Trauma can be difficult to define, in large part because its causes and effects are different for every individual. What is traumatic to one person may just be an unpleasant memory for another, as trauma is less about the triggering event and more about how the mind and body respond to an experience or series of experiences. As you’ll read below, trauma-informed training is not some niche concept for a select few clients or for specialists to use, but something that can be incorporated into your approach with all of your clients or participants and yield benefits across the board. 

(Note:  You can learn more about how trauma is defined in the video at the end of this article, which was excerpted from a recent ACE Live Webinar on this topic. The entire webinar is available to view here.)

Stated simply, trauma-informed coaching or exercise leadership involves allowing clients or class participants to reconnect with their bodies through movement and feel safe doing so, while also creating environments and programs that feel supportive and approachable. All clients, regardless of their history of trauma, could benefit from such an approach.

According to the Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center, trauma “results from exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional and/or spiritual well-being.”

Traumatic experiences can be one-time events like a sudden, unexplained separation from a loved one, an incidence of physical or sexual abuse or being the victim of a violent crime, or ongoing situations such as childhood neglect, living in poverty or caring for a family member with a mental health or substance use disorder.

The point is, trauma comes in many forms and from countless sources. Approximately 70% of adults in the United States have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives, with 62% having experienced these traumatic events during childhood, when their impact may be most harmful and long-lasting.


The Relationship Between Trauma and Health

The list of potential symptoms of trauma is long and varied, but includes physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches, sudden sweating and/or heart palpitations, changes in sleep patterns and shifts in appetite. Mental health–related symptoms include fear, depression, anxiety, outburst of anger or rage, emotional swings and a tendency to isolate oneself and be less trusting.

It’s important to note that having experienced a traumatic event does not mean that a person will necessarily exhibit these symptoms. Just as the spectrum of what may be categorized as a traumatic event is broad, so too is the spectrum of potential responses to those events. Two people living in the same abusive household, for example, often respond to that environment in very different ways.

People impacted by trauma frequently develop coping mechanisms to alleviate the physical and/or emotional pain they may be experiencing as a result. Often, these coping strategies involve maladaptive behaviors such as tobacco use, unhealthy eating, and drug and alcohol use. While these behaviors may provide some relief, they may also simultaneously contribute to social isolation, anxiety and chronic disease.

Defining a Trauma-informed Approach

Adopting a trauma-informed approach might sound somewhat intimidating or complex. After all, you are not able to diagnose or counsel clients, so how are you supposed to know whether they’ve experienced trauma and, if so, how that trauma might impact their ability to work with you or adhere to an exercise program? The truth is, taking a trauma-informed approach does not require you to know those things; it’s more about being self-aware and really listening to each of your clients or class participants.

You can think of the trauma-informed approach as the next evolution of the personalized approach to exercise leadership that ACE consistently preaches. Chris Gagliardi, MS, Scientific Education Content Manager at ACE and an ACE Certified Personal Trainer, Health Coach, Group Fitness Instructor and Medical Exercise Specialist, points out that adhering to the tenets of the ACE Mover Method® provides a foundation from which to build toward a more trauma-informed approach. These tenets are:

  • Each professional interaction is client-centered, with a recognition that clients are the foremost experts on themselves.
  • Powerful open-ended questions and active listening are utilized in every session with clients.
  • Clients are genuinely viewed as resourceful and capable of change.

A trauma-informed approach also involves understanding that each person is the expert on themselves, and collaborating with each client rather than teaching or leading them. The differentiator is that health coaches and exercise professionals typically use a personalized approach to empower people to achieve their health and fitness goals. With a trauma-informed approach, empowerment and autonomy are the ultimate objectives, not tools to be used in the pursuit of some other goal.

There is no one way to be “trauma informed,” explains Mariah Rooney, MSW, LICSW, Co-founder/Co-director of Trauma Informed Weight Lifting, but the goal should be to make all clients and participants feel safe, welcomed and seen.

While this article focuses on trauma-informed weightlifting and yoga practices, it’s important to note that many other forms of movement, including boxing and repetitive bilateral movements such as walking or jogging, can be practiced with a mindful and trauma-informed approach. In addition, meditation and breathing exercises can be very effective in alleviating stress, which is a common symptom of trauma.

Lessons from Trauma-informed Weightlifting

“Trauma-informed weightlifting is an embodied practice and intervention that is informed by the latest in neuroscience, physiology and trauma research,” according to the Trauma Informed Weight Lifting website. “It seeks to transform weightlifting in an effort to both promote and facilitate healing for trauma-impacted individuals and communities.”

Trauma-informed weightlifting and personal training focus on connecting with, and finding strength in, one’s body, healing through movement and establishing that the body can be a source of safety rather than trauma. It involves actively listening to your clients and empowering them to treat each movement mindfully and as a reminder of their strength.

Rooney, who is a clinical social worker by training, as well as a trauma therapist and trauma educator, highlights the sometimes toxic culture that surrounds the idea of physical fitness and body image and suggests that some clients may need a more intentional approach that is more inclusive and responsive to their in-the-moment needs. She calls it “being attuned.”

Some people thrive in the aggressively hierarchical world of competitive bodybuilding, for example, but most of us are more likely to find that type of setting unsafe or unwelcoming. One of the ways in which trauma shows up in the gym setting, says Rooney, is that some people never walk through the doors because they don’t feel included or safe.

Rooney says one solution for this problem involves “speaking with more question marks and fewer periods.” In other words, be curious about the people you speak with and don’t assume you have all the answers. If you’re trying to make a space or a workout experience more welcoming, whether that’s based on age, racial identity, sexual orientation, gender identity, body size or even fitness level or exercise experience, it’s up to you to have potentially difficult conversations to uncover why someone feels unwelcome or had a negative experience at your facility.

In addition, that curiosity may help you understand when a client or participant behaves in unexpected ways. “One of the ways, particularly with developmental, early-life trauma, that we learn to survive those things is to develop a lot of different adaptations, and in different contexts those adaptations might look out of place,” explains Rooney.

A person may go into a shutdown response or become dissociative, or their system may be totally taxed. In this type of situation, be curious about why a person left class early or refused to give much effort during a workout, rather than questioning their motivation or labelling them in your own mind as lazy or a quitter. By asking questions, you may discover a trigger that you can avoid during future sessions or open up a meaningful, rapport-building dialogue.

Finally, Rooney and the Trauma Informed Weight Lifting program, which is part of the Center for Trauma and Embodiment at the Justice Research Institute, are committed to being rooted in research and evidence. Rooney, along with colleagues from Harvard University, Harvard Medical School, Barry University and The New School for Social Research, has conducted multiple studies into the effectiveness of trauma-informed weightlifting, including the following:

  • A Grounded Theory of Weight Lifting as a Healing Strategy for Trauma: This qualitative study looked at how weightlifting contributes to healing for persons with a trauma history. What they found was that “weightlifting healed trauma through the felt sense of the mind-body connection, which created a healthier, more empowered and connected trauma survivor.”
  • Trauma Informed Weight Lifting: Considerations for Coaches, Trainers and Gym Environments: This study explores the barriers to participation in weightlifting, especially among populations disproportionately impacted by trauma. Growing out of this qualitative work and the lived experiences of the people interviewed, the researchers offer ways to conceptualize psychological healing in the gym environment. In addition, guidelines are proposed for the development of trauma-informed weightlifting programming that personal trainers can incorporate into their daily practice.

Lessons from the Prison Yoga Project

Bill Brown, C-IAYT, is the Executive Director of the Prison Yoga Project (PYP), which is a non-profit organization that supports trauma healing and resilience building for people impacted by the criminal justice system, including incarcerated people, staff and their friends and families, through yoga and embodied mindfulness practices.

Because Brown facilitates classes in a prison setting, he operates under the assumption that all of his participants have experienced trauma. Being incarcerated itself is an ongoing traumatic event that creates a disconnection from one’s body and strips a person of their autonomy. In addition, many people living in prison are in a heightened state of awareness at all times, which creates very high stress levels.

“When we experience a traumatic incident, something that is overwhelming to our nervous system, we experience a stress response that is overwhelming and we can’t reestablish homeostasis,” explains Brown. “It’s like the body is in a perpetual state of responding to the stressful event, so the body sort of adapts to living in that level of stress.”

Brown’s practice centers on facilitating classes and creating an environment that establishes trust and restores agency to the participant. “So much of trauma is having your agency taken away from you,” he says. That is particularly true in a prison setting.

Brown explains how yoga facilitated from a trauma-informed approach can help by using a tree pose as an example. In this pose, participants are engaging in an activity that is going to induce a stress response. “We’re using mindful awareness of what’s happening in our body to notice the muscular tension, to notice the increased respiration and heart rate, and maybe the sweat, and noticing all of the physiological and somatic responses to that state of our nervous system, while also using our breath to maintain calm in that state.”

The idea is to “be in this state by choice,” Brown explains, “and also use my breath as a way to moderate that response so that I don’t become overwhelmed.” The key here is that the participants learn strategies to recognize and even facilitate the transition from a state of stress to a state of relaxation. For PYP participants, these may be the only stress-free moments in their day, so creating as many as possible can be powerful.

One programming difference between a PYP yoga session and one that takes place in a fitness studio is that the PYP session will move between the stress and relaxation phases repeatedly, rather than building to a crescendo through the class and then ending in a cool-down. The idea is to teach the participants how to flip that light switch on and off so that they can better manage stressors outside of class. “The problem [for PYP participants],” Brown explains, “is that the light switch has been rusted in the on position, so when we flip it on and off, flip it on and off, we’re knocking the rust off and then it starts to move freely between those two states.”

In addition to the stress that trauma creates, many people who have experienced trauma dissociate from their bodies. Many fitness settings push people to move to and beyond their limits, where clients or participants are commanding their body to do something rather than engaging in a dialogue with it. A trauma-informed approach brings awareness to what the body wants and needs, which is especially powerful for people whose trauma has created a situation in which the body is a source of suffering or a source of pain.

Brown suggests not trying to push all clients or participants so hard and instead allowing for a slow and gradual process where the individual leads themself to what works best. Allow your client or participant to be in control of what their body does or how intensely it works. This can be accomplished using what Brown calls “invitational language,” rather than commanding language.

Another tip is to arrange class participants in a circle whenever possible, as this eliminates the hierarchical setup of typical classes and removes that power dynamic. “The attitude,” explains Brown, “is that I am not here to teach something. I’m here to create the conditions for learning to happen.”

Scope of Practice Considerations

Scope of practice is an obvious and genuine concern when talking about trauma-informed approaches to exercise leadership. After all, ACE Certified Professionals cannot diagnose trauma or any other condition and they cannot counsel or treat clients’ diseases, conditions or injuries. “It’s a fine line,” says Gagliardi, “because mental health and wellness are part of a person’s well-being. They might have this experience with trauma, but you can frame it as, ‘I’m helping this person achieve their goals and if their response to trauma is influencing their ability to reach their goals, then how can we overcome that?’”

Whether a client or participant opens up to you about their trauma or you observe a change in their behavior during a workout, your job is to be trustworthy and transparent, offer social support, collaborate toward empowerment and autonomy, and approach the situation with humility and responsiveness. These are good practices that you can incorporate into all your work, whether or not a client or participant has experienced trauma in their past.

Rooney concurs and points out that you don’t even have to know whether someone has or has not experienced trauma. “That’s not a requirement of being trauma informed,” she says. “Taking a trauma-informed approach benefits everyone. If you read through the basic tenets, like being curious, being inclusive, being self-aware, none of these things can hurt anyone.”

If a client or participant does reveal that they are struggling with trauma, it is within your scope of practice as a health coach or exercise professional to provide community resources and talk to the individual about what triggers a negative response so that you can modify your programming accordingly. As an example, Gagliardi describes a client who may have been the victim of an assault or other violent crime and thus feels uncomfortable being approached from behind. You can avoid putting them in this vulnerable position by eliminating or modifying movements that require you to spot them from that position.

This is similar to something Brown says about his PYP participants, some of whom are uncomfortable performing certain yoga poses that leave them in a vulnerable position and unaware of their surroundings. Your role in this situation would be to modify or replace those poses when mapping out your class design or even on the fly during a session if you see a participant looking uncomfortable.

While you can certainly practice trauma-informed approaches within your defined scope of practice, it is vital that you remain mindful of “scope creep,” where you unknowingly or unwittingly creep outside your scope of practice during a conversation, training session or class.

Final Thoughts

A trauma-informed approach to exercise leadership can be tough to explain, as it’s not about a change in programming (though programming and cueing certainly come into play) or a series of movements to perform or avoid. It’s about shifting your mindset as a leader so that you become more open-minded and approach training or coaching with humility and a sense of curiosity. It’s about collaborating with your clients or participants and empowering them to take control of their bodies and learn how they can draw strength from something that may also be a source of pain or struggle. And it’s about being aware enough in the moment to recognize when a shift in your plan or a modification of an exercise is required.

Finally, it’s about understanding that this shift in mindset is beneficial for all of your clients, not only those who have experienced trauma or who have spoken to you about their traumatic experiences. As a health coach or exercise professional, your role is not to diagnose or treat anyone’s condition, but rather to empower them to use physical activity and movement as an element of their healing process.