Ode To The Strength Circuit

When you arrive at Bristol Co-operative Gym (BCG), you enter a Grade II listed building and stand in front of a stage. A vast plyboard floor and a series of old sofas and chairs lies between you and it. For the last 5 years we’ve been training here at All Hallows Hall, but what the co-op gym is really about is the people. We are co-operatively run – meaning decisions about what we do and how we do them are made by the members of the gym as well as the coaches. 

One of my favourite classes at BCG is the Strength Circuit. I’ve always enjoyed strength training but found commercial gyms unappealing; you’re either receiving unwelcome attention, or no attention at all – as people avert their eyes with headphones in, working in isolation. At BCG the classes begin with one of the members reading out a statement which has been collectively written:

“Bristol Co-operative Gym aims to create a supportive, open exercise space where we can feel comfortable, in the clothes we like, with music we like, to progress in our own way.

We want our members to enjoy training in a respectful environment that is free from body-shaming language, pick-up lines and judgements about who they are and what they can lift.

We hope that this all sounds good to you. By coming to a session and training with us you agree to uphold our principles”.

One of our coaches then guides the group through a warm up, and we then split into smaller groups and move around a series of strength stations. This will generally include some kind of deadlift/squat movement, and other exercises to get your body moving in new, different, and sometimes hilarious ways. The stations are programmed by our coaches and change every four weeks which means I’m always learning about and connecting to my body in new ways. The other thing that stands out at the gym is the presence of a highly skilled coach at all times, something which isn’t available at a commercial gym unless you pay a personal trainer. If there’s an exercise you want some assistance with or doesn’t work for you, they’ll tweak it or give you something else to explore. 

Working together in these smaller groups inevitably means there’s lots of incidental chat – sometimes more chat that exercise! When asked why he comes to the gym, member Barry replied ‘for the chit chat’. He also happens to be incredibly strong, but there’s a lightness and ease to the sessions, and progress and change to our bodies happens almost incidentally. Everyone is going at their own pace and working towards their own goals or reasons for being there – for me it’s about feeling connected and grounded in my body. It’s so much more than a linear progression, though that progression is available if you want it. 

Although we’ve not been able to train in person over the last year, the co-operative model has served us well in adapting. We’ve stuck together through the pandemic by taking our sessions online and making use of household objects instead of weights. For the first 26 weeks, the sessions were themed on a letter of the alphabet – ‘K’ was Katie Sandwina, a strongwoman from the 1800s. We incorporated some of her movements into the sessions, and heard a little about her at the start whilst we warmed up as a group. That same sense of going at your own pace has been brought to the online using circuits you move through in your own time. Although the necessity for these online sessions may be coming to a close, they enable us to reach out to people who can’t make in-person sessions or don’t live in Bristol, so they may continue in some capacity beyond the end of the pandemic.

I’m excited to train with weights and see everyone again when we begin doing in-person sessions soon. As we move into a new phase and an unknown future, I feel comforted knowing we’re doing it together.