Situated on rapids connecting two lakes in central Finland stands one of the most populous cities amidst the Nordic countries - Tampere. It’s an old industrial city with a rich cultural history and a strong presence of various sports: two ice hockey teams playing at the oldest Finnish ice hockey arena, a soccer and a football team, a professional basketball team and it is also a birthplace and home to a young woman, who recently became four times world champion under WABDL (World Association of Benchers and Deadlifters) in 148lbs category. Her name is Marianne Hartio.
I met Marianne, through her coach Jani Pentti, himself world’s and Europe’s champion in powerlifting who has made a career from helping other people get healthy and strong. He has trained total beginners, amateur boxers and professional ice hockey players among many many others.
I arrived to Tampere as the first snow began falling from the sky. As I entered the gym, which is owned by Jani and his business partner Samuli Koskinen, I heard a loud female voice echoing: “Come on! Let’s go! Couple more reps! Yes!”. Jani explained to me that Marianne, who works at the gym as a personal trainer, has a customer right now and as soon as she is finished they will begin on today’s training session.
“We train four times a week for the upcoming competition. Mainly focusing on the bench and deadlift as she is competing in those. Squats come in as an accessory, so we never really squat heavy.” Jani told me. “Actually today she needs to do some squats and accessory movements.”
Marianne comes into the room where me and Jani talk. She has a wide smile on her face, we shake hands and I explain to her that I am here to document her preparations for the competition and tell her to just do her thing and ignore me. She puts on her lifting shoes and moves back into the gym. As soon as we enter the gym I see that smile disappear. She warms up, stretches and moves to the squat rack. A look of full and total concentration appears on her face as she loads the bar with 45lbs plates right at the start. She does a few sets of three to five reps and takes a bench to proceed with box squats. It looks like the whole world has disappeared from her mind as she looks herself in the eyes from the mirror and squats each rep with perfect form.
She is done quite quickly and without much rest moves on to deadlift. “No heavy deads today…” she tells me. “I’ll just work on my form and my lock up at the top.” Hartio straps resistance bands to the bar and the squat rack so that the bar is pulled towards it and loads the bar with 155lbs. Fours sets of five reps is all it takes her. After that she moves on to work on her core muscles, stretches again and today’s session is all wrapped.
“Yeah, my training is usually done pretty quickly. Jani is very precise on how much I must do each day. No more, no less. You need to be consistent and careful too! Today was kind of a deload day, but next time there will be heavy weights!”
I ask her about her nutrition and supplements and Marianne quite happily exclaims: “I just eat! All the time. I use some protein powder, some recovery and BCAA’s, but that’s it. I can eat whatever I want pretty much, as long as it’s clean. I never eat any junk food. Mainly minced beef and rice. I am not bored of it either - I am quite happy with it!” She explains that as long as the diet is balanced and healthy there isn’t really a need for anything too strict. “Of course the last week before the competition I will have a very strict diet as I need to make the weight! Right now I am about 10lbs above, but I can shed that in a couple of days easily. Jani made me a meal plan for when I go to Vegas.”
After Marianne mixes herself some recovery shake we sit down and talk.
“I’ve been doing sports since I was four. As a gymnast first and there I had a Russian coach. He always told me that I can do better and I think from there I got the mentality that it has always been really hard for me to be content with anything. If something doesn’t go the way I want it to go I am absolutely ready to throw everything out, crying and screaming… Almost threw all my medals and awards into garbage once. But that all said, Jani helped me getting away from that mentality and helped me being more happy with myself. Of course I want to lift heavier weights and I always try to go harder, but it is important to say that, “yeah… That was good! You did good today!”
Powerlifting gives me courage and makes me trust myself more. Perhaps before, when I was a gymnast, it was just chalk powder and your bodyweight on the balance beam or whatever and you needed to know how to control your body. But when you suddenly have to control all of your muscles and lift a bar that is at least twice as heavy as you are - that took courage from me, because I used to be afraid like ‘what if my body just breaks?’ That doesn’t happen anymore. The bar needs to go up!”
Today we have our Facebooks, Tumblrs, Instagrams and what not filled with the so-called “gym memes” saying things like “when you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders - go squat.” While perhaps being helpful to inspire some people and get them moving, Marianne’s source of inspiration comes from completely another direction.
“I just need to lift bigger weights than the next person… My competitive drive is the strongest force that motivates me. Even in my previous competition [Las Vegas 2016] I won all golds with my lifts, but I still wasn’t happy with myself. Maybe that was my weakness before, but I got over that. Now I can go in with a smile and just go full throttle. We did have to have a serious talk on this matter with the coach. Being unhappy like that I just bad behaviour towards your coach and yourself.”
Next time I see Marianne at the gym, it’s heavy bench day. Marianne is warming up as Jani floats around the gym, clearly thinking of how to push her today. They begin benching with Jani spotting. 135lbs for 5 reps is easy. 185lbs - piece of cake. 195lbs gets harder, but the coach pushes for an extra rep.
“Press!” he shouts “You need to let the bar stop on your chest. The judge won’t tell you to press if the bar is still moving. Let it stop and even sink in a bit, then press with explosive power!” Marianne replies that it’s hard with the heavier weights…
“It doesn’t matter one damn bit if you have an empty bar or 225lbs on it!” Jani contradicts “When you have your technique chiseled out it will go up! There is no choice! You calmly set it down and USE! EXPLOSIVE! STRENGTH!”
“It’s still very hard…” Marianne exhales.
Next up will be seated overhead press with weights strapped on the bar with resistance bands to promote shoulder stability. Jani spots again and pushes Hartio to do four sets of eight reps. The end of each set pushes the young powerlifter the absolute limit. I can see that her eyes are tearing up between the sets. Jani calmly keeps telling her not to be afraid of the bar. “Just keep lowering it very calmly. There is no rush, take your time!”
Another set… Marianne shouts at the last rep to get it up at all costs and as soon as the bar is racked, she exclaims: “I just can’t!” Jani chuckles behind her and after brief silence comments: “That was good. You see, when you get tired, the bar starts shaking back and forward. When that happens just concentrate and go again!”
One last set. Jani keeps encouraging his student to go all the way. Marianne starts shouting at the fifth rep. Jani supports. Seventh rep… eight… she racks the bar, collapses and breathes heavily. From under her breath I can hear: “F***…. f***ing hell… f***…”
She takes a few minutes of rest, because the day isn’t over yet. Jani sets up for the next exercise. Barbell rows, while laying down on the bench and leaves. He trusts and knows that Marianne will finish the whole session of the day.
On the deadlift day Marianne begins once again with her stretches that look like a carefully planned out choreography of a modern dance. Each muscle of her body is warmed up and prepared for the heavy lifts she will undertake today.
“I need to use bands again, but this time with heavy weights. It really helps more than just deadlifting.”
She begins an easy warm up set with 135lbs. adds 50lbs on the next set. All looks easy for her. She proceeds on to 225lbs, bands still pulling the bar down the closer she gets to a full lock up.
Now the real works begins as she loads the bar with 270lbs. She makes a set of three reps and takes a rest. Looks at the bar and utters to herself: “More weight…” She puts 285 lbs on the bar and goes for a set. The bar won’t budge. She takes a moment to gather herself and tries again. The bar is still unmoved.
“Goddammit!” she exclaims. “Just wouldn’t move, would it?” she said to me while chuckling and smiling, but I can see that it bothers her.
Suddenly Jani appears and asks how is it going. After learning of today’s weights, he compliments Marianne, that it was still a pretty good day, but I can see that Marianne isn’t too impressed with herself. “It’s all in between my ears.” she said.
The fact that the main lift of the day didn’t go as well as she planned, doesn’t stop her and she continues to work on her upper and lower back for the rest of the day. She does some dumbbell rows, a few sets of upright barbell rows, back extensions and finishes the day on the cross trainer and stretching.
In her training routine there are next to none gimmicky exercises and no nonsense. Everything is simple, straightforward and effective.
I sit down to talk to Marianne one more time as next week she will be flying to Las Vegas.
After assuring me that she will get the golds and records that she wants we talk a bit about the sport itself.
“It’s clear that everyone needs to do some sort of exercise...” she said “... Not necessarily powerlifting, although it is very rewarding, but something. We should all take care of our health from the very beginning and that includes what we eat, drink and how we move. It should go without saying! I mean how can you take care of your children - run around after them, pick them up, take care of their health, if you don’t have any of your own left?”
When I asked coach Jani the same question his reply was more stern, but equally inspiring:
“Choosing to lift weights and especially powerlifting can get very lonely. A lot of times it is being alone at the gym in the evening, when your friends are out partying, eating, drinking etc. but you can’t really go with them, because you need to concentrate on training. In team sports it is always you as a part of the team, but in powerlifting, even if you go to compete as a part of a team, it is still just you up there.
People think it is easy. Just lift some heavy stuff… but we all know it is much more than that. It takes real dedication and discipline, but always the first thing we need to consider is health. Health should always be the first and foremost reason to do this. I know I can get a lot of heat because of this, but if you lift weights to look pretty or whatever else, you have already gone wrong. The first thing you need to think about is always your health!”
Observing Marianne’s training and routines I came to believe that her attitude and persona is the way it ought to be for the coming generation of professional athletes. Even in face of adversity and vigorous training routines, through sacrifices and pain that she endures in order to become a champion, she still smiles and tries to inspire others to train and fortify their health. Her public image isn’t that of a pompous lifter trying to intimidate others. In many ways she presents sports very much like a well known Mikhail Koklyaev - with joy, showing that training can and should be a part of everyone’s life regardless of circumstances.
Whether you are a professional powerlifter or a beginner who just discovered the sport, it is important to look towards athletes like Marianne Hartio. The overflowing amount of positivity that radiates from her is not only the key to good and healthy career in sports, but also an important factor in overall good quality of life. I dare to say that all can benefit from the her attitude: eat well, lift big, help others feel better and always smile while you are doing it