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Why It’s Never Too Late to Start Strength Training, Interview with Mary Surprenant, RKC

Mary Surprenant, RKC Goblet Squat
Dragon Door: How did you first get involved with fitness?

Mary Surprenant: As a kid I was always active, and as a young adult I played racquetball and softball. Once I became a stay at home mom—something I always wanted to do—I switched gears. I took my kids to playgrounds, we played, ran, jumped, pulled, and climbed. When my two oldest were in preschool which was part of an elementary school. When I would take them to school, I would see the students at phys-ed playing kickball all the time. I told my husband that I thought I could do a lot more with them; then I approached the principal. She thought I was more than qualified, especially since this was a parochial school and did not require a specific certification for physical education teachers. My goal became to let the kids play while adding in strength and general fitness activities.

I was also into recreational running—usually 5Ks—but I developed plantar fasciitis. This made running difficult, so I needed to find something else to do. Around that same time, my son was in high school and asked me to spot him in the weight room. I’d never been in a weight room, but I spotted him anyway. Because I couldn't run anymore, he encouraged me to join the gym. I loved strength training, and things progressed from there. At the age of 50, I had to figure out a new path in life—and it turned out to be personal training!

Dragon Door: That's fantastic! Did you start training others at the same gym? How did you start?

Mary Surprenant: Yes, I began training others at the community center where I was a member. When members requested personal training, I met with them, identified their goals, and then created their programs. After about six years of training there, I realized the community center had become a little limiting. So, I recently started personal training at another facility. It’s independently owned but very similar to a "box" gym. They have a Rogue rig with four stations, plenty of free weights including kettlebells, and an open area for training. I also work at a facility in Worcester, Massachusetts that is specifically focused on kettlebells.
Mary Surprenant, RKC With Clients

Dragon Door: What brought you to kettlebells?

Mary Surprenant: I honestly can't remembered how I was introduced to kettlebells. There were a few of them at the community center. I found Anthony Diluglio—who had the Punch gyms—online. One of these gyms was near my brother in South Bend, Indiana. During a visit, I checked out the gym and had a couple of sessions there. Anthony used to send out "minute of strength" emails every Sunday morning. I looked forward them, because they were just short enough to give me little bits and pieces for my training.

Soon after, I found out about Dragon Door and Pavel. And I started training for the HKC. I took an HKC workshop that Andrea Du Cane taught. She’s just impressive; she’s a professional and strong, and I liked the way she presented herself. I also took a Perform Better kettlebell seminar led by Mark Toomey.

Because I wanted to keep learning more, I wanted to find someone I could train with one-on-one. That’s how I found the gym in Worcester and Evan Marcantonio. He is a skilled coach who pays great attention to detail—I wanted this to help me refine my skills. After we had been training together for a while, he told me that he might need someone to help him coach… and would I be interested. At that point I was 53, and I was absolutely interested!
Mary Surprenant Pushups With Grandchild

Dragon Door: How did you decide to go for your RKC certification?

Mary Surprenant: I wanted Evan to have confidence in my coaching skills, and I needed to make sure my skills were solid. I also really appreciate the emphasis on teaching in the RKC certification. Since I had taken the HKC, I wanted to follow through with the RKC. I found an upcoming RKC workshop near where my son lives with my grandchildren, so I ended up at the Chicago RKC. The experience took me to the edge of comfort, which is something I try to do with my clients for their whole growth process.

Dragon Door: Are you working with a particular demographic, or is there a group of people you’re especially excited about working with?

Mary Surprenant: Probably due to my age, most of my clients are middle-aged with a majority of them in their 70s. It’s very motivating to work with them, it’s all about understanding the progressions and where they should start. I’m impressed by how consistent they are—and game for anything I throw at them!
Mary's 78-year-old-client performing 100lb deadlifts for reps!
Mary's 78-year-old-client performing 100lb deadlifts for reps!

I try to train all of my clients with some form of the get-up. Even if it’s just as far as the roll to the elbow. It’s very satisfying to work with an older demographic. Since they’re so consistent, they will train for a while then all the sudden notice that they can carry the groceries up the steps better, are able to help move furniture again, or find it easier to get up out of a beach chair. One client is an avid hiker who said that her knees bothered her before we started training—after we had been training for a while, she took me to the side and told me that she could pee in the woods now without her knees hurting! I have a lot of great stories from one-on-one personal training with this demographic.

When I am working with Evan in Worcester, I coach small group classes—he calls it "team training." He’s developed a 3-day program, so there’s a workout on the board and the program changes every 4-5 weeks. To date, these classes tend to draw a younger demographic than my personal training clients.

Dragon Door: That's very cool! It sounds like you’re making a lot of quality of life improvements with your personal training demographic. Having lived in Florida for many years I knew a lot of older, retired people and their biggest fears were related to falling or losing their independence. How do you think kettlebell training can help older people with these issues?

Mary Surprenant: One of the benefits of getting my clients on the floor is that they will learn how to get back up. If they ever fall down, they’ll hopefully have the confidence and skill to safely get back up. I also think that if people are strong, they develop confidence and a sense of independence. I like how kettlebells are friendlier for deadlifts than a barbell or even dumbbells. I can teach someone to deadlift with a 16kg kettlebell, then a 20kg, and on and on.

Dragon Door: What's your favorite kettlebell movement or exercise?

Mary Surprenant, RKC Kettlebell SnatchesMary Surprenant: It's probably the get-up, but I am also a big fan of the halo for mobility. I also like the deadlift.

Dragon Door: How did you prepare for your RKC workshop, and what did you think was most challenging aspect of your preparation?

Mary Surprenant: My main concern going in was mastering and demonstrating the moves. Evan helped me train and also critiqued my form. It was interesting to see how bad habits can sneak in, and how it can be easy to forget techniques during practice. At one point, he noticed that my power breathing was off during my swings—it was at the top of the swing, not when my hips finished. Fixing that issue carried over to my cleans and snatches. So, I was mainly concerned about technique and having the necessary endurance for the weekend. But, it all worked out well. I found some of Andrea Du Cane’s suggestions online about how to train for the RKC, and I also did Pavel’s clean and press program.

Dragon Door: Now that you’ve earned your RKC and you've got a great situation set up with your coaching, what's your next goal? Are you working towards anything specific at the moment?
Mary Surprenant Barbell Deadlift

Mary Surprenant: I really like the barbell and was in a women’s powerlifting group for a short time, so I'm thinking about getting back into barbell training, maybe Starting Strength. It might also be logical to consider the RKC-II. I recently remembered that when I first contacted Evan for one on one coaching, I mentioned the Iron Maiden—even though I was 53 at the time! Even if I don’t achieve it, I would learn a lot from the journey. That goal is a little bit overwhelming, because it seems like it takes most people at least three years of working towards it. I’ve never had a goal that far out, but it's fun to think about.

Mary With Son And GrandchildrenBecause I first became interested in strength training in middle age, I still feel like everything I do is a personal record. I don't have to look back and remember what I could do when I was younger. I would like everyone to realize that it's never too late to start. It’s awesome if you can start when you're 15, but even if you start at 65, 70, or even older, go for it and don't be intimidated. I think strength training can bring out a lot of confidence. I particularly see that with my female clients. I think it’s great to feel that you're more athletic after strength training.

If my son hadn't asked me to come into the weight room and spot him, then none of this would have ever happened. I’m also grateful to those who helped me along the way, including the fitness director at the community center. He was very patient with me and pointed me in a good direction for resources and information.
It’s so important to always keep learning more.

Mary Surprenant, RKC trains groups and individuals at Bellator Fitness in Whitinsville and Elevate Strength and Performance in Worcester. She can be contacted at