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Burdens for barbells: how a strength training program is empowering domestic abuse survivors

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Swapping burdens for barbells, a local researcher is empowering survivors of domestic and family violence by hosting strength training sessions—lessening mental weight by putting physical weights on their shoulders.

Offering the free program to survivors to help them improve their mental health and wellbeing, the idea came to Erin Kelly (an Associate Lecturer in Anatomy and Physiology with the University of Canberra’s Faculty of Health) after she interviewed female powerlifters about why they love the sport, for her Ph.D.

“I was really interested in how these women managed to get into this sort of stereotypically masculine sport,” she explains.

“One of the strong things that came out of it is that it was a really empowering experience for these women. And a lot of the women were actually using it as a tool to recover from their own personal trauma, like disordered eating and domestic violence.”

“They really found that it helped them to recover from those experiences and empower them to take control back over their life. I could see how we could apply that to a population of women who have experienced trauma and are going through that recovery process.”

As a powerlifter and survivor of trauma herself, Erin understood firsthand how strength can be empowering for both the mind and body, inspiring her to lead the research project which sees 10 survivors attend powerlifting and strength training sessions two times a week.

Now in its second round, the hour-long sessions are run by two fully qualified female strength and conditioning coaches and are tailored to each participant as the women focus on improving their strength in the three big compound lifts: squat, deadlift, and bench press.

Encouraging women to reconnect and trust their bodies again, Erin says the sessions saw survivors not only build their muscles but also rebuild their self-esteem and confidence—which are often shattered because of domestic abuse.

“They spoke about how they learned to trust their bodies and they felt like they were taking back control of their lives. A lot of women spoke about how it was almost like a form of mindfulness and meditation for them,” she says. “The other thing was the sense of community that develops.”

According to current participant Kishwar, the program isn’t just leaving her body feeling physically stronger—after each session, she leaves more confident in herself thanks to the many other “intangible positives.”

“We don’t necessarily know each other’s backstory, but it’s just a really nice team camaraderie and a supportive environment. It’s not necessarily something I would have anticipated, but it’s a credit to the women [running the program],” Kishwar explains.

“It’s the extra bits, it’s not just the strength training but all the other things that are happening around the strength training—the friendship building, the trust, watching each other get stronger, supporting each other, and education about nutrition…they’re the other intangible positives coming out of it as well,”

When Sarah* joined Erin’s program, she originally wanted to strengthen a knee injury, but seven weeks later she says she’s also seeing a significant positive difference in her mental health.

Her advice for anyone thinking of participating is simple: “You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain”.

“I was talking with one of the other ladies that I’ve made friends with…we were a bit apprehensive at first, we weren’t sure what to expect or what the other people would be like. But just do it,” she explains.

“It will help you mentally and you’re challenging yourself, you’re not competing against anybody else. It’s all about you, and to watch yourself become stronger—because you’re writing it down each week—to see the progress you make in such short periods of time, it’s empowering.”

Working with Domestic Violence Crisis Service and Karinya House to bring together survivors and create a powerful community, Erin is hoping to add another program block to her research. Looking for another 10 women to put up their hands, she says there’s no gym or strength training experience required—just a willingness to give it a try.

And once the 10 weeks are up for Kishwar and Sarah, they both plan on continuing their training, building their strength, and pushing their limits to see what else they can do.

“I’m the oldest in the group and I lift the heaviest,” says Sarah.  “A lot of them are a lot younger than me—I’m in my mid 50s, and some of them are in their 20s. And if I can do it, that encourages and motivates them as well.”

“We’ve all surprised ourselves at how strong we can be,” Kishwar explains. “I think understanding the limits of our body or how we limit ourselves, especially as women [is important]. We think we’re not as strong as we can get.”

If you’d like to participate in the program, email Erin.Kelly@canberra.edu.au

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