I’ve never really been somebody who enjoyed working out. I was the girl at school constantly trying to get out of PE, and as I grew older, exercise wasn’t part of my life in any way whatsoever. I guess, in some ways, I naively assumed it was part and parcel of being plus sized: people who looked like me didn’t exercise and it wasn’t a space I ever felt welcome in.
Then, a few years ago in 2018, I was introduced to Hannah Lewin, a personal trainer who worked exclusively with women. I knew she trained a few plus size influencers that I followed on Instagram, so I reached out to her and started having weekly PT sessions. For me, that’s when things started to change: I still lacked confidence, but being able to work with somebody who was non-judgemental, extremely patient, who understood my body and who pushed and believed in me was a gamechanger – and I learnt that I didn’t actually hate exercise, I was just conditioned to think I did.
I continued working with Hannah in private gyms on and off for a couple of years, moving to virtual sessions through the pandemic. But in August 2022, I realised training once a week was pointless if I wasn’t bothering to do anything in between, which meant it was time to put my fears aside and find a local gym to join.
I knew I needed one within walking distance (or that I could get a bus to if I was feeling lazy) so I didn’t have any excuse not to go. I settled on Snap Fitness in Tooting, and luckily for me, I also found a PT who worked there who didn’t look scary: Molly Breeden. I messaged her on Instagram, set up a meeting and booked my first session with her there and then – the rest, as they say, is history.
I found a gym locally to me
I can’t lie though, it was scary. This was brand new territory for me. I wasn’t used to working out in a public gym with people around me, people who looked like they belonged there and knew what they were doing. Even the idea of getting to know a new trainer felt intimidating, but the more I got to know and trust Molly, the better things got. She encouraged me to try new things, to go to the gym on my own and gradually built up my confidence.
From the off, I told Molly I didn’t really have any goals in mind, I just wanted to feel stronger – and while I know that’s not the same for everybody, it’s what felt best for me. After a lifetime of being forced into losing weight (and it never working in the long term), being asked about my ‘goal weight’ and being judged by the number on a scale, I didn’t want that anymore. I was doing this on my own terms and I wanted to build good habits, get into a routine and feel better about myself.
Now I strength train at the gym with Molly once a week and try to do gym workouts she sets me on my own two or three times. In terms of my training plan, Molly says she knew not to be unrealistic or set unattainable targets. ‘My overall goal is for you to learn how to use the gym confidently, to become stronger and to be realistic about what you want to achieve – you need to be able to keep it up on your own without feeling defeated or demotivated,’ she says.
‘In PT sessions, we mostly work with supersets or circuits. Typical sets include time-based circuits where you complete as many reps as possible of the exercise, rather than setting a specific amount of reps – this challenges you to push yourself even harder in the rounds to follow.
‘An example would be a circuit with four exercises (such as SkiErg, squat press, slam balls and bent-over rows) where you work for 30 seconds, and rest for 15 between each exercise, repeating it three to four times. That way we can work to improve and you can set your own benchmarks, plus it’s fully suited to your abilities and can work the whole body.’ explains Molly.
A typical gym workout for me follows a circuit format
‘I always aim to teach you as much as possible in order to help you build your confidence using gym equipment while also working different muscle groups. For example, 15 reps on the leg press, superset with 30 bodyweight box squats, which works your quads and glutes. Or 10 reps on the lat pull down, superset with a forearm plank hold, which is good for upper body strength and strengthening the core. We’d repeat these sets three to four times,’ she says.
Then, on my own, Molly encourages me to do at least 30-45 minutes of LISS (low intensity steady state) cardio, along with using the gym machines I feel most confident with – which at the minute include the lat pull down, shoulder press, leg extension or leg press.
Of course, it’s a very personal thing and this is what’s working. Molly says it’s about building a routine and, for me, it’s learning that every workout counts. Making the effort to actually go to the gym (which is often the hardest part) is what matters.
The training I’m doing now is more than I ever used to do, and while some days I might only do 30 minutes on the cross trainer and be done with it, I know it’s better than nothing – and as a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found, moderate exercise is more effective at lowering key blood markers linked to heart disease and diabetes than more intense exercise.
A typical week for me will look something like this:
Wednesday – upper-body PT session:
- 40 minutes cross trainer
- 10 x lat pull downs (3 sets)
- 10 x leg extension (3 sets)
- 10 x shoulder press (3 sets)
Everything I’ve learned since joining the gym
1.Having a PT helps
For me personally, having a PT is what works. Molly holds me accountable; I see her in the gym when I don’t have sessions with her, she makes me want to actively improve and get better and I love making her proud. I’m not really a competitive person and often don’t give myself credit, but the progress that I’m making is encouraging, too: when I first joined the gym I couldn’t manage five minutes on the cross trainer without having to have a break. Now I can do a solid 40 minutes without stopping and I’m constantly increasing the level of difficulty on the programs that I do.
2. Everyone else is too busy working out to be looking at you
I often do upper-body workouts with my PT
I know it’s cliche, but it’s true what they say: literally nobody is paying attention to you in the gym and as I slowly learnt that, going on my own slowly got easier. It also helps that everybody who works at Tooting Snap Fitness is friendly, welcoming and I’m never made to feel out of place or like I don’t belong.
I also had a real fear of sweating and getting out of breath, but as Molly always assures me, it’s normal – in one of our first sessions she said that even Olympic athletes get out of breath and that really struck a chord. I’ve been so conditioned into thinking that it happened to me because I was really unfit, but that’s not the case at all and I think that’s vital to remember.
3. Watching TV at the gym > listening to music at the gym
I’ve also found that, instead of listening to music, watching a TV series on my phone helps to pass the time pass quicker. First, Happy Valley, and now it’s Last Tango in Halifax (both star Sarah Lancashire and are written by the same person, 10/10 would recommend) and I only allow myself to watch it in the gym. That said, there is one song that I’ll sometimes listen to – Taylor Swift’s All Too Well – and I tell myself I can get off once I’ve listened to the whole 10 minute version. It truly never gets old.
4. Consistency is key, even if your sessions are short
My workouts include both free weights and gym machines
Fortunately, my gym routine is made easier by the fact I’m freelance, so I can go in the middle of day when it’s quieter (and less intimidating than peak during times) but my job can also be quite unpredictable. It can involve a lot of breakfast/lunch/dinner meetings and nights away, but I try to stick to my routine as much as possible.
There are so many times that the little voice in my head has told me to stay in bed, or to go to the gym tomorrow instead, but deep down I know that tomorrow will never come. Naturally, everybody is different, but I know I always feel better for going and, no matter how busy I am, I can always find at least half an hour a couple of times a week to work out.
5. The benefits of exercise extend way beyond your fitness
As a result of going to the gym regularly, little things seem to be easier. I can walk for long periods of time without my back hurting. My back pain is something I’ve been aware of for a few years; it comes and goes and I’ve always put the pain down to my weight, but I’ve learnt that it can happen to anybody, and regular strength training has been proven to strengthen your back muscles and help with aches and pains.
My sleep quality is improving, too (which a 2020 study has proven to be another benefit of strength training) and I’m consciously eating better, too. I feel good in myself, I’m definitely stronger and that’s what I have to remember on the days when I’d rather do anything except step on that cross trainer.
Overall, I’m so glad that I took the plunge and joined the gym – part of me wishes I’d done it sooner, but I also think it might not have worked out in the way that it has. It’s almost like I had to go through the motions of training with Hannah and slowly building up my confidence, and going in all guns blazing might not have had the same result. Hannah and Molly have truly changed my life and my approach to exercise. Right now, I’m proud of myself and everything that I’ve achieved, both physically and mentally. I never, ever thought I’d be a gym-goer, but as it turns out, maybe I am.