Sabina Skała

Hi Sabina. I know it is kind of a cliche way to start a conversation but looking at what’s happening now it is hard not to ask - how are you and how is everyone at The Fort Gym?

Hi guys, thank you for asking. We are doing ok considering the situation. It is a frustrating time for anyone working in the health and fitness industry, however I hope there is a silver lining to it and people will become more aware of their lifestyle choices and how they can affect their health and wellbeing, as well as become kinder to the planet.

For those who don’t know you, could you please say a few words about your background, what do you do for a living, where are you based, how long you have been vegan, etc?

I work as an S&C coach and PT. I train both pro and amateur athletes as well as the general population. I am Polish, based in Fulham, London. I do not remember exactly how long I have been vegan - it must have been around 8 or 9 years ago when I started.

Sabina Skała

Could you please tell us how did you become interested in veganism? What was the main reason for you to reject animal products?

Initially it was just a bet with one of my clients, Andrew. Andrew has been vegan for many years and did not believe that I could last on a plant-based diet for longer than a week. I said, “make it a month” and have been staying away from animal products ever since. This type of nutrition worked very well for me - I felt great hence I decided to stick to it.

The ethical part came years later. I watched “The Earthlings” and this documentary struck the cord. I believe once you have seen it, you cannot be indifferent to what we do to our planet, how we treat animals, how disrespectful and cruel we are.

I say “we” because, as consumers, we do have the power to influence the market. The more of us that realise how, for example, various cosmetics, detergents, etc are made and what testing on animals looks like, the more - I hope - mindful our choices will become with regards not only food, or clothing but also everyday products.

I am by no means perfect, but I try to make informed choices on a day-to-day basis. Still, there is a lot I need to learn. There is plenty more to be said about the subject but I recommend watching Earthlings to everyone.

Most vegans I know went plant-based before it was cool. Now, the mainstream media and regular people have a general idea of what being vegan means. And yet, with all the information about the benefits of eating just plants, there are still a lot of people who are against it. Some people have even made it a lifetime mission to discredit vegans. I guess there is something behind it somewhere, but don’t you think this energy can be spent better?

Absolutely! To be honest, I stopped getting involved in any discussions, quarrels etc, especially on social media. I am too busy for it. All I can do is to take care of my health, stay fit and strong, and hopefully lead by example. Everyone has got a right to live their life the way they want (as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else). I try not to judge before knowing the entire picture.

Health and strength-wise - I believe you can thrive on a plant-based diet. I also believe you can thrive being a carnivore, providing your nutrition is sound in both cases. The ethical side is for an individual to decide. I ate meat for most of my life, so I am the last person who should preach, but I will always be happy to give information if people ask.

You lead a very active life. Could you please tell us how your regular day of eating looks like?

It’s not very exciting, I’m afraid! I have very little time to cook at the moment - an air fryer and a slow cooker are my lifesavers for evening meals. In the morning I have warm water with lemon juice (1/2 lemon squeezed in a glass of water), then coffee with oat milk. I may have 1 protein bar as well.

After training I will have either a protein bar or a smoothie (vegan protein, blueberries, almond butter, flaxseed).

Lunch is usually just a bread roll with either 1/2 avocado, tomato, some bbq sauce, sea salt and some sort of vegan sausage. I have tried to reduce bread consumption, but I like gluten too much ;)

Dinner will be a mix of vegetables on its own or with rice or barley, roasted jackfruit or homemade vegan burgers.

Some day I use a slow cooker and make stews or some sort of ratatouille for the evening.

I will be absolutely honest, I am not a foodie. I love cooking for friends but for myself, as long as I get the right fuel, I am not too fussed. Apart from fennel, I like all vegetables. Plus I like simple food, so it is quite easy for me to fix something quick that is not too insulting, taste-wise.

During the day I eat fruit as well, loads of tangerines or/and berries. I may eat a bagel as a snack as well.

I drink approx 3l of water a day, some days more.

Do you take any supplements on top of it? If so, could you please tell us what and why?

I take:

  • Probiotics as I believe healthy gut massively helps to strengthen the immune system amongst many other benefits.

  • Vitamin B complex to boost the immune system, digestion and cell health.

  • Vitamin D + Vitamin K2 for increased calcium absorption into bones and to aid recovery. In short - Vit K2 and Vit D3 ensure that calcium is absorbed easily and reaches the bone mass (this includes the teeth as well), whilst preventing the calcification of arteries.

  • Turmeric extract to help the body deal with inflammation.

When you first started working out what did you do and how the evolution of your training philosophy looked like? What/how do you train now?

I trained since I remember, even when I was a little kid. My Dad used to take me to the swimming pool very early in the morning at the weekends for swimming sessions. Myself and my sister were the only young kids in the pool at that hour.

In primary school, I joined a kayaking club and trained there competitively until I was 16 years old. I had a huge fascination with strength training for many years, however I always was too enamoured with movement itself and the great outdoors to fully focus on strength only. I needed that endurance component in my training as well.

At the moment I am focusing purely on building sound tolerance to ultra-endurance multi-day events. Most of my training is based around running, including strength sessions, which are focused on building and maintaining a solid base for trail/ mountain races.

Not many people know that you are one (of not very many) who have run through the Sahara Desert. And I think you are the only one who did it with a twisted ankle. Can you please tell us more about this epic achievement?

There were athletes there who ran MDS with prosthetic legs, so my twisted ankle was really just an inconvenience, not a major problem. I just hobbled along and managed to make the cut-off times, which to be frank were quite generous.

Some runners had problems with the heat but for me, who feels cold 99% of the time, the desert temperature felt optimal. It was a great adventure! I had such a great bunch of friends with me, which made the entire event even more epic. We ran separately but we shared the tent. Having all of them there by the end of each day for some banter and laughs really helped.

One night we all had to hold the tent down, as there was a sand storm. The sand gets into every gap it can find plus the Berber tents are not very stable structurally.

I loved the desert and I hope to be back at some point. The event is pricey but it is very well-organised, plus the way you experience the desert is unique and unforgettable. I do recommend it.

247km is not something you can do just like that. What does the preparation for such an event look like?

Marathon Des Sables was the second multi-day event I have ever done and it was the first one of such a long distance. I had no clue how to prepare for it. My training was just running - and running a lot. I was doing approx 150km per week for many months.

Now, looking back at it, that was too much but I was so scared I would die in the desert! I was trying to build as much resilience to the distance as possible. If I had time, I probably would have run even more.

Now I only do one long run at weekends, sometimes two. During the week I focus more on technique and I am working on getting faster.

I also know the whole thing wasn’t done just for fun and there was a special reason for doing it. Could you please tell us more?

My friend Rob Blair from Commando Temple asked me to join a bunch of guys who were running MDS and I said yes without even knowing what the event entailed. Just to emphasise how ignorant I was, I was sure we would have had showers in the desert.

Rob himself ran Sahara a year before. When I signed up for it and eventually found out that I would have to carry all the food for the whole week in my backpack and wear the same clothing for the entire race and run huge distances every day, I thought it looked so scary that I may as well try to raise some funds for people whose work is very close to my heart.

There were two projects I was raising funds for. One was a US Charity called Project Child Save founded by Ty Ritter. Ty and his team work relentlessly to stop child trafficking. They also run rescue missions.

The second project is from my home turf. It is a privately funded and run Dogs Shelter, it is called Azyl u Majki. Majka and Adam (the founders of the Shelter) are incredible people, who have dedicated their lives to help abandoned and mistreated animals.

They not only give safe shelter to dogs, they do way more. Apart from fostering dogs, they also rehabilitate them and make sure they are re-homed with families that are best for the particular dog’s needs. Adam has unfortunately passed away in December last year and Majka, being on her own, now needs a lot of help.

If anyone would like to support her, the Facebook account is Azyl u Majki, please contact her, any help will be appreciated.

OK, going back to training now. When going through some of your articles I have noticed that one of your “go-to” exercises is front squat. Why did you choose front squat over high/low bar squat? Is it more beneficial for strength development than other variation?

This was an article I wrote quite a while ago, a lot has changed since then! I have no preference as such, it all depends on an athlete/client. I have no particular “to-go exercise”.

In terms of squats - I use all variations. I probably use Back Squats more often now than Front Squats, but both have their place in training, as well as other squat variations like Goblet, Zercher, Overhead etc. A lot depends on mobility (ankle, hip, thoracic, shoulder, etc), ability to generate tension, and training goal.

So the answer is no, Front Squat is not more beneficial than other variations. However, for some athletes, it may work better than, for example, Back Squat, at a given time, ability or phase of training.

Do you think that barbell training is the ultimate tool when talking about improving strength? And I am talking about strength only, putting other qualities of training aside.

If we are talking about gym-built strength, the answer will be very short - YES.

If we are talking about building strength for something specific, like climbing or gymnastics, it becomes more complex.

You have been working with many fight athletes, so you have the first-hand experience about what works and what doesn’t. In the book called “Training explosive strength for martial arts” by Piotr Szeligowski, there are many exercises for combat athletes on Bosu ball or performed when an athlete is based on one leg or in an uncomfortable position. Do you think that approach is useful for combat athletes?

It may be for some. When I start working with an athlete, I look at how their body functions as a whole. I try to identify weaknesses and fix them.

If balancing on one leg on Bosu ball will help to fix some problem (which it may, especially when it comes to ankle stability and proprioception) I will include it in my training. But it has to be done for a reason.

Any combat athletes, especially those training MMA, do multiple sessions per day. So when we do strength and conditioning, I have to be very careful selecting exercises that will benefit them. Anything unnecessary is a waste of energy and time.

So, to summarise, I believe there is merit to performing certain exercises, including some in uncomfortable positions or working on balance. However, there always should be a reason for prescribing them. I am not familiar with Piotr Szeligowski’s book, but I will make sure to read it. Seeing someone else’s perspective is always beneficial.

What do you think about boxers training punching with dumbbells in their hands? Is it beneficial or is it just a myth from old times when people did not know any better?

I am guessing we are talking about shadowboxing with weights? It is not something I ask any of the fighters to do, for a couple of reasons.

Very briefly - punching power comes predominantly from the legs and core, not shoulders or arms only. Even if the goal would be straightening arms and shoulders, shadowboxing with light weights doesn’t stress arms and shoulders significantly enough to make any difference.

Using heavier weights on the other hand will mess up punching coordination, technique, and timing.

Furthermore, the weights do not provide resistance in the direction you are punching, as the resistance is going down as opposed to horizontal. A better solution would be using resistance bands, but I would do it as a separate exercise, not during shadowboxing.

Last but not least - and as I mentioned before - know why you are prescribing certain exercises. Shadowboxing is a coordination, speed and endurance exercise and, in my opinion, best done at no load.

In one of your interviews you have said that you are not getting yourself involved in fight competitions. Could you please tell us why? Can you also tell us a bit about your strategies for peaking your fighters as in MMA, BJJ or other kicking/striking sport? There is no such thing as a season/off-season and most of the guys have to be ready all the time, just in case, right?

My training is always a part of a fight camp for an individual fighter. I think what I said is that I don’t believe a fighter can get the full benefit of the strength and conditioning prep if they decide to start working on their strength and conditioning only 8 weeks before the fight.

I work with the athletes all year long. I think if a combat athlete wants to start including strength and conditioning work in their training, they should start early and not only when they are in the camp. The body needs to get used to certain demands of strength and conditioning, weaknesses need to be identified and fixed. It all takes time.

Starting strength and conditioning whilst in the camp is not a great idea. Continuing strength and conditioning whilst in the camp, however, is fantastic and can be of huge benefit.

You work closely with many martial arts athletes. I am guessing now, but most of them must cut weight from time to time. What do you think about cutting weight by combat athletes? What mental and health effects of cutting weight are there?

Ideally an athlete should walk around at only approx 5% heavier than his/hers fighting weight. I do not believe in huge weight cuts as they are very stressful on the body. Most of the cut comes from manipulation of fluids, which in extreme cases can affect cerebrospinal fluid.

According to one of the studies I read a while ago (unfortunately I don’t remember who conducted it), approx 39% of fighters (MMA) were still in the state of dehydration during the fight, which of course puts them at a higher risk of injury.

I know fighters who lost because of a bad weight cut. Cutting water weight is miserable, both mentally and physically, which is not the state you want to be in just prior to the competition.

Someone said once that “Overtraining can be a myth but under-recovery is very real”. What do you think about the idea of overtraining and what are your recovery strategies?

I agree. You can task your body physically as much as you want to, providing you recover sufficiently. Our bodies are more resilient than we imagine. However, even the most resilient organisms eventually break if you constantly keep applying pressure on them.

My recovery strategies are really basic (the first 3 being most important, the rest are just additions):

  1. Sleep : 8 hours is ideal

  2. Nutrition

  3. Stress Management

  4. Mobility : stretching and foam rolling session, I also use a muscle flossing band after long runs

  5. Regular Sports Massages

  6. Hot and Cold Showers

I really like your saying that “training hard is only a part of success, training smart will get you the results you are after”. You have also said that “good way is always the way that works, and there are plenty of these.” What do you see as “smart training”? Do you think that some people are getting too attached to some modalities and missing out on something which can be more beneficial for their goal?

These are not 100% my words. Some time ago, Mark Twight wrote some words inside the cover of his book “Kiss or Kill” that I got from him. He wrote

“Its easy to be hard, but it is hard to be smart”

This stuck with me, as well as many other things Mark said. I think we all as trainers at some point become guilty of getting too attached to certain modalities. I definitely have done it and probably will do it again.

However, I am fortunate I have great friends, who are phenomenal trainers and athletes and are not afraid to challenge me. Hence I get unstuck pretty quickly!

Smart training is training that works and sometimes it means exploring a path that is not conventional. Smart training is training that takes an individual into the account - it is not necessarily blindly following systems and methods.

However, saying that, it would be unwise not to also consider and use methods that have been there for ages and worked for many. Smart training is based on observation and reaction.

We all are students of movement, and the more experienced we are, the quicker we can identify what should be changed, modified or adjusted to make the athlete better.

Some time ago Hench Herbivore was asked if you can eat animals and still be a good person. He said it all depends on the perspective because if you look at it from the animal’s side you are the abuser. What is your take on that?

If you look at it that way, you can say most of the animals are abusers as well. For me, it is more about respect.

If you look at Native Americans years ago, how they hunted and how the entire process looked, it paints a different picture. All parts of the animal were used, as food, for building shelter, for clothing etc. There was no waste.

Animals were free to roam in their natural habitat until they were hunted and killed. It was not ideal, but with more connection to nature. People were fully involved in the entire process, from the kill to preparation of meat, leather etc.

In the modern world, we are far removed from what is going on - most of us don’t even know how factory farms look like. We get a ready-made product on the shelf in the supermarket. A lot of meat is being thrown away because it goes past the expiration date.

The animals are kept in horrific conditions, pumped with steroids, antibiotics, often not having enough space to walk or run. They are chronically stressed and transported in inhumane conditions. Many of them are slaughtered for no reason as food because the leather is going to go to waste anyway.

It is not the kill at the end that I have the biggest problem with, it is what happens before and after.

There is also a lot of drama going on in the community about people dropping a vegan lifestyle or being fake-vegan. What is your take on this? Would you stop being a friend with someone who went vegan and then quit it? Would you cut ties with that kind of person or it wouldn’t change a thing?

Absolutely not. I believe everyone has a right to make their own informed choices. It is very easy to judge, usually without having a full picture. I respect honesty, and as long as they are honest with themselves and others, I am fine with whatever they eat or wear.

I am not perfect and, to be honest, I don’t even know if I can call myself a true vegan, because somewhere, at some time, I am sure I bought/used/ate some non-vegan product, doing it consciously or just because I didn’t have enough information and I didn’t know.

As for myself, I try to be as fair and transparent as possible, but I am not free from mistakes. Hence I would rather not judge - I would ask the reason and if I could help in any way. People can change their ways many times. Even if someone stops following a certain ideology, nothing is set in stone, they may come back.

What I don’t like is generalisation. If something doesn’t work for an individual, it only means that it did not work for that one person at a given time for a number of reasons, it doesn’t mean that the entire idea is bad for everyone.

If we want to refer it to certain figures who were known vegans and have since dropped the diet and become meat-eaters, I only have a problem if they say veganism as a dietary choice is not sustainable and causes health problems - all that based only on their individual experience. I find it unfair and biased. The fact it did not work for them, doesn’t mean it is bad for everyone else.

However, if I hear something along the line of “I have tried, it did not work for me for various reasons, but I know it worked for plenty of other people” - I respect that. To put it in a different perspective, despite the fact that plenty of people get injured doing weight training, it does not mean lifting weights is bad, quite the contrary. But to benefit from weightlifting you need to know how to lift them and how to apply/manipulate the load correctly.

I would like to end this interview with your take on “body positive movement” and especially one aspect of it. Don’t you think slogans like “fat pride” are a bit too much?

Not very PC, but let’s call it for what it is Fat is Fat. It may be beautiful to people who enjoy this type of aesthetics, but it is not healthy. Obesity is not healthy and I don’t see a reason to be proud of being overweight.

If you really care about someone, would you want that person to be at health risk from potential hypertension, high cholesterol levels, the possibility of diabetes, also possible links to many other diseases i.e Parkinsons, joint problems, skin problems, etc. If you really care, you want your loved one to be healthy and happy.

So if so-called “body positivity” glorifies obesity - I am very much against it. It doesn’t help people who are struggling with weight, it may make them feel better for a bit but, in the end, it gives an excuse to continue an unhealthy lifestyle.

Before I let you go, could you please tell us where people could learn more about you? Would you like to plug in some of your products or workshops or other endeavours?

My website: also on Instagram @sabinaskala

I have a vegan cookbook co-written with Alex (who is an MMA athlete) and my sister Izz. The book is available via the website. Any workshops or seminars are on hold at the moment, as I like teaching face to face rather than via a computer screen

Thank you very much for your time. The last word is yours.

Thank you for having me. Hope you guys keep well, stay active, push boundaries and remain curious!