Celebrating Pride Month: A Q&A with Caitlin Freeman

Caitlin Freeman, MPH, is an ACE Certified Health Coach and ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist based in Atlanta, Ga. Since 2014, Freeman has brought a passion to worksite wellness, from teaching group fitness classes to developing cutting-edge programs for employers to enrich employee lives. As the Wellness Manager for Corporate Health Unlimited, Freeman supports a wide variety of companies and individuals to live healthier, more fulfilling lives. 

ACE: Who is your typical client? What types of goals do you help them achieve? 

Caitlin: Is there really such thing as a “typical” client? Everyone I work with is so unique, and during different seasons of my career, I’ve worked with a variety of different populations. Right now, I work with two main groups of clients: gender-affirming workouts for LGBTQIA+ clients and performance improvement for circus and burlesque performers. A lot of LGBTQIA+ clients I work with have rarely felt comfortable in the gym, and I build programs to help them feel confident in their abilities and bodies. Whether that includes focused hypertrophy to change their silhouette or radical acceptance of their physique, I’m always looking for ways to ensure that they feel supported and celebrated during workouts.  

For performers, we might be working on high-level, or even dangerous, tricks! I love focusing on longevity and making sure my performers reduce risk of injury. Anyone who makes a living off of physical performance has to maintain their physical health and avoid getting hurt. For this group, recovery also tends to be a big topic! It’s amazing how much I talk about sleep with my clients. 

ACE: We have also heard many stories about LGBTQIA+ individuals feeling uncomfortable in gyms. What has worked for you in creating a more welcoming environment for clients? Have you ever felt uncomfortable in gyms? 

Caitlin: I have absolutely felt uncomfortable in gyms! Like a lot of people I’ve worked with, I have a lot of anxiety around working out where people can see me. It can feel vulnerable and awkward. I try to counter that by being as warm, welcoming and authentic as possible. I genuinely am happy when someone chooses to walk into my facility. I mean, they could go anywhere in the world, and they chose to walk in my door?! That’s something to be thankful for, and to honor! 
When I give tours of my gym, I make sure to highlight things that are important to me as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, such as private changing areas, when the quiet times are and spots where you can work out by yourself. At the same time, I make it clear that I am there for them, and so is my staff. I want everyone to feel like they already have a friend before they walk in the door. 

Finally, I focus on small gestures to make sure LGBQTIA+ friends know they’re welcome. When I have educational events, I try to spotlight LGBTQIA+ athletes, historical figures or current fitness pros. I have a nonbinary pride flag button on my bag. I play with how I present, some days being more feminine and other times more masculine. Heck, for Halloween last year, I showed up in drag!  

ACE: Can you provide a few examples of your gender-affirming workouts/programs?  

Caitlin: Focusing on gender-affirming workouts is a layered experience! First off, it starts with your approach with your client. Everything I do prioritizes my clients’ autonomy over my expertise. Everyone I work with has control over their body and their experience. I will always share my perspective and best practices, but I value every person I work with as a whole person. 

I also monitor my language and adapt to what is most motivating for my individual client. If someone is uncomfortable with gendered language, I’m not going to use it! If my client uses multiple sets of pronouns, I sprinkle them all in. If my client is actively trying to change the silhouette of their body in any way, I listen to them. I don’t know what it feels like to live their life in their body, so I try to understand, then use my knowledge to help them.  

It doesn’t matter what area of fitness you work in. You can be affirming! If I’m in a class that isn’t marketed as femme-focused, and we are only referred to as “girls” and “ladies,” I can’t focus on the workout because I feel like an imposter. If I’m working with a trainer who assumes I want to build my glutes because I’m feminine, I’m going to get discouraged. If I walk into a gym that only offers programs for men or women without saying that nonbinary friends are welcome, I feel like I am not invited to participate. 

At the end of the day, fitness is all about the individual! What works best for me might not work best for you, and that extends past sets and reps into how we relate and think of gender in the gym. 

ACE: What inspired you to pursue a career in health or fitness? 

Caitlin: I originally wanted to pursue a career in physical or occupational therapy. I grew up volunteering with Special Olympics and really fell in love with using movement and sport to improve people’s quality of life. But once I got into college, I really wanted the freedom to help as many people as possible! That’s also when I started teaching group fitness. I realized my heart lies in the fitness field, so I pivoted and instead focused on how I can help as many people as possible wherever they are.  

ACE: Your volunteer work with Special Olympics and leading group fitness classes sounds fantastic. Tell me more about how you may have expanded upon fitness and found out and pursued health coaching. 

Caitlin: When I first started volunteering with Special Olympics, I saw how recreational sports and physical activity enrich everyone’s life. I originally wanted to become a physical therapist or occupational therapist, but seeing the combination of social support, sport and fun that our athletes, coaches and volunteers all benefitted from opened my eyes to more possibilities. I really credit my history with Special Olympics for encouraging me to be creative in how I approach movement. We don’t have to do everything the exact same way to accomplish our goals. 

I began teaching, and group fitness allows me to create the same sort of environment that I was inspired by, where people come together to accomplish a goal. But when you teach group fitness, you only get a small glimpse into your participants’ lives. 

Through my desire to continue building confidence in the people in my classes, I discovered health coaching. Being able to offer support and empathy to my clients is so rewarding. I love being their cheerleader and helping them find unique solutions to their struggles. When I coach people, I carry the impact and influence of everyone I’ve ever competed with, volunteered with, or taught. 

ACE: What are one or two tips that would you give to someone starting in the health and fitness industry? 

Caitlin: Our industry is constantly learning and changing, and so should we! You don’t have to memorize all the textbooks to be a good professional. Listen to your clients, get curious and get creative to help them build the healthy life they imagine. ACE has so many wonderful articles and resources that you can use to stay up to date with our industry.  

Be yourself! It’s okay if your approach looks different from someone else’s. Health and wellness are not a one-size-fits-all approach, so it benefits everyone for you to find your “special sauce.” Find what you love and the people you love to work with and lean into it.  

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