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From Pro Boxer to Iron Maiden, Interview with Noriko Kariya, RKC

Noriko Kariya, RKC
Dragon Door: How did you get started in fitness and athletics?

Noriko Kariya: Our whole family is very athletic, and we were always in sports. Since I’m the fourth of five children, my older siblings set a precedent. With three brothers and one sister, I was always surrounded by boys and wanted to do what they did. Even though I’m five feet tall, I still wanted to play hockey because that's what they were doing. I swam, skated, and competed in everything.

In high school I started playing field hockey and ended up playing nationally. After high school, I was offered a full scholarship to play field hockey for the University of Maine. After graduating early, I moved to Toronto and found a boxing class by accident. The boxing teacher was a competitive amateur boxer and told me that I was really good—and that I should come to the boxing gym.

I went to the gym and it was all boys—and a competitive program. The coach was just like Mickey from Rocky. He was old, crotchety, very stubborn, and had a very old school attitude. And he ignored me. I even overheard him tell the younger coach, "She's a girl, I don't need girls in here..." But, I kept coming and trying. One day, after he realized he wasn’t going to get rid of me, he wanted to see how I would do in the ring sparring. He said that he wouldn’t punch me in the face, and that he just wanted to see what I could do. But, the very first thing he did was smack me in the face!
Noriko Kariya Boxing

He told me afterwards that he thought that I would cry and leave. Instead, I got very angry and fought back! After we finished sparring, he told me that I could stay. He ended up being a wonderful coach, took me under his wing and became like an uncle. I ended up loving boxing so much that I decided to pursue it professionally. Since New York is a boxing mecca with a lot of history I moved there, turned professional and gave it my all.

I love athletics—it keeps me sane. I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have it in my life.

Dragon Door: When did you do the Iron Maiden?

Noriko Kariya: Last June at the NYC RKC at Crunch. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to learn from Dan John. And I wanted to meet John Du Cane because of what he and Pavel brought to athletics and training. I had already certified with StrongFirst but was still training for the Iron Maiden. It’s a pretty decent feat for me, since I’m five feet tall and weigh between 125lb and 135lb max. The pistol wasn’t hard for me, but I had to work for a very long time to get the weighted pull-up. And, by the time of the RKC certification I was still struggling with the press. I could reliably press the 22kg, but the 24kg was throwing me off.
Noriko Kariya 24kg Press

At the workshop in June, Dan John held a press challenge and I asked him if he could take a look at my press. I wanted to figure out the issue. But, while he was watching, I just popped the 24kg right up! Maybe it was just because I knew he was watching, but I hit it really well. Some of my coworkers were at the certification with me and started chanting, "Iron Maiden! Iron Maiden!" Dan said to go ahead. So, I did the pullup and the pistol and I got it! The coolest thing is I have a picture of me finishing the pull-up and Dan is in the shot giving me the thumbs up!

Dragon Door: Any training tips for the Iron Maiden?

Noriko Kariya: It helps to be really stubborn. When I started training for the pull-up, I could pull-up with a 16kg kettlebell which was a good starting place. I was stuck at 20kg for a long time and the 22kg used to be crushing. Buying an 18kg kettlebell was really helpful—for the press and the pull-up. You don’t want to train at 90% of your max all the time. I worked with the 16kg and the 18kg a lot, and focused on moving them faster and for more reps. I trained pull-ups twice a week.

On one day I grooved five to build my setup. When I first did five reps loaded, I used the 8kg kettlebell and made sure that all the reps were clean and crisp for 5 sets of 5. I moved up to 4 x 5 with 12kg, and towards the end of the training I was doing 2 sets of 5 with the 14kg then 2 sets of five with the 12kg. On the other day, I waved my top end numbers, for example 18kg, 16kg, 12kg for 3, 2, or 1 reps for a total of 10. I didn’t use a linear progression, I was waving the volume and the intensity—like Russian style programming.

The combination of these two strategies really gave me a solid foundation. You can’t always do a heavy grind. I also focused my training on the pull-up and press, otherwise I worked on lower body movements that wouldn’t tax me in the same way.

Dragon Door: That sounds like a very realistic program. How did you transition from professional boxing to personal training?

Noriko Kariya: In high school, I helped coach some of the younger teams. Looking back, I was always a coach—it's just natural to me. I coached some boxing when I was an amateur, then when I came to the US, I had to do some side jobs since the world of women’s professional boxing is not super glamorous. I was paid as a professional boxer, but not very much. I fought at 118lbs and at the time there were not very many competitors in that weight class for amateur or professional women’s boxing.

Noriko Kariya and SonUnexpectedly, I got pregnant. My son was born two months premature and with a very rare condition. I realized that I could never go back to boxing, since as an athlete, boxing was all-consuming in both a positive and negative way. I lived and breathed it. My performance was all my own merit, hard work, blood, sweat, and tears. But after I had my son, he needed more—and still needs more than I feel like I could ever give. I knew I couldn’t keep training for boxing 5-6 days a week with double sessions in between working 2-3 jobs. It was really hard because I wasn’t ready to stop boxing or competing.

I refocused my energy on personal training, and that is also when I started powerlifting. With powerlifting, I was still able to compete but it wasn’t as demanding. Even though I’ve competed at a national level for powerlifting and achieved a world-rank squat, my heart is still in boxing.

Dragon Door: You've mentioned Dan John as an influence, how has he inspired your training?

Noriko Kariya: Dan doesn't just teach us about kettlebells, the six movements, or programming, he teaches us about life. He teaches us about life-long programming and becoming a stronger person in and outside the gym.

Dragon Door: What’s next for you in your career, athletics or both?

Noriko Kariya: Assisting with Dan John brought up more things that I want to work on. We did some single side, contra-loaded pressing and that’s quite challenging. And I want to press the 28kg. Otherwise, for the first time in my life I don’t really want to chase the big weights as much as I have in the past. I want my weaknesses to become strengths and my strengths to be a powerhouse.

When Dan John talks about programming—and he made all the assistants and team leaders at the RKC Workshop do it too—he has us plan twenty years out, two years out, two months out, two weeks out, and two days out. I had to have an honest check with myself since I feel like I can’t plan anything because of my son’s situation. It was huge to say that out loud and have the realization that I’ve been holding myself back because I’m worried about tomorrow. I must get better at it, and I really appreciate that kind of knowledge from Dan. It’s not just about kettlebells, it’s true for everything.

I can make great programs for my clients, and for myself in the gym. But past that, I won't make an appointment for myself because I may have to be in the hospital with my son. But, I realized that I need to change. Dan spoke of balancing work, life, play, and rest. I’ve always recharged myself with fitness. When boxing or lifting a heavy weight, I have to focus all of my attention on the task. But I also need to rest to recharge my batteries—and I don’t do that enough!
Noriko Kariya's son

Dragon Door: Sounds like you got a lot out of the experience of assisting at an RKC Workshop!

Noriko Kariya: Something that I really appreciate about Dan John and John Du Cane is that they both do a great job of creating a community without the community becoming the person’s sole identity. The RKC doesn’t define who I am, instead it’s a really welcoming community for growth and improvement. I’ve done many certifications from different companies and appreciate that the RKC doesn’t exist to beat down the participants. It’s about learning, becoming well-rounded and improving as a person. I think that's really important. There's so many certifications in this industry, but the two experiences I’ve had with RKC thus far have been life changing and amazing. I’ve really learned a lot about myself and kettlebells. I’m very thankful to have had the opportunity to assist. It is an honor.

NorikoKariyaBWThumbnailNoriko Kariya trains groups and individuals at Crunch, Hoboken.