Interviews with Healers, Helpers, and Wellness Providers: Karen Preene aka Deadlifts and Red Lips

Today’s interview is with Karen Preene, a Qualified Personal Trainer and Online Coach aligned with Health-At-Every-Size (HAES) based out of Dudley, England. Karen is a Qualified Personal Trainer and Online Coach aligned with Health-At-Every-Size (HAES). I first got to know Karen as @deadlifts_and_redlips on Instagram, where she regularly posts messages in big bold font that challenge the mainstream fitness industry. Karen has an approach to training that’s more holistic wellness than bootcamp. She focuses on joyful movement, agency, community, mental health, and self-compassion. She has a staunch anti-diet stance, and is working to untangle exercise from morality and self-worth.

When I came up with the idea of regularly interviewing healers, helpers, and wellness providers, Karen was on the top of my list because she understands fitness professionals have the power to be wellness providers. She introduced me to HAES, and I loved how precise and thoughtful she was in explaining what it means to be a HAES- aligned fitness professional. Referring to the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDH) website, she quoted that HAES is “an approach which affirms a holistic definition of health.” The ASDH continues to define a “holistic approach” as:

which cannot be characterized as simply the absence of physical or mental illness, limitation, or disease. Rather, health exists on a continuum that varies with time and circumstance for each individual. Health should be conceived as a resource or capacity available to all regardless of health condition or ability level, and not as an outcome or objective of living. Pursuing health is neither a moral imperative nor an individual obligation, and health status should never be used to judge, oppress, or determine the value of an individual.

Below are excerpts from an hour-long Zoom chat — each of us in the comfort of our own homes chatting it up across the pond.

On Health At Every Size

Laura Khoudari: Why do you call yourself “HAES-aligned” as opposed to pro-HAES which is what I am accustomed to seeing on social media?

Karen Preene: I just think it’s important for us, isn’t it, as we as we learn more about this alternative approach that we keep within the definition of the framework . . . I say [I am], “HAES-aligned” to reflect that I uphold the principles of Health At Every Size. That’s the way that I learned [to teach]. And also, so people know that it’s a safe space for them to come and train with me. It’s an indicator that I operate outside of the norms of the fitness industry. And that’s the way I see it. I think we need that distinction from the mainstream fitness industry.”

LK: Can you tell us a bit about what it looks like when you, as a HAES-aligned coach, work with clients?

KP: Well, I always say it’s a collaboration. So it’s very individual-based. All of the programs are based on individual circumstances and where they are with their health and what they want out of the program. We collaborate with each other. The client is the authority. It is their body. And to me, the goal is autonomy.

Unlike the framework of traditional coaching, it’s an exploration of their goals and why, and [of] their relationship with exercise. A lot of people feel guilty for not exercising. That’s quite a common theme with all of the clients, so we work through that. So I would say my coaching style is very much based on exploration.

And there’s no judgment. There’s no defined rules and everything’s up for discussion. I suppose through me asking insightful questions, the client can dig deeper for themselves.

LK: What’s your advice for pro-HAES fitness professionals working in conventional fitness environments? This was something I really struggled with, and I’d love to hear what you have to say about that.

Karen: I’m going to be honest: It’s a struggle within the mainstream fitness industry, especially if you’re working for someone else. What I found was I couldn’t work at the gym that I was working at because I was required to weigh clients, to measure clients, to take before and after photos and I wouldn’t do that. And so I was basically told I couldn’t work there. And I think that seems to be quite a common theme for other trainers who work in this way.. I think more and more individual trainers are catching on, but I think, unfortunately, the fitness industry as a whole — gyms — they still operate very much within a diet culture way of coaching. I think it’s hard for HAES-aligned personal trainers to exist within that. That’s why I moved online.

On Taking A Year-Long Break From Formal Exercise and Training

LK: I was listening to you on the Redefining Health and Wellness Podcast, and you spoke about taking a break from training for a year. You had been training for competitive powerlifting. How did you know when it was time to take a break from training? And I see you are training for a meet now. How did you know when it was time to come back?

KP: I started along the journey of unpacking diet culture at the same time as I was doing Layla Saad’s “White Supremacy Challenge ‘’ on Instagram. I was beginning to question all of these constructs and -isms. It all seemed to happen at the same time. And then I started with an intuitive eating journey, and I realized in the back of my mind that I was still kind of hoping I would lose weight. And then it hit me that I was still scared. I was scared to stop tracking food and exercising, because I was scared of becoming fat myself or existing in a larger body. And I think that was a turning point for me, that I realized that I could not get any further on this journey until I address my own internalized fat phobia.

It was also tied [to] personal circumstances. My mom had passed away suddenly, about six months before, and I don’t think I’d given myself time to heal. And the gym was just no longer working in the sense of it was no longer feeling good. It felt like a chore. I was beginning to feel like I dreaded going. So I suppose it was a combination of things. I needed to step away and to do some exploration myself — and of how I would feel without the disordered relationship that I had with exercise and with food and with my body. And I think I saw a post by one of the intuitive eating counselors, I can’t remember who, but it said that sometimes you need a complete break from exercise in order to redefine your relationship with it. I was like, that’s what I need to do. And so I made the decision to pull out of my upcoming competition.

For the first time in a long time I didn’t follow any structured exercise at all. I just went for walks and I found a little yoga studio up the road that I went to, like once a month or once every other week, but that was all I was doing.

I think it was the yoga that helped me feel embodied, and let me get to know my body and all the different ways that it was changing. It did start to get larger, because I gave up the disordered habits, and I wasn’t moving as much. And so I was feeling the discomfort in my body. But getting to know my body and all the different ways it was changing, just felt really empowering and really beautiful. And I suppose I developed an appreciation for the simple things that our bodies can do in the moment when there was no pressure.

And it allowed me then to realize that I did actually like HITT training and exercise. I was able to think about the things that I liked doing outside of the conditioning of diet culture, if that makes sense. So I realized that actually, I do like training and I do love weights and I love them regardless of the changes to my body.

I think it took about eight months to go back to training in a traditional sense. But it still wasn’t very consistent, and that’s how it ended up being the whole year off from the structured training. I just went when I felt like it, which was liberating as well, if that makes sense.

LK: Yes, it makes so much sense. You let go of the very controlled, regimented life of training for competition. I’m just smiling so much because this is really resonating with me, and you’re speaking to some of my own fears that I have. But, you know you are saying that nothing bad happened. In fact, you learned about yourself, which created room for more growth.

KP : Yeah, and I did put on weight and my body did get larger, and I’d like to say that that was okay. Nothing bad happened. I just bought larger clothes . . . And now I feel like I have a choice. I can choose to do this thing, but I don’t have to. It doesn’t validate me anymore. Because before it was part of my identity, too, you know the “strong identity,” and so I suppose it was a letting go of ego to find out who I was. Without that identity, I realized that I quite liked myself without the gym.

On Reframing Exercise to Manage Mental Health or Chronic Pain

LK: What would you say to someone like me, who needs to exercise regularly to manage chronic pain?

KP: Okay, you may not be able to take a complete break because of this issue, but exercising is honoring your health because you are maintaining support for your body in a non-conditional way. It’s completely away from diet culture. It’s not about you maintaining fitness or doing something because you think you should. You’re actually doing a life-enhancing movement, and supporting your health through that movement. So I think for me, I would suggest that you explore the intentions behind things. Not everybody can take that full break.

LK: You have talked openly about managing your anxiety and depression with movement. Do you have any advice for people who are struggling right now to find motivation to move because of their anxiety or depression?

KP: I went through a stage myself where I was struggling [with those things]. And I think the yoga and walking helped because I didn’t feel very pressured, if that makes sense. It felt achievable. But now I am getting back into lifting so I have had to instill a little bit of discipline; and I was quite worried about that word, because it is associated quite closely with the diet culture. But, you get to reframe these things for yourself, and I knew that I just needed some routine to fall back on. So my advice would be to have a goal, and then build routine and habits around that goal to make it a habitual thing you can do without putting much thought into it. But also, I tell my clients that we have the main plan and then we have a plan for low-energy days. For instance, maybe you know that going to the gym is not bearable for you that week, then you do your low-energy plan, which may be do a workout at home, or going for a walk.

And when you are in a depressive episode, and it’s really hard to get into the gym, and [you] know energy levels are low, try to focus on the outcome: that you usually have more energy after you workout. I know it doesn’t always work, but I think 90 percent of the time you feel better. Make modifications if you need to. I know I am not going to want to do heavy squats, but I am going to want to do deadlifts.

On Finding Movement That Brings You Joy

LK: What would you say to someone who is trying to find what movement brings them joy?

KP: My advice would be to be curious to explore your intention [separating it from the shoulds], because it can be the intention itself that actually creates the opportunity for joy. And then just let yourself be absorbed in the moment and then you get to decide, “Actually, I don’t like this. I’m going to try something else,” or” I’m really enjoying this. I’m going to go with it and see how it flows for me. “ And it doesn’t have to be traditional exercise.

LK: And so my last question: Why are deadlifts your favorite lift?

KP: They just make me feel like a superhuman. I find them very meditative — the whole walking up to the bar, positioning yourself, having to breathe through before you lift, having to stack yourself on top of the bar, and having to get ready to push up. And then you are literally pushing through earth with this weight. I feel really powerful when I do them, not in an egotistical way but in a very nice, oh my goodness I just pulled up well the max that I’ve ever done way.

And they’re a full-body workout. If I could choose one workout to do for the rest of my life, it would be deadlifts. As women I don’t think we were ever taught that we could be that powerful. My dad used to take me training with him, so I did experience the gym, and we did the usual multi- gym kinds of workouts. But I’d never trained deadlifts and squats properly or even bench, and I don’t know that I ever knew that strength was available to me. I didn’t know that my body was capable of those things. You know, I watched it on TV, and I just thought, “oh, they’re athletes.” So I think deadlifts for me are kind of like a symbol, a sign of the power and the strength that is available to me as a woman.

You can follow Karen on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Author of Lifting Heavy Things, Trauma Informed Personal Trainer, learn more at laurakhoudari.com

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