How to Build Body Trust Through Strength Training

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May 2021

It was my moment to shine and feel strong!

I had been working out at home with my kettlebells for a couple years, but during a trip I decided to get a weeklong pass at a weightlifting gym close to my hotel. The week went smoothly and I got to play around with heavier weights and barbells that I normally didn’t have access to…

…until the last day.

I had been saving deadlifts for the final day so I could go all out. It’s important to keep in mind here that, even though I had done a lot of barbell training in the past, I hadn’t touched a barbell in a couple years. I was excited to get to deadlift heavy! I kept putting on weight and lifting until….

POP!

That pop would be my lower back, unfortunately. It wasn’t the deadlift’s fault (deadlifts are actually great for healing troubled backs). I let my ego get ahead of me and tried to lift what I used to lift, but without the regular practice. I kept adding weight because my brain told me I could do it and that I had lifted it before. But I was out of practice and hadn’t lifted anything that heavy in years. I wasn’t engaging my core very well and I wasn’t paying attention to my body as I lifted, leading to a 100% preventable injury.

At least after that I stopped so I didn’t hurt myself any further. I put away the weights and left the gym feeling embarrassed.

It took me a few weeks to recover. I did some gentle exercising while I was injured, but noticed when I got back to more normal workouts that I was nervous to lift a heavier weight, especially when it came to deadlifts. I remembered how much it hurt to move only a few weeks before and I didn’t want the same thing to happen again.

Feeling Disconnected

There was a disconnect between me and my body- one that I didn’t have before I hurt myself. I didn’t trust my body to move or lift the same way it used to. Now I had to start the longer process of rebuilding trust.

There are a lot of reasons why you might feel disconnected from your body or have trouble reading the signals your body is giving you. An avoidable injury like mine is just one. Others are:

1. Diet Culture
Diet culture is one of the most common reasons you might feel disconnected from your body. It encourages you to actually ignore the signals your body is giving you in pursuit of changing your appearance. It’s possible you’ve been told for most of your life to push through and not listen to cues like exhaustion, hunger, or even pain.

2. Chronic Conditions and Different Types of Injuries
A chronic condition or injury can significantly change your relationship with your body. You might be frustrated that your body can’t do what it used to be able to or that it’s failed you. That’s normal! Learning how to trust your body again involves accepting it as it is now and working with how it shows up each day.

3. Trauma or Significant Body Changes
This is a topic covered by many books and articles, but a significant change or event in your life can cause disconnection with your body. I do want to specify here that building body trust through movement can be very healing and help with general mental health, but it is no replacement for actual therapy. The tips below can still help you build trust in your body, but I recommend using other resources in addition to them.

4. Being New to Movement
If you’re like me pre-strength training, you may have simply never moved much or spent time getting to know your body. It’s okay to be nervous if workouts are a new part of your life!

Joining a Gym (Again)

I joined a gym again in Fall 2023. I liked my home workouts, but I always found myself getting distracted. My workout space was right next to my work desk, and I usually ended up working instead. When I gym opened up nearby, I jumped at the change to separate my work from my workouts!

I was excited to work out in a gym again and have access to all sorts of equipment, but I found I was nervous and a little intimidated. I wanted to go all out and start lifting heavy things again, but I knew that wouldn’t be best for my body. Last time I tried that, I hurt myself! I didn’t want a repeat.

Here’s what I did to build back trust in my body:

How to Build Body Trust Using Strength Training

Before we get into this list, I want to make sure you know that any way you choose to move is valid. This article is skewed towards strength training because, hey, I’m a strength coach! But there are many, many other ways of moving that can also help you build body trust. Actually, a lot of these tips even still apply! If one way of moving doesn’t feel good, it’s okay to switch and try something different.

Okay, with that covered, onto the tips!

1. Assess How You Feel

I always start a workout by assessing how I’m feeling- usually I do this before I leave, in the car, or while I’m warming up. You can’t make choices for your body if you don’t know how it’s already feeling. Sometimes it’s a small check-in with myself to make sure I’m feeling good, and sometimes it’s a more involved process to figure why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling.

Listening to your body, especially when it’s a new concept, can take time to get the hang of. It’s called interoception- being aware of what’s inside of you and how your body is feeling. Practicing interoception involves asking yourself “How do I feel right now?” and being able to give an answer. It’s about listening to the signals your body is sending and interpreting what they mean.

You may not be used to listening, but it’s a skill you can build! The more you do it, the more comfortable and automatic it will feel. Listening to your body can be practiced as a first step before applying it to your workouts. Do you feel thirsty? Drink some water! Hungry? Have a snack! This may seem basic, but how often do you ignore signals like needing food or water?

Body Scan
The most common way to practice listening to your body is to do a body scan. There are many body scan meditations you can find online, or you can use this worksheet. It’s important to remember here that what you feel mentally and emotionally can have an effect on you physically. If you’re stressed or upset about something, for example, you might feel very real physical symptoms like being extra tired or unmotivated.

Workouts
It’s okay if those physical symptoms affect your workouts! Here’s what I’ve learned about myself: When I feel stressed, I like to do a little extra in the gym because it helps get some of the anxiety out of my body. When I’m upset about something, however, I usually don’t feel good and usually opt for a shorter/gentler workout.

As I do this check-in with myself, I can adjust my workout to match. Sometimes it’s switching a weight or changing the reps, other times I might change my entire workout to something else or even skip it.

You can also check in with yourself during workouts. How did that exercise make you feel? Is it a good idea to keep going, or should you stop doing this particular exercise for the day? The more you exercise, the more information you’ll be able to get from how your body feels.

I created this worksheet, How do I feel today?, to help you adjust your workouts!

2. Walk In with a Plan

A lot of doubt in the gym comes from not having a plan. I know I feel better walking into the gym when I know which exercises I’m going to do, even if I do end up adjusting some. You’ll know ahead of time which exercises might take more time or feel challenging for you and you can mentally prepare for them. A plan also helps you not overdo it accidentally.

Along with keeping track of which exercises and how many reps you do, I also recommend recording how you felt during the workout. It can give you better context for future plans.

3. Don’t expect your body to be the same as before.

This is what I failed to do in my story above. Just because my body used to be able to do heavier deadlifts, doesn’t mean I was in a position to be able to do them in 2021. I expected my body to be able to jump right back into what it was doing when I trained deadlifts multiple times a week. It doesn’t usually work that way…

Sometimes it’s hard to let go of what you used to be able to do or what you “should” be able to do right now. It’s okay to be frustrated when you can’t do what you want to be able to do! Learning to trust your body doesn’t mean you have to fix yourself or get back to what used to be. It’s a journey of meeting yourself where you are and accepting what your body can do right now.

Instead of attaching worth to how you want to do something (“It’s not good enough if I don’t do x.”), try to acknowledge that all movement is good movement. Focus on what’s currently supporting your body and making it feel its best.

4. Start Small, Build Slowly

Whether you’ve lifted before or you’re starting out, you want to start small. When you go hard or jump up weights quicky, you’re much more likely to experience burnout or injury.

This is a lesson in taking the ego out of your workouts. Just because other people do things or you’ve done exercises in a specific way before, that doesn’t mean they’re right for you at this moment in your life. When I walked back into the gym and started doing exercises, I knew I could do more, but I chose to do less to build both confidence in my movement and strength.

Start with the most accessible variation and light or no weights for each exercise. Keep doing each of them until you feel confident, then add a little more weight or choose a slightly more challenging variation. I usually do an exercise for 2-3 weeks before changing it.

5. Move with Intention

When I started working out out again, I got SO intentional about my movement. I wanted to pay as much attention to my body during exercises as possible so I could see what worked for me and what didn’t. The two things I focused on (and still focus on because they’re some of my workout non-negotiables!) are core engagement and the mind-muscle connection.

Core Engagement
Core engagement is already a wildly important part of lifting weights and moving, but it became even more important after hurting my lower back. All the muscles in your core work together to stabilize your body. By focusing on my core, I made each exercise more powerful and protected my spine.

The Mind-Muscle Connection
The Mind-Muscle Connection is all about forming a connection between your muscle and your brain so that you’re aware of the movement. Before I start an exercise, I’m already thinking about using that muscle and engaging it. If the exercise is newer to me, I even picture myself doing it before I pick up a weight.

6. Basics First, Then Explore

When I started going to the gym again, I had access to all sorts of equipment that I didn’t have at home. Instead of trying to jump into using everything, I stuck with the basics to gain confidence before exploring. When you start to move your body, you want to start with what you know best- the basic exercises you’re most familiar with, then explore once those feel like second nature.

Once you have the basics down, explore by getting curious about your movement! As you try things, ask yourself “What happens if I….” and see where it takes you. What can your body do? What are its current limits? How does your body bend, twist, and reach?

7. Embrace Body Neutrality

You may not be overjoyed with where your body is right now. You might feel like you should be way ahead of where you are. Unfortunately, building body trust isn’t usually a quick journey. One piece of mindset advice that might help is embracing body neutrality. A body neutral mindset means working on being at peace with your body and how it currently moves. This is different than hating your body, but also different than trying to love your body and be super positive about it.

Instead, notice what you body is doing when you’re exercising and celebrate the small wins! If you do something that’s different than last week or that you were a bit nervous about, give yourself a second to be proud of your current body. This can be especially important if you reason for feeling disconnected has to do with dieting or overtraining.

Be Patient

When it comes to building body trust, it’s never a linear journey. You’ll probably experience setbacks, but you’ll also experience growth as your body gets stronger and you gain confidence in your movement! Strength training is more than just lifting weights, it’s an opportunity to connect with your body and get to know it better. By using the tips above, you can use it to help you build trust when you’re starting out, after a break from the gym, or after an event that changes your body like an injury. Strength training can be a practice in mindfulness, resilience, and self-discovery, no matter how you like to lift.

Sarah Siertle

Hey! I'm Sarah!
I'm an inclusive strength & movement coach who helps people get hella strong so they can have fun and live their lives in full color!

My coaching is beginner-friendly, movement-based, and size-inclusive. I believe in coaching that is kind, not shaming or judgmental as so many fitness experiences are.

If you're ready to start your strength journey, you can check out your training options or get started with a free workout!

Mindset Tips

Blog Categories

Strength Training Tips

About Me & My Business

Inclusive Fitness

Exercises

Hey! I'm Sarah!
I'm an inclusive strength & movement coach who helps people get hella strong so they can have fun and live their lives in full color!

My coaching is beginner-friendly, movement-based, and size-inclusive. I believe in coaching that is kind, not shaming or judgmental as so many fitness experiences are.

If you're ready to start your strength journey, you can check out your training options or get started with a free workout!

Mindset Tips

Blog Categories

Strength Training Tips

About Me & My Business

Inclusive Fitness

Exercises

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