Meet the female personal trainers transforming the way we exercise

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Instead of being militant and results-driven, there’s a new wave of female personal trainers who are good for the mind, body and soul.

I never thought I’d be somebody with a personal trainer. The idea of me, a plus-size woman, working out in a gym filled me with anxiety. The sheer thought of being surrounded by hench lads with six-packs, necking protein and talking about ‘leg day’ while flexing their biceps wasn’t very appealing.

But after emailing a female-only trainer who was recommended to me, I found myself traipsing across London at 6.15am on a Tuesday for my first session. I didn’t have an aesthetic goal in mind, I just wanted to feel better about myself – stronger. Over the next few months, my kettlebell weights increased, I discovered sit-down exercises were my favourite (naturally) and the early starts got easier. There was no shouting or humiliation, instead just buckets of motivation, the will to succeed and – dare I say it – some fun. I came to realise that exercise is an important factor in terms of stress relief and staying sane.

Sessions soon became more than a workout: I use them to vent about work, to moan about rubbish boys on Hinge and to share pictures of my niece. My personal trainer became a friend to confide in and trust. After each hour-long workout I’m exhausted, yes, but also liberated. My mind is less of a blur and I can think more clearly. It’s like therapy, only sweatier. I thought I’d found a rare breed, but it turns out that my trainer is one of a new wave of empathetic, supportive trainers more concerned with wellbeing than weight.

It hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when the fitness industry – which is currently worth £5billion, with the number of gym memberships growing to 10.4 million this year according to the 2019 State of the UK Fitness Industry Report – was dominated by men. Trainers had a reputation for shouting orders and being aggressive. Women, however, were only good for Zumba and step classes.

They weren’t supposed to be picking up dumbbells or bench-pressing heavy weights.

So what’s leading the change? Positive social movements like #ThisGirlCan and #StrongNotSkinny help. With over 10 million combined posts on Instagram, those hashtags are becoming less of a trend and more a way of life. In part it’s also thanks to strong female role models in the public eye. “Athletes like Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey are spreading messages of body positivity and showcasing their strong physiques,” says Jessica Smith, senior creative researcher at The Future Laboratory. “Social media has created an inclusive community for women everywhere. They’re ditching the dreaded cardio training, opting to lift weights and gain strength instead.” Hence the launch of Stylist’s own fitness studio in London – Stylist Strong – which opened to the public this year.

However, these new-age trainers aren’t concerned with you getting a ripped six-pack or glutes like Dina Asher-Smith. Instead they encompass everything but the aesthetics. “It’s more about a holistic approach that focuses on slowing down and listening to your body,” adds Smith. “The desire to become the best version of ourselves has spawned a $4.2trillion wellness industry.”

Stylist guest editor Roxane Gay adds, “I’d like people to know just how useful it can be when you work with someone who’s size inclusive, doesn’t body shame and encourages you to work out. It’s not that it’s pleasant, but it would be interesting to do a feature on the benefits of personal training.”

Read on to hear from three female trainers and their clients about how there’s more to personal training than what is reflected in the mirror.

The empathetic PT

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Sarah puts Roxane through her paces

Sarah Olive Bergeson takes a compassionate, individual approach to achieving wellness goals

“My way of working means I try to help each of my clients achieve their personal goals through thoughtful planning, alongside physical and emotional support. I encourage them to embrace the concepts of fitness and wellness as opposed to straight weight loss or physical transformation.

I adapt my approach to each individual client because no one has the same wants or needs – everybody is starting their journey from a different place. Discovering what they need takes time, energy and care. To me, it’s one of the most important parts of this job.

I definitely like to think I play a role in my clients’ wellness, too. People are so vulnerable when exercising. They’re often dressed in revealing or tight clothing, are sweating and sometimes gasping for breath. Working out often breaks down inhibitions and brings deep-seated feelings up to the surface and out into the world. I’m a big believer in exercise as medicine. I know it can lift your mood and self-confidence. I think it can alleviate grievances. I don’t think it’s the only answer, and I’m an advocate of therapy and medication, but I always say that no one ever regrets working out. It might not solve your problem, but it will probably help you feel a little lighter, help clear your mind, and hopefully quiet the worst of the worries.

It’s my job to be there for my clients when they need my help. I think working through these things with another human in a safe, healthy context makes us stronger in mind and body. It makes us well.”

Roxane Gay has been training with Sarah for nearly two years

“I hate working out, but Sarah has helped me improve my fitness immeasurably. She makes me feel more confident in my body and I’ve grown stronger. She’s pushes me to challenge what I think my limits are. I’m grateful to work with her (and hating every moment).”

Visit thisfitmom.com or follow Sarah on Instagram at @saraholivebergeson

The female-only PT

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Hannah (right) helps Danielle work through chronic pain

Hannah Lewin exclusively works with women and abhors diet culture

“When I started my business in 2015 I only wanted to work with women. I was told not to because it would mean my potential client base would be dramatically reduced, but I was steadfast. I had first-hand experience of the impact diet culture has on women’s lives, and how exercise and movement are framed as something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Fat loss seemed to be the only goal available and no merit was given to the potential longer- term benefits. It was something that frustrated and upset me, but it also gave me the drive to create a way for women to feel positive about exercise and, ultimately, themselves.

My approach is firmly anti-diet because I don’t believe diet regimes work in the long term. Instead, I focus on the achievements – like improving deadlift or reducing run times. It’s those things that have a positive impact on physical and mental health. I have clients with eating disorders, varying forms of depression and some who are in – or have had – therapy. I want my studio to run as an extension to those sessions and for clients to leave feeling better than when they walked in.

In my five years as a personal trainer, I’ve witnessed the effect this way of working has. Aside from physical changes, I’ve seen self- esteem levels sky rocket. This for me is the magic of non-aesthetic focused training.”

Danielle Vanier is a plus-size influencer with a chronic illness who has been training with Hannah for three months

“Having fibromyalgia, a chronic illness that causes widespread pain, among other symptoms, makes exercising difficult, so I wanted a trainer to help me move more in a controlled environment. I’d heard of Hannah through friends. Before every session she asks how my mental health is and what my pain levels are like, then she tailors exercises to how I’m feeling. Every session is exhausting but they help focus and clear my mind. I’m always going to be in pain so I might as well work on strengthening my body and helping my mental health.”

Visit hannahlewinfitness.com or follow Hannah on Instagram at @hannahlewin_

The holistic PT

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Neha (right) focuses on Vanessa's overall happiness

Neha Patel is a PT and Stylist Strong trainer. She focuses on developing her clients’ mental as well as physical strength.

“Before I qualified as a personal trainer 18 months ago, I was on a huge journey after hitting rock bottom. Following 15 years of working and playing hard, my health deteriorated and I was desperately unhappy. I quit my job in events and took a break from reality in order to travel and focus on my health. Along the way I lost eight stone and found I was able to inspire others to believe they, like me, could find strength in their struggles.

Discovering a passion for fitness has not only transformed me physically, it’s trained me to develop my fitness mindset, too. By setting performance goals I’ve learnt to overcome challenges, face fears and discover my inner strength, not only in the gym but in life, too. Today, my aim is to transform people’s lives beyond the physical through performance, and to encourage others to discover their fitness mindset.

In light of my experience, I often have clients who start out with weight loss goals, but soon realise what they are looking for is far deeper than a number on a scale. It’s something I work on with them by creating two or three goals. Clients learn that pushing physical limits isn’t about numbers, it’s about the mental struggle and the mindset required to push those limits – that’s what helps make us stronger. That is the ultimate game-changer: when priorities shift and clients realise true fitness isn’t a number and real strength goes beyond the physical. It is the beat of the muscle deep within your chest: it’s your heart, soul and mind. Once you realise that, weight loss becomes less relevant and building strength, both physical and mental becomes the priority.

It’s also important for me to observe, ask questions and create a safe space within the gym. Clients end up telling me their life history and the tools I use are based on my own experiences. I notice behavioural patterns and destructive behaviours that slowly start opening up other wider conversations. Everything that I’ve been through has given me the tools to help other people, and helping my clients find happiness – mentally and physically – through movement is what I’m most passionate about.”

Vanessa Wilson has been training with Neha for nine months

“I first met Neha at a HIIT training session where she was the instructor. I’ve always been fitness- orientated and have had numerous PTs over the years but they all fitted the same mould and had a pre-determined regimen. Prior to Neha nobody had taken the time to listen to my body, which led to me getting demotivated, injured or both. Now, I’ve finally met somebody who doesn’t care about the number on a treadmill, but rather cares about how I feel doing it. I leave every session knackered but with a sense of accomplishment stronger than anything I ever felt leaving the gym.”

Follow Neha on Instagram at @neha.ldn, and visit stylist.co.uk/strong to view our timetable of Strong classes and take advantage of our intro offer of two classes for £18

YOUR PERSONAL TRAINER CHECKLIST

Check their qualifications

There is no legal restriction on people using the title personal trainer in the UK, nor is there any regulating body. However, there are multiple personal training qualifications. Don’t be afraid to ask a trainer about their history or qualifications.

Find out their ethos

Each individual will have their own way of working – that’s the joy of having your own trainer, but check their values and ethos align with what you want to get out of the sessions and that their main focus suits you and your requirements.

Ask for their prices

Trainers differ wildly in pricing – and it’s no secret they can be expensive. Hour-long sessions can cost upwards of £50, so it’s vital to find out costs and what they include so there are no surprises – for example, is a gym membership required?

Check where they’re based

Is it convenient for you? If you’re booking sessions before work does public transport run at the times you need? What facilities are there? Do you need a padlock for a locker, are there towels and hair styling tools available if you need them?

Meet them first

It sounds obvious, but have an initial face-to-face meeting prior to booking your first session. You’re effectively hiring this person and paying them money for their services, so you need to make sure you get on well, have a good rapport and – ultimately – you’re going to feel comfortable and will trust them.

Browse their social platforms

It’s not a given, but most personal trainers will use Instagram accounts to build up their profile, which will help give you an idea of what exercises they specialise in, what other clients do in their sessions and also how the personal trainers work out themselves.

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Lucy Partington

Lucy Partington is Stylist’s beauty editor. She’s obsessed with all things skincare, collecting eyeshadow palettes that she’ll probably never use, and is constantly on the hunt for the ultimate glowy foundation.

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