When Cheng Xu was serving in the Canadian Armed Forces as a paratrooper and infantry officer, he experienced a series of traumatic events in rapid succession — his best friend and fellow officer took his own life, a soldier under his command was injured during a live fire exercise and a close friend’s father was kidnapped.
He felt like the world was collapsing around him everywhere except at the gym, where he trained in competitive Olympic weight lifting.
“The only thing I had that anchored me was weight lifting, because that was the only place where I felt safe,” said Mr. Xu, 32, now a doctoral student in Toronto. Surrounded by the clinking and clanking of barbells, he slowly discovered what he described as “the healing properties of strength training.”
Psychologists have long established that exercise is beneficial for mental health, and over the past decade, research has also shown that it can be a valuable tool for addressing post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, despite weight lifting’s associations with violent bursts of brawn, growing numbers of people who’ve experienced trauma are finding that pumping iron is a balm. For many, the sport’s healing powers come down to the fact that, where trauma has left them feeling helpless, powerless and weak, lifting helps them feel strong — not only physically, but also psychologically.
“Lifting gave me a sense of agency,” said Mr. Xu. “It gave me a sense of control.” And in time, he said, these feelings led to his recovery.
Learning to literally push back
People who’ve experienced trauma have long gravitated toward the weight room, drawn, in part, to the promise of increased physical strength. But these lifters have historically received little guidance on how to train in a way that supports their mental health and recovery. Lifters have also had to navigate a fitness culture that often glorifies a “no pain, no gain” approach, with a focus on performance and superficial appearances over long term well-being.
“There is a lot of toxic masculinity in strength training,” said James Whitworth, an exercise physiologist and health science specialist at the National Center for PTSD and assistant professor at Boston University’s medical school, as well as a disabled combat veteran.
But as more people of all genders and abilities have discovered the benefits of strength training, the weight lifting community is becoming more inclusive and expansive. Mental health groups also have begun to formalize lifting as a therapeutic tool and educate trainers in how to coach clients living with physical and psychological trauma. At the same time, the scientific community is beginning to study why, exactly, some people with trauma find lifting heavy things helps them recover.
“There’s something in weight lifting and working with resistance” that builds resilience, said Chelsea Haverly, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Hope Ignited, a Maryland-based organization dedicated to educating organizations and clinicians about trauma. “Not only in the brain, but also in the body.”
Last year, Ms. Haverly and Emily Young, a licensed clinical social worker and certified personal trainer, created a trauma-informed weight lifting certification program for trainers, in an effort to bring its mental health benefits to more clients. With lifting, Ms. Haverly said, “it’s not just, ‘I can do hard things.’ It’s ‘my body can do hard things.’ It’s ‘I have not felt strong, and now I feel like a beast.’”
Rachel Sloane, a 36-year-old respiratory therapist and mother of two, who was diagnosed with complex PTSD in early 2021 after enduring physical and sexual abuse, experienced this transformation firsthand. She initially turned to weight lifting out of a desire to take better care of her body, but the more she trained, the more she felt safe, calm and grounded outside the gym.
“I was not even attempting to use lifting as a means of managing my mental health,” she said. But “it gave me a means to physically push back — against all of the fear and powerlessness I was feeling all of the time.”
It has also given her “a growing memory bank of moments when I could move everything that was in my way,” she said. After years of feeling helpless, “it’s created more experiences of feeling powerful and strong and capable.”
Finding the right form of exercise
As more people with trauma affirm the benefits of lifting, Dr. Whitworth and other psychologists are working to better understand the psychological and neurological mechanisms behind its potential as a therapeutic tool.
“Improving someone’s physical strength in a way that they can see and feel may be particularly potent for individuals with PTSD,” said Dr. Whitworth, by “helping to reframe their worldview, as well as their views of themselves.”
While nearly every kind of exercise is beneficial for people with psychological trauma, said Dr. Whitworth, they reap the most psychological benefits when they engage in moderate-to-high-intensity training, which includes weight lifting. High-intensity resistance training, specifically, has been shown to help improve sleep quality and anxiety, which can improve overall health and well-being.
And yet, people who’ve experienced trauma often avoid exercise entirely because of the physical stress response it can generate — a rapid pulse, heavy breathing, raised body temperature — which may remind them of their trauma. For this reason, helping patients find the type of exercise that feels right for them is essential.
Yoga is often recommended to people with trauma because of its focus on breathing and mindfulness, but it isn’t for everyone. “There’s a whole cohort of people that are terrified of it or not drawn to it for any number of reasons,” said Mariah Rooney, a licensed clinical social worker, yoga teacher and weight lifter based in Denver. Some clients find that yoga’s relative quiet and stillness can trigger anxiety, she said.
In 2018, Ms. Rooney founded the nonprofit Trauma Informed Weight Lifting to offer clients an alternative form of movement. “There are already people who are turning to lifting, consciously or unconsciously, as a part of their own recovery and healing,” she said. She founded her group, in part, to offer more people opportunities to lift in a safe, healing way by educating trainers, coaches and therapists on strength-training’s mental health benefits, as well as conducting research.
Some people who find yoga too sedate find refuge in moderate-to-high intensity aerobic exercise such as running and cycling, which studies suggest can be especially helpful for people with trauma. But others struggle with it, in part because they find exercising in public spaces such as parks to be triggering.
The power of exertion in increments
In her 2021 book “Lifting Heavy Things: Healing Trauma One Rep at a Time,” the Manhattan-based certified personal trainer and trauma survivor Laura Khoudari explained that one reason she and others connect with lifting is because it offers regular pauses in intensity — which allow them to check in with themselves and assess how they’re feeling, which in turn helps prevent becoming overwhelmed.
“The breaks give your nervous system a chance to settle down,” said Ms. Khoudari, who has also completed coursework in body-oriented trauma therapy and become a leading advocate of lifting as a form of healing. “When we’re dealing with trauma, our nervous system generally has less capacity for stress, and also less resilience,” she continued. “And so you can use strength training to push on the edge of how much stress you can take.” Over time, this can expand our window of tolerance.
For this reason, Dr. Whitworth and others said weight lifting might be a helpful tool for people undergoing exposure therapy, during which therapists encourage patients to focus on their traumatic memories for short, controlled increments — not unlike the cyclic nature of strength training. Over time, this exposure can defuse the memories as well as the related physical stress.
“The idea is that they may be really anxious at first,” said Dr. Whitworth. But “over time, patients start to process the fact that those memories and feelings are not dangerous.”
Pairing this therapy with high-intensity exercise such as weight lifting, he said, might be “particularly beneficial.”
For many people with trauma, weight lifting also helps them feel at ease in their bodies. As Ms. Rooney explained, “Bodies are often the harbingers of trauma and the holders of trauma,” which leads many people to experience a kind of mind-body disconnect. For example, if someone has experienced a physical trauma relating to their torso, they may feel detached from that part of their body as a coping mechanism. But weight lifting can help to reconnect the mind and body.
Take the back squat, Ms. Rooney said, in which lifters hinge at the hips and knees while resting a weight on their shoulders. “There’s something about having, for example, a barbell, on your back that’s like, ‘Whoa, suddenly I can feel my spine. I can feel the back of my body. And I don’t remember the last time I felt the back of my body,’” she said.
Danielle Friedman is a journalist in New York City and the author of “Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World.”