Thursday, July 19, 2012

Hardcore strength for hardcore vegans

I'd like to think Melody Schoenfeld needs no introduction, but in case there are any people out there who DON'T know who this badass lady is, I'll spare you the embarrassment of having to sheepishly ask someone "Who's Melody?"

Melody is a personal trainer in Pasadena, CA with 20 + years of experience in kicking weakness in its jiggly bits and making average folks strong.  Like, really strong.  She holds various all-killer-no-filler certifications, including CSCS, CMT, and RKC II.  As a Certified Massage Therapist, she is well versed in a variety of massage forms, such as Thai, Swedish, Myofascial Release, Chair, Deep Tissue, and Trigger Point Therapy.  She's also currently studying for her master's in Chinese medicine and acupuncture.

In addition to being crazy well-educated, she's crazy strong as well.  Most impressive of all, she takes the notion that women can't be strong, that vegans can't be strong, and that certainly women vegans can't be strong, and punches it right in its presumptuous face.  Melody takes a no-holds-barred approach to strength and physical improvement and has the results to prove it.  I learned a lot from this article, and I know you will, too.  Get out your pen and paper, take notes, and enjoy!

* * * 

My name is Melody, and I’m a vegan.  

This may be the best pickup line yet.

I’m not a “sometimes” vegan.  I’m not an “on-and-off” vegan.  I’m not a “vegan… well, except for milk, eggs, and meat” vegan.  I am a 100%, hardcore, strict vegan, and I have been since the year 2000.  I went vegan for moral reasons (I love animals and do not want to contribute to their harm or death if I can possibly avoid it), and have no intentions of turning back.  My bloodwork is excellent, I do not have any nutritional deficiencies, and I have tons of energy.  As a matter of fact, science shows that a properly planned vegan diet will not interfere with nutritional needs for athletes whatsoever ( , ).  While there is no conclusive scientific evidence that vegan diets either help or hurt a strength athlete ( ), I am personally not weaker because of it (with a 2.35 x bodyweight deadlift, close to half bodyweight one-arm overhead press, and some bent nails and horseshoes under my belt, I would argue that I am far stronger now than I ever was before, but that is also attributed to my current training practices).  There are many phenomenally strong and high-performing vegan athletes out there (Mike Mahler, Mac Danzig, Rich Roll, Carl Lewis, Aaron Simpson, and Patrik Baboumian, just to name a few) as further proof that one can absolutely reach phenomenal levels of strength and performance without consuming animal products.

What do I eat, you ask?  Calm down.  I’ll tell you.  But let me preface this by saying the following:

What I do is not necessarily what you should do.  Your body is your body, and only you know what makes you feel and respond best for your particular goals.  I am vegan for moral reasons.  For that reason, my lifestyle is extremely important to me, and I will not change it.  While I believe most people can do very well eating the way I do, it is a significant commitment and is not for everyone.  Only you will know if it’s the right choice for you.

Right.  You wanted to know what my diet is like, and you’ve been waiting very patiently for me to tell you.  Thanks for that.  Since I don’t eat the same thing every day, I’ll give you a fairly general summary. 

My workday starts very, very early (around 5AM-- gasp) and ends pretty late (8PM most workdays, 9PM on school nights).  Because of this, dinner happens later than I’d prefer (about 8:30 or so at night), and as a result, I don’t usually want to eat when I wake up.  I used to try to force breakfast down my throat anyway, but I did not feel well when I did, and I would get nauseated when I trained (I generally get my training done between clients in the morning).  These days, I don’t have my first meal of the day until about 1PM.  Some people might call this “intermittent fasting.”  I call it “life.”  In any case, it works for me.  My 1PM meal will usually be a very large plate of vegetables (some combination of one of the following: broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, dark leafy greens, seaweed, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, Portobello mushrooms), seasonal fruit (berries and cherries are my favorite), and maybe some nuts, avocado/guacamole, or beans.  I’ve recently gotten into making raw, organic, sugar-free, superfood-based dark chocolates, so when I make those, I sneak a few in there, too.  Nom.

Dinner changes all the time.  I love to cook, so when I have the energy, that’s my time to shine.  I make all kinds of different things, from lasagna to chili to enchiladas and much more, but they are always based on whole, organic veggies (and maybe fruit, depending on the evening’s culinary experiment), sprouted or einkorn grains or quinoa, and a protein source such as legumes, nuts, maybe some seitan (say what you will about wheat gluten, my body doesn’t react badly to it, and I like the taste), or maybe some tempeh or sprouted tofu (again, I know many of you will scream bloody murder about soy, but I have no problem with it—and research backs me up on it).  If you don’t like soy and you don’t like gluten, don’t eat them.  But I honestly am not interested in hearing you tell me why I personally shouldn’t. 

A lot of people ask me if I supplement.  Yes, I do, and think most people should, for a few reasons.  First of all, I think there are some things we could benefit from in higher quantities than we generally get in a normal diet (such as turmeric and astaxanthin).   Secondly, while it would be awesome if we really could get everything we need from our diets, everything from agricultural growing practices to food storage to soil quality dictates that we probably do not.  Add in that I have cut a certain group of nutrients completely out of my diet, and supplementation becomes a no-brainer.  I am my own guinea pig, so what I experiment with in my supplement regimen is likely to vary from month to month, but there are a few things I always include.  They are: 

-Resveratrol and Ubiquinol (for heart health—heart disease runs in my family)
-Creatine (vegan sourced) and beta-alanine (for athletic performance and recovery)
-A vegan DHA/EPA supplement (for omega 3’s)
-Astaxanthin and turmeric (for anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties)
-A whole food-based multivitamin

All the supplements I take are from whole food sources whenever possible, and come from companies I have researched for quality.  I HIGHLY recommend that you research your supplements before purchasing them.  There are a lot of sketchy companies out there.

OK.  Now that we’ve gotten all that fun stuff out of the way, I know that most of you are not vegans, and are not looking to become vegans.  That’s cool.  Here are the three basic rules I recommend to anyone, no matter what your nutritional philosophy:

1)      Eat as close to nature as possible.
2)      Go heavy on the veggies.  Especially the green ones. 
3)      Do what works for you, and if it works for you, don’t listen to the nutritional “DO THIS OR DIE PAINFULLY” dogma that runs rampant through the online strength and conditioning community. 

Easy enough, right?

But enough about food.  It’s making me hungry.  Let’s talk about training.

One of my mentors, Bud Jeffries, recently rekindled my once-abundant love for isometric training.  I used to do quite a lot of this kind of work, and I’m not sure exactly what made it disappear from my training, but rest assured, it’s back with a vengeance now.  Isometric training has been really useful in helping me break through some strength plateaus and work through some of my weak angles in various lifts.  And since you asked so nicely, I’ll share some of my favorite isometrics.

1)      Weighted pushups at different angles  

  I often throw a plate on my back (the video shows 35lbs) and do a few rounds of these in some formation or another.  The basic idea is:  Pause part of the way down, halfway down, and almost all the way down.  I usually do each pause from 5-10 seconds.  I also do these with lunges, pullups, overhead presses, and deadlifts.

 I often switch hand/leg positions and angles so that I can vary the stress on my body for each.  I think this is very important for building strength and preventing repetitive stress injuries.  I like to do at least one good, full rep of each exercise I’m isometrifying (Not a word?  Well, it is now!) after doing the isometric version (as seen in the pullup video).  

2)      Wall sits  I hated these in gym class in grade school.  Now I do them all the time—with weight!  They have helped make my legs stronger for squatting, deadlifting, pistols, etc.  I do them at different weights, times, and depths (the video shows about 30 seconds at a midway depth with a 24kg bell).

3)      Wall handstands  Although trying to do a non-wall handstand has been the bane of my existence forever (I just can’t seem to find the right balance… sigh), doing them against the wall for time (arms straight, arms bent, one leg off the wall, legs at various angles, etc; the video shows maybe 20 seconds’ worth of handstand, but I will often hold them for a minute or longer) has made my presses stronger, particularly at the top end of the press.  They have also made me taller and made my hair grow.  OK, no they haven’t, but a girl can dream.

Isometrics have helped my strength significantly enough that I now include at least one isometric session per week to help me reach my various strength goals.  I highly recommend them. 

Hopefully, this little entry has helped you in some way.  As the Quest for Epicness is a long and winding journey, I’m always finding new little tidbits to share, for better or worse.  Feel free to find out about them here: or learn more about me here: .  And a big thank you to the Master of Epic himself, Aleks Salkin, for letting me say hello.  Keep on kicking butt.


  1. Great article for people interested in a vegan diet and strength training, and Melody herself shows just how strong and healthy a vegan can be.

    1. Steven, I totally agree. There's some myth in the strength/nutrition world that only certain programs and diets can work, which is a load of bull. Anything can work if you've got the know-how and dedication like Melody has.