Creating a Safe Training Environment for Clients Who Are Survivors

By Dr. Lisa Lewis

Are you working with clients who are survivors — of trauma, of negative experiences, of stress? If your clients are human, then you likely are.

Laura Khoudari, a Manhattan based trauma-informed personal trainer puts it best, “If you are working with people, you are working with trauma.” Khoudari provides somatic-based treatment specifically for women and genderqueer individuals suffering from PTSD, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain, and she sees strength training as a powerful tool for restoring healthy nervous system function, building resilience (in addition to strength), and improving quality of life.

Some clients will come to training with common, negative-but-non-traumatizing experiences, while others will come with more severe and impactful pasts.

As creatures highly adept at learning, humans process their own thoughts and feelings about life experiences, come to conclusions about how to avoid future negative experiences, and then apply those conclusions just like rules, in their behaviors, interactions, and choices moving forward.

Since, for the most part, you will have no way of knowing this history, it will serve you best to work with your clients using a professional, observant, flexible approach to your work.

From Trauma to Mishaps – The Spectrum of Negative Experience

Trauma is an emotional response to something horrible, like rape, or a natural disaster [1]. In the short term, shock, grief, and denial are normal and expected responses. Over time, however, there is a wide range of reactions to these types of events, and those who have trouble moving forward with their lives have been traumatized by the experience.

When a traumatized individual experiences difficulty in day-to-day living because of the traumatic event, they may be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a treatable but debilitating mental illness.

One out of six American women experience attempted or completed rape during her lifetime [2]. Sexual assault is more likely to cause trauma than other events [3], and 9 out of 10 sexual assault victims are female [4]. Research clearly indicates that women are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD than men [5], and that many are unlikely to seek treatment.

If you work with women, chances are you’ve worked with a woman who’s experienced sexual assault.

Whether or not she has developed PTSD, that experience has impacted her feelings of safety, trust, and comfort, especially in new or unfamiliar settings. As Khoudari states, the experience will definitely affect training, at the very least including a taxed central nervous system and increased fatigue.

Trauma is one type of response that someone can have to the most terrible of events. There are many other types of negative events that may not be traumatizing, but still feel hurtful and sad. These experiences can influence an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in a negative way in the future.

A recent national survey found that 81 percent of women said they experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime [6].

Seventy-seven percent of women reported experiencing verbal sexual harassment, and over 50 percent have experienced unwelcome sexual touching — that’s most of us.

Why This Matters to Coaches

Based on these statistics, it is reasonable, and wise, to assume that your female client has had negative experiences, specifically related to her body, her sexuality, and her appearance.

Coming to the gym and working with you may bring up memories, thoughts, and feelings of discomfort, and this would be a completely normal, reasonable, expected response.

If your client is triggered by certain people, places, or things, she can have a negative emotional response in that moment, because it reminds her of a previous negative experience. This is not only psychologically unpleasant for your client, but it can also have physical consequences.

For example, a recent study examined 60 female college students, many of whom reported experiencing child maltreatment, but who did not develop PTSD as a result. These women exercised by riding a stationary bike (physical stressor), and viewed a video of child maltreatment (psychological stressor), while their heart rates were monitored. The study found that women with a history of maltreatment experienced more psychological stress and a faster heart rate than those who did not experience maltreatment [7].

The researchers noted that atypical physiological regulation to stressors is more common among those who have experienced emotional or physical abuse. They conclude, “Maltreatment may lead to increased psychological distress and PTSD symptomatology and may negatively impact on autonomic responses to physical and emotional stressors” [7].

What does this mean for you and your work? It means that your clients, trauma survivors, or something less severe, will become more physically stressed when they feel emotionally stressed.

If a client feels uncomfortable, unsafe, or triggered by certain aspects of the training environment, it will impact training.

Minimize Psychological Triggers

There are some basic ways you can minimize the risk of triggering your clients, and maximize their feelings of safety in the gym, their comfort with you as coach, and allow for more enjoyment of their training time.

Your goals as a trainer should include creating a safe and fun training environment for your clients. Here are three basic recommendations:

1. Be Professional

This may seem obvious, but sometimes, professional behavior can be neglected due to gym environment, familiarity with clients, or comfort with the work itself. Although it is important to be warm and approachable, it is equally important to be consistent, dependable, and to exercise healthy boundaries with your clients.

Keeping in mind that you have no way of knowing what your client has experienced, practicing professionalism minimizes risks that you may say or do something offensive, and increases chances your client will feel safe and comfortable with you.

2. Be Aware

Be mindful of the training environment.

Are there lots of loud noises or music? Are there individuals — other lifters, trainers — or other aspects of the gym setting that could possibly be seen as intimidating? If so, are there ways in which you can minimize this? Could it help to train away from the professional powerlifters, turn down the loud music, work out during a quieter time at the gym?

These changes can be subtle, but if they help your client to feel safe and relaxed in the environment, it will improve her attendance, her performance, and her satisfaction with her training.

Be mindful of your client’s comfort.

Do they seem anxious or uncomfortable? Do they avoid certain people, places, or things at the gym? Are they one person when you’re around the elliptical and machines, but a completely different person around the barbells?

If you are a rah-rah coach, does your client respond positively to this? In addition to being observant of form and movement, also practice being mindful about your client’s vibe — their body language, facial expressions, energy level and comfort. If you notice something feeling “off,” it is.

Laura Khoudari, who specializes in working with clients with a trauma history, states, “We want our clients to be able to find respite in the gym while they are going through tough times or coming to terms with past traumas.” If you are aware and observant of your client, both physically and psychologically, you can respond to what you observe, and make accommodations to facilitate success and enjoyment.

3. Be Flexible

Using awareness and your observations of your client, make accommodations in your programming and during your sessions together.

As Khoudari recommends, “Pay attention to what your client's body is saying and not just what they are saying with their words. This is a technique called ‘tracking.’ Many clients will check out of their bodies (sometimes by pushing themselves very hard) as a way to not experience the pain or discomfort of certain emotions or physical sensations. This phenomenon is called dissociation. We can dissociate from a part of our body, or our body completely.”

“If a client keeps insisting that a movement or intensity is OK with their words, but their form is falling apart or they are more foggy-brained in between sets than usual, change gears, dial it back, and find a different movement. Your client may be moving from a state of progressive overload to just overloaded,” says Khoudari.

As a coach, you already have fine-tuned tracking skills! Use these to stay in touch with your client’s experience of their workout, and adjust as needed.

Some Additional Things to Keep in Mind

Remember to use these recommendations and techniques into your scope of practice, as a coach. You do not need to take on the role of counselor or doctor. You do not need to ask personal questions about your clients’ harassment, abuse, or assault history. You do not need to “tiptoe” around your clients.

All of your clients have had negative experiences that impact they way they think, behave, and make choices. Whether those include a traumatic event, an embarrassing incident, or something in between, they influence their current experience. When you coach with respect, notice circumstances or exercises that cause discomfort or anxiety, or just plain ask for permission to touch your client, you increase the chances that they feel safe.

You never want your clients to be anxious in session, preoccupied with what others in the gym are thinking or saying about them, or preoccupied with the environment. If they’ve had negative experiences that remind them of the gym setting, the other people at the gym, or coaching, they may feel vulnerable, awkward, or even powerless.

You want the gym to be a strengthening, empowering, positive force in your clients’ lives, and you can facilitate those outcomes by practicing professionalism, awareness of your client, the gym environment, and the interaction between the two, and flexibility with programming, intensity of training, and goals.

By simply reading this article, you are becoming a more trauma-informed, psychologically minded coach! Please continue reading, thinking about, and practicing these skills.

Additional Resources

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About the author:  Dr. Lisa Lewis

Dr. Lisa Lewis is a licensed psychologist with a passion for wellness and fitness. She earned her doctorate in counseling psychology with a specialization in sport psychology at Boston University, and her doctoral research focused on exercise motivation. Lisa is also a certified drug and alcohol counselor and has taught undergraduate courses as an adjunct professor at Salem University, Wheelock College, and Northeastern University in courses including exercise psychology, developmental psychology, and abnormal psychology. Lisa currently works as the associate director of a college counseling center in Boston, MA, and she has a small private practice in the nearby town of Brookline.


  1. American Psychological Association, Psychology Topics, Trauma.
  2. Tjaden P, Thoennes N, U.S. Department for Justice, Prevalence, incidence, and consequences of violence against women: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey, National Institute of Justice, 1998.
  3. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Women, Trauma and PTSD.
  4. Planty M, Langton L, Krebs C, Berzofsky M, Smiley-McDonald H, U.S. Department of Justice, Female victims of sexual violence, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  5. American Psychological Association, Advocacy, Interpersonal Violence, Facts about Women and Trauma.
  6. Stop Street Harassment, The Facts Behind the #MeToo Movement: A National Study on Sexual Harassment and Assault, 2018.
  7. Dale LP, Shaikh SK, Fasciano LC, Watorek VD, Heilman KJ, Porges SW, College females with maltreatment histories have atypical autonomic regulation and poor psychological wellbeing, Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 2018.

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