Edmonton gym building muscle and community for transgender clients

A volunteer-run training program is aiming to provide barrier-free fitness for transgender Edmontonians

Fitness: Trans Formed focuses on barrier-free fitness for transgender Edmontonians

Five trainers stand smiling in front of a squat rack machine.
A team of volunteer trainers offers Fitness: Trans Formed, a free training program designed for transgender gym-goers. They bring lived experience and inclusivity to the forefront. Left to right: Terje Snow, Toni Harris, Jen Jones, Zita Dube-Lockhart, Nate Montey. (Submitted by Toni Harris)

Terje Snow became a personal trainer because they loved how fitness made them feel. 

Now they're working to share that with others as a volunteer trainer at Edmonton's first transgender-specific fitness training program, Fitness: Trans Formed.

"Seeing someone reconnect with their body and remember that they're really strong and powerful," said Snow.

"It makes me feel like I have some purpose beyond myself."

We talk to members of Edmonton's new trans-specific fitness training program.

The free, volunteer-run program launched in January out of Action Potential Fitness — an inclusion-focused facility in west Edmonton.

Registration was full — more than 30 sign-ups — within a week of opening. 

"It's always been my goal to create programming for folks that didn't feel like they were safe or didn't belong anywhere else,"  said Toni Harris, who co-founded Action Potential Fitness three years ago.

"A lot of trans folks disassociate from their bodies completely because we're born into bodies that don't feel like they're the right fit for us," they said. 

Halfway through the program, Harris and Snow are seeing participants feel comfortable in a gym — some for the first time. 

Meeting people where they're at

The considerations that go into a trans-specific training program are lengthy, said Snow. The process of transition means physiological changes.

Binding for example, involves using tight fitting sports bras, bandages or specifically made "binders" to provide a flatter chest, which can limit breathing and cause muscle pains and soreness. It's a common practice for transgender people seeking comfort in their bodies.

Other participants are using hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, which can affect thermoregulation and dehydration. 

"Everything is informed by that physiological lens for trans folks in particular," said Harris.

It's part of why transgender trainers, like Snow, are involved: to bring a deeper understanding and support the participant no matter where they're at physically. 

"From my own experience [with transition], you do a lot of scrunching in of yourself and covering up and shying away," said Snow.

"To open up the body and work through some of those bad habits takes a lot of different thinking that normal gyms might not even know about."

Finding a mind-body connection

The program is intentional about minimizing nerves and anxiety so participants can focus on bodies and health. It's designed to be less stressful than the average fitness environment.

Unlike most gyms, Action Potential Fitness does not ask clients to specify their gender on registration forms.

Changing facilities can also be a point of discomfort or embarrassment to transgender gym-goers — here the facilities are more private.

"Those are amenities that should be available to everybody," said Harris.

"Most people that I know that have accessed mainstream gyms don't last very long, because they feel like they're getting run out."

A person stretches on the floor of a gym next to weights, with one arm raised above them.
Parker Pothier signed up for the first Fitness: Trans Formed program. They love the safe feeling of being in a majority transgender gym space. (Submitted by Toni Harris)

Parker Pothier signed up for the program not knowing what to expect, but has been surprised by how fulsome the lessons are.

"They've been teaching us a lot about pain in the body, and what's actually going on there," they said. "From my own perspective being transgender, it's really hard to find that mind-body connection."

It's part of the holistic nature of the program, where trainers go beyond muscles to mental health and mobility. 

"It's also just teaching that you're safe here," said Pothier. "Everyone's coming in with a 'this is a space for us' mentality."

Community gains

Action Potential Fitness is seeking donations to run more sessions of the program later this year. The wait-list continues to grow.

It speaks to another hope of the Fitness: Trans Formed program — to build community among trans Edmontonians. 

"To have that moment with people who are like you, and understand the jokes and how your body might be feeling and some of the things you've gone through," said Snow.

A person lies on the ground using a roller behind their back, while another trainer stands above speaking to a crowd.
Harris and Snow teach participants about thoracic spine health. The program is designed to be holistic, advising participants about mobility and health beyond muscles and fitness. (Submitted by Toni Harris)

For participants like Pothier, who find themselves in a transgender fitness environment for the first time, the benefits of the program will last longer than six weeks with newfound muscles and meaning. 

"It's nice to be in a space where all of you is accepted," said Pothier. "My body is welcome here, as is everybody else's."


Clare Bonnyman

Digital associate producer

Clare Bonnyman is a producer and reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has worked across the country and has expertise in digital reporting, audio production and podcasting. Clare won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2019 for sports feature reporting. She focuses on stories about sound and community. You can reach her at clare.bonnyman@cbc.ca.