Girls Gone Strong | Women-Specific Health and Fitness Coaching

Anke Neustadt

Molly Galbraith was thrust into the world of health and fitness quickly after graduating from college. She was dating a personal trainer—a bodybuilder and powerlifter—and by 2006, she found herself competing in figure competitions where she was constantly judged on her physique and muscular definition.

Those competitions required extraordinary amounts of dieting and exercise, and at 24 years old, she began feeling ill. Her doctor diagnosed Galbraith with Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease that causes the thyroid to not make enough thyroid hormone, which often results in fatigue, weight gain, and muscle weakness. She was also struggling with polycystic ovarian syndrome, as well as adrenal dysfunction.

“I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but I also had very disordered eating habits, deep body image struggles, and amenorrhea,” says Galbraith, now 37 and living in Arizona. “I struggled with all of that for the next five years.”

As she worked through her health problems, Galbraith eventually started her own gym and began collecting an online following through writing articles and posting health and fitness-related information. She developed friendships with seven other women from around the world who were as passionate about strength training as she was—and felt like more women could benefit from body-positive programs that combined strength, nutrition, and pregnancy education.

It started as a Facebook page and website, and the community flocked to it. That was the humble beginning of Girls Gone Strong, a women’s-specific health and fitness coaching and certifications company that now has thousands of certified coaches based in more than 100 countries, Galbraith says.

“The mission of Girls Gone Strong when we first started was to help women gain physical strength because we believed that it translated into mental strength and strength of character,” Galbraith says. “Over the years, that mission has evolved significantly and expanded.”

Redefining women’s health and fitness goals

The U.S. weight-loss industry is worth almost $73 billion, but Galbraith believes that diet culture is starting to subside with the help of organizations like Girls Gone Strong, which puts little emphasis on numbers on the scale.

“Ten years ago it was practically unheard of that women might have goals other than weight loss and today more women than ever are setting goals to get their first pullup, deadlift double their body weight, build muscle,” Galbraith says. “They’re using exercise to manage their mental health, to reduce aches and pains, to see what’s possible for their body.”

To realize that potential, women have specific needs and phases of life they need to take into account—prenatal, postpartum, menopause, pelvic health, and more. Women also tend to struggle more than men with body image, disordered eating, and hormone issues, which all can influence how they go about achieving fitness and approaching nutrition.

The instructor curriculum at Girls Gone Strong also covers topics like social media comparison traps, women-specific behavior change psychology, and separate special pre- and postnatal coaching certifications that cover pelvic floor dysfunction, respiratory and cardiovascular changes, the birth process, and postpartum rehabilitation.

“Instead of telling their clients what to do, our coaches understand how to work with their clients to come up with solutions that are aligned with their clients’ values,” Galbraith says. “The education that they get helps them understand how to help women at any stage of their life, regardless of what issue they’re going through.”

molly galbraith girls gone strong

Courtesy Molly Galbraith / Photo by Jeremy Kramer

Strength before and after childbirth

Ellysia Howson is a former track athlete, now a Girls Gone Strong pre- and postnatal certified coach based in the U.K. She’s been a coach for about 15 years, but it wasn’t until she gave birth to her son in 2018 that she took a bigger interest in helping women during pregnancy and postpartum.

“When I was 25, single, and living in a city, I had no idea. I didn’t understand why a busy mom who’s up at 5 a.m. breastfeeding, dropping two kids off at school, fitting in training, then going to work wasn’t able to prepare a scrambled egg and protein shake at breakfast,” Howson says. “I didn’t get it. It makes me cringe looking back.”

Although more women are aware that in recovery from childbirth, they need to pay attention to their pelvic health in recovery from childbirth, many do not understand how that rehabilitation can differ depending on a variety of factors, like if they had a cesarean section or vaginal birth, whether they’re experiencing any trauma or mental health issues due to pregnancy or childbirth, or how they prepared their bodies before the birth.

“The main thing people want to learn is how to exercise safely again and they often think that the journey is linear, but there’s a lot more to it,” Howson says. “I know a lot of them want to run a 10K or do a marathon or do cross fit, for example, but when they try [getting back into a workout routine] they feel heaviness in the pelvic floor or have incontinence. It can be fixed most of the time and they have no idea—they’re led to believe that it’s just how it’s meant to be after having children.”

When Howson meets with a new postpartum client, she starts with a conversation about the pregnancy, the labor experience, the birth itself, and the current healing process, before they talk about end goals. She evaluates their biomechanics, including posture and breathing patterns, before going to movement patterns and tests, like hopping without incontinence, before progressing to running.

In essence, Howson and her clients put the “pieces of the puzzle” back together methodically and gradually, depending on individual circumstances—and having that kind of attention to detail can make all the difference for somebody’s wellbeing during child-bearing years.

“We need to respect the fact and be proud of the fact that we are different… More often than not, physically, our demands and our needs are different than men’s,” Howson says. “We should be able to set our own bar. If we really take the time to tune into our bodies, we can be capable of a lot of things.”

Helping all women

Girls Gone Strong serves two audiences—the coaches that they educate and the women who are seeking training programs. The company also has a few free courses on topics like body image available online.

Galbraith emphasizes the core beliefs of the organization as well, including that all shapes, sizes, ages, races, and ability levels are welcome—and that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism are women’s health issues that Girls Gone Strong addresses.

“There are major roadblocks that keep women in the LGBTQIA+ community away from gyms and fitness centers and it can be harassment in the locker room to institutionalized lack of same-sex family memberships—that’s a women’s health issue,” she says. “The average life expectancy of a trans-woman of color in the U.S. is 35. If that’s not a women’s health issue, I don’t know what is.”

Training coaches and fitness professionals on all of these issues within the curriculum helps make health and fitness activities more accessible and welcoming wherever they provide their services. While revamping the pre- and postnatal certification materials, for example, Girls Gone Strong brought together 21 experts from 12 fields of study, from five countries, who were also diverse in age, race, and religion, to create a program through an intersectional lens.

“All of these women in more marginalized communities are significantly more likely to experience discrimination or abuse in gyms, in the workplace, or in their communities, which negatively impacts their health,” Galbraith says. “We don’t want women’s health to be about surviving, we want women to flourish. We want them to feel safe, strong, capable, and at home in their lives and bodies.”

Women who register for the Girls Gone Strong 12-month online program ($299 per month) get one-on-one access to coaches for support and questions, as well as a training program that is based on their individual ability level, fitness goals, and nutritional needs. To help with cost, Girls Gone Strong offers discounts during enrollment periods and payment plans. You can also find a Girls Gone Strong-certified trainer or coach instead of training directly Girls Gone Strong, which may be a better option for some women.

“We know that there are plenty of companies out there who are ready to prey on [women’s] insecurities, sell them the next pill, powder, or gadget to tighten their tummy or tone their thighs or whatever b——-,” Gilbraith says. “We help them get clear on what their personal values are, what’s important to them, and what they think their life will be like if they achieve a particular goal… oftentimes aesthetic or weight-related goals fall away and they start to eat well and exercise because they love their body and want to treat themselves well.”

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