How Trauma-Informed Personal Training Is Helping Clients Heal Through Movement

How Trauma-Informed Personal Training Is Helping Clients Heal Through Movement

How Trauma-Informed Personal Training Is Helping Clients Heal Through Movement

When Emily Young, L.C.S.W.-C., first earned her personal training certification back in 2018, she quickly noticed that the traditional approach to fitness — prescribing specific workouts and sticking with a set-in-stone program — simply wasn’t working for many of her clients.

Some folks disclosed their history of mental illness, and, thanks to her training as a therapist, she recognized that others may have experienced trauma, Young tells Shape. Despite her efforts to create a welcoming environment, many of these clients showed up to sessions stressed and disconnected from their bodies, and they were ashamed they weren’t able to follow their pre-planned program to a T, she explains. “These clients have a complex set of needs, but how do I support them and provide training and programming for them in a way that’s actually accessible?” she recalls asking herself.

So, Young began to formalize her own training approach. “I didn’t know what to call it at the time, but I could look around the gym and see that the work I was doing was different,” she says. Then, she discovered Laura Khoudari, the pioneer of an approach known as trauma-informed personal training, and it clicked. “It was like an a-ha moment of finding my place,” says Young. “As soon as I saw the words ‘trauma-informed personal training,’ I was like, ‘That is what I’ve been doing.'”

And it’s exactly what Young has stuck with — and continues to preach to other trainers — ever since. Considering an estimated 70 percent of adults in the U.S. have experienced a traumatic event (a scary or dangerous experience, such as a natural disaster or act of violence, that can cause emotional and physical effects, according to the National Institue of Mental Health) at least once in their life, trauma-informed personal training isn’t just a niche method for a select few; it’s an approach to fitness that can be beneficial for all, both in and out of fitness spaces. Here, experts explain more about trauma-informed personal training and its significance.

What Is Trauma-Informed Personal Training?

At its core, trauma-informed personal training involves making clients, particularly those with histories of trauma or mental illness, feel safe in their bodies through movement, as well as creating programs that feel supportive and approachable to them, says Young. In order to do so, the traditional approach to fitness coaching is thrown out the window. That means treating clients as partners, approaching them with curiosity — not judgment — and embracing change, even if that means a workout is overhauled in the middle of a session, she says. “It’s not that the traditional way of doing things in the fitness world is inherently bad, it’s just not always helpful or accessible for every person,” explains Young, who co-created the Trauma-Informed Personal Training Certificate at Hope Ignited Training with Chelsea Haverly, L.C.S.W.-C.

To get even more specific, trauma-informed personal training is rooted in these four principles.

Clients Have Choice

Under a traditional approach to coaching, there’s a good chance the trainer will tell their client exactly what exercises they’ll be doing for the day and how long their workout will be, says Young. In some cases, the client might feel comfortable enough to say they don’t enjoy a certain movement or it doesn’t feel right for their body. But most often, the power dynamic in which the trainer is the authority can make clients hesitant to speak up, she explains. The potential result: an ineffective, harmful workout session and a fractured relationship with fitness, which neither party wants to happen.

Trauma-informed personal trainers, however, will take a collaborative, team approach to create workouts, says Young. “You know your body the best, so let’s work together to figure out a program that actually works for you,” she adds. “Let’s figure out what kinds of movements you actually enjoy and what kinds of movements you absolutely hate and want to stop doing, then let’s talk more about why that is.”

In turn, clients who have been robbed of control and autonomy over their bodies — whether through uncomfortable, inappropriate previous experiences in the gym or traumatic events outside it — have the opportunity to regain their agency, adds Mariah Rooney, M.S.W., L.I.C.S.W., the co-founder and co-director of Trauma Informed Weight Lifting. “For people to have embodied, visceral experiences of autonomy, you have to work in collaboration with coaches, gyms, and fitness environments that center choice and consent.”

In order for clients to have more choice, however, there must be transparency within the trainer-client relationship. “There’s never a session where a client shows up and they’re just surprised with a workout,” adds Young. “They’re consenting and aware of what’s going to happen in a session every step of the way.”

Trainers Are Curious and Open to Change

When a client wants to skip a training session due to a headache or tiredness, trauma-informed personal trainers are encouraged to be curious about the story their client’s body and behavior are telling them, says Rooney. “Taking a trauma-informed approach — being a really good story listener and being curious about that story — helps validate and normalize their experience,” she says. “You get to have a different [training] experience and help someone have more compassion for themselves and for the process.”

By embracing this curiosity and asking questions about their feelings and behaviors, workout plans may change from day to day — and that’s okay. “Maybe you have a foundational program that you can prescribe to a client, but that’s just that — a foundation,” adds Candace Liger, N.A.S.M.-S.P.S., C.E., a certified fitness coach and the co-director of Trauma Informed Weight Lifting. “I may have already had a plan set up for you, but actually that may not be what you need today and we need to shift it….In order to determine that, I have to get information from the client, communicate, and be curious enough to ask those questions in the first place.”

Say a client comes into a training session in a hypoaroused state, in which they’re feeling disconnected or depressed, or a hyperaroused state, in which they’re feeling overwhelmed, panicked, or anxious, says Young. Rather than stick with the planned workout, a trauma-informed trainer will ask the client what they need at that moment and adjust the workout accordingly. “It’s throwing out the expectation that the program is going to follow a linear path and instead allowing for choice, flexibility, and collaboration with the client, so you come up with movements that actually feel good, are safe for their body, and help to regulate when they’re feeling dysregulated,” says Young. “Movements that, over a course of a session, can help them shift from a state of dysregulation to a place of feeling more grounded and safe in their body.”

Mariah Rooney, M.S.W., L.I.C.S.W., the co-founder and co-director of Trauma Informed Weight Lifting

Taking a trauma-informed approach — being a really good story listener and being curious about that story — helps validate and normalize [a client’s] experience.

— Mariah Rooney, M.S.W., L.I.C.S.W., the co-founder and co-director of Trauma Informed Weight Lifting

The Method Prioritizes Client Safety

In order for clients to feel comfortable and confident enough to make choices and collaborate with their coaches, fitness spaces with trauma-informed personal trainers should feel welcoming, inclusive, and safe, says Rooney. “Spaces where there may not be [gender-affirming] bathroom options for the client, where there may be [harmful] marketing images on the walls, or where [toxic] language is used that they are not welcome there — that the space is not for them,” they explain. Ensuring those potential triggers are left out of the environment, however, can help prevent the client from experiencing further harm or trauma, she says.

Trainers Are Anti-Oppressive

Simply being aware that a client may have experienced trauma throughout their life is only part of the equation, says Rooney. In order to truly be trauma-informed, trainers also have to be anti-oppressive and seek to deconstruct the systemic issues at the root of trauma, they say. “Going into this work just with the intent of being trauma-informed and doing good means that you’re not going to be conscious and attuned to the ways in which harm is happening or that you are implicated in harm that’s happening, even when it’s very unintentional,” she explains. That’s why Trauma Informed Weight Lifting, which conducts research and provides training on the science behind trauma and weightlifting, encourages trainers to first “do less harm, then do good,” says Rooney.

The Importance of Trauma-Informed Personal Training

One of the biggest risks of a traditional approach to fitness training? Retraumatizing clients, says Liger. “The most consistent pieces of feedback [we hear] are that trainers are touching without permission; [using] a boot-camp [style], aggressive approach; body shaming; and suggesting that someone needs to go on strict diets without even having any certifications around nutrition [to support their advice],” they say. By re-creating those environments, even inadvertently, trainers could cause even more harm to the client, they explain.

Compounding the problem is the fact that fitness spaces and movement are inherently triggering for many folks, adds Young. “The physiological symptoms of exercise, such as increased heart rate, quickened breath, feeling sweaty, or having tight muscles, are also really associated with the symptoms of re-experiencing trauma,” she explains. When you first experience trauma, your body becomes hypersensitive to and hyperaware of those physiological changes, she adds. So if a trainer isn’t aware of that connection and chooses an energizing, high-intensity workout for their seemingly disconnected client, it can cause more harm than good, she says. “Having the nervous system going from one extreme to the next can be retraumatizing,” says Young.

What’s more, the client may not be able to alert the trainer to their discomfort, as trauma can impact one’s interoceptive awareness (the ability to understand and respond to physiological experiences in the body, according to a Frontiers in Psychology article), says Young. “When you’re in a training session and the trainer is asking you, ‘How does that feel?’ or ‘How did that go with this exercise?’ many clients who have been through trauma have an impaired ability to connect with their body enough to say, ‘That hurt’ or ‘I didn’t like that and it felt uncomfortable,'” she explains.

A trauma-informed approach to personal training, however, may help prevent that retraumatization by establishing safe, inclusive environments, opening up all lines of communication between trainers and clients, and collaborating to create a fitness program that’s flexible and accessible. Plus, the method encourages trainers to work alongside other providers, such as therapists, to assist in the client’s journey to healing, says Young. “Trauma is primarily held in the body, so things come up in a training session that you might not expect,” she explains. “A client may feel confused or experience a whole lot of emotions. It’s not the trainer’s job to do the processing of that, but it can be really powerful to work as a team.” For example, the trainer may ask the client to consider exploring their feelings during the next session with their therapist. Or if the client provides consent, the trainer may send the provider an email calling out the thoughts and emotions that came up during the workout so they may be addressed later, she explains.

What Does a Trauma-Informed Personal Training Session Look Like?

Remember: Under a trauma-informed approach, the client is the expert of their own body, so a workout may start off with a conversation about how they feel showing up to the training session, what their body needs, and what exercises they like and dislike, says Liger. Then, the trainer and client will work together to plan the workout with that information in mind.

To keep tabs on how the client is feeling throughout the session, Young teaches trainers to use a condensed version of the Subjective Units of Distress Scale (aka SUDS), an evidence-based method commonly used to measure the intensity of a person’s distress in trauma therapy, she says. At the beginning of the relationship, the trainer and client will work together to decide on a “hard-stop” number (think: a six or seven on a scale of zero to 10), the point at which you change the activity or stop the workout altogether, says Young. Then during each exercise, the trainer will quickly ask the client, “What’s your SUDS number?” after a few reps. “If a client is doing push-ups, they might start out at a zero — everything’s great, they feel really good,” explains Young. “But as they hit reps five to six, there can be some physiological changes and internal dialogue — ‘Am I going to make it to the end? What’s going to happen if I can’t complete this?’ — and their SUDS number may start to go up. I’ll ask their number, then we might pause to check in.”

If the client reaches their hard-stop SUDS number, Young advises trainers to then ask “Is there anything that your body is needing at this moment?” If the client can’t give an answer, the trainer will offer up suggestions, such as going for an outdoor walk or passing a ball back and forth, she says. “When you reach that hard-stopping place, you might not get back to the actual workout because that might not be what’s most helpful to the client at that moment,” says Young. “The whole mentality of trauma-informed personal training is really focused on healing through movement, connecting with the body, and establishing or re-establishing safety in the body through movement. And your sessions can actually be really flexible when you get rid of the restraints that fitness is solely to lose weight or change your body.”

Emily Young, L.C.S.W.-C., a therapist and trauma-informed certified personal trainer

The whole mentality of trauma-informed personal training is really focused on healing through movement, connecting with the body, and establishing or re-establishing safety in the body through movement.

— Emily Young, L.C.S.W.-C., a therapist and trauma-informed certified personal trainer

Who May Benefit from Trauma-Informed Personal Training

Although the word “trauma” is front-and-center in the approach’s name, Rooney believes trauma-informed personal training can be valuable for any individual — regardless of trauma history or lack thereof. “I think that, ultimately, a trauma-informed approach is inclusive, responsive, and curious. It’s open and expansive instead of constricting,” they say. “I’m a little biased, but I think taking a trauma-informed approach benefits everyone.”

Asking yourself a few questions can also help you determine if trauma-informed personal training may be useful for you. “Have you ever felt unsafe, triggered, excluded, or just outright discriminated against in these spaces and relationships? Have you ever worked with a trainer and wished that it were more attuned, responsive, and collaborative?” says Rooney. “If the answer’s yes, then this could be a good approach for you.”

That said, there are certain individuals who may want to consider trauma-informed personal training more seriously, including folks who have experienced trauma of any kind, have a history of or are currently dealing with mental illness, or have had difficult experiences with personal trainers in the past, says Young. The same goes for individuals who are in eating disorder recovery. “There are a lot of clients who are in recovery and would like to find a way to reconnect with their bodies and move safely, and you really can’t work with just any trainer,” she explains. “You have to work with a trainer that has an understanding of trauma, eating disorders, or exercise-related disorders.”

How to Find a Trauma-Informed Personal Trainer for Your Needs

Currently, trauma-informed personal training certifications are available through Hope Ignited Training, and Rooney says the folks at Trauma Informed Weight Lifting, which already offers workshops, are currently developing their own certification program. That said, what it means to be a “trauma-informed personal trainer” varies from person to person. And a trainer isn’t inherently a good fit for you just because they have a certification, nor will a trainer be a bad fit because they haven’t been certified, says Young. That’s why she suggests finding a trainer who at least has an understanding of how trauma impacts the body and a person’s ability to move and engage in a workout session, whether that’s through a certification or lived experience.

Once you find a potential trainer, set up a discovery call to get to know each other. Ask what a trauma-informed approach means to them, what it would look like to work together, and how they would take your needs into account, says Rooney. It’s also important to tune into how your body reacts to the trainer, adds Young. Think: Do you feel safe and comfortable? Do they seem authentic, knowledgeable, and have the necessary skills to help you navigate the fitness world? And remember: “Just because a trainer’s trauma-informed doesn’t mean they may be right for you,” adds Liger. “Identities, history, and culture still come so heavily into play, so really ask very deliberate questions that take those into account.”

The Takeaway On Trauma-Informed Personal Training

A trauma-informed approach to personal training establishes movement as safe and accessible and ensures further harm is prevented. In doing so, it can also have powerful impacts outside of the gym. “It’s almost like the training space is a microcosm of the greater world,” says Young. “We’re increasing people’s capacity to navigate stress — to feel it and notice it and not immediately become dysregulated — through movement. And that’s one of the coolest, most important pieces of trauma-informed personal training.”