Fitness needs — including psychological and emotional — and health goals may be different for transgender individuals. Training at home with a trans-friendly online personal trainer provides an ideal alternative to working with a trainer (or alone) at a gym. This article covers what to look for in a trans-friendly online personal trainer and ways to find one.
Good health is good health, but the needs and goals of trans individuals differ, and can include hormone therapy and body image issues. A personal trainer you might find at a gym may not be in tune with the physical and emotional needs of trans individuals.
We spoke to two trans men for more insight into their needs and the experiences they’ve had at gyms. We also spoke to two personal trainers who identify how gyms, online training apps, and personal trainers can become trans-friendly.
Health Needs of Trans Individuals
We all know exercising boosts our immune system and strengthens bones and muscles. It improves our thinking and can reduce anxiety and depression. Trans individuals, like everyone else, exercise for these reasons. However, they also exercise for needs that are specific to their identity.
Certified Personal Trainer who trains clients for Kickoff Keira Harbison (they/them) says trans people’s needs differ in two ways: hormone therapies and what feeling good might actually mean.
“A person on hormone therapy or one preparing for gender-affirming surgery needs their training to take that into account to a higher degree than cisgender people,” says Harbison. “For example, a trans man on testosterone — especially early in taking it — will have a sudden increase in strength just from the hormones. If he doesn’t take training slowly, he can hurt himself because he isn’t entirely aware of how his body has adapted to movement.”
When it comes to feeling comfortable in one’s body, nonbinary people are particularly unique because their “goal body” might be completely outside of the gender norm. “They might want to look androgenous or play up both masculine and feminine features,” adds Harbison.
Hormone therapy can change trans individuals’ body mass, fat distribution, weight, metabolism, and so on. This can affect how their bodies appear to others and, most importantly, to them. It’s not surprising then that for these individuals, and those who are not on hormones, exercising is a way to feel more connected to their bodies. They can train in a way that helps them achieve the desired body shape that aligns with their gender.
A desire to attain a physical appearance that affirms their gender can motivate trans individuals to exercise, but working out at a gym poses challenges.
Transgender Experiences at the Gym
Harbison says their clients start exercising for various reasons.
“Some of them are trying to prepare for gender-affirming surgeries. Some want to reshape their bodies to be more in line with their gender identities just through movement. I have some who want to be stronger and others who want to lose weight. I find that trans clients are less likely to ask for weight loss and more likely to ask for functional fitness needs and gender-affirming body recomposition,” says Harbison.
Court Youngblood, a trans man whose pronouns are he/him, began exercising four months ago so, as Keira put it, “his body would be more in line with his identity.”
“My biggest motivation to start working out was that I was approaching my one-year post-top surgery milestone and I did not look how I pictured myself to look by that time or at this point in my transition,” he says.
Youngblood recently started exercising at Crunch. Before that — and before he started taking testosterone — he worked out at Planet Fitness.
At Planet Fitness, Youngblood had to deal with the inconvenience of using only one stall in the men’s bathroom.
“I did not necessarily feel that the gym was trans-exclusive, but I did not feel comfortable in the men’s locker room. I did not want to use or feel comfortable in the women’s locker room either. If there was a gender-neutral option, that would have helped me greatly at that point in my life.”
At Crunch, Youngblood no longer faces the bathroom problem since the gym has more stalls.
“I have my own locker room now at Crunch, and I now shower and get ready for work every day in the locker room.”
Though he was nervous to do this at first, Youngblood says bonding with other men helped him become more comfortable in the locker rooms.
When asked about any negative experiences at the gym, Youngblood says: “I have not received any harassment or discrimination in the locker rooms. I am fortunate to be a ‘passing’ transmasculine individual, and I put my boxers, packer, and undershirt on in the shower stall. Nobody has seen my top surgery scars, so I cannot say that my transness is known there.”
Like Youngblood’s experience at Crunch, Alex had a good experience at Saratoga Springs YMCA - NY where he started exercising during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alex, who’s gender fluid and uses the pronouns he/him, had been worried about being misgendered, what to wear, or what locker rooms to use.
“Pre- and post-surgery, the trainers and aquatics, maintenance, and reception staff were accepting and respected my pronouns. When I started going to the gym, only the single-gender (men/women) locker rooms were open. Pre-surgery, I wasn’t comfortable in either room.”
Explaining why he wasn’t comfortable, Alex says: “I identified as a man to everyone, but without top surgery, I was not comfortable in the men’s room, nor the women’s rooms since I use he/him pronouns.”
“I swam in swim trunks, a T-shirt covering my top and men’s bottoms. No one misgendered me. Notes were made in my record for any new person to be aware of my identity. They also allowed me to slip through the closed signs to use the family locker room so that I did not have to be uncomfortable while changing.”
Post-surgery, Alex continued to receive support from his gym.
“Before surgery, the staff helped me prepare my body for the procedure. After surgery, they helped me adapt to workouts for my healing.”
Alex has since stopped going to the gym and now works out on his own. He says his mental health made it impossible for reasons he chose not to disclose.
Court’s and Alex’s experiences aren’t universal. Not all trans individuals “pass” as cisgender and can easily navigate fitness spaces without anyone questioning their gender or misgendering them. Not all trans individuals are also lucky to work out at trans-friendly gyms.
In fact, the challenges they face, or worry about facing, at gyms are one major reason why trans folks are generally less physically active than cisgender, or non-trans, folks. When they do exercise, they’re more likely to work out alone.
Against this backdrop, training at home with a trans-friendly online personal trainer can be an ideal alternative to working out at the gym.
How to Find a Trans-Friendly Online Personal Trainer
Used cautiously, social media is a good place to search for a trans-friendly online personal trainer. There are various platforms you can use to find a trans-friendly trainer who is sensitive to your health needs or goals.
“There are a handful of databases and resources for finding trans-friendly trainers: Decolonizing Fitness, or Reddit, for example,” suggests Harbison.
Other online platforms you can use to search for trans-friendly personal trainers include Twitter and Instagram.
Kickoff provides access to a variety of personal trainers, including trans-friendly trainers. Just complete the onboarding process and you’ll get matched with personal trainers who can meet your needs.
What to Look for in a Trans-Friendly Personal Trainer
All healthy relationships blossom from mutual trust and open communication. Your relationship with a personal trainer should be no different. If the trainer makes you feel safe, and is understanding and affirming, you’re off to a great start.
Ask lots of questions during the consultation phase, including their experience with trans clients. Discuss your preferred pronouns and your gender-specific goals and ask if the trainer can accommodate them and help you meet your goals. The way they respond to your questions will give you a good sense of what they’ll be like to work with.
Justice Roe Williams (he/him) is a certified personal trainer, head coach at Kettlebell Justice, founder of The Queer Gym Pop Up and BodyImage4Justice, and executive director of Fitness4AllBodies. He also writes about fitness culture and how to “resist, disrupt, and reclaim what it means to be fit.” According to him, trans-friendly personal trainers don’t necessarily need any special certifications.
Williams, who has been a trainer since 2014, says, “There is no different way to work with a trans body than when you’re working with any other body. That’s why it’s Fitness 4 All Bodies.”
However, Harbison says, “The only training specific to being a LGBTQ+-friendly trainer that I’ve come across is done by Decolonizing Fitness. They have a series of courses and e-books called Affirming Spaces. I’ve gone through it, and it has a lot of useful information, particularly if you have no experience in the area. Otherwise, finding any LGBTQ+ and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) professional competency course, ideally created and implemented by an LGBTQ+ organization, is at least a baseline option.”
Harbison uses a client-centered approach; they focus on an individual client’s needs and goals without trying to fit them into the standards set up by the fitness industry.
“I make no requirements of my clients past that they work on their goals. I don’t push them to change their goals based on what I think they should do. I listen and share my own experiences openly and honestly. My training style is gentle and adaptable; I let my clients guide our path and encourage them to talk about their mental health as well as doing workouts,” says Harbison.
Harbison does their research, asks questions, and keeps learning. “Most importantly, I use their proper pronouns and do what I can to ensure that the tools I use for training offer flexible gender options.”
Inclusion is an important part of creating safe, affirming spaces for everyone including trans individuals. But, Williams says some gyms that claim to be inclusive still remain hyper-masculine and aggressive.
“You can’t just say you’re about inclusion. It has to be an active ritual, daily, of how you are changing the culture and maintaining a sense of belonging in your space. To do that, you have to do deeper work. That deeper work is learning from the source. Position yourself in conversation, not in books, with people who have the experience that opens your eyes. And don’t use that one person as the voice,” he says.
Williams suggests that trans individuals may need to advocate for their inclusion in gyms. If they’re not ready to do this, online personal training at home is a viable option. “You don’t have to go to the gym because that’s another stereotype about fitness, that it happens at a specific time in a regimented way. Fitness is a relationship we have with our bodies,” says Williams.
“I personally work with people both online and in person. In-person options tend to be more expensive and big box gyms tend to be intimidating and less safe for trans folks, but there are trainers who will go to your home or work in a small gym,” says Harbison. “An online trainer will be less expensive, more readily available more often for questions, and offers the ability to not have to go to a public space.”
Adding to this, Youngblood says, “If your trainer doesn’t understand the gym anxiety around being trans, and can’t accommodate that, they are not the trainer for you. Any trainer should be able to modify your routines and give you at-home/outdoor workouts if that’s best for your individual situation.”
A trans-friendly trainer needs to tick the following boxes:
Educates themself on the discrimination trans people may face in general and how fitness culture perpetuates this
Learns from mistakes
Listens to trans folks
Understands the health goals of trans individuals and devises appropriate workouts.
The Bottom Line
Being a trans-friendly online personal trainer isn’t about giving trans individuals special treatment. “We are not special,” says Williams. “We are just here.”
Being trans-friendly is an ongoing process of creating and maintaining spaces where trans folks, like everyone else, can work out without experiencing any discrimination or erasure because they’re transgender.
“There’s plenty of important things to think about while you’re working out,” says Harbison. “Having to think about whether people are going to respect you shouldn’t be a part of that.”