An Interview With Cassandra Forsythe!

Check out this great interview with Cassandra Forsythe. Find out she fought the battle with spondylolithesis and what her plans are for the future...
[ Q ] Please tell me a little bit about yourself: age, athletic background, childhood, etc. Anything you might feel is pertinent to where you are now in terms of fitness, competition and academia.

    I'll start with my stats: I'm a 24 year old Sagittarian, 5'4", and I weigh anywhere from 110-120lbs. I grew up in a small town in British Columbia, Canada and I've been a student since I've been in kindergarten.

    While growing up, I was not what you would call a typical athlete. I never played in any school or city sports teams and my family was not very interested in sports at all. However, I did train and compete for a few years in gymnastics from the age of 10 to 15. I trained hard during the time I was in gymnastics and my coaches loved me because I was very dedicated and very flexible. In fact, I got the name "Gumby" because I was so hypermobile! But my over-flexibility was not necessarily a good thing.

    When I had turned 15 I found out (in a very painful way) that I had developed a back condition called spondylolithesis. This is a situation where one vertebra slips forward in relation to an adjacent vertebra, usually in the lumbar spine. The symptoms that accompany a spondylolithesis include pain in the low back, thighs, and/or legs, muscle spasms, weakness, and tight hamstring muscles, which I have to this day.

    Immediately when I was diagnosed with this problem I was forced to quit gymnastics... I was devastated. Since I had no history with other athletic activities I was at a loss of how to maintain a fit lifestyle. It took a year or two of gaining weight, losing muscle, enduring back pain and feeling generally unhappy with my physique before I found THE GYM. I joined the local YMCA when I was 17 and from that point I became hooked.

    At this gym, I hired a personal trainer to show me how to train conducive to my back problem and to learn how to train properly with weights and machines. I was fortunate because this personal trainer was also a fitness/Bodybuilding competitor, and her physique was exactly what I wanted for myself.

    So I followed her instruction completely, and started reading as many Fitness and BB magazines I could and hanging out in the weight room with the guys. I took it upon myself to learn as much as possible about proper diet for weight training and new ideas to develop an even better body. My muscles responded quickly to the new training, which was positive reinforcement to continue what I was doing.

    Because of my long-standing obsession with muscle, I knew that hard and intense weight training was the only way to go and I wasn't going to waste my time on pure aerobics. So, like I said, I became one of the few females that actually challenged herself with weights and I started training mostly with men. Training with guys was fun because I was kind of a Tom-boy (and still am), and the guys I worked out with never wanted me to be able to lift as much or more as them, so we would constantly challenge each other.

Max-Out Radio Podcast #3 With Guest, Cassandra Forsythe Max-Out Radio Podcast #3: Cassandra Forsythe.
Mike & Cassandra discuss training myths for women and supplements specifically for women. Mike discusses studies that look at improving weight training compliance in female athletes and exercising when pregnant.
[ Click here to learn more. ]

    I also started going to Bodybuilding Shows and wanted to enter one myself. But I didn't think I was quite ready for that. So in 1999, when I turned 19, there was a bikini competition being held that I thought I would try first to see what it was like to be on stage. After 8 weeks of preliminary rounds, I ended up placing First Runner Up... for which I was very happy with. This also showed me that I actually had what it took to compete and win!

    After this, I moved from my hometown to Edmonton, Alberta to continue University. This move was hard on me. I got sad living so far away from my family and learning to live on my own. School was also difficult and despite having to work part-time, I maintained an A average and won many scholarships.

    From this stress, I feel off the fitness wagon for awhile and gained about 20lbs... it was awful. Finally, I had enough of being out of shape and I got right back into training hard again. In 2002, I graduated with my BSc in Nutrition I was accepted into a MSc degree with full-funding and tuition waver.

    Also in 2002 I decided to compete again and this time I won 2nd in a Figure Competition. After that show, I had to focus on my degree so I couldn't compete, but instead I started prepping competitors for Provincial and National Shows here in Canada. I kept up with my training and diet, but at the same time I learned how to apply my knowledge to help other people get the same great results.

    Currently I'm still working with athletes and doing sports nutrition talks for various teams and athletic groups all while wrapping up my thesis and gearing up for my move to the USA to begin my PhD.

    Overall, it was my strong internal motivation that has driven me to be persistent and successful with my athletic endeavors and academia. No matter what obstacles and downfalls I have faced, I've always pushed through it and made myself achieve what I want for the rest of my life: fitness, health, and success.

    My back pain continues to be a constant battle for me, but I've proved that no matter what handicap you may have, nothing can ever stand in the way of your goals and dreams as long as you really work hard to get them.

[ Q ] How long have you been involved in the field and how did you get involved?

    My involvement in the field started when I first hired a personal trainer to show me how to train properly. As I said, she was a fitness competitor and she introduced me to all the local people who also competed. I also worked in health food stores and networked with several supplement companies.

    So, I would say that it's been about 7 years now that I've been involved in the field. In this time I've worked for several major supplement companies such as PVL, Prolab, Labrada Nutrition, Biotest, Champion, and Dorian Yates Approved.

    I've prepped several successful fitness and BB competitors; I've done nutritional counseling for athletic teams, and people with chronic diseases; I've worked in hospitals, nursing homes and volunteered with Clinical and Community Dietitians; I've recently written articles on weight training for women and worked on projects with John M Berardi and Jose Antonio.

    I've competed in a few figure shows and I've attended several Sports Nutrition Conferences such as the First international Scientific Congress on Nutrition and Athletic Performance, SCAN, and ACSM; and finally, I've obtained my degree in Dietetics and Food Science and am almost finished my MSc in the same area. (whew… that was a VERY long run-on sentence)

[ Q ] But what is your training philosophy in terms of women looking to reduce body fat levels and increase musculature?

    Well, first and foremost, heavy resistance training is essential. I will never be an advocate of pure cardio training, but I know that the combination of resistance and aerobic activities are a must for helping a woman to obtain these goals. As we are aware, a woman's fear of getting bulky from weight training is just a poor excuse to avoid it.

    Women aren't designed to get huge. Instead, when a woman weight trains her body actually gets smaller and tighter as she develops more lean body mass (LBM) and annihilates her fat. Sure, a woman can get skinny if she just does cardio, but she'll still be soft, and her triceps will still flap in the wind when she waves her arm.

    But with weight training she can develop a hard tight physique. A physique with firm glutes, etched abs, and defined biceps... and what woman can honestly say she doesn't want that? Also, since LBM is directly related to resting metabolic rate, when you have more LBM, you'll have a higher metabolism and burn more calories throughout the day.

    Plus, the benefits of weight training extend beyond a pure physique standpoint.

    Resistance training helps a woman to improve bone mineral density, which is important to prevent osteoporosis and bone fractures later in life. Since these are common problems for all women as they enter menopause, anything they can do in their younger years to prevent it is important.

    So, to reiterate, cardio and weight training are most beneficial when used together. I would highly recommend both if a women wants to achieve a healthier, leaner, more muscular physique.

[ Q ] What is a typical training week for you?

    Since working out and training is one of the best ways for me to de-stress from my academic demands and is my primary source of social activity, I tend to train 6 to 7 days a week. Now, I'm not saying I weight train every day, but I do SOME sort of physical activity at least everyday of the week, whether that just be going for a walk outside with a friend, or going mountain biking to escape from school-life.

    Typically, I go to the gym and weight train 5 days of the week, do cardio for 20-30 mins about 4 days of the week, and spend 2 days just doing rehabilitation exercises and stretching for my weak/problem muscle groups. I've also recently taken up Olympic lifting with another personal trainer. So, for the past 6 months, I also lift 1-2 times a week and work on cleans, snatch and other variations of these O-lifting exercises.

    Actually, I'd have to say that O-lifting has to be one of the most intense workouts I've ever been through. It's made drastic improvements in my physique and fitness level and it's given me a new and exciting goal to look forward to (which is to eventually compete in a O-lift competition).

    I'm lucky because I have a trainer who really knows what he's doing (Rob Aloisio). He trains many of the pro teams and athletes here in Alberta and has competed successfully in Olympic lifting himself. He's also a good friend and a great mentor. Here's a link to his site here: Thanks Rob!

[ Q ] If you were to train a woman starting out for the first time, what would your approach be?

    This is an interesting question as I just worked out yesterday with my best friend who's never weight trained before. She kept asking me questions like "Shouldn't I be doing 12-15 reps with each exercise?" and "Should I start with 8lbs this week and then move to 10lbs next week?" (for DB press).

    Since these are common misperceptions of women who have never trained, when training a women for the first time I would dispel some of these myths and teach her why these myths will get her nowhere. I would get her to read some of the great training articles by authors such as Don Alessi, Christian Thibadeau, and Charles Staley.

    I'd want her to know what a muscle actually needs to grow so she can understand why lifting a 3lb dumbbell 50 times will not help her reach her goals. Also, just as important I'd make sure she knows how to eat properly to recover from training and make progress in the right direction.

[ Q ] I understand you're currently working on your Master's thesis studying saturated fats and CVD. Tell me (in English ;) what that's all about and what it entails.

    Hmmm... in English, eh? How about Canadian? I'm kidding.

    To put it as basic as possible the purpose of my thesis is to prove if the chemical structure of a certain saturated fatty acid has an influence on how that fatty acid influences blood cholesterol levels, synthesis and markers of cardiovascular inflammation.

    So, I'm trying to prove if all saturated fatty acids are created equal or if fat structure will change the typical negative health effects. Also, I'm reaffirming what we've already found in our research group, that there need to be a critical level of polyunsaturated fat in the diet to minimize the negative health consequences of higher levels of saturated fat.

    Since I began my thesis in the summer of 2002, I've had to A LOT of work to get where I am right now... and I'm not even done yet.

    Like all grad students who have to write a thesis, I've had to write a full literature review of the research conducted in this area and in relevant areas. This involved collecting and interpreting many, many research papers and scientific findings. However, unlike some grad students, my actual research project involved quite a bit of work.

    I conducted a human feeding study, which lasted about 6 months long. I was responsible for designing all the dietary interventions, and ensuring the diets met strict nutritional criteria. I had to order massive quantities of food, cook all meals myself and ensure that portions and calories were exact for each subject.

    When food ran out, I was the one who had to run to the grocery store to replenish it. Every day I got up at 5am and cooked for an entire day. I was on my feet non-stop and I was mentally and physically exhausted at the end of it. However, I still made sure that I went to the gym at least 5 days of the week; some days I don't know how I did it, but I did.

    After this feeding study was over I had to then analyze all of the blood samples I collected myself. I used a very unique method to determine cholesterol synthesis rates with two novel machines: One is called a Mass Spectrometer and the other is called a GCIRMS: Gas Chromatography Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer. The total prep time for analyses took 6 months as well. On top of this research I taught a few nutrition classes and had to take classes myself.

    Like I said, this MSc degree has been very challenging, and when I'm finally finished, for some crazy reason, I'm going to continue on to my PhD. Some people don't have as hard of MSc degrees as this. I just happened to be one of the lucky ones!

[ Q ] I also understand that you're going to be starting a PhD program soon in nutrition. What are your ultimate goals in terms of obtaining your PhD?

    Yes, I'm officially starting my PhD this September. I'm moving to the University of Connecticut to work in the department of Kinesiology under the supervision of Dr. Jeff Volek. Dr Volek is well known for his current research with the health benefits of ketogenic diets for cardiovascular disease risk factors and obesity.

    When I'm finished my PhD, I plan to teach in a University as a Professor of Nutrition, and conduct further research trials in the areas of obesity research and cardiovascular disease. I also want to work with elite athletes and pro-teams as a sports nutritionist and supplement expert. Basically, I want to wear many hats when I'm done my PhD. The doors will be open to many career opportunities and I'm not going to limit myself to only one.

[ Q ] I also understand that you're interested in getting involved in competing. What types of shows are you interested in and why?

    Since I love fitness it would be my dream to compete in Fitness America pageant, but because of my back, this just isn't possible. So, I would like to compete in the Figure and Physique competitions and challenge my athletic ability in Obstacle course competitions such as the Galaxy Nova.

    The reason I want to compete is to challenge my body and give me a new goal to work towards... it will also give me a break from the constant struggles of being a grad student. Finally, like I said, perhaps I might compete in Olympic Weight lifting.

[ Q ] What are your fitness goals for the future?

    Well, of course, I want (and need) to keep my back strong. So, this involves having strong glutes, abs and spinal erectors. But in terms of physique goals and functional strength I need to improve development in my hamstrings, my mid and lower-fiber traps, my infraspinatus and supraspinatus, and biceps.

[ Q ] If there were one thing you could tell a woman looking to get into shape and pursue a career in fitness, nutrition and sport, what would it be?

    First, to the women looking to get into shape:

    Consistency is the key. If you start a workout program, stick to it. Don't make any excuses to avoid it, otherwise you're never going to get anywhere.

    For the woman looking to pursue a career in fitness:

    Surround yourself with people with the same interests and people who you want to be like. When I decided that this was the path I wanted to take with my life I first found all the people in my area who work with athletes and are sports nutritionists. I learned how they got where they are today and what I would need to do to get there as well.

    Then, after I covered all the bases in my general vicinity, I contacted all the well-known nutritionists in the industry and let them know I wanted to be just like them (*and better). I emailed John Berardi first and asked him how I could get into the same PhD program as he. He gave me some great advice and suggested some sports nutrition conferences I should attend. From there, it snowballed into me meeting and becoming good friends with many other people who are well known, such as Dr Jose Antonio and Doug Kalman.

    This is also interestingly how I got into my PhD program at UConn. After looking into the various research papers and PhD programs in sports and nutrition I informally emailed Dr Volek. I told him I wanted to be his grad student and than if he took me on, he wouldn't be disappointed.

    Overall, you have to create the life you want. No one is going to serve it to you on a silver platter, and as such, sometimes you have to take a leap of faith to get it.

About The Author

Kristin Reisinger is a New York City-based nutritional consultant, personal trainer, freelance health + fitness writer, musician and cynic. She is currently completing her Master's Degree in Applied Physiology + Nutrition from Columbia University and will be sitting for the Registered Dietitian examination through the American Dietetic Association in the winter of 2004. She is also a National-level NPC Figure athlete, former Galaxy competitor, avid snowboarder + rock climber and has been competing for over three years. For more information or to contact Kristin, please visit: