Alyssa Ages was no stranger to the gym when she had a miscarriage in her mid-30s. A Strongman competitor, CrossFitter, and Ironman finisher, she was the strongest she’d ever been athletically. But after losing the pregnancy, she felt vulnerable and broken, and lost a sense of trust in her body. When she returned to the gym, the goal wasn’t to build more strength, but to tap into strength training’s palliative emotional capabilities.
“After my miscarriage, I was searching for something more—a way to believe in my body once again,” Ages says.
While weight lifting is, of course, not a replacement for therapy, research shows that the tangible challenge of lifting a heavy barbell can foster greater mind-body connection1, as it did for Ages, who recounts her story in Secrets of Giants: A Journey to Uncover The True Meaning of Strength.
- Alyssa Ages, strongman competitor and author of Secrets of Giants: A Journey to Uncover The True Meaning of Strength
- Mariah Rooney, MSW, LCSW, trauma specialist, psychotherapist and co-founder of Trauma Informed Weight Lifting
To be certain, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are difficult to remedy2, and what’s most effective for one person might not work at all for the next. But while healing can happen in the therapy office, for some people, it can also occur on the floor of a gym.
How can lifting help heal trauma?
Trauma specialist Mariah Rooney, MSW, LCSW, co-founded Trauma Informed Weight Lifting in 2018 after hearing countless stories from people who turned to lifting to cope with mental health challenges, but had harmful or unwelcoming experiences in fitness spaces. Today, the nonprofit researches the healing potential of weight lifting and teaches trainers how to better support the needs of people with trauma who walk through a gym’s doors. In this work, she and her colleagues have observed a number of ways that lifting can lead to healing, with lessons and takeaways that translate from the gym to life. Here are a few of the most powerful effects weight lifting can have on trauma.
The challenges can build self-trust and agency
Rooney explains that one of the greatest impacts of trauma is that it disconnects us from ourselves—including our sense of safety, sense of belonging, and connection to the world. One of the findings in recent research1 is that weightlifting can help reestablish a severed connection with the body by building self-trust. “Weightlifting is a constant question,” she explains. Those lifting face the inquiries: Can I do this? Can I lift that? Can I do this with good form and not get injured?
“Being in the position to even ask those questions and then being willing to try to see what the answer is, builds up a lot of self-trust for people because you learn that you can do really hard things, you can lift heavy things, and you can move your body in ways you didn't know you could,” Rooney says.
Just as important as finding the answer to these questions is honoring your ability to say no to them, which can help build agency when trauma so commonly takes autonomy away.
The physical sensations can bring people back into their bodies
Rooney says that sometimes, a byproduct of adapting to trauma is to become highly dissociated, when a person detaches from their feelings, thoughts, or physical sensations in response to being overwhelmed. “We can leverage things like weightlifting, to support regulation for people who may be dissociated,” Rooney says. The external stimulus, like the barbell on your back or the texture of knurling (the metal pattern on a barbell) is a way to connect to the body, and physically feel your muscles and joints again, reengaging the mind-body connection4.
For Ages, it was particularly helpful to reconnect with a part of her body that she felt had betrayed her. “In order to move something heavy, like going for a heavy deadlift, I had to brace my core to protect my back,” she recounts. “I would take a deep breath in and feel my abdomen press against my weight belt. In that moment, if I wanted to lift that bar safely, I had to believe that part of my body—the one that had been home to so much sadness, that felt so weak—could also be a place of strength.”
The intervals can expand emotional resilience
Interval training, which involves short bursts of exercise met by rest—a necessary feature of weight lifting—may widen someone’s “window of tolerance,” or the space in which someone can comfortably deal with stressors. Trauma can shrink your window of tolerance, making it easier to become dysregulated. With interval training, the capacity to do a hard thing for a short period can build resilience and confidence.
What to look for if you’re lifting for trauma healing
If you’re working out to work through trauma, look for a gym with staff members that have a foundational understanding of trauma, how it manifests, and how it may impact people, Rooney says. Pay attention to signs of general inclusivity, which can span from marketing language to gender-neutral bathrooms, and signal a welcoming space.
Rooney also says to look for coaches and trainers who operate from a place of curiosity about client behavior. She explains how behaviors historically labeled in fitness spaces as “unmotivated,” like not showing up to a session or exhibiting resistance toward a certain exercise, should be met with a question instead of the all-too-common drill-sergeant mentality of “just do it.” Especially when working through trauma, it’s important to go at your own pace and ensure that your coach prioritizes your safety and needs.
Also, remember that engaging in community can be particularly beneficial on the road to healing. The right environment can help you find your people, and find your strength again, inside and out.
- Vigue, Dana et al. “Trauma informed weight lifting: considerations for coaches, trainers and gym environments.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 14 1224594. 20 Jul. 2023, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1224594
- Konrad, Kerstin et al. “Early trauma: long lasting, difficult to treat and transmitted to the next generation.” Journal of neural transmission (Vienna, Austria : 1996) vol. 123,9 (2016): 1033-5. doi:10.1007/s00702-016-1601-y
- Nowakowski-Sims, Eva, et al. ‘A Grounded Theory of Weight Lifting as a Healing Strategy for Trauma’. Mental Health and Physical Activity, vol. 25, no. 100521, Elsevier BV, Oct. 2023, p. 100521, https://doi.org10.1016/j.mhpa.2023.100521.
- O’Connor, Patrick J. et al. ‘Mental Health Benefits of Strength Training in Adults’. American College of Lifestyle Medicine, vol. 4, no. 5, May 2019, https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827610368771
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