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:

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]
family · fitness

Sam is checking in for August

On the bright side, August saw me riding outside and paddling my canoe. It felt like I finally got to do some of my usual summertime things. I even got to ride with someone in addition to Sarah. Hi Kim! Thanks for riding with us.

On the one hand, it felt like summer at long last. Yay! On the other hand, it also felt like the end of summer, because of course, it is.

Time is weird enough in these pandemic days. Add the start of the university year/end of summer to that and it’s very definitely a bit of a fuzzy mess.

I’ve been moving lots through it all though. I think in the 220 workouts in 220 groups I’m in, I’m up to more than 260 workouts. That’s a lot for me. But it’s been a bit random. And I worry that as the work pace picks up in September, workouts will fall by the wayside.

In light of that worry, I’ve signed up for a 30 day women’s cycling training program. So far, I’ve learned, that for me racing is easy but working out alone on the trainer is hard. I mean, I’m doing the workouts in the virtual world that is Zwift but I’m not connected with anyone riding in Zwift. It’s a struggle.

Of course racing isn’t actually easy. Sometimes it’s very tough. But I’ve got lots of motivation that can be hard for me to find in other contexts. I’ve been loving the team time trials the best.

Let’s see if this 30 day challenge works. I’ll report back when it’s over and let you know how it went.

We’ve also got a personal trainer coming to our backyard to workout with me, my mum, and Sarah once a week. It’s lots of fun. We’re going to keep that up until the snow is too much, I think.

That’s been terrific because my fitness oriented/weight lifting son moved out to live with friends. We’re worrying a bit less about covid-19 without him here and he’s enjoying a bit more freedom but I really miss working out with him at lunch.

Looking ahead for September I’m also doing a different kind of 30 day challenge, one focused on equity.

30 Day Challenge: A Daily Practice Challenging Barriers to Equity

“Throughout the month of September, Wellness@Work is challenging you to register and participate in the 30 Day Challenge from Wellbeing Waterloo Region. This challenge is focused on daily practices challenging barriers to equity. Each day, there is a short activity to help you learn, reflect and practice small actionable steps you can take.  The challenges help to increase understanding and build capacity on topics including, unconscious bias, social inclusion and various forms of privilege. The daily practices include short videos, articles, reflection questions and suggestions for actions you can take.”

Again, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Guest Post

Still learning! – On breathing and focusing (Guest post)

cdI have blogged before on what I have learned from my personal trainers. Once the term was over I was left to myself and felt somewhat like an abandoned puppy. True enough, my trainers have left me with a program and a wealth of information but it is not the same training on my own. Continuing to workout the way I did with them is a challenge: stretch enough, focus, push myself. If no one is there to remind me, it is tempting to go straight to workout without the stretching and as tempting to just hop in the shower once done (I talked about what I have learned about stretching here).

One thing I have learned from my trainers has been to focus: pay attention to my body when I set it in motion and work it out. The first time I went to the gym for a workout on my own, I had my iPod with me. There was no reason not to listen to music since I was by myself. Before training with my personal trainers, I had always used my iPod. But something interesting happened as I was returning to this old habit: a few minutes into my weight lifting, I noticed that I was doing it all wrong: mindlessly moving the weights around and not focusing on the strength and movement and what my body was feeling. I was also losing count and being distracted by the music. I simply unplugged! I have not used my iPod since then for my workout sessions, be they cardio or weight lifting. I find that I can concentrate more on what I am doing and feel I am getting better results this way.

Another very important thing I have learned in the last weeks of my training program was proper breathing while running. One of my trainers noticed that I was not breathing properly while we were running around the track. The running was always done with intervals: two thirds of the track jogging, 1 third sprinting. The sprints would put me out of breath completely and it was very hard to do multiple laps. I thought my stress-induced asthma was the sole culprit. Thanks to my trainer’s observation I found out that I was in the habit of breathing as fast as my running pace. This worked kind of ok while jogging but the sprints were a killer: try hyperventilating while running! He advised me to take longer, deeper breaths. I had to learn to dissociate the breathing pace with the running pace. Every running sessions after that I would just focus on my breathing, making sure to get the air way down into my belly and then completely out. I am also learning to breathe in through my nose and exhale through the mouth. I am getting better at it, every time I go out and run. It is making my jogging/running much easier, even if I still need my puffer to get me going (this asthma won’t cure itself).

I continue to apply what I have learned with my trainers, especially to be focused and to breathe properly. It feels great and I feel more powerful!

Guest Post

Rediscovering my Body: Personal Training (Guest Post)

dumbellI am enrolled in a personal training program since January and I am loving it! I am literally rediscovering my body and learning all kinds of things about my relation to exercise, things I had forgotten, stopped paying attention to or never thought about. I will tell you what I have learned but first, some background.

Since I stopped smoking in 1997, I have picked up regular exercising. The goal, of course, was to lose the weight I had suddenly gained. I started going to a gym early 1999 and kept up with this until I was on teaching release and then on sabbatical leave, starting in 2012. When I was regularly training, I would do aerobics classes, cardio training on ellipticals, bikes, steppers, and weight lifting. During the summer, I would jog and bike (I have written about some biking experience here). Whatever I knew about training and weight lifting I had learned from the non-certified staff at the gym where I went from 1999 to 2003. I kept doing what they taught me for years.

Returning from sabbatical with a broken training routine – which had been thrown off by all the travelling I did over 1.5 years – I wanted to resume regular training and wanted to challenge myself. Even before the break in my routine I had felt that I was on a plateau and that my body was no longer responding to training, or at least not as much as it used to.

I had long been intrigued by personal trainers and what they can do for one who already “knows” how to train. I found out about a course here at Brock which was looking for volunteer clients to work with students learning to become personal trainers: PEKN 4P22 “Therapeutic Applications of Physical Activity.” I immediately signed up and have been very happy with this decision!

I have been paired with a team of 5 students in their fourth year of their Kinesiology degree, 2 young women, Al. and S., and 3 young men, An., K. and J. Their task is to design a training program that works for me and allows me to improve and reach my goals. At first, Al. and S. met with me to collect information on my health, goals, and exercising habits. I then met with An., K. and J. and they assessed and measured my strength, flexibility, cardio capacity and balance. After that, we started meeting regularly, twice a week. Other times I just go in the gym and do my cardio on my own.

Here are things I have learned about my body and exercising so far:

  • I am stronger than I think! For years I had been in the habit of using weights between 5 and 10 pounds and do 16 repetitions twice. This was motivated by my desire to avoid bulking and by a belief that I did not have strength to lift more. My strength assessment and the exercises we have been doing since tells me I was seriously underestimating myself since I now use weights between 15 and 20 pounds, do fewer repetitions and more sets.
  • I can do intervals (and love them)! My personal trainers see me as someone pressed for time (and they are right). So they have designed cardio circuits that involve interval training. I never thought I could pull it off. I suffer from stress-induced asthma and getting out of breath with a sprint is a challenge. But they have made me try it and I am enjoying it a great deal. In fact, I do that on my own now.
  • I can be pushed (if gently)! The first sessions, I did not know what to think of my personal trainers’ encouragements. The various “Come on, one more!”, “5 seconds more!”, “You can do it!”, “Keep going!” and “I know you can do better!” made me skeptical. But I am truly enjoying the encouragement now. When training on my own and if challenging myself enough, I hear my trainers’ voices and it does push me. One Monday, Al. made me run faster on the track. My personal trainers record everything we do on a wiki (which I did not know). So the following Wednesday as I was lazingly jogging around the track, S. who was jogging alongside said “So, I hear that if we push you, you will go faster…” Enough said! I sped up right there! I can do it! I now use the encouragements myself with K. who has a hard time stretching. He needs to work on his flexibility. I try to push him gently, the way they do with me.
  • I like a challenge (and my trainers too)! My trainers’ approach to exercising is both serious (it is a class) and playful. The other day Al. had designed a bonus challenge. It was meant to challenge me as well as J. and herself, my trainers that day. The challenge consisted in maintaining a wall squat for the time it would take for a trainer to sprint around the track. I asked who was the fastest because I wanted to have a shorter challenge. Al. went first and then J. did. It means I did the challenge twice and they each ran a sprint lap and did a wall squat with me while the other was sprinting. We were all laughing afterwards (with them panting for breath). That was good fun. I would not have done something like this on my own, obviously. We have two other challenges going on now. I was asked by J. which team is more challenging: the Monday team (Al. and J.) or the Wednesday team (An., S. and K.). I still don’t know the answer. They are challenging each in their own way but they would like to know. The other challenge has to do with them finding core exercises that will really make me sore. 3 times now they promised I would be really sore the next day and 3 times I was rather ok. I have conveyed that to them and, knowing them by now, I am sure they will find a way to meet the challenge!
  • Less is more (really)! I used to spend up to an hour on a cardio machine and then do some weight lifting. The amount of time spent in a gym was lengthy and still I did not see much profit. I am learning with my trainers now that a shorter and more intense workout is more efficient. I have also learned that there is little value to cardio exercise which puts you at a regular pace for an extended period. I could not believe how tired I was the first time we did a cardio circuit with intervals which, in total, must have been 20 minutes. This, in addition to the other exercises we did that day, left me completely pooped but oh, so satisfied! My body was being challenged!
  • My body is powerful and able! My trainers are making me lift heavier weights and I am introduced to some weight lifting exercises that I would not have dared pick up on my own. Deadlifts are now part of my life. They are also making me skip a rope every now and then as part of a cardio circuit. When I was first told I had to do this, my response was “I can’t” to which they said “Try, and if it does not work for you, we’ll find something else.” I tried and kept trying (encouragements, see above) and now I can do it! Yay me!
  • I need to pay attention to my body! If you were to ask me what is the best thing I have learned so far I would say: I have to pay attention to my body and what it does. Everything my trainers make me do is sure to be followed by a question such as “How did that feel?” “How is that?” “Did you feel it there?”, making me aware of the importance of being self-reflective in my exercising. An. is the one who asks these questions the most, especially with regard to weight lifting. I used to train mindlessly, just setting my body in motion and then daydream or read a magazine when on a cardio machine that allowed for that. It is so much better to focus on my body’s movement and to feel its effort in accomplishing the task. I still have to learn to do it better but at least now I know I have to do it. However, I will admit I did not know how to answer Al.’s question last week: “Do you feel any different from when we started?” Now that I have thought about it for about a week, I can safely say that yes, I do feel stronger, lighter, more able, and faster.

We are creatures of habit. When we exercise on our own, it is easy to fall into a rut and do the same thing, over and over again. I used to think that my summer 50 minutes jogs were the best thing I could do. I now think differently. Same thing for the extended bike rides at a regular pace. Will I stop doing those? No, I enjoy them and it is better to do things one enjoys. But I will continue to challenge myself to do different things and pick up new things. I have now learned I can enjoy other things because I have learned I am able to do them. I am literally rediscovering my body and its strength and ability, thanks to my personal trainers and the challenges they have in stock for me.

The term is not over. I still have to meet with them a few more times and I hope to learn a few more new things. But one thing I know: I will continue to be having fun!


Christine is a feminist continental philosopher who lives with spouse and cat in the Niagara Region. Biking and training are favorite activities as is gourmet cooking and reading gore thrillers when she travels to conferences, taking a break from writing her monograph on Nietzsche.