Stefi Cohen on Brains, Brawn and Bodies on Instagram

Stefi Cohen

Dr. Stefi Cohen is a world-record holding powerlifter, professional boxer, a doctor of physical therapy, an exercise physiologist and the co-owner of Hybrid Performance Method. In this episode, we talk about the driving force that makes her embrace challenges, the key to her success as an entrepreneur, and how her view has shifted when it comes to representing her own femininity and sexuality in social media.


2:15 – Prioritization and focus

4:23 – Learning curve of becoming an entrepreneur

7:26 – Hybrid Performance’s key to success

10:21 – Stefi’s brand and impact

11:44 – Building an Instagram platform

14:30 – Risque shots and showing skin

18:38 – Dealing with haters, sexism

23:00 – Objectification and second thoughts

26:36 – Muscle stigma and media representation

29:37 – On choosing ‘hard’

Tiffy (00:04):

I’m Tiffy Thompson and Women In Fitness Business is my deep dive into the industry from the female perspective. In each show, I talk with fitness entrepreneurs, coaches, and executives about why they got into the industry and what’s keeping them there. I ask about the unique challenges for women in fitness, the balancing act of career and family, and the different strategies for success in a tough field. I’ll present big wins, lessons from failure and real conversations with real women who are improving the health of their clients around the world. It’s a spotlight on the great work of the women who know working out. Hey, I’m Tiffy Thompson, and you’re listening to Women In Fitness Business. Today, I’m talking with the legendary Dr. Stefi Cohen. Stefi is a world record-holding powerlifter, a doctor of physical therapy, an exercise physiologist, and the co-owner of Hybrid Performance Method. Today, we talk about what makes her embrace challenges, the key to her success as an entrepreneur and how her view has shifted when it comes to representing her own femininity and sexuality in social media. Dr. Stefi Cohen. Welcome to the show.

Stefi (01:30):

Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

Tiffy (01:34):

How do you balance being a physiotherapist and running your own business, along with the training, that’s required to be an elite athlete.

Stefi (01:47):

You know, I kind of break the norm of most high achievers or high functioning individuals in that I don’t really operate the way most people would think I do. Not very organized. I oftentimes procrastinate, I show up late sometimes to meetings, you know, I kind of like, I have like my own agenda, but it does work for me. I do things on a kind of high priority list basis where I just try to focus on what’s ahead of me in the more kind of immediate sense, what needs my attention in the next few hours in the next few days, in the next few weeks and get things done accordingly, just based on what needs to be done, the soonest kinda thing. I don’t directly practice as a PT, as a physiotherapist. I did graduate in 2018, from the university of Miami with my doctor of physical therapy, but I’ve used that degree more to educate the masses about common misconceptions surrounding health and fitness, just making complex topics, easy to understand to everybody and make the content more fun, interactive, engaging, and yeah, just easy to digest.

Stefi (03:13):

So that’s what I use my degree for the most part. And then other than that, the other movie pieces in my life are, yeah, like you said, being an athlete, which really consumes about 70 or 80% of my time at the moment, especially cuz I just got into a new sport. So it takes a lot of time from my day to invest. So I could really tap into my full potential and then outside of that, creating content, making sure that I’m leading the team in the right direction, showing up to the office, making sure that my employees needs are being met as well. Shooting content for my app, traveling, lecturing.

Tiffy (04:01):

Like when it comes to like you’re wearing all these different hats, is there one that comes more naturally to you or like which aspect has had the steepest learning curve for you?

Stefi (04:13):

I would say the steepest learning curve has been being an entrepreneur cuz I’m not really, I’m not formally trained. I didn’t go to school for business. I took a few business classes, but it’s definitely not my forte. So just being a leader and understanding what my roles and responsibilities are within my organization, that’s been a real difficult challenge cause I often toe the line between being friendly or friends with people who work at Hybrid, and also being, you know, being stern and being a leader aand making sure that things are being done when they need to be done. So that’s sometimes a little bit complex, a complex dynamic, especially cuz everybody who I work with is around my same age. So that line, it’s easy to blur the line between friendship and work. And so that’s been a real challenge of mine.

Tiffy (05:11):

Did you ever envision yourself when you were a kid as a, like a tech entrepreneur, like you have an app and a platform like, did that ever enter into your mind when you were younger?

Stefi (05:25):

I didn’t really know. I didn’t necessarily know what the direction of my life was gonna take. I just knew that I just knew that there were certain things that were non-negotiables for me for my future. And that was, I wasn’t willing to compromise my health for a career. I wasn’t willing to, compromise my time on earth for a career. And I wanted to do something that brought some level of fulfillment into my life. So those were kind of my three non-negotiable categories when came to choosing a profession, choosing a career. And finally I did know that I wanted to work for myself. I wanted to create something. I wanted to be able to provide value. I wanted to be able to, even, you know, give jobs to people that deserve jobs and allow them to all also live the life that they want.

Stefi (06:21):

But I didn’t really know exactly how that was gonna go. I was just kind of open to all possibilities. That’s why growing up, as soon as I became kind of aware of what direction I wanted my life to be taken, I just tried to learn about anything. I tried to learn about everything so I could be anything. So I could have the most amount of doors open when the time came, you know, learning about culture, about history, about sciences, about arts, about communication, about public speaking. So I just kind of tried to make myself a well rounded kind of candidate. So I that when the time came to choose a more, defined or narrow path I kind of had many options, if that makes sense.

Tiffy (07:10):

Yeah. You’re a generalist.

Stefi (07:13):


Tiffy (07:14):

What do you think has been the key to your success as an entrepreneur with Hybrid performance?

Stefi (07:22):

That’s an interesting question. It’s really, really difficult to pinpoint what the real kind of reason for our success is. I think a massive one is luck. And I think one that’s one that people don’t like talking about it, cuz it’s so hard to measure, you know, how do we even measure how much of it was luck and how do you even define luck? It’s an uncomfortable place for our minds to go to, but I think we need to give it the respect that it deserves because a lot of people make so many false promises that like for example, people that sell business courses online based on the success of their own business, obviously that’s something to respect that somebody was able to succeed in a competitive atmosphere, a competitive field, which is pretty much every single field, you know, is really polluted.

Stefi (08:24):

But at the same time, it’s like being in the right time at the right place, having the right characteristics, having the right knowledge, being able to put it together at that point in time, having the right partners, the right mentors, the right experience. I think all of those were things that led to us being able to even have a conversation about starting a business like Hybrid. then there’s other things like, for example, Hayden, who’s my partner, he, before starting Hybrid, he owned another business called Working Against Gravity. And so he already had experience in kind of like the online marketing social media world. So that was definitely an advantage for us that he had already done it once and had that experience and also had capital to fund a new project. Those were things that definitely helped. And yeah, I mean, other than that, just like having the right vision for the future, for the business and doing things the right way from the beginning, from a value standpoint, just doing things honestly, and fairly, not only for us, but for people that we kept bringing into the team.

Stefi (09:37):

Making sure that we were organized that from the beginning, building a company structural organization that clearly defined every person’s roles and responsibilities and expectations. And yeah, always looking for ways to proactively try to a certain degree predict where one the market was going and two, where we wanted to go based on our strengths and just make sure that we were always kind of one step ahead.

Tiffy (10:13):

How much of an impact do you think your own personal brand and like social media has impacted the rise of Hybrid?

Stefi (10:23):

I think massively, I mean, obviously I will never take 100% of the credit of the growth for Hybrid cuz there’s so many people that have made it, that keep making it what it is and that have made it what it is. But I think initially at the beginning that I was kind of a quote unquote, rising star in powerlifting and I was able to get so much media coverage and attention, and I had videos going viral all the time on like world star on other super popular, internet pages and even like on TV. I think that definitely gave us kind of an advantage, the combination of me being able to show up athletically and perform at the highest level. But also I could back it up with a degree that’s highly respectable by people just having a doctorate degree or at that point in time being that I was in school to get a doctorate degree, I think that combination made it really appealing for people to, you know, kind of be interested in what I had to say. And that was kind of the foot that opened the door for all things Hybrid and my endorsement played a massive role, I think. So

Tiffy (11:37):

How do you see your personal brand as evolving over the last last five years, say. On your Instagram now you have some like sexy shots and like how have your views on using that sort of material changed over the years and what’s been kind of the response from your audience.

Stefi (12:03):

  1. So I resisted that kind of, niche or area of social media for a very long time, because personally, just based on my values and my morals, I wanted to be known and recognized and respected for my number one first and foremost, my actual talent, skills sets as an athlete. That was the first thing. And second, I wanted to be respected in the fitness industry as an educator, as an academic. And I know that there’s a conversation going on about how even people who are academics or even medical professionals, physicians, nurses can have two sides of them, you know, that it should be OK for them to be able to pose in a bikini and also, you know, be working at a lab and professional in their academic field. And I do get that, but at the same time, it would be fool not to ignore the current kind of rules and ways of seeing the world by society.

Stefi (13:15):

And we do live in a more traditional society. So I wanted to play by the rules and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t doing anything that would kind of compromise my public figure presence in the future. So I wanted to play it conservative and in a certain way kind of take the hard path, which is, you know, building a following based on evidence based science information and valuable content. It is hard because there’s so much of that out there. There’s so much content out there. And there’s so many people, especially in the education field, kind of boasting three quick, easy ways to fix this three diet mistakes, just cheap content yhat’s not based on science, that’s not based on the most recent, data and research. And so playing by the rules on every front was really hard and led to, I mean, my following grew really slow.

Stefi (14:18):

You know, I opened my Instagram over about 10 years ago, I think now. So it wasn’t really, an easy kind of fast growth for me. I had to kind of fight for every single follower that I’ve had and really try to put myself out there and provide as much value as possible. So then after I had, you know, I think that the change on my social media came about in the last couple of years for a few reasons, the first one being that I was injured. So I couldn’t, you know, I was having issues with my back and I couldn’t post as frequently as I once did my lifts or even like showing exercises or exercise tips, I just, I physically couldn’t do it. And I started getting worried, cuz I felt like my whole, my Instagram depended on that.

Stefi (15:12):

And I had to start looking for ways to get creative and tap into kind of another niche that was not only lifting and try to kind of mainstream my name a little bit more. And one of those ways was, yeah, I mean, posting videos that, say for example, exercise videos wearing more revealing clothes, just like a sports bra and small shorts. Like I’m very aware of what I’m doing. You know, I’m very aware of how that’s perceived by the public and I’m very aware that it does catch more eyes because of the sole reason that I’m showing more skin. I knew what I was doing.

Stefi (15:52):

And then from there, you know, I started noticing an increase in exposure reach and followers even. And I just thought to myself, I’m like, man, I’ve played by the rules of kind of my integrity for so many years. I’m actually curious to see what would happen if I did what all the other girls are doing to get followers, which is just empty content, just showing their bodies and being super click baity, I wonder like what would happen? And that’s kinda what sparked my interest for the whole transition in my social media, was just an experiment initially. And I just wanted to see like one how it would make me feel as a woman. I wanted to, cause these girls that post risque videos and pictures of themselves, they seem so confident. Right. They seem so comfortable in their skin.

Stefi (16:49):

It just seems like they have the world at their feet. Right. Like the fact that they, or that they don’t even perceive themselves as having flaws or I don’t know, it just seems like something so appealing from a self confidence standpoint for me, cuz I’ve never—I don’t have a high self-esteem for that way. I think a lot of, yeah, no, I really don’t. A lot of people who look at, girls or guys that have big followings always assume that, but I think we all have our insecurities. And yeah, no, I definitely, and especially at that point in time, I definitely didn’t have high self-esteem. So I was just like, man, II wonder how that would make me feel to change the narrative of not only my post, but also the comments that I’m gonna be receiving.

Stefi (17:46):

Because at that point for the most part, I was just like a super athletic kind of tomboyish girl, you know, and most of the comments that I usually got were about how masculine I looked and I like to think I have a tough skin. And for the most part, those comments genuinely didn’t bother me. But I think subconsciously still, as a woman, you, you kind of crave more positive comments about the way that you look, you know, especially, I mean, I work hard to look the way that I look, you know, not only my body, but I spend time taking care of my skin and taking care of my teeth and taking care of my hair. And it’s exhausting sometimes when like you’re trying to make yourself feel better, you know? And then there’s all these people that don’t even know you pointing out all of your flaws just because you’re a woman and they feel like they need to comment on every single—they need to point out their opinions on every single part of your body.

Stefi (18:47):

I mean, it was exhausting. So was like, man, this is how it actually happened. I went to my friend Valentina’s house and there were this two super eclectic, funky looking photographers and we hit it off, they’re from the same town that I grew up in Venezuela. And they’re like, yeah, you know, we’re photographers. We do mainly like only fans photography. But if you ever wanna do something a bit outside your comfort zone, let us know. And in my head, my initial reaction, I was like, no way, you know, like I’m never doing that. There’s no way. And then I started thinking about it, especially the way that he worded it, that was outside your comfort zone. That’s a big thing for me. Like anytime I recognize that there’s something I’m uncomfortable doing, I wanna go do it just for for the sake of overcoming that discomfort.

Stefi (19:40):

Right. I like to put myself in situations that I haven’t been in and just get it over with. So I was like, OK, I’m gonna do it. For the last 10 years I’ve done only, or eight years. I’ve only done fitness photo shoots that involved me interacting with gym equipment. This time I’m gonna do a photo shoot that is just me being me interacting with my environment, with my body, with myself, with my femininity. And it seemed interesting. So I did my first photo shoot with them. And I remember thinking like on my way there I’m like, man, I’m scared that I’m gonna be embarrassed because I don’t look like the other girls that they shoot with. You know, all of these other girls are like curvy and, you know, super voluptuous and really sexy. And like, just seem like they feel so comfortable just like being semi naked in front of a camera and posing.

Stefi (20:37):

And I’m not like that. So I was scared to feel embarrassed essentially, or to like make a fool of myself or whatever. I dunno. I remember we started shooting and obviously I was a bit timid at the beginning. And then he showed me from his camera. He’s like, man, look good you look. And when I saw that kind of myself through his lens, it was so eye opening. I’m like, man, I am sexy. I am beautiful. I am like the rest of the girls. We’re all beautiful in our own ways. You know, it’s just like sometimes you get so stuck on your own perception of yourself or even like, or even like the perception of that other people have of you, that gets kind of amplified in your mind that completely removes the magic from who you really are.

Stefi (21:32):

And that was just a really interesting experience for me. And then I started posting those pictures and indeed I did start getting all those messages of, or feedback of people being like, oh, you’re so beautiful. It’s so nice to see a softer side of you or so sexy, blah, blah, blah. And initially it felt really good that kind of, positive feedback and yeah, just positive commentary about the way that I looked for a change, you know, cause all the comments, not all, but a lot of the ones that I got before was just pointing out many ways I looked like a man essentially. And then over time, you know, after I did a couple more shoots with them, cuz I thought that that was, I thought that it was making me feel good.

Stefi (22:20):

And then eventually, I don’t know, just through looking at those pictures, I didn’t feel like those accurately represented me, who I am. I’m just not like that. I’m just not a girl that likes to even emphasize, just body parts for likes or for looks or for exposure. It just goes so far against my own integrity and values as a person. And it’s not something that I wanna necessarily perpetuate. I don’t want younger girls to look at it and think that that’s what they need to do to feel empowered and feel confident and feel beautiful because it’s not true. You know, I didn’t feel more empowered. Did it kind of like stroke my ego a little? Yeah, absolutely. It’s nice to have people tell you that you’re beautiful, but at the same time it’s like, it’s still pretty sexist.

Stefi (23:19):

It felt very objectifying to me. And I felt sexualized and it felt kind of gross to be honest at a certain point,I’m like, man, I mean, there’s probably guys pardon of my French, but there’s probably guys jerking off to my photos and that’s kinda disgusting, honestly. Yeah. I don’t necessarily like that people are commenting, liking, sharing my photos just because of the way I look. I feel like I have so much more to offer than the way that I look and I don’t want that to be the thing that people come here for. You know, I want people to come here to listen to what I have to say or to learn something new or provide some sort of value even like the whole concept of only fans just seems so crazy to me, even that you’re just putting pictures of yourself in a bathing suit or even more revealing behind a paywall and you’re taking people’s money.

Stefi (24:16):

You’re taking people, obviously. Yeah. It’s their choice. But you are, luring people to give you their hard earned money for your pictures of you in a bathing suit or like you showing like a little bit of cleavage. I mean, it’s just not, it just doesn’t doesn’t feel right in any way for me. So that’s when I started thinking about it more critically. And then I started writing my book, it’s called, “The Ugly Side of Beauty” and that’s kind of like where I am now, as far as like my point of view, my opinion on that whole topic.

Tiffy (24:55):

It feels like your fashion line is almost a more accurate representation of who you are. Like t’s real, it’s not put on, it’s like this street style, it’s great. You know, does that seem accurate?

Stefi (25:15):

Yeah, no, for sure. It’s sexy, but it’s not overly revealing. It’s different. I try to bring some sort of like asymmetry and quote unquote, like imperfection to all of the garments to emphasize that, the fact that we’re not perfect, you know, the fact that there’s beauty in imperfections, in asymmetry, it’s all based on this, of way of seeing the world by Japanese people it’s called wabisabi So that’s kind of like where it comes from. But yeah, I think that’s a much more accurate of like my style and what I wanna portray than these super sexy shoots.

Tiffy (25:59):

You’ve seen the evolution of how women with muscles are portrayed in the media and definitely there’s way more now than say 10 years ago. Being a woman with muscles, do you think you’re stigmatized because of that in your day to day life?

Stefi (26:28):

I’ve never really experienced anything other than positive comments on the street. People aren’t that brave, you know, I’m sure it happens, but it hasn’t happened to me. I’ve never had an encounter on the street. Somebody giving me any sort of bad looks or saying anything negative about the way that I look.

Tiffy (26:49):

It’s always behind the wall of the—

Stefi (26:52):

Yeah. Behind the screen where people get real brave, but in person, no, not really. And back to what you said about, I mean, fit people being represented in the media. I think that’s one of the biggest issues because I think we’re not represented. We’re represented in social media, which yeah, naturally, cuz everybody represents themselves, gives people power to each one of us individually. But look at fashion runways, you know, and there there’s a movement for plus size models, right? There’s a movement for, models with skin conditions, with vitiligo, there’s a movement for more representation of African American women. But what happens with fit people, you know, where I don’t see us anywhere. And it’s that what makes us seem weird in front of the public eye that we’re just not, we’re just in our little corners in the gym, you know, in body building, we’re just in our kind of echo chamber of fitness on social media, but we’re not out there. We’re not really, the media doesn’t really represent fit people.

Tiffy (28:11):

Especially fit women.

Stefi (28:12):

Absolutely. Yeah. Cause you do see like our Armani exchange models that are like jacked and ripped. Yeah, you’re right.

Tiffy (28:20):

You, I wanna kind of go back to your work in like education. What’s the most common misconception you’ve encountered when it comes to either training or nutrition. And why do you think it’s so widespread?

Stefi (28:34):

There’s so many. I think the most common misconception I’ll stick to the topic of, women in fitness it’s that lifting’s gonna make them bulky one or like carbs being bad, actually being afraid of eating carbs. Cause of fear of gaining weight. I think those are the two biggest ones.

Tiffy (28:56):

When it comes to your clientele at Hybrid. Is it mostly male or is it a split?

Stefi (29:02):

It’s mostly male, but we have, it’s about 70, 30.

Tiffy (29:06):

  1. And is that by design or did you want to broaden it to cause I noticein the like, the copy it’s strength seekers, it’s not geared towards men specifically.

Stefi (29:23):

No. Yeah. It’s geared for, it’s we’re targeting anybody who’s looking to build a better physique to gain strength, to gain confidence, really anybody.

Tiffy (29:36):

In one of your videos, you talk about how you choose hard over soft every day. Is that an easy choice for you or is it a cultivated sort of daily effort?

Stefi (29:50):

I just realized that the times in my life that I’ve been the happiest are when I’m challenged. You know, I like to be challenged physically. I like to be challenged intellectually. I like to be challenged even like in my love life, you know, relationship. I like things to not be so easy because if things are super easy all the time, then you take things for granted. You don’t really enjoy the, the highs anymore cause you have nothing to compare to relatively.

Stefi (30:24):

I think it was after I graduated from my physical therapy degree, I was so eager to graduate cuz my life up until that point was such a hustle, you know, such a hustle like was school, it was work, it was social life. It was sports. There were so many moving parts. And I didn’t have over my schedule either. Like I had to be on a school schedule for the last eight or nine years. You know, I went to college, I had to do my prerequisite classes then I had to take my, SATs that I had to take. I dunno, GRE sorry. And I just felt so relieved when, when graduate school was over, I was like, man, yeah. You know, this is it. I made it, you know, I’m just gonna barely do anything.

Stefi (31:12):

I’m gonna do some videos here and there a few competitions here and there, but I’m just gonna relax and I’m gonna love it. And I hated it. It was a month in and I was the most unhappy that I had ever been in my life, like a depression, you know, I felt so like that I didn’t have any sort of like purpose or goal that mattered to me. And I didn’t like that. So that’s when I realized that I needed to always be doing something that was challenging in every single area of my life. Cause if there’s no challenge in one area, really, I feel it. I feel like it’s uncomfortable. Like it it’s too comfortable. And that makes me uncomfortable. Yeah. It makes me feel like I’m either like settling for the place that I am in my life or that I’m not working towards something that’s worth it or that’s making me better. That’s making me evolve. So in a sense, obviously of course it’s not—choosing the hard route is not necessarily easy. It’s hard to get yourself to do it always, but, but I choose it every time because it makes me feel so much better.

Tiffy (32:23):

Final question. What’s your your main goal in the next five years? Like where do you kind of envision yourself?

Stefi (32:34):

There’s two, one of them is I wanna get myself more into education, like in person education that’s cuz I have been struggling lately with fulfillment professionally. I’ve just been doing the same thing for so long and it’s not hard anymore and when it’s not hard anymore, I’m not enjoying it anymore. So I just wanna, I wanna again get outta my comfort zone and do something that challenges me intellectually, professionally. So I wanna start teaching lecturing at schools, potentially getting, maybe getting a teaching assistant, or some sort of adjunct professor position at UM here where I went to school, getting involved that way or even just, we’re at the tail end of, finishing writing our course for Hybrid. Like certification course. So it’d be awesome to travel the world and teach and meet a bunch of people and again, provide value that way.

Stefi (33:39):

And the other one is I wanna get more into coaching in person as well, cause I’ve been out of it for a long time and I miss it. So now I have a group of five or six fighters that I’m coaching in strength and conditioning. And it’s been so awesome. Makes me really happy. So hopefully be able to grow the team and have a lot more than just fighters and expand that into having internships and being able to teach, you know, students how to coach high level athletes. And there’s a whole kind of avenue there that I think I can take that would make me feel happy.

Tiffy (34:16):

What appeals to you, especially about the in person coaching as opposed to like digital?

Stefi (34:23):

It’s not nearly the same, you know, just being there kind of allows you to be able to push people to their limits, you know, to really remember why they’re there and push them and make sure that they’re doing, that they’re training at the intensity that they need to be training at. Also just being there allows you to see things that you won’t otherwise see online. You know, some things people omit or just don’t tell you, cuz they don’t think it’s relevant, something hurts or you know, them leaning too much into a side or the other. I don’t know, you know, things that people just don’t tell you. So just being able to be there and see it and also being available to them for them say whatever it is they need to say in the moment is a perk.

Tiffy (35:09):

Stefi, thank you for coming on today. I really enjoyed talking to you.

Stefi (35:13):

Me too. Yeah. Thank you so much. It was an interesting chat.

Tiffy (35:17):

Yeah. That’s it for Women In Fitness Business. Thanks for listening.


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Women in Fitness Business is Tiffy Thompson’s deep dive into the industry from the female perspective.It’s a spotlight on the great work of the women who know working out.

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