How I Completed The Iron Maiden Challenge As A Lightweight

Iron Maiden Challenge 2014

On July 25, 2014, when I was in New York City assisting at a StrongFirst Level I Kettlebell Certification a few weekends ago, I completed the Iron Maiden Challenge.

The Iron Maiden Challenge is a weighted pull-up, a press, and a pistol squat, all three lifts with a 24kg (53lbs) kettlebell.

The equivalent for men is called the Beast Tamer Challenge and all three lifts are completed with a 48kg (106lbs) kettlebell.

You can read more about the Challenge HERE.

As most of you know, I trained for this strength challenge for almost three years when I started to work towards the 24kg pull-up in September 2011.  I first attempted the Challenge last September 27, 2013 and missed the press. I wrote about this in my post, “Achieve Your True Strength Potential”.

At 61 inches tall and a weight of an average of 115 to 118 pounds, no woman my size had ever attempted it or completed it.

To my knowledge, between StrongFirst and the RKC, I am the 9th woman in the world (the challenge is worldwide) to complete the Iron Maiden Challenge as well as the smallest and the lightest Iron Maiden to date as of July 25, 2014.

It was truly a journey to accomplish this goal, and there were many parts to this journey that contributed to a successful achievement. I learned an immense amount training for it. I acquired experience and knowledge that has made me a better and more knowledgeable lifter and coach, better equipped to help others on the same or similar path towards a strength goal.

One of the most significant aspects of this journey that forced me to re-evaluate my training and my technique was when I failed the press at my first attempt at the Challenge in September 2013.

There are always obstacles on the road to achievement.” ~Bruce Lee


Turn Your Weakness Into Your Strength

Failing the press was the best thing that ever happened to me.  After I missed the press, I came back and worked very hard on improving my press technique.

I was strong enough; I just wasn’t doing it right.

I did not let this failure defeat me; I let it be the fuel to make my weakness my strength.

I was determined to make my strength balanced and to make my press just as strong as my pull-up and pistol squat.

I was determined to be skilled and strong at pressing.

On the Sunday morning of the StrongFirst Level I Kettlebell Certification a few weekends ago, Master Jon Engum was talking to the candidates before their snatch test.

For those of you who do not know Jon Engum, I have a great amount of respect for him. He has an extensive martial arts background and he is a very intelligent, skilled, and experienced instructor. Having a martial arts background myself, I completely identify with his mindset and approach.


The snatch test is an endurance test that instructor candidates must pass in order to receive their kettlebell certification. Instructor candidates are required to complete 100 kettlebell snatches in 5 minutes with a 24kg kettlebell for men, and either a 12kg (26lbs) or 16kg (35lbs) kettlebell for women depending on their weight.

Occasionally instructor candidates will not pass the snatch test because they are not mentally prepared (it requires mental toughness for sure), they are fatigued from the physical volume of the weekend, their hands tear because they are not conditioned for the physical volume of the weekend, or they are just overall not prepared.

If you don’t pass the snatch test the first time you have to do it for your certification, it can really screw with your mind.

In order to help the instructor candidates mentally prepare if for some reason they did not pass the snatch test on that day, Master Engum posed the question, “How do you become better?”.

His response, “You turn your weaknesses into your strengths. You vow to make your weakness your strength or make that your strongest movement.”

This rang so true for me because it is how I felt about the press for the Iron Maiden Challenge. I may have failed it the first time around, but I did not let that screw with my mind or hold me back. Instead I came back from that failed attempt and vowed to make it my strength.

Now I am a pressing beast.


This clever picture courtesy of Dave Clancy, Owner, Buckeye Kettlebells in Ohio

“You’re strong enough, you’re just doing it wrong.”

As I mentioned in my post “Are You Mentally Tough?”, after my first attempt at the Iron Maiden Challenge last September 2013, we hosted Charlie Weingroff’s T=R2 seminar and the filming of his DVD at Iron Body Studios at the end of October 2013. Charlie had witnessed my first attempt at the Challenge in September 2013 and while Charlie was at Iron Body Studios, we talked about my press.

Charlie said to me, “You’re strong enough, you’re just doing it wrong.”

Sound harsh? Not really. Charlie just tells it like it is. He is a mentor, teacher, and coach to me. I look up to him. He does not dish out compliments (unless truly deserved), he tells it like it is, one of the many reasons why I admire him.

He also cares tremendously about what he does and about helping people. He has true compassion and care, something that you cannot fake.

With that feedback Charlie suggested that I take my press down to an open half kneeling position, drop the press weight significantly (e.g. start with 12kg and move my way up to 16kg) and train press ladders in the open half kneel position.

By training ladders in the open half kneel position, I was able to learn how to apply the necessary tension techniques for a stronger press (especially for a half bodyweight press), such as learning how to wedge properly and grind through a press by pushing into and under the kettlebell instead of away from the kettlebell. I learned how to use the correct technique, and all the correct muscles for my press instead of getting the bell above my head with brute force.

My abdominals, my glutes, and my lats were incredibly sore during the first week I trained these press ladders.

Throughout this process of rebuilding my press, Charlie was a Force that kept me on my path.


Charlie gave me the right tools to correct the pattern of my press and then he sent me on my way to use those tools correctly.

All along Charlie was there and as I got closer to the 24kg press and finally achieved the 24kg press, I sent him videos of progress, just as an FYI.

The week before the Iron Maiden Challenge I sent him videos of me pressing 24kg in my training session on July 18, 2014.

His response, “You’ve come such a long way. Well done.”

After I corrected my press technique by training open half kneel press ladders, I was ready to take it to standing and to start building strength with my press.

Operation Get #XenaStrong: I Became Really Strong and Put On Muscle Weight

Yes, I put on muscle weight in order to press 24kg. At my size, I had to; there was no way I was going to press that weight the way I needed to at 115lbs. It was one of the hardest things that I have ever done.

SO for you women who are afraid of “bulking” up from weight lifting or putting on muscle weight, you don’t have to worry because it’s REALLY FLIPPING HARD and this is coming from a woman who is a mesomorph body type and builds muscle quickly.

Unless you are training for the Iron Maiden Challenge or some strength equivalent like a half bodyweight press it is NOT likely to happen from every day weight lifting for general fitness. Even then, the number may stay the same or go up on the scale, but your clothes will fit better or you may even have to trade them in for smaller sizes.

This has been a public service announcement. Now back to how I built up this strength and muscle to press 24kg…

I worked through the press ladders for about six weeks into early December 2013 and then I needed to take a mental and physical break from high volume pressing.

I took four weeks and followed Dan John’s 10,000 Swing program. By the time I finished this program the second week of January 2014 I weighed in at 114lbs down from 117lbs at the end of September 2013.

I usually weigh anywhere from 115-118lbs, but 114lbs is not abnormal. Since the 10,000 Swing Program is a program geared more towards weight loss and conditioning, versus maximal strength, I had not only lost weight but also I had lost some strength following the 10,000 Swing Program.

Now, every woman likes to see the smaller number on the scale of her plus or minus 3 pounds, but let’s get real here, I was not likely to press 24kg, at least consistently, weighing in at 114lbs. I knew I had to put some muscle weight back on and I WANTED to put some muscle weight back on because I wanted to be strong; strong enough to press 24kg like I owned that weight.

I was not particularly happy about my weight loss and subsequent loss of strength. However, I felt mentally and physically recharged after this brief detour and was ready to get back to training for the Iron Maiden Challenge and ready to train for strength again.

I had not lost the 24kg pull-up or 24kg pistol squat but I tested my press and the heaviest weight that I could press was 20kg (44lbs).

I wasn’t too upset because I knew that I was still in the process of rebuilding my press and in order to rebuild stronger and better, you have to start back at the beginning.

One thing I did notice when I pressed 20kg was that my form was better. I was applying proper tension techniques and wedging under the bell intuitively.

I was doing it right. Intuitively.

20kg Tall Kneel Kettlebell Press

Before I wrote my own press program that made me strong enough to press 24kg, I tried Mark Reifkind’s half bodyweight press program.  This program helped me to get back on the path to strength, but it did not get me to press 24kg.   When I finished the press program on March 6, 2014, I tested my press and I could press 22kg (48.4lbs) for a single on each side.

Instead of repeating Rif’s press program, I decided to write my own program.

As I wrote about in my article in Breaking Muscle “The Art of Heavy Lifting Without Overtraining” I programmed a light, medium, and heavy press day over the course of the week. One day double kettlebell presses. I also programmed in heavy front squats once per week and leopard crawling for time two times per week.

I followed this press program starting on March 9, 2014 for about 20 weeks and got crazy strong. By June 1, 2014, on my heavy press day, I was pressing the 22kg for 10 singles and I could have done more. By June 15, 2014 I started to work in sets of double reps with 22kg.

I even built up enough strength to press double 22kg (96.8lbs) kettle bells for multiple singles.

Double 22kg (96.8lbs) Kettlebell Press

For someone my size, it was bananas.


The timing worked out perfectly because by the week of June 1, 2014 it was 7 weeks before the Iron Maiden Challenge on July 25, 2014 and over the course of those 7 weeks, I was pressing more weight and volume than I had in the previous 13 weeks.

What was I doing differently this time around?

In addition to following a different press program, and pressing correctly with the correct tension techniques, I was pressing successfully each time I trained which was not the case the first time around.

The first time around I had more failed presses than successful presses during my training sessions and trained my neuromuscular system to get used to failure.

The second time around I had all successful presses during my training sessions and trained my neuromuscular system to get used to success.

While I was following this press program, and pressing so much volume over the course of the week, I became really good at pressing.

Every once in a while I would have an “A-Ha” moment about a tension technique that I knew, but hadn’t realized it in application.

By training the press so frequently and with such volume the more I became aware of key tension techniques. This training actually turned into practicing these techniques and I truly learned what it meant to apply the following tension techniques to pressing:


Position the kettlebell so that the handle rests low on the heel of your hand and deep in the crease of your thumb. 

Squeeze the glutes and contract the abdominals so that your belt line is high. I like to call this “Trash Compactor Abs” or “Get short before you get long”.

Pull your kneecaps up to your hips and squeeze your quads like crazy.

Corkscrew your feet into the floor.

Maintain tension in your free hand.

Hold your breath or limit the exhale on the finish of the clean before the press to maintain tension.

By June 30, 2014 I pressed 24kg on my left side for two singles. Two good singles. I did not video it, but Eric witnessed it.

I still did not have it on the right yet, but that was OK, I had it on one side solid and that’s all I needed… ALTHOUGH, I did hope that I would press 24kg on the right side before July 25, 2014.

About two weeks before the Challenge on July 25, 2014, I could tell that I had put on muscle. I felt and looked more solid and I could tell that I was weighing in more towards my plus 3 pounds versus minus 3 pounds. Since I knew I had to complete a snatch test for my own recertification to assist at the kettlebell certification in a few weeks I decided to weigh myself to make sure that I was not 123lbs or more which would require me to have to recertify with a 16kg snatch test. I have never weighed in more than 117lbs whenever I have had to recertify, so I have always snatched 12kg.

On July 12 I got on our scale at home and discovered that I was weighing in between 118-119lbs, which still qualified me to use 12kg.

Very rarely do I venture over 117lbs and never 119lbs. I cannot remember the last time I weighed over 117lbs, never mind 119lbs. I think maybe when I was in my early 20’s like 23-24 years old, during a time in my life that I used to eat hot pockets.


You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. 🙂

I had put on two pounds of muscle (without the hot pockets 🙂 ) beyond the heaviest I usually weigh and it was pure awesomeness.

THIS is why I could press 24kg. I was stronger and had the muscle weight to prove it.

After I missed the 24kg press during my first Iron Maiden Challenge attempt in September 2013, people kept telling me to gain weight, but I didn’t know how that was possible. I wasn’t going to change my diet (eat hot pockets) to pack on the pounds or eat when I wasn’t hungry, so how could I put on weight?

This goes back to my very first point that as a woman, putting on muscle weight is REALLY FLIPPING HARD and based upon my body type, a mesomorph, I build muscle quickly. So if it’s hard for me to put on muscle weight, imagine how difficult it is for a woman who is an ectomorph or endomorph to put on muscle weight?


I didn’t change my diet and in fact, for reasons completely unrelated to training for this strength goal, I cut out cheese from two meals to one meal, and cut back on my almond milk consumption. So I actually cut out some extra fat and calories in my diet.

The change I made was in the training program I followed. I followed a specific training program which required me to press three times per week, heavy weight and in a lot of volume, and kettlebell front squat one time per week almost my entire bodyweight (106lbs to be exact) for 25 repetitions per session.

This program that I followed was specific to building strength for a half bodyweight press.

It was not my intent to gain muscle weight, my intent was to just get stronger, but by virtue of this program I gained muscle weight that went along with my strength.

Interestingly the number on the scale went up but my clothes fit the same.


I did not turn green and bust through my clothing. I remained a woman, feminine and lady parts intact, just stronger.


I noticed a little extra build in my shoulders, (but we all know that Shoulders Are The New Cleavage, so of course I was pumped about this 😉 ), and more muscle in my legs and butt. Now, what woman doesn’t want luscious quads or a more muscular and shapelier butt???


Another thing that is important to note, is that as soon as I stop following this training program, I will lose this muscle that I built. My body is not going to hang onto this extra muscle weight when I go back to my general weight lifting program. For someone my size it is going to be very difficult to maintain the strength and muscle to press 24kg.

I know I have already said this, but it’s worth repeating, if you are a woman who is afraid of “bulking” up from lifting weights, or putting on muscle weight, you don’t have to worry because it’s REALLY FLIPPING HARD and the experience that I had training for the Iron Maiden Challenge is living, breathing, actual proof of this.

  1. I was training for a specific strength challenge to press, pull, and one legged squat almost half my bodyweight. So unless you are training for a specific strength goal to lift weights of this magnitude, you are not going to build the muscle that I built. You will not build muscle the way I did by weightlifting for general fitness.
  2. I am a mesomorph body-type and I build muscle quickly. How my body responds to lifting weights is NOT necessarily how your body is going to respond to lifting weights.
  3. Even with a mesomorph body type and my ability to build muscle quickly, I had to train consistently for 20 weeks following a specific half bodyweight press program in order to build this strength and muscle and it was A LOT OF HARD WORK.
  4. If you lift weights for general fitness you will build muscle and the number on the scale will likely stay the same or maybe go up, HOWEVER, your clothes will fit better and in fact you may need to shop for smaller sizes.
  5. Building this strength and muscle was such hard work that I was ecstatic when I saw that I had gained muscle weight. I loved every ounce of the muscle that I built to be strong enough to press 24kg because I know how hard I worked for it and it felt AMAZING to be that strong. Being stronger trumps ANY number on the scale!

It was a truly amazing experience and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get strong, especially women, because this is a type of training that we are not inclined to gravitate towards and there’s nothing like being superhero strong.

Strength Positively Impacts Endurance: The Stronger You Are The Better Your Endurance.

Two weeks before the Iron Maiden Challenge, when I discovered that I had put on a few pounds of muscle, even though I was still weighing in light enough to complete my kettlebell instructor snatch test with 12kg, I decided to do a 16kg snatch test just in case for some reason on the day of testing I weighed in at 123 pounds or more.

I like to be prepared.

I had not been training snatches at all. Just two handed, one handed, and double kettlebell swings.  The last time I had done a snatch test with 16kg was on April 7, 2013 and it took me 4:35 minutes to complete.

Now, the snatch test is not a race. No one WINS the snatch test. You have five minutes to complete all 100 snatches and it is wisest to use all five minutes if you need it.

For me personally, I do not like to put the bell down during the test, so my time usually ends up being less than five minutes.

On July 13, 2014 I set out to complete a 16kg snatch test at the end of my training session.

I snatched the kettlebell for 10 right 10 left for five minutes without putting the bell down.

After forty snatches I was waiting for that feeling to settle in like I was going to throw up my heart the way you feel towards the end of a really long and fast sprint.

As I approached rep number 60 I was still waiting for this feeling to settle in… nothing… I was a little breathless but nothing out of the ordinary.

I finished the snatch test in four minutes, and then Eric walked in the door of the training room and right after I put the bell down I was able to carry on a conversation with him while catching my breath like I had been doing moderate kettlebell swings.

I didn’t need to do laps around the room until I could catch my breath so that I could talk again.

It was an amazing phenomenon.

Strength Positively Impacts Endurance; the STRONGER you are the BETTER your ENDURANCE.

SO, for the women out there who try to cut weight for the snatch test, because I’ve seen it and it’s not pretty because it screws your strength for the rest of the certification weekend, remember that the snatch test is not a wrestling match. You don’t need to cut weight and neither SHOULD you cut weight.

Just get stronger.

If I can do it at my size, then if you are naturally built to weigh in at 123 pounds or more and need to snatch 16kg for your kettlebell instructor certification, don’t cut weight, JUST GET STRONGER.

Stay Healthy and Injury Free 

Whenever you are training for a competition, performance, or a strength or endurance event, the most important things in your training are:

  • Don’t get hurt.
  • Don’t do anything stupid that will cause injury.
  • Don’t get sick.

Getting hurt or sick prevents your ability to train for your goal.

I was not so lucky. I sustained an injury about five weeks before the Iron Maiden Challenge and I started to come down with the fiercest chest and sinus cold I have ever had in my life about four days before the Iron Maiden Challenge.

I was lucky enough to be able manage training around my injury and I was mentally strong enough to put aside the fact that I was coming down with a bad cold until the day after the Iron Maiden Challenge.

Don’t get hurt.

I had been training one-arm push-ups once per week in low volume, like 5 to 10 repetitions, just to keep up with the movement. About five weeks before the Challenge I did something to my right shoulder while doing a one-arm push-up one day. That night, my shoulder didn’t feel right, but nothing too painful. It was something that I thought would pass.

Four days later when I was doing get-ups, I started to feel awful pain in my right shoulder. I had to cut my training short that day.

I immediately made an appointment with my acupuncturist and took a rest day the next day.

When I got back to training I identified the movements that caused pain, any horizontal pressing, so that included get-ups, crawling, bottoms-up press, one arm swings, double kettlebell swings, and snatches.

Vertical pressing did not cause me pain (thank God!) except for the bottoms-up press, ironically kettlebell cleans and pull-ups did not cause pain either.

I went to acupuncture weekly, which helped tremendously, and I continued to train but I avoided all movements that caused my shoulder pain.


I cut out get-ups, bottoms-up press, of course the one-arm push-up, crawling, and I switched all one arm swings and double kettlebell swings to two handed swings.

When I went to yoga on my active recovery days I had to avoid eccentric push-ups (high to low push-up), push-ups, and any binds.

Also at yoga, this was when I would silently remind myself “Don’t do anything stupid that will cause injury.” For example, even though I started to do headstands on the hardwood floor at yoga, I decided to cut them out in the weeks leading up to the Iron Maiden Challenge, because I thought, God forbid I fall and hurt my neck and that be the reason I am not able to do the Challenge.

Make smart choices.

With this I was able to continue to train, heal, and get stronger to work towards my goal of the Iron Maiden Challenge.

Three weeks later my shoulder was almost 100% better, but I still trained with caution.

Don’t get sick.

The Tuesday night before the Iron Maiden Challenge I was unusually exhausted and came down with a sore scratchy throat and could feel congestion building in my chest.


Over the next few days I was wavering, “Is this allergies or am I getting a chest cold?”

The Thursday before the Iron Maiden Challenge I was sure I was coming down with a chest cold, I was congested and had a little bit of a tight cough but it had not peaked yet, so my hope was that I would get through the next day, finish the Challenge, and then I could let my body get sick.

It’s amazing the things that your mind can make your body do, like hold off on getting sick, if you really want something.

I did make it through the day of the Iron Maiden Challenge, and successfully passed everything. Then on Saturday I got sick, cough, congestion, lost my voice and on Sunday after the certification weekend was over, the flood gates opened. The final exam is over, NOW I can get sick. This lovely chest cold settled in for about three weeks. I am just NOW feeling better.

One Week Before The Iron Maiden Challenge

Exactly one week before the Iron Maiden Challenge, on Friday July 18, 2014, I went through my IM lifts with 24kg for the last time before the Iron Maiden Challenge.

I had yet to press the 24kg on my right side.

That day, I pressed the 24kg on my right side, TWICE, and had the most amazing training session. It was just what I needed to leave me feeling confident about what I was going to do in one week’s time.

One of the hardest things to do when you are training for a goal is to trust the process. As soon as you let go, and trust the process, everything will fall into place just as it should, at just the right time. Even if that means, just one week before game day.

Below is a video of the 24kg press and 24kg pull-up from my training session on July 18.   I press, left, right, left, right and the presses get better as I go along.  My reaction when I press the 24kg on the right side for the first time is hilarious (scroll to 20 seconds in) and then I went on to do the pull-up and you can see how excited I am about how everything came together just as it should.  The whole time I’m talking to Eric, not my imaginary friend 🙂 … oh and by the way, all the clothes I’m wearing in the video are XXS.  How’s that for bulky???

July 18, 2014 Training Session: 24kg Press Right and Left Sides and 24kg Pull-up

The Iron Maiden Challenge

Having the physical strength to complete the Iron Maiden Challenge is only a small part of the Challenge.

A large part of being able to successfully complete the Iron Maiden Challenge is Patience and Mental Toughness.


Having the patience to train for all three lifts and to trust the process because it can take years depending on where you start. It took me an overall total of 2 years and 9 months to complete the Iron Maiden Challenge.

Even while I made significant progress with my training over the years training for it, from the time that I first could do weighted singles with 16kg (35lbs) in May 2012 it took me over a year to be able to do a weighted single pull-up with 24kg in July 2013 and pull-ups come easy to me.

The press was more challenging, but from the time that I pressed 20kg for the first time in September 2012 it took me almost two years (1 year and 9 months) to be able to press 24kg clean and easy.

A lot of people don’t have the patience to stick with working towards the goal and I believe that is one of the reasons why there are so few Iron Maidens and Beast Tamers. They get frustrated that progress isn’t happening quickly enough, or that it’s taking so long to get that last lift, and most move on to another, unrelated goal and perhaps never re-visit their training for the Challenge.

Mental Toughness

As I wrote in my post “Are You Mentally Tough?” in my definition, mental toughness is having the ability to be “comfortable” being outside of your comfort zone.

The Iron Maiden and Beast Tamer Challenge is only held at Kettlebell Certifications. This means that in order to attempt the Challenge you must either be participating as a candidate at the certification or working as an assistant instructor at the certification.

This means that you do not sleep in your own bed the night before, all snuggly and comfy, and then wake up in your own house, and drink your morning coffee out of your favorite mug and have your preferred breakfast.


This means that you are likely traveling the Thursday before the Challenge to the location of the certification, (who knows what kind of travel day you will have), eating a meal for dinner that is not your regular meal, at a time that is likely later than your normal dinner time, and sleeping in a strange bed, or in my case, on an air mattress.

This also means that, you are not on your own schedule. If you are working as an assistant instructor once you get to the workshop location you must test out your skills and snatch test and meet with the Chief Instructor and the rest of the instructors.

One Day Before The Iron Maiden Challenge

Eric and I were up at 4:30 a.m. the day before and worked the morning teaching and training and then drove four hours to New York City.

Once Eric and I arrived in New York City, we dropped our bags off at my brother’s apartment in Harlem and then hopped on the subway down to Chinatown where the certification was being held, which was an hour travel time door to door. We had to be there at 6 p.m.

Once we arrived at the workshop location at Five Points Academy we discovered, there was no air conditioning, Muay Thai classes were in progress around us, and it was hot and steamy.

I weighed in for my kettlebell instructor snatch test that night at 118lbs (~53kg) therefore 24kg was still almost half of my bodyweight, but still the heaviest I have been in years.

We completed our skills and snatch tests, had a team meeting and then headed back up to my brother’s apartment in Harlem. We arrived back to his apartment around 8:30 p.m. and still had to shower and eat. We had to be back to the workshop location in the morning at 7 a.m. This meant an early wake up call and out the door by 6 a.m.

That night Eric and I slept on an air mattress in my brother’s studio apartment, which goes back to my first point that you don’t have a restful day the day before and sleep in your own bed. Between the air mattress and feeling like crap coming down with a cold, I don’t know how much I slept that night.

The Day of The Iron Maiden Challenge

The day of the Iron Maiden Challenge, I was nervous. I kept saying to Eric and my brother “I am so nervous.” I had crazy butterflies; although I’m not sure why because all my lifts were solid and I had done all of them in my training repeatedly.  However, I was still nervous for all the lifts, not just the press. I guess is just normal to be nervous.

The Iron Maiden Challenge was right after lunch at 2:30 p.m. that day so we were on our feet all morning teaching at the certification.

Take Note: The Iron Maiden Challenge is not the first thing you do on the day of. By the time the Challenge rolls around you’ve been on your feet working for over 7 hours… after having traveled the day before, skills and snatch tested the day before, eating dinner later than usual the night before, and having slept in a strange bed or on an air mattress the night before…

When we broke for lunch I ate a normal lunch and then got changed to warm up. Now, I know all the lifts look so easy on video but in reality you don’t just roll in on a carpet of clouds like an Angel in the Nutcracker Ballet and float through your lifts. It might look like that on video but that’s not what’s happening in reality or inside the person about to attempt the challenge.

I was nervous and hoping my press would do what it should that day.

The Iron Maiden Challenge

2:30 p.m. arrived and people were gathering around to find their places where they would watch this all take place. There were over 70 people gathered to watch me do this in a small space.

One of the Team Leaders, Cole Summers asked me if he needed to ask people to not sit so close to me. I said to him, ‘Thank you for asking, but I can’t worry about the crowd. I will just focus on the bell and what I need to do.”

The first time I attempted the Iron Maiden Challenge in September 2013, the proximity of the crowd did screw with my mind when it came time for the press because I was not confident with that lift.

This time, I knew what to expect with the crowd, and although I was nervous, I was confident about the all three lifts.

It was just me, the bell, and three lifts to complete.


The Rules 

You may attempt the lifts in any order, and you are allowed two attempts at each lift.

You can read more detail of the rules HERE.

The First Lift

I wanted to complete the press first. It was the hardest and most stressful lift for me.

I also wanted to complete the press with my right side because even though it took me longer to get the press on the right side, I always have a cleaner press pattern on the right and I am less likely to lean.

I attempted the press first on the right side but stopped the press and put the bell down. When you watch the video you will see how far I get and probably wonder why I didn’t finish it.

First 24kg (53lbs) Press Attempt – Right Side

I didn’t like where the press was going. I was leaning away from the bell and not into and under the bell and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to recover and get under the bell. I didn’t want to waste energy trying because I had just started my lifts, and needed all the energy I had to execute clean, strong lifts, so I stopped the press and put the bell down.

It was a game moment decision.

After I put the bell down, you can see that I’m smiling but I’m not happy.  I’m actually really pissed off and trying not to let my anger get the best of me and affect my performance.

Anger can be channeled both correctly and incorrectly, so you have to be careful how you use that energy because it can defeat you if you use it incorrectly.

I decided to move on to my pull-up and pistol squat. I knew I would complete both of those no problem.

24kg (53lbs) Pull-up

24kg (53lbs) Pistol Squat

After I completed the pistol squat it was back to the press. I had one more chance to get it.

Before I started the press I was signaling to Eric in front of me who was taking video. I gestured with my hands asking him, “Right side or left side?” He was totally clueless and had no idea what I was asking him.

It was like Ralph Macchio in the final fight scene of the Karate Kid deciding to use his secret weapon, the Crane Kick, as his last move to win the sparring  match… except I wasn’t beat up… 🙂 .

Scroll to minute 1:30…

Once I resolved I was on my own with this decision I decided to press left side; my secret weapon.  You can see in the video as I stare at the bell I’m trying to decide as I shimmy my shoulders. I’m also sh*t talking to the bell telling it this is it and it better f-ing going up because I am not attempting this mother f-ing challenge a third time!

I decided to press left because I knew for sure it would go up, but I just wasn’t sure what the path of the press would look like.

As soon as I put my hand on the bell, I let my anger channel into the clean and into the press to drive that sucker straight to the moon. You can tell by the expression on my face that I am pissed off.

24kg Press Left Side

I love the end of the video because you can see the relief on my face as I look to the sky and I say to myself in my head “Thank God!” then Jon Engum steps forward to congratulate me. It was a great moment.


One thing that I love about the pictures and the video is the clock in the background. We started right on time at 2:30 p.m., Master Engum read the rules before each lift, and if you look at the picture of the press, the clock does not even read 2:40 p.m. It took me about 7 minutes or less to go through all three lifts. 3 years of training to do something that takes less than 10 minutes.   Haha!

A few people asked me afterwards if the right side press was some trick to scare everyone because the left shot right up and the right almost got right up to, but I stopped it. No, not a trick, just a smart decision to make sure my press was clean and strong.

I believe the Iron Maiden/Beast Tamer Challenge is not just a demonstration of strength but also a demonstration of skill and the hardstyle techniques that you learn as a StrongFirst or RKC Kettlebell Instructor. If you follow those principles and train properly, your lifts will, and SHOULD, show that.

In retrospect, Even though I wanted to complete the press first, I probably should have followed what I usually did in my training right from the start which is pull-up, pistol, press.

I found that in my training I had the best 24kg presses after I completed a heavy pull-up either 22kg singles or the week before the Iron Maiden Challenge when I pressed the 24kg on my right side, I did weighted pull-ups 1 set x 3 reps 14kg (30lbs), 1 set x 3 reps 16kg (35lbs), 1 set x 3 reps 18kg (40lbs). The weighted pull-ups help to warm me up for the 24kg press.

Lesson learned.

It Takes A Village

Even though I wrote my own program, I sought feedback from both Eric and my brother as I trained this program. They were there to help make sure I stayed on the path to success.

Throughout the whole process I had their support along with the support of many friends and colleagues.

My friend and colleague Steve Holiner (Coach Fury) happened to stop by at lunch. He had no idea I was planning to complete the Iron Maiden Challenge that day, because I had not told many people, but fortunately he was able to stay for a few minutes afterwards to watch. It meant so much to have him there along with my brother and Eric.


Eric bought me the tank top that I wore for the Challenge and the AWESOME Iron Maiden T-Shirt! Small, but very significant thoughtful gifts that meant the world to me. I am a lucky woman to have the support of such an amazing boyfriend!

This support kept me on my path and helped me to believe that indeed, no matter what my size, this goal was possible.


This is a picture of the front of a card that  Cressey Performance Intern Hannah Wellman sent to me.  I had the pleasure of meeting Hannah in person when she spent the morning at Iron Body Studios one day visiting us.

Below is a video of the moments immediately following the Iron Maiden Challenge. You can see from the video the excitement and emotion. Many people cried that day, tears of happiness and inspiration, because many knew how long and hard I had worked to achieve this goal.

After 3 years of hard work training for this challenge, I still cannot believe that I accomplished this goal it was truly an amazing feat for me. I hope that I have inspired more women to train for and attempt this Challenge and inspired more women to train for strength and to not afraid to be strong!

Always train with purpose and have a goal, and may your all of your goals be THIS rewarding!

Iron Maiden Challenge July 25, 2014 – Iron Maiden Artemis Scantalides


Do you want to learn how I trained and the program I followed to complete the Iron Maiden Challenge?  Then join me at my workshop I Am Not Afraid To Lift on November 8, 2014 at Iron Body Studios in Needham, MA!  

This workshop is for both women and men.

(I Am Not Afraid NYC at Drive495 is SOLD OUT!!!)

Learn more HERE ==>

Register HERE under EVENTS ==>

Early bird pricing through October 1 – $149.00

Regular price after October 1 – $199.00

I will see you on November 8 & I look forward to lifting with you!



4 Comments on “How I Completed The Iron Maiden Challenge As A Lightweight

  1. Artemis,
    I really appreciated reading this more than you can know. I am the same exact size as you, and have struggled to both put on (and keep on!) muscle mass as well as to increase my strength. When I first started to train with kettlebells, I tried to keep increasing my press weight, even though I had shoulder pain. In my hurry to press heavier, my form fell apart more and more. I finally took my own advice that I would give a patient and took some time off from presses, worked on my stability and strength in other positions, and then gradually began pressing again with lighter weights. The half kneeling and tall kneeling positions have been very helpful in retraining the proper groove for the press. Patience is key, as I’ve learned!
    I have been motivated by following your progress through Facebook, although I never realized that it took you YEARS to accomplish this goal. Congratulations on showing such dedication. Your preparation both mentally and physically was the key to your success. Thank you for sharing your journey – it is inspiring! I really hope we can connect this year!

  2. Congratulations! Very inspiring, and awesome write up! Sharing your press issues is helpful to me. I just tested my half BW press and I can easily press it 8 or 10 singles on my left, but not one yet with the right. I do believe my groove is off on the right, and I am pressing it away instead of underneath.

    Thanks, and strong work!


  3. Thank you Ann! I’m so glad that my writing about this experience has helped you. Being our size, it is possible to get very strong, it just takes longer. Through that time you learn a lot more about the skill it takes to execute a lift and that is invaluable. I look forward to meeting you in person as well! ~Artemis

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