This has been an amazing week for me in the world of coaching, as several of my students had some truly inspiring breakthrough moments. I’d like to share some of these success stories.
Because I’m sharing several stories, this post may be a bit longer than most; however, these experiences are so important that I’d like to honor them. Please, give them a read-through and help celebrate these amazing victories:
One of my clients, a woman in her seventies, has a history of lower-body injuries. She has been working with a physical therapist for quite a while, and received the green light from her physical therapist and medical doctor to begin working with a personal trainer about five weeks ago. Her stated goals: to get stronger and move better.
She and I have been meeting twice a week, and have kept things really simple. Rather than throw a whole bunch of random exercises her way, I have been helping her gain expertise at a handful of exercises that she can hone while with me and practice while at home. We’ve built in some step-by-step progressions of these movements when we meet. In addition, I have been teaching her some flexibility and mobility drills that are accessible to her, exactly where she’s at.
At the end of each of our sessions, I walk with her from the second floor (where we do our training sessions) to the door of the gym. Until yesterday, she always went down in the way that is oh-so-familiar to many people: right foot goes down onto the next step, then left foot goes down onto the same step, and so on and so forth all the way down. Yesterday, she went down the way that many people take for granted: right foot onto one step, then left foot down on the the step that’s lower than the one that the right foot is on.
We got to the bottom of the staircase, and she exclaimed that she can’t believe she just did that, that it had been years since she had walked down stairs that way. She was positively beaming.
I, of course, don’t get all (or even most) of the credit here. The foundational work that she completed with her medical doctor and physical therapist were essential, as has been her willingness all along to do the exercises that have been given to her by both her physical therapist and me.
Her persistence and patience are inspiring, as well as her faith in the process: she didn’t need a bunch of fancy, constantly varied exercises thrown at her every single time she came in. Too often, I see personal trainers doing exactly that: creating completely disparate workouts for every session, thinking that the worst possible thing that could happen is that their client could become bored.
But that isn’t true: the worst thing that could happen is that someone becomes injured or regresses, followed by the also-bad thing of them stagnating.
Instead, I empowered her with a handful of movements that she has developed expertise at, thereby creating the context for continuing improvement—improvement that slowly, surely, and sustainably is taking place in a way that is meaningful for her life.
Another of my clients, a woman in her thirties, regularly trains with me in two-on-one sessions with one of her good friends. However, this week we met for a one-on-one on the date that would have been her wedding anniversary if the painful relationship hadn’t’ve relatively recently come to an end.
Her original goal involved weight loss, with a secondary desire to gain strength.
The plan for the session was to teach her the sumo deadlift, followed by a simple, three-movement circuit with kettlebells and a few quick intervals on the rowing machine.
During our previous sessions, she had already put in the work that I consider necessary for being taught the barbell deadlift in terms of being able to generate tension, demonstrate a solid hip hinge while both unloaded and while doing kettlebell deadlifts and swings, and maintain upper-body engagement when doing lower-body-focused strength movements.
Because of that prior work, she took to the sumo deadlift quite well. Obviously, it takes more than a single session to truly own the movement, but her form was solid. She worked up to an easy set of 5 at 115 pounds before we moved on to the next portion of the training session; at first, she thought it was 70 pounds, until I informed her that the barbell weighs 45 pounds all on its own. She gazed at me in wonder: she had no idea she could do such a thing!
She had exercised prior to working with me, but—as is common for all too many women—had always gone for the lightweight dumbbells when doing any strength movements. Our session that night was the first time she had ever touched a barbell in her life. And she amazed herself.
I asked her if she had ever seen the movie or read the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
She nodded yes.
I asked her if she had just had a “Towanda!” moment.
She agreed she had.
The rest of the evening until we parted ways, she was positively glowing. She was—rightly—so proud of herself. She kept saying, “I feel so empowered! This is amazing!”
Magical things happen when a woman starts to discover her capacity for strength. For the first time in all our sessions together, not once did she mention her weight or a negative opinion that she had about her body—she was simply astonished at what she had just done, and done well.
Twice a week, I coach a kettlebell class in the Eastside YMCA’s Sports Performance Center. The people in this class range in age from their 20s to their 70s and include people of different genders, levels of experience with strength training, and goals.
This week, after a warm-up and some practice on Turkish get-ups, we did a circuit of goblet squats, towel swings, lunges, push-ups, pull-ups (or hollow-body hangs), and Pallof presses.
At the start of the class, one of the women already knew that she was going for pull-ups—she has worked as a trainer and has already owned her capacity for strength. Everyone else, I could tell, was rather skeptical about the whole proposition. In the first round through the circuit, more than half of the people there did the hollow-body hang, while everyone else went with more band assistance for the pull-ups than they needed (which resulted in some rather springy pull-ups).
Don’t get me wrong: I love the hollow-body hang. I continue to practice them in my own training. When done correctly, they are hard. But I could tell that people were sticking with them more out of fear and hesitation than out of a desire to practice the hollow-body position.
During that first round, one woman even outright said, “I’ve tried pull-ups with bands. I can’t do it. I know that I can’t.”
So I offered some gentle encouragement to her and the others, suggesting that after a round or two of really focusing on the hollow-body position that they see what happens if they attempt a band-assisted pull-up (or, for those going for a bit more band than they needed, to explore some of the thinner bands).
And every single one of them did end up challenging themselves… and amazing themselves. The woman who said she “knew” she couldn’t? She did, and with only a single medium-assistance band! The man who looked skeptically at the pull-up bar during that first round, hesitant to step off of the box and trust himself to stay up on the bar? He not only ended up doing some solid hollow-body hangs, but he also did pull-ups with only one of the thinnest of the bands!
I was happy to let them practice the hollow-body hang during the first several rounds: too many people rush through those early steps, and I have no doubt that their later successes came from that time they spent really getting down that starting position.
But how exciting it is that they were also willing to push themselves to that next level, to explore just how much they were capable of!
That, right there, is some good stuff.
This is one that I already wrote about on my personal Facebook page, but I really want to share it here. This is not a physical success story so much as an emotional one. However, I’m sharing it here because 1. It deserves to be shared, and 2. It provides a perfect bridge to what I ultimately want to emphasize here.
The woman in this story isn’t even one of my students; she is simply a member of the Y who I deeply like and who I talk with every time I see her.
Here, in a more poetic tone than I have taken through the rest of this post, is what I wrote earlier this week:
“There’s an eighty-some-year-old woman who comes to the Y who I completely adore. She had been away on a cruise, and today was her first day back. I saw her on the treadmill and greeted her with excitement; it was good to see her!
“During the course of our conversation, she revealed to me that she had lived in an extermination camp for 10 years, from the ages of 7 to 17. She gestured up at one of the televisions that was showing footage of Trump and said, ‘I’ve seen evil before. I know what it looks like. There are things you never forget. It’s in the eyes. It’s in the ego.’ We talked about the process of learning to live in a world that is marked by suffering and separation without letting it harden you.
“And then she said, looking right in my eyes, ‘But that’s not all there is.’ She said she met her husband in the extermination camp, and that he loved her until his last day. She said that his love for her was so big that he forgot to notice when she grew old, that together they learned that they are always, always precious and beautiful.
“She said that on her cruise, she found people who knew how to ballroom dance, and that she asked some of the women if they would dance with her, if they would let her lead. She said it was like a dream, that it was like heaven, dancing and dancing and dancing, and that everyone applauded her, that she became known throughout the entire ship as The Woman Who Danced. She said that people kept saying to her, ‘You look so happy when you dance,’ and that she replied that it is because she is so happy when she lives.
“‘And, oh!, the music!’ she added.
“I told her about how I just learned yesterday that, in the Welsh language, the root of the word ‘happiness’ is wisdom. She nodded and said that is good, that is right, that it is wise to see happiness when it is there for you.
“She said that she doesn’t care what religion someone is, that it’s all about connection. That it’s all about remembering that we aren’t different, we aren’t separate. She said, ‘That’s the key, the most important thing.’
“I was reminded of the Flowers Poem that is sometimes read at Buddhist funerals, how it contains the lines ‘When our real mind’s eye/ opens this world of flowers,/ all beings shine,/ music echoes through mountains and oceans./ One’s world becomes the world of millions./ The individual becomes the human race./ All lives become the individual–/billions of mirrors/ all reflecting each other.’
“She gestured at the television one more time and said she hopes we all wake up.”
Tying It All Together
Sometimes, it’s surreal being a body-positive, fat-positive personal trainer. Every day, I hear so much weight loss talk and discussions of various aspects of diet culture; it’s relentless, and it often becomes exhausting just to bear witness to it all, let alone to challenge it and speak out against it.
I am further taken to task by my own unwillingness to be complacent within myself. I believe that it is true that diet culture, by its very definition, cannot be body positive. So where does that leave me, as someone who works in an industry that is intimately woven into diet culture? Am I a hypocrite? Am I conducting myself in such a way that my values are present in my work? Am I continuously willing to avoid complacency in the face of body shaming and to continually strive to do better?
What is a fat-positive person even doing working as a personal trainer in the first place? I mean, what gives?
It’s stories like those that I’ve shared above that provide me with answers. Every day, I am given opportunities to help people towards and to bear witness to moments of victory that have nothing—and I mean nothing—to do with the scale. Relative to the deeply ingrained messages of diet culture, I am just one small person… but by remaining true to myself and my values, I can make big differences in the lives of many people.
And I believe that matters.
Just this morning, I watched an extraordinarily powerful video at https://www.facebook.com/TheSceneVideo/videos/1170821039651914/.
This video gets right to the heart of something I tell many of my students: be aware of how you speak to yourself, and be willing to shift it towards greater kindness.
What I didn’t share in my original post about The Woman Who Danced is that, later in our conversation, she shared some of her beliefs about her body—she said she hated her stomach, that she wished she could get rid of it, that it was ugly.
This is how deep the toxicity of diet culture goes. I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t been touched by it, and it can linger on even in those who have survived true horrors, even in those who have known deep love and deep joy.
Even though I hadn’t yet watched the video that I posted above, I kindly, softly asked her what she would say to one of her granddaughters who talked about herself in that way. Her face softened. Her voice grew quieter as she barely audibly said, “Thank you.”
Remaining body positive about my own body isn’t easy. There are parts of my body that I don’t like, that I wish were different. I understand.
But the more I practice loving myself—the more I focus on what I can do, on what I can teach, and on who I can connect with in a deep and authentic way—the more healing and strength there is in the world.
And I believe that that definitely, definitely matters.