Salma Nakhlawi ’19 raises the bar with StrongHER Girls

By SOPHIE HILAND

One of the only places on campus I’ve felt my gender is in the weightroom. 

It’s not just that I’m overwhelmed by the omnipresent groups of five or six male athletes from any given sports team who always seem to be lifting at the exact same time as me, that I don’t feel confident in my lifting form. Nor is it that I am often one of the only women in the gym. It’s the fact that all of this reminds me that I don’t have a support system in the form of teammates or coaching staff, anybody to spot my form and remind me that the weights I am lifting are often half the size of those others are using.

Gyms should be where you go to feel stronger and more confident. Instead, when I am in the gym on my own, I end up feeling weaker and more insecure. 

Salma Nakhlawi ’19 is working to help women feel confident, strong and empowered both in and out of the weightroom as a coach and personal trainer. 

Nakhlawi fills every role at StrongHER Girls™, from founder and business manager to coach and head of social media. Her days are full, but the majority of her work days are spent coaching. StrongHER Girls describes itself as a “movement dedicated to teaching girls, womxn, and folx of marginalized identities how to empower themselves to be strong, from the inside-out.” Most of the training Nakhlawi does is remote, which means that she spends a significant amount of time on daily FaceTime calls or texts with her clients to whom she provides 24/7 support. While a majority of her clients identify as women, she also works with a handful of male or gender non-conforming clients. 

Training should be fun, and it’s my goal to help women and gender non-conforming people enjoy their time in the gym.”

— Salma Nakhlawi

When discussing her own start to powerlifting, Nakhlawi is quite open, sharing that powerlifting was introduced to her during a time when her life was very dark and unhealthy. A stressed out student during her first year of college, she found herself losing the structure she had previously found in physical activity throughout her childhood and had settled into a routine that relied on food to relieve stress instead of providing nourishment and enjoyment. 

“Training should be fun,” Nakhlawi said, “and it’s my goal to help women and gender non-conforming people enjoy their time in the gym and help them achieve their goals. My goal is to help clients work towards a life that is happy, healthy and injury free through weight training.” 

Unlike the cardio section of the gym which she found boring and tedious, Nakhlawi began to enjoy her time in the weight room where it wasn’t about how much an individual weighed, but about how well and how much they could lift. 

Nakhlawi continued to work on her powerlifting skills as she made the transition from the first college she attended to Middlebury for her second year. 

During her time at Middlebury, Nakhlawi continued to expand her knowledge of powerlifting and the importance of wellness. As a member of the women’s rugby team, she found herself leading team lifts and teaching a lot of the women on the team about the basics of lifting. While a rugby-related injury sidelined her for months, she was cleared to return to the weight room at the end of her healing process. 

No longer able to play rugby, Nakhlawi looked for a similarly supportive community of women to lift with, but couldn’t find any. She returned to the weightroom and began to make conversation with other women who were lifting at similar times as she was. She wound up asking fellow female-lifters if they could spot her on a lift, then returned the favor when they needed a spotter. 

Encouraged by relationships she built with other women she met in the weightroom, Nakhlawi started to teach lifting classes at the college, encouraging women to give lifting a shot with a group that created an environment less intimidating than the everyday weight room. 

Nakhlawi also took many courses within the Middlebury Dance Department, which introduced her to mindful meditation, something she practices daily and recommends to her clients to include in their routines. 

COURTESY PHOTO/INSTAGRAM
Testimonials on the StrongHER Girls website praise Nakhlawi’s mental and physical strength.

“Life is always going to be stressful. Things are always going to come up,” Nakhlawi explains, but mindful meditation, she has noticed, can play a huge role in helping clients get the most out of their hard work in the gym both physically and emotionally. Visualizing a lift before walking into the gym, for example, helps boost confidence and therefore move through a room where they may be the only woman with intention and determination. 

Nakhlawi’s goal is to support her clients on their journeys as they “take a couple hours a week for yourself to feed your body in a way that’s going to help develop your training.”

While planning her next steps post-graduation, Nakhlawi realized that her previous interest in consulting would not provide her with the balanced lifestyle she had worked so hard to build or the fulfillment she felt after sharing her passion for lifting with other women. 

As a neuroscience major, Nakhlawi had learned about anatomy, kinesthesiology, nutrition and the systems of the human body in many of her courses at the college. At MiddCORE, she learned about the big picture concepts of entrepreneurship, and at the Tuck Bridge Program at Dartmouth College, she learned about the nitty gritty details of running a business. To take on clients, however, she still needed to add to her coaching knowledge. 

Nakhlawi got in touch with successful powerlifting coaches and asked them to share their knowledge and expertise with her by mentoring her. She read books, attended conferences and took in all the information she could. 

“It wasn’t easy to make the choice to go into an untraditional business, but I took the leap of faith,” Nakhlawi said. “I am very fortunate to have an amazing support system behind me who have encouraged me every step of the way.” 

While Nakhlawi may not be working in BiHall labs any more, she still faces many of her challenges as a coach with a scientific and data-driven approach. 

“When it comes to powerlifting and the progress clients are making week by week and session by session, there’s a huge amount of data that can be collected and then analyzed,” she said.  Instead of falling victim to the temptation to give up when progress plateaus, Nakhlawi sees this as an opportunity to reevaluate training plans, often transitioning clients from beginner programs to intermediate ones. This process, she explains, isn’t unlike reevaluating a hypothesis after the first couple of rounds of experimentation. 

This isn’t the only part of StrongHER that is informed by scientific reasoning. 

“Weight training helps fight osteoporosis by building stronger bones, it releases endorphins or ‘happy hormones’ and it boosts self confidence and positive body image,” Nakhlawi said. “Oh, and the next time you’re on a plane, you probably won’t need to ask someone to help you put your suitcase in the overhead bin.” 

Check out StrongHER Girls™ for some great workout inspiration, empowering words and a pretty enthusiastic and supportive comment section. 

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