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Sage Bergener weightlifting

Growing Up Bergener: Interview with Sage Bergener Mertz

The moment I ran across Sage’s online blog, I was smitten: a weightlifting expert and a competitive CrossFitter with a writer’s flair. Though Sage comes from the legendary Burgener family, she speaks with a powerfully independent voice, and — as her blog title implies — a lot of sass. I love this interview– a little bit of insight and a little bit of spunk, like all of Sage’s work. For more of Sage’s wisdom, I highly recommend you visit her website.

– V. Jo Hsu

For our readers who might not be familiar with you, would you share a little of your background? What was it like growing up with weightlifting, and at what point did you find CrossFit?  

Well, my name is Sage and I’m a wife, mother, Olympic weightlifter, mediocre CrossFitter and aspiring female rap God.  I grew up in Mike’s Gym, home of THE Coach Burgener. Life in the Burgener household involved going to school, driving to 47 different sport practices, and then coming home to lift in a gym full of incredible weightlifters. We always had such amazing people at our house, in our gym. I found myself wanting to spend as much time as I could with them, soaking up everything I could in hopes that I would grow up and be just as amazing.

I didn’t find CrossFit until I was eighteen.  I was attending Northern Michigan University on a weightlifting scholarship when I got injured and lost my fire for weightlifting.  I decided to move back to California.  Two weeks before moving, I received an email from CJ Martin telling me that he was opening Crossfit Invictus and needed an Olympic lifting coach.  I was so lucky to get the chance to work under the sadistic genius that is CJ Martin and to be a part of a community that was so positive and uplifting.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. It achieves that perfect balance of personal and informative, and provides so much clear, detailed advice for weightlifting. I remember a post in which you write about “pulling yourself under the bar” instead of “dropping under the bar.” I feel like that concept took me years to grasp, and I still haven’t mastered it. How do you cue athletes to teach them to stay connected to the bar? What movements or drills have you found most helpful?

This is such a difficult concept! My favorite cue to help my athletes with this is: “pull your hands to the top.” People have a hard time staying connected to the bar, but if you can get them to think about what their hands are doing, it simplifies the movement. On the snatch, keep pulling until your hands are all the way up over your head, arms locked out. On the clean, keep pulling until your hands are to your shoulders and then drive your elbows around.

Muscle snatches and muscle cleans are great for strengthening that last little pull under.  Also, tall snatches and tall cleans. Tall snatches and tall cleans take the jump out of the movement, forcing you to rely on your fast pull under. You start up on your toes, bar at the high hang position. From there, you shrug your shoulders and pull your body down into an overhead squat.  Super scary, super beneficial.

I’ve also seen you discuss the importance of core development for weightlifters. What are your favorite movements for strengthening the core?  

Core is SO important for weightlifters! Have you seen the erectors on some of those peeps?! They don’t get those eating donuts and drinking Progenex. Back extensions, weighted planks, bent over barbell rows, glute ham raises, good mornings, weighted sit ups, etc.  These are all examples of exercises that will make you a stronger athlete and a more desirable human being.

Recently, you competed at the Battle of London. Could you share a bit about how you trained to prepare for that competition?

Training for that competition was extremely challenging, but extremely rewarding.  I gave my coach at the time, Aimee Everett, two months to prepare me for competing alongside some of the best in Europe. I was training out of a gym on base that didn’t allow CrossFit, so I didn’t have all the equipment I needed, and I had to be super spy-like doing handstand push-ups in the corner and not dropping barbells. Ever. Even if there was a fire.

My training mainly consisted of Aimee trying to kill me and me just trying to survive. There was lots of work with a 20lb weighted vest, lots of dates with heavy Grace and lots of crying. I’m not really sure what else took place…  I pretty much blacked out during most of my training sessions.

What would you say were the biggest adjustments you made in your training to transition from weightlifting to CrossFit?

I would say the biggest adjustment I made was not considering walking to the refrigerator to be cardio.

I also really enjoy the moments in your blog that describe your experiences as a new mom (congratulations!). How has the return to training been for you? Have you encountered any unexpected challenges? Do you have any advice for women that resume lifting after having a child?

The first year of training after childbirth was a crazy one.  Like every new mom, I was constantly tired and struggling to figure out how life was supposed to go with a crazy little person in tow.  Not to mention, I was super discouraged to discover that despite my 9 months of training while pregnant, I had lost all my muscle in the weeks after birth.

Before everyone gets too depressed to continue reading, things DID get better.  At the one year mark, things turned around for the better with my training.  I finally started making gains again.

I truly believe that every woman’s post birth experience is different. I guess I want every woman to know that as discouraging as it seems in the beginning, keep training…it’ll get better.  Take your time, be gentle with yourself and believe that before you know it, you’ll be back to making gains again instead of feeling like your baby giraffe legs are going to snap underneath you.

What are you working towards now? Do you have any specific objectives for your career as a coach or an athlete? 

Right now, as an athlete, I am training with the Crossfit 808 crew with hopes of qualifying two teams for regionals. It’s such a blessing getting to train with females who are stronger than all three of my brothers put together.

Aside from that, I’m just trying to be the best coach I can be without getting too big for my britches. My goal is to be a positive influence on any athlete that approaches me for help with their lifting. Whether I have someone for one session or for 5 years, I always want people to walk away feeling like they have found a little more love for the sport.

Finally, where can people find you? 

Well, I’m on instagram as sassysageb and I occasionally update my blog.  By “occasionally,” I mean that I update it every 3 years. Check it out if you like to read lots of nonsensical word vomit!

(for an interview with Sage’s Brother, Beau, click here)

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