Trauma-Informed Strength Training with Laura Khoudari

Laura Khoudari is a writer and leader in trauma-informed strength training and the author of Lifting Heavy Things: Healing Trauma One Rep at a Time. Her work has been widely recognized by the trauma and fitness community, and she has been featured by The New York Times, NPR, BuzzFeed and Outside Online. She has presented her work for Somatic Experiencing International, The Breathe Network, Reebok, Les Mills, as well as at conferences, schools and fitness studios in the United States and Canada. In this interview, we discuss Lifting Heavy Things and the basics of trauma-informed strength training.

Lifting Heavy Things by Laura Khoudari, a book about trauma-informed strength training

Greg: Can you tell me a little about your background? What led you into your dual careers of personal training and trauma care, and what led you to blend those two therapies into trauma-informed strength training?

Laura: I am an unlikely fitness professional, and becoming a trauma-informed personal trainer was a complete career change for me. I started strength training in 2006, when I was 28 years old, after a lifetime of avoiding the gym as much as possible. What finally got me into the gym was the desire to manage chronic low back pain that I had lived with for seven years. I wanted to start a family and carry my pregnancy with ease. I worked with a trainer who focused on what I could do and slowly but surely I began to really enjoy being in my body and in the gym. After eight years of regular strength training, I took up Olympic weightlifting and fell in love with strength sports. I became more self-confident, felt good in my body and found an amazing community of like-minded athletes. 

It would take a couple more years before my movement practice evolved into a trauma-informed, embodied, therapeutic and still joyful practice. A little while after I found my joy in Olympic weightlifting, I experienced a trauma and subsequently developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some of my symptoms were hypervigilance, flashbacks, insomnia, withdrawal from friends and family, and excessive irritability. Among my coping behaviors was a drastic increase in my training because I felt strong and like a fighter in the gym. At first, that was okay. I was able to connect with people in the gym and feel powerful in my body. But I couldn’t escape the intrusive thoughts. I started to have flashbacks in the squat rack and rather than pause and change course, I became determined to power through. I was fighting my own memories. And my training became almost compulsive. I trained in Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting, and I was also doing karate. I trained ten times a week. 

Strength training was historically empowering for me, and I wanted to be invincible. To train like that, I had to dissociate from my body—there was no more feeling strong in my body. It had been replaced with a constant feeling that I needed to be stronger. My training became compulsive. Pursuing training in this way meant overriding pain and fatigue signals.

Unfortunately, this behavior is celebrated in many sport and fitness cultures. Coaches applauded my work through my pain. I was also lean for the first time in my life, and it seemed everyone was congratulating me on my body. But I was never so unwell. I was in pain, terrified to walk down the street and very angry at the world. And in trying to become invincible, I came full circle and injured my back so badly that I experienced a partial paralysis of my left lower leg and I could barely hobble around my home.

As I did my own work to recover, both in therapy and in physical therapy, I began to realize that strength training can be healing or it can be harmful based on how we approach it. I began to learn about how PTSD affects our physiology and I started to think about how that intersects with the ways in which strength training affects our physiology in both the long and short term. I looked for a trauma-informed personal trainer as I got ready to get back in the gym and I could only find one person doing this sort of work and she was in Toronto. I was in New York.

I thought it was unbelievable that there wasn’t more general knowledge in the world of fitness and wellness about how trauma affects our bodies. So I decided to try to make trauma-informed strength training a commonplace thing from inside the fitness industry by becoming a trauma-informed personal trainer. I studied trauma healing modalities like Somatic Experiencing while I also studied and became certified as a personal trainer through the National Association of Sports Medicine. I began to design strength training programs and apply them using techniques and models across disciplines. I also fostered connections with social justice and mental health organizations that were also looking to combine movement and healing in more ways. 

Today, there are wonderful organizations that teach trauma-informed strength training, and many more folks are bringing together mental health and various fitness modalities to meet trauma survivors where they are and support them with more holistic approaches to trauma healing. It is so exciting!

Laura Khoudari, a trauma-informed strength trainer and author of Lifting Heavy Things
Laura Khoudari

Greg: Following a traumatic event, what conditions have to be in place to begin training and healing?

Laura: In 1997, Dr. Judith Herman identified “safety” as the first step to healing from trauma in her seminal work, Trauma and Recovery. That sense of safety has to start within the body and then extend out into the environment. Interestingly, one of the things she suggests that helps foster this safety is “hard exercise.”

A trauma-sensitive or trauma-informed approach to pursuing hard exercise considers the conditions we need in place to foster a sense of safety during the workout. Those conditions are going to vary from person to person. For example, I love training in noisy barbell clubs and find commercial gyms very unwelcoming. But most of my friends who don’t lift regularly feel quite the opposite—the loud grunting and sounds of weights hitting the ground make them feel unwelcome, whereas the bright lighting and pop music in a commercial gym feels good to them. With that in mind, here are some considerations you can take when thinking about training as a way to support your healing. 

First, consider your training environment. What do you need to foster a sense of safety where you train? Some folks might feel more comfortable at home, others a commercial gym, or folks like me might feel best in a specialized facility for whatever modality they prefer. You may want to consider the community policies and agreements or rules that govern client and staff behavior at a given spot, whether or not they have gender neutral restrooms or changing rooms, what the lighting is like, and the noise level. These environmental factors will vary in importance for different folks. 

Next, you should consider whether or not you will want a formal training program, in person or virtual coaching, or group support. For some people, this is crucial and for others it isn’t. If you want to work with a fitness professional, I advise seeking out someone who is explicitly trauma trained or someone you already have a good rapport with, someone who makes you feel seen, heard and respected. I host a directory of trauma-informed and Health at Every Size (HAES)-aligned fitness professionals who offer remote services available on my website, and Trauma Informed Weight Lifting has a directory of coaches and personal trainers who have gone through their training.

There are also some practical matters to consider, such as when you are going to train and if you have the basic equipment you need to train. In gathering all of this information and then putting it in place, you are increasing the resources you have to support you in showing up and training. You may also want to consider other resources to support you in your healing and training. Resources are anyone or anything that supports us. Ask yourself the following:

  • What hobbies or activities do you enjoy doing?
  • Who supports you in your life?
  • Do you have any pets? 
  • Did you ever play a sport? If so, which sport?
  • Do you like to dance? If yes, which kind of dance? (Including random dance parties at home!)
  • What’s your favorite kind of music?
  • Do you have a spiritual practice?
  • Are you a member/volunteer of any club or organization?
  • Do you have someone from whom you obtain regular counseling?
  • Do you have any tokens or talismans with special meaning to you?

This is a list of things you can call on throughout your healing journey to support you. 

A woman doing a bench press

Greg: Is there something unique about strength training for healing after trauma, or are there other physical practices that can be equally beneficial?

Laura: Strength training, which involves moments of exertion followed by rest and using the external weight on your body, which can help support noticing what is happening inside of your body, really lends itself to being combined with body-based healing practices that support traditional therapy. That said, I firmly believe that most exercise modalities can be used to support trauma healing by applying a trauma-informed framework to their approach. There is a kettlebell on the cover of my book, Lifting Heavy Things: Healing Trauma One Rep at a Timebut I wrote it for anyone who wants to use any movement practice to support their healing.

Greg: Are there particular exercises that are especially beneficial for healing after trauma?

Laura: Yes, but for the most part, like with most of this work, exactly which exercises will benefit you may be different from those that benefit me. That said, with trauma there is an inherent breach of boundaries. This can be a physical breach or a more emotional one. Either way, pushing exercises can help folks begin to tap back into their “no” and their boundaries. The other exercise I advocate strongly for across the board is steady-state cardio at a moderate heart rate at the end of a workout or a stressful day. Steady state cardio supports nervous system recovery and health by encouraging your body to move into a parasympathetic state, a.k.a. rest and digest.

Greg: What has most surprised you during your professional practice or while researching and writing this book?

Laura: The most?! I am not sure. But I will say the biggest aha! moment was when I learned that trauma changes our brain (an organ in our body) and that is why we see a change in our behavior; and because the brain is a physiological organ, it can be changed again through our physical senses and movement to restore healthy function. This sort of work from the body up to the brain goes very nicely with the top down processing we get in conventional talk therapy.

For more about Laura and trauma-informed strength training, visit her website and follow her on Instagram and Medium. And for more interviews like this one, check out The KineSophy Library.