Spend five minutes talking to Ellen Stein and you’ll want to start lifting weights yourself.
The 66-year-old champion powerlifter’s positive attitude and humor while talking about her 25 years of strength training is both inspiring and entertaining. She’s a legend in female powerlifting competitions and last year she was inducted into the United States Powerlifting Association Hall of Fame. Stein deadlifted about 260 pounds her first time trying her hand at raising the iron in 1994. At a USPA meet last month in Buffalo, she deadlifted 442 pounds and placed first in the competition.
The first time Stein tried her hand at lifting, she squatted about 225 pounds and bench pressed 126 pounds. Today, she’s raised those numbers to 400 pounds and 214 pounds. “The good news is I’m still making gains at my age. I’m still putting pounds on my lifts. I have a really good coach, Swede Burns, and I’m following a really good program,” she told StrongPath.
Healthy, Fit, and Strong
She works out at the Harbor Fitness gym in Marine Park Brooklyn three days a week and walks everywhere in her own Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood 365 days a year. It’s important to Stein that she doesn’t feel or look like someone in her 60s. She credited her strength training with keeping her fit and strong.
“When I walk around and look at women my age and think, ‘that’s what 66 is supposed to look like?’ I don’t look like that. And even though they call me Gym Grandma, cause I have short gray hair now, I don’t look like a typical 66-year-old woman,” Stein said.
“I don’t have any evidence of sarcopenia. I don’t have osteoporosis. I don’t have high blood pressure. I don’t have diabetes. I am beyond muscular,” she said. “According to my driver’s license, I am five foot three, but I’m really barely five feet. I don’t know if that is part of the aging process or from heavy lifting since I was 41,” she said with a laugh.
25 Years Under the Bar
She began lifting in the ‘90s after being turned down for a slot in the New York City Marathon. “I had been a runner for 15 years. I ran everything from the mile to the Marathon. I submitted my entry for the Marathon, and that particular year, I didn’t get in,” recalled Stein. “They put me in a lottery, and I didn’t want to subject myself to 16 weeks of training for a marathon only to find out that I didn’t get picked. So, I took it as a sign from God that maybe I shouldn’t train for the Marathon that year and I needed to find something else to do.”
A local gym was running a New Year’s Day special—a waived registration fee and low monthly fees—so she signed up. A friend got her into strength training.
“I began with a typical ‘bro workout’, you know, machine to machine. I did that for about a year, then I noticed a bunch of guys with big bellies in the corner, yelling and screaming. They were covered in powder and chalk, picking up weights, banging and clanging. I was, like, that looks like fun,” Stein said.
At the time, she was suffering from spondylolisthesis, a slipped vertebrae. Her massage therapist actually encouraged her to start powerlifting. “I said ‘I can’t.’ All the years of running really did a number on my back. He said, ‘Well, it will either kill you or cure you.’ So I gave it a shot,” she said. “I learned how to dead lift and I was very good, very fast. My body just took to it.”
According to Stein, the strength training actually helped her back because the musculature surrounding her spine is thick and strong. “It’s basically holding my spine in place. I’ve been told several times by many chiropractors and orthopedics that I need to not stop lifting ever because it’s literally holding my spine together. And if I were to stop, it would probably turn to ash and I would disintegrate,” she joked.
Three Days On, Four Days Off
Stein told StrongPath that people think she’s in the gym seven days a week based on how she looks, but she only works out three days, and with a lot of weight. We asked her what she does on her four days off. Her answer was: “Nothing. I literally need the recovery.”
“I keep busy. I have no interest in staying going anywhere near the gym on my days off. I drink coffee. I sleep late. I feed feral cats. I’m the crazy cat woman that goes out under the cover of the night with a bag and a flashlight feeding stray cats. I also volunteer at the Sean Casey Animal Rescue,” she explained
Stein doesn’t follow a specific diet, even when she’s training. She told us that the lifting and the walking has kept her weight steady at 132 pounds, much of it muscle. “I also do all the preventative maintenance, like the colonoscopy, mammogram, pap smear, and skin cancer screening. I get my blood work done twice a year. So, I’m very, very on top of my health,” she added.
Hooked on the Iron
She described herself as very competitive, and that’s what gets her to the gym three days a week. “I hate training and I like competing. I’ve done as many as nine meets a year, which is insane. I’m competing in a couple of weeks in September in Vegas at the Olympia Weekend,” she said. “I get yelled at a lot from my coach. He says I’ve got to stop, that I need to do an off-season. And I’m like there is no off-season for me. I have to do it because I just like competing.”
She likes working out at Harbor Fitness and sharing her years of weight training and competition experience with her fellow lifters. She calls it her support system. “I have kids in the gym that help me, that I rely on when I go there. They love me to death. They call me Gym Grandma and Gym Yoda. And you know, sometimes they listen to me and sometimes they don’t,” she joked.