I spend a lot time telling people what to think about as they set up a lift and maybe what to think about during their next set, but I have recently realized that I need to start talking more about what to think about while executing the lift. Thinking about what our body is doing throughout the entire lift is crucial to a successful heavy lift. Furthermore, it is a skill worth cultivating if you are trying to heal from trauma. As a trauma informed personal trainer and as a strength coach, I spend a lot of time helping individuals experience their movements from moment to moment — also known as embodied movement or mindful movement. For anyone attempting to lift weight near their max, minding what your body is doing throughout the lift will help ensure your body is moving as efficiently as possible. For folks healing from trauma, developing the ability to stay coolly present within one’s body even under stress, in this case the stress of lifting the heavy thing, can help increase tolerance for stressors outside of the gym.
Most of the folks I work with spend the majority of their time in their heads and not in their bodies. Many adult novice lifters have to think through each step as they have not formed the muscle memory to lift. They come to class seeking instruction on what to do, and they turn that information into movement. They have to think about it. Learning to lift is a cognitive process for most adults and the first few days of learning technique can be so exhausting, not so much from the movements themselves but from thinking about the movements.
As for people living with trauma, being in their body can feel very unsafe because it holds the trauma response. (By “trauma” I mean not the event itself but an unprocessed nervous system response to an overwhelming stimulus that resides in the nervous system.) Folks with trauma may dissociate under stress — even under the stress of exercise — but the only way to lift well and safely is to remain in your body at all times. For people prone to dissociation, learning to lift means not only learning and processing technique, but learning how to really pay attention to their physical body while under stress.
When I first returned to lifting after the onset of my own PTSD, I would run through my squat checklist as I set up, I would unrack the…