If you are particularly fortunate, you know that being as healthy and strong as possible is extremely important and are ready to do something with this knowledge. On the other hand, you have likely seen some trends on your run-of-the-mill fitness blogs: demolishing excuses, blasting weakness and burning fat, gittin’ ’er done, and being tough—which, all too often, is described as “being a man.”
These topics are all assumed to be good things, aren’t they?
It’s true there are people who flourish within such a context. But what if it’s not for you?
What if you’re fat and don’t want to focus on changing your weight or shape? (“Fat,” incidentally, isn’t a bad word—it’s just a descriptor, and it’s okay to reclaim it.) What if you want to move well, but have no interest in working at ultimate intensity or performing maximal feats of strength? Does this mean you should be denied access to top-notch training? Or that you must resign yourself to working with a coach who makes assumptions about what you can and cannot do based on your size?
My answer to that is a resounding “no.” And, increasingly, coaches are learning about body positive approaches that make high-quality training available and accessible to more people.
My Own Path to Strength
It was several years ago when I became ready and willing to change my unhealthy, sedentary ways. I had been a moderately successful high school athlete, but in the years since had fallen away from regular activity. Thankfully, my father had begun training with Dr. Mike Hartle, so when I told him I was thinking about exercising again he advised me to get an FMS screen before I did anything too intense. I am grateful I followed this advice because once I was given the go-ahead, intense is exactly what I went for.
I joined a CrossFit box, where I pushed myself to the edge in every workout—and was still barely a blip on the whiteboard. I also wasn’t given the same level of detail-oriented attention as the star athletes at that gym, but I figured the solution was to train harder—often to the point of vomiting, almost always to the point of form breakdown. After all, this is what I was told was the “right” way if I was serious about fitness and strength.
Until Dr. Mike reentered the picture.
I wound up spending a whole summer back in the state of my birth, Indiana. This gave me the opportunity to have regular sessions with Dr. Mike. I learned more about the StrongFirst methods of training, and began to question my assumptions about exercise. That was the summer I took the SFG User Course and, soon after, the SFL Barbell Instructor Certification. Nothing has been the same since.
The Lessons That Followed
I learned that intensity at the bar and kindness to myself are not mutually exclusive.
I learned the freedom of setting aside aesthetic goals, loving my body, and improving my performance rather than my image.
I learned that improving performance has as much to do (scratch that—even more to do) with polishing my form as it does with picking up more weight or doing more reps.
I learned the gentler side of strength.
Having learned these lessons, I set out to share them. I earned my personal training certification and studied the coaching styles of others to learn what I did and did not want to incorporate into my own style. I am grateful to say I have since built a base of strong clients of different ages, sizes, and interests. They each have their own goals and motivations, but they all take joy in movement. They are all students of strength, not prosecutors of their bodies’ worth. They laugh, sweat, and learn—in a way that is safe and empowering.
And this is available to all of you.
On Finding a Good Fit (or Making One if You Have To)
More coaches than ever are recognizing the importance of allowing steady, sustainable progress; prioritizing performance-related goals over aesthetic changes; and recognizing that all people can benefit from getting stronger. This is especially true for those who have received StrongFirst Certifications. StrongFirst coaches provide top-quality instruction to all of our clients in a way that meets them where they’re at while helping them toward their unique goals.
However, not all coaches are there yet. As a trainee, you may find yourself in a situation where you have to advocate for yourself. It may be that your coach or trainer has never been called to task on some of their assumptions—or it may be this person is not a good fit for you.
If you’re still searching for a coach or trainer who is a good fit, here are some questions to consider:
1. To what degree does the coach emphasize weight and aesthetic changes?
This is something many coaches do in their advertising. Still, it’s one thing if a coach mentions they have experience in helping clients with weight loss, and quite another if that is the thing they emphasize. If their website has an overabundance of before-and-after pictures, weight-loss challenges, and pictures of well-shaved bodies of the same general size, shape, and aesthetic, consider that a red flag.
Reach out to the coach directly via email or phone. Ask them whether they’re familiar with body positivity, and if so, ask what it means to them. And—this one’s important, because their answer will tell you a lot—ask what they do to make their facility inclusive to more people.
2. What is their intake paperwork like?
Once you find a coach you’d like to work with, they’re going to have you fill out paperwork. Chances are that paperwork is going to ask for your weight. If you feel comfortable sharing it, do so—and if you’re not, don’t.
Instead of asking for their weight, I ask my clients “Have you experienced significant weight gain or loss within the last six months?” and “Are either you or your medical doctor concerned about your current weight?” These questions are more likely to reveal relevant health and wellness concerns than a static weight measurement while also avoiding triggering anyone with body shame and/or an eating disorder.
So, if a trainer’s intake form requests your weight, it’s okay to decline to offer it and to let them know why. You will be able to tell a lot about the coach by how they respond.
3. Do you suspect they are equating your size or weight with either your health or capabilities?
These are all separate things. When trainers make assumptions about someone’s capabilities and health based on their size, they are likely to preemptively get in the way of larger-bodied, healthy athletes’ opportunities to discover their potential.
If you feel your trainer is holding you back for a reason you don’t understand, ask them about their programming decisions. It may be they’re seeing something you’re unaware of, and having this conversation will help you develop a greater understanding of their process. Alternatively, your feedback may be an important step in getting programming that is better suited to you. Advocate for yourself! After all, what is strength without empowerment?
4. Are they stuck in the “faster-heavier-more” mindset?
If you have any reason—whether medical or preferential—that you are hesitant to take on high-intensity training or to be lifting heavier and heavier weights, communicate that directly to your trainer (either current or prospective). Ask what their experience is in training people with circumstances similar to yours. Tell them why you’re interested in the tools they use, and ask how they adapt workouts to fit the unique needs and goals of their clients.
This isn’t to say your trainer shouldn’t push you or that you’ll always be comfortable—but it does mean they should listen to and respect your goals. If your goals are about rediscovering joy in movement or giving yourself some healthy “me time” and they’re training you in a way that is consistently unpleasant, let them know. If they’re responsive to your feedback, that’s wonderful. If they’re not, then they’re not a good fit for you and it’s time to move on.
5. And finally, a question for you: what are the goals hiding beneath your goals?
During our first session, one of my clients listed weight loss as her primary goal. This is not unusual; what was perhaps more unusual was my response. I asked her, “What do you hope will be different for you after weight loss?”
She said she’d like to be able to move better, have more energy, and feel comfortable with herself. A-ha! Now there were some goals entirely independent of the scale. When I asked her how she felt about focusing on those goals instead of on her weight, she got excited and curious—no one had ever presented that option to her. Several months later, she is indeed moving better, feeling more energetic, and experiencing greater comfort with herself—and we have a blast working together, too!
If your current motivation for training is to change the way you look, see if you can dig deeper. What is it you’d like to do or accomplish? How would you like to feel? What would it be like to rediscover the natural joy we can experience from moving well? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
The Difference a Different Approach Can Make
I see every day what can happen from a more body positive approach to strength training. I see what happens when people discover the ways that movement is a celebration of life and uncover interests and capabilities they never would have imagined. Enthusiasm for activity returns to those who lost it. And inevitably, intensity increases naturally as health, strength, and comfort with training are developed.
And it all happens in a way that honors the person for who they are, in that moment. This was the gift that Dr. Mike gave to me when he taught me how to simplify my training to focus on what would move me toward my goals. At no point was he skeptical when I told him what my goals were, and at no point did he judge my potential based on my body shape or sedentary past.
Before working with him, I hadn’t known it was possible for a coach to be so respectful. After working with him, I knew I had to share the gifts I learned from him with others.
If you are interested in learning more about becoming a student of strength and discovering the joy that comes from moving well, seek out a StrongFirst coach with whom you feel an affinity. You might be amazed at how kind this process can be.