body image · fitness · inclusiveness · strength training · weight lifting

Inclusion in Bodybuilding and Gym Culture: An Interview with Michael Collins

In this interview (part 1 of 2), Michael Collins compares bodybuilding competitions to Kiwanis music festivals, and describes his desire to be the “Julia Child of weightlifting.” Find Michael on Twitter: https://twitter.com/erlking.

How did you get into bodybuilding and gym culture?

I formerly worked in the academic field, but I left because of a combination of burnout, poor career prospects, and a feeling that my passions had shifted. I have always had a passion for bodybuilding and muscular physiques, which I felt I had to hide when I was in academia. I actually felt more shame and anxiety about being into muscles in the university setting than I felt about being gay! 

I’m 38, and I only became serious about bodybuilding when I was 31. Today I am a personal trainer and bodybuilding coach, but in terms of my own physique I am an amateur / passionate bodybuilding hobbyist. Like most sports, professional success requires a blend of genetic predisposition and starting young; what slim hopes I might have had of becoming a pro, or even a prominent amateur competitor, would have required me to start a dozen years sooner than I did. However, there are many reasons why someone would pursue bodybuilding beyond professional success!

Is bodybuilding culture welcoming of gay folks like yourself?

Unfortunately, professional bodybuilding can still be a homophobic space, but at the amateur level this has never been an issue for me, and in fact I’m a member of a large, robust, and mutually supportive community of gay and queer amateur bodybuilders. I definitely feel more comfortable being myself where I am right now than I did previously.

Can you explain what training and being a trainer in a gym is like?

Photo provided by Michael Collins

I consider bodybuilding competitions to be an artistic practice and a form of body modification, less a professional sport and more like the Kiwanus Music Festivals I would compete in as a youth. You labour in solitude for months to produce an aesthetic object that exists in time, then you produce that aesthetic object for a panel of judges alongside peers who have done the same, and then you are ranked according to a fairly strict and narrow sense of what determines worth in this specific arena. I think bodybuilders have more in common with concert pianists than they do with football players.

Before the pandemic, I wanted to be the Julia Child of lifting weights, helping people who are anxious about it and ignorant of it because of that anxiety, showing them this is their space too, and they have a right to learn how their body works and how to make it stronger. 

I trained in-person, mostly people I would call “beginners.” In the gym I taught basic fundamentals like how to deadlift and squat properly, how to make it so your back hurts less and you don’t get winded going up three flights of stairs, and so on. I had prediabetic clients who used weight training as a way of managing that condition.

How did your training practice change once the pandemic took hold?

Gyms in Toronto were closed for almost nine months straight. It’s important to tutor beginners in basic physical movements to avoid injury, so it was difficult to train my clients virtually. Also, beginners don’t have access to their own power rack, olympic barbells, and collection of plates! 

So, during the pandemic, I shifted more to coaching people who are already well-versed in lifting and who want to further a physical transformation, often who want to compete as amateur bodybuilders (something I’m thankful I got to do myself for the first time in 2019). I shifted to work that can be done virtually, like programming people’s workout plans, diet plans, etc.

What is the best part of your craft?

Photo provided by Michael Collins

Some of my clients tell me they have had very troubled or even hateful relationships with their bodies. I find it very fulfilling when someone has discovered the pleasure of how strong their body actually can be, of how good it can feel to regularly test your limits and feel them gradually expand. It’s lovely to help someone transform in a way they long desired but felt was impossible. The sense of pride and pleasure that can awaken is very rewarding to see.

What advice do you have for folks who want to get more involved with bodybuilding and gym culture?

Find your people. They’re unlikely to be the influencers on Instagram who dominate the field (although I know of a few who really warm my heart with good, well-considered, intelligent feminist or generally progressive insights). Instead, find people who are working for a similar goal and who have similar values as you. People who are on a similar path, but who may be a step or two ahead. They’ll be a great resource for learning (and there’s so much to learn if you’re new) and for mutual support. For me, Twitter has been good for this.

Also, think about what kind of gym that’s available to you and what kind of community there is. The communities in smaller, independent gyms are normally male-dominated, but they are often supportive and focused on teaching, learning, and mutual support. And, if you have the money and you know someone who is a good fit for you, hiring a knowledgeable trainer is my best advice. 

Additional video interview

Hear personal trainer Michael Collins describe more about his journey to bodybuilding, his vision of the inclusiveness of gym culture, and how gym communities are shifting to support all types of bodybuilding enthusiasts.

Interview with Michael Collins [19:04]

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