Zanna Van Dijk is a Personal Trainer, PhD Nutrition and Bodypower Expo sponsored athlete, author of two ‘guilt-free treats’ ebooks, fitness model, blogger and creator of #girlgains, a social media revolution inspiring girls to become fitter, healthier and happier. But with a first class degree under her belt, Zanna is as accomplished in the classroom as she is in the weights room. We catch up with Zanna to find out her secrets to success at university, in the gym and out in the industry…
Tell us a bit about yourself…
Okey dokey. Hey, I am Zanna. I am a 22 year old (almost 23, eek!) personal trainer, fitness model and blogger. I live in London but I am originally from `Yorkshire. I went to the university of Sheffield and studied speech science, and graduated with a first class degree. I was a fully qualified speech and language therapist ready to enter the working world. Then I went travelling, realised that I needed to follow my passion, and moved into fitness. I did my PT course, moved to London and the rest is history really!
Where did your journey into health and fitness begin?
It began while I was at university. My degree was four years long and two years into it I decided to make changes to benefit my health. I was what I describe as “skinny fat” meaning I was slim but unhealthy – I ate poorly and didn’t exercise. I started to slowly move more and eat more nutritious foods. It was a gradual change over the course of months and years but it turned into a hobby, and then a passion.
How did your university experience shape the way you approach fitness in your own life or with clients?
It taught me the importance of balance. University is a very social time in your life. You’re surrounding by friends and going out a lot for meals, drinks and sometimes a cheeky party or two. As a result I encourage my clients (and myself) to maintain a balance in life. I use the 80/20 rule – I eat healthy and train hard 80% of the time and I indulge and relax 20% of the time. I also make sure that I am flexible in my approach to eating so I can enjoy meals out and social occasions with friends.
What do you see as some of the biggest obstacles to healthy living at university, and how do you think students can overcome them?
The biggest one is peer pressure. At uni it is often deemed as “cool” to go out, get drunk and eat takeaways. When I personally made changes to my lifestyle, I got a fair amount of criticism. However, just stick to your guns and realise that you’re doing this for you, not for anyone else or their approval. Another issue is budget but I found that ordering my meat online in bulk (I used musclefood) helped reduce my outgoings, and so did buying fresh veggies from the local greengrocer rather than a supermarket. In the end you have to prioritise health – you would happily spend £30 on a night out so why not spend that on a bunch of nutritious veggies and fruit for the week?
We know that you’re a proponent of IIFYM – do you feel this strategy is well suited to university or would you recommend a different dietary strategy for students?
I personally use IIFYM but I will never prescribe this or any specific dietary approach to everyone/students as a whole. You need to find what works for you. Sure IIFYM works for me but I have a few friends who I know hate tracking macros, so it wouldn’t work for them. Educate yourself on various approaches. Test them out and use trial and error. It is a learning curve.
Do you think you need a background in sports science / dietetics etc to be successful in the fitness industry?
Nope. Obviously it is going benefit you greatly and mean that you have the knowledge to be an incredible person in the fitness industry. Education is highly valuable and by having a degree in a relevant field you will already be leaps and bounds ahead of many people in the industry. However, it is not 100% necessary. For example personal trainers can do an independent course and then continue on to do further education through more courses. These are often separate from university and they do not require a degree. Also -the fitness industry relies heavily on personality, charisma and enthusiasm which are things you cannot learn from a degree. Knowledge is power, but knowledge is useless unless you can apply it and make it relevant and accessible to your clients.
Where do you see the fitness industry heading?
I think that it is really hard to tell where the industry is going to go. It is always developing and changing. I definitely see even more of a lean towards digital and technology based fitness like apps and online coaching. However, I don’t think that good old face to face personal training will ever die as it is so effective, personal and fun.
We’ve heard fantastic things about the Girl Gains movement – can you tell us more about this?
I recently wrote a whole blogpost about what #girlgains is (see here) but I can describe it in a nutshell. It is a movement started by myself and my two best friends. We are all personal trainers but all come from very different academic and fitness backgrounds. We have different stories to share and advice to give. We created a community called #girlgains which started as a hashtag and expanded into events which bring together hundreds of girls, as well as products like leggings and smoothies, The sole purpose of #girlgains is to unite women from all over the world and to inspire them to become fitter, healthier and happier.
Girl Gains puts a major emphasis on boosting self esteem and self acceptance – do you think the fitness industry holds unhealthy or unattainable standards?
Yes and No. In the fitness industry there are people who are open, honest, unfiltered and relatable. There are also those who are edited, perfected and unrealistic. The problem comes when people compare themselves to these individuals. Social media in the fitness industry NEEDS to be taken with a pinch of salt. Everyone chooses the most flattering picture, everyone posts the prettiest healthiest food. We all try to look our best as it is in our nature, but we all need to realise that everyone else is doing the same. The best thing is to “stop comparing your behind the scenes to everyone else highlight reel”. You do you.
With more and more health and fitness professionals offering their services, it can be difficult to find the right person to work with. What are the characteristics of a great coach or personal trainer?
There are two key components to a great coach: knowledge and personality. Look for someone who has qualifications and continues to learn through further study. If you have specific goals e.g. strength gains or running a marathon, then find a coach who specialises in this area. However, knowledge is not everything. A trainer needs to have a bubbly and infectious personality. They need to be able to motivate and inspire you. They need to make you feel comfortable.
The best thing to do is to book in a one off session with a trainer to try them out and get a feel for them before you move forward and book more sessions. You will either click with them or not.
What kind of clients do you work with?
Everyone! I work with middle aged men with mobility issues, young girls looking to learn the basics, busy business women and everything in-between. By far my biggest client group is women aged 18-35 who are looking to get fitter and stronger. I specialise in introducing girls to lifting weights in an unintimidating way and pushing them to make #girlgains of their own.
If you were now able to give one piece of advice to your university-self, what would that be?
Relax!!! I was so stressed at uni as I set such high academic expectations of myself. I thought that I had to work 12 hours a day to get a first. In reality, in my final year of uni when I started to get out more, study less and find a balance of work and social life- that’s when I got my highest marks. Uni is for studying but also for socialising. It is for enjoyment not just work.
Zanna van Dijk
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Interview by Emma Pudge
Post leg day booty pump Wearing my @heyjolondon leggings I have to admit went through a few weeks of low motivation for leg day. I felt weak. I am not super motivated all the time! But I’ve got my buzz back for and now I absolutely LOVE training legs again! I am pushing myself to my absolute limits. I feel strong and my progress is coming faster! I will post today’s leg workout over on my Facebook page later: www.facebook.com/zannavandijk If you want me to train you and help you build a booty then drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org #girlgains
My favourite body part is my back I don’t think that there is anything wrong with being proud of your body I have made huge progress with it recently – especially since I started doing lots and lots of pull ups thanks to my strength coach @awillis1515. The width of my back has massively improved – to the point where I don’t fit into old t shirts and tops Pull ups are my ultimate favourite exercise. Ever. Seriously. (The guys at @thelomaxway always comment on how ridiculously often I do them!). I get all my clients working on their pull ups as they’re an amazing upper body and core exercise. If you want me to train you and help you work towards doing your first pull up then drop me an email: email@example.com Wearing @activeinstyle top and @heyjolondon leggings #girlgains
A photo posted by Zanna van Dijk (@zannavandijk) on
Untensed vs tensed Women think that lifting weights will make them look manly. Well, I've been lifting for a couple of years now and sometimes I look in the mirror and think "do I even lift?" When I'm not tensing I just look like an average girl and I certainly don't look "bulky". Girls – please don't be afraid to pick up some challenging weights. It's the best way to sculpt your body and "tone up" (I dislike that term!). Plus you'll feel like a total badass as you get stronger If you're London based want me to train you and show you how to lift weights, then drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org P.s. Excuse the undies as these were progress pictures just meant for my coach and my bra is from @activeinstyle #girlgains