A Hematologist Pumps Iron: Shernan Holtan, MD

Shernan Holtan, MD
Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology, Oncology, and Transplantation at the University of Minnesota Medical School

In this edition of pASHions, Shernan Holtan, MD, spreads the word about powerlifting – a sport she says physicians and patients can benefit from.

Can you explain powerlifting for readers who may be unfamiliar with it?

Powerlifting is a strength-focused sport in which a competitor tries to lift the greatest total amount of weight in three attempts at three different barbell lifts: the back squat, the deadlift, and the bench press. The physical adaptations required for powerlifting include the ability to complete maximum effort lifts throughout a standardized range of motion.

When did you start powerlifting, and what do you enjoy most about it?

I started working with a coach, Jason Sweetnam, for general fitness in 2014. During our training sessions, he gradually introduced me to powerlifting. He has set several national powerlifting records and eventually convinced me to enter a novice powerlifting meet in 2016. The joy of working with him has helped fuel my ongoing interest in the sport.

I enjoy the mental focus that comes through powerlifting. When I am about to execute a heavy lift, I have to focus on what is happening in the moment – my breath, my bracing, my distribution of weight, and the quality of my movement. That intense focus has translated into other areas of my personal and academic life.

However, I think the best part of practicing this sport is the community. The support of the group helps boost performance and keeps inspiration and motivation high. I’ve found that the human connections we make in the gym are the key to long-term adherence to exercise. You may have the perfect strength-training program, but if you aren’t connected to it through a larger shared identity and if you don’t enjoy the process, you won’t stick with it for long.

Dr. Holtan at a powerlifting competition.

How often do you train in the gym and what does a typical session look like?

I typically lift weights 3 or 4 days per week. Each day includes compound lifts (variations of the squat, deadlift, and press) and accessory movements (such as dumbbell lunges and rows). My coach helps develop my training “prescription,” which adjusts over time based upon my work capacity and goals. I focus on general physical fitness and endurance 1 to 2 days per week, completing longer CrossFit-style workouts with friends. I round out my week with yoga on Sundays.

This amount of exercise may sound strange, but it is so much fun. When you find a sport you love, exercising no longer becomes a chore. I feel gratitude for every day that I get to work on my strength and overall health.

What has been your proudest accomplishment in pursuing this hobby?

I have only formally competed in two powerlifting meets, and, almost by accident, I set a United States Powerlifting Association record in the squat for my age and weight class (140 kg squat in the masters’ 82 kg weight class) in 2019. I entered the meet planning to just enjoy the process, but I realized that the current national record was a weight I was already lifting in my regular program. My coach and I decided to go a little bit heavier and see if we could set the national record – and we did! I also set state records in the deadlift and bench press at that meet. To be fair, the national record was more meaningful, as I was the only one who had ever competed in my age and weight class in my state.

Are people surprised to learn that you are a powerlifter? Have you met other doctors who share this hobby?

I do think that people are surprised to learn how much I enjoy lifting weights. I don’t look that strong (it’s the secret Jedi skill of a powerlifter – we don’t necessarily get bulky like a bodybuilder might), but it feels good knowing that if I ever needed to lift 300 pounds or more off the ground, I could rise to the occasion.

I have connected with several medical professionals who also enjoy lifting. I share some of my training on Twitter (@sghmd) to try to connect with others already engaged or interested in strength training. Earlier this year, I was at a medical conference and another attendee came up to me to tell me excitedly about her recent squat personal record. It’s wonderful to be able to share that with a colleague you know is as excited as you about the achievement.

I hope that more people in the medical community learn about powerlifting because if they have personal knowledge and experience with the sport, they are more likely to discuss the role of strength training in health for their patients. Also, there’s no reason to fear strength training. Get a coach, make a plan, and have fun!

Is there any overlap between your “pASHion” and your hematology career?

The two main aspects I enjoy most about training – the improvement in focus and the fun of joining a supportive community – have led my coach and me to develop a research program about community-based strength training for cancer survivors and their caregivers. Loss of muscle tissue is a major threat to anyone’s health and quality of life, but it is particularly concerning for cancer survivors. We realize that developing a community is as important as the strength training itself, so we developed a pilot program in which a group of hematopoietic cell transplantation survivors and their exercise partners complete personalized training programs at least weekly. We are having a blast collaborating as coinvestigators on this ongoing study, so stay tuned for results!