than chickened out and not even attempted it. I don’t have any regrets.
OK, so clearly you’re very driven. What other challenges are next on the horizon for you?
I’m going to keep training and will apply to compete in a few more events this year — the North American Pole Championship, the International Pole Sport Federation World Championship, and the Southern Pole Championship.
Will your flip be a part of those routines?
Absolutely. It will definitely be in there.
What do you do when you’re not working or training for a competition?
Catching up on sleep. Watching movies. When it’s warm I love spending time outdoors at the pool or the beach. When it’s cooler I like to spend time exploring downtown.
Thanks to Sabrina for being my guinea pig for this series!
You can follow her on twitter at @sabrina_madsen