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A Magazine for Sheffield

“I want women and gender-diverse people to know that the gym can be their safe space”

Through making shapes and building good habits, Coach Pennie is helping folks in Sheffield to get fit and strong.

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Pennie Varvarides

Following a move from London to Sheffield, strength coach Pennie Varvarides has made a home at CrossFit Kelham.

Their ethos of inclusion and passion for creating a safe training environment for gender-diverse folks, neurodivergent people and women is a breath of fresh air in a sector which can often feel intimidating.

I chatted to Pennie to find out more about their coaching life and what creating a safe space means to them.

Hi Pennie. First things first, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into coaching?

I fell into coaching accidentally, really. I was working as a journalist when my dad got sick, and watching him deteriorate was a horrendous time for my soul. I ended up quitting the magazine I was editing, going freelance, and doing everything I could to try to be more healthy. I was so scared of ending up like my dad. I was doing everything I could to learn about health, brains and fitness.

I ended up starting my own online fitness magazine as a way of keeping myself accountable and getting back into martial arts as a way of being closer to my dad. Growing up we did taekwondo together, so I ended up doing kickboxing for a few years.

By a stroke of serendipity, a personal training (PT) course provider offered me their six-week PT course for free in exchange for writing about it in my magazine. So I did it and I loved it, and I’ve been coaching since 2016.

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Pennie in the gym.

There's a strong ethos of inclusion at the heart of what you do. How are you creating a safe space for queer and neurodivergent folks and women to get into strength training?

Yes, absolutely. I think coming from a background of always being a bit overweight and my joints hurting, fitness felt quite scary. I had so many false starts in gyms because of that anxiety of people looking at me or of not knowing what I was doing or hurting myself, so I know what it feels like to be new and scared and to just want a safe space to get strong.

Strength training has given me so much in terms of confidence, strength and the life I get to have that I want to share it with the people who don’t always feel like it’s for them. Boys are told sport and training is theirs, right from the beginning. Girls aren’t. Queer people aren’t. Neurodivergent (ND) people aren’t.

Working in gyms where I hear other coaches saying derogatory things about training ND people, I realised that most neurotypical (NT) coaches have no idea how to teach a dyspraxic person how to make shapes, or how to teach an ADHD person to build habits they can stick to. There’s so much of this idea that they just need to try harder, that they don’t want it enough. But being ND, I know how short-sighted that is, and that there are better ways to teach people. In fact, the methods I’ve created to teach ND people how to lift and build habits are so much easier than your typical “rise and grind” nonsense that NTs also benefit massively.

I’m a coach who listens to their client and works with them as a person to come up with a plan of action for what it is they need. If someone tells me something hurts or that they’re about to have an autistic meltdown or that the volume is too loud, I listen. It’s so simple.

I want ND people to know that they’re essentially half of the population, and the fact that they have a different way of processing information doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them. It just means we have to work out better ways of teaching – more inclusive ways.

The stronger and braver we all get, maybe the easier it’ll be to effect change outside of the gym too.

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Pennie Varvarides

You've recently had top surgery. How's your recovery been going? Has the experience provided an opportunity for learning that you'll be bringing into your coaching? If so, how?

Oh my God, it’s so boring. I’m on week eight now. I went back to work and the gym two weeks ago, but I can’t do anything in the gym, so I’ve been experimenting with different shapes and skills to feel as though I’m doing something meaningful.

I have learnt so much already, and imagine I’ll be learning loads over the next 12 months that will allow me to better support clients who are having or have had the same surgery, or any surgery.

When I did it I thought it was a six-week recovery process, but that’s actually just how long you have to wear the binder for. It’s a 12-month process. So even when the outside looks like the scars have healed, there are loads of inside scars still healing, and you still have to be careful. It’s a real lesson in listening to your body.

Self-care is very much part of the common lexicon nowadays, particularly at this time of year. What does self-care mean to you?

Self-care for me is about doing the things that future me will be thankful for, so eating vegetables, going to the gym, going for a walk every day, even when I don’t particularly want to.

Self-care is also about taking care of my needs on every level. Going to therapy when I need it. Reading books. Going outside. Sticking to a regular bedtime. Being financially responsible. It’s not as Insta-worthy as a bubble bath and some wine, but self-care is more about being a parent to myself than it is about indulgence and relaxation.

Your website, Linktree and Instagram are all great access points for folks to find out more about Coach Pennie, but just briefly, what are the different options available for folks who are interested in working with you?

I work with clients in-person in Kelham Island, and online either as one-to-one coaching clients or as part of my Strong Habits membership. People are also able to purchase my programmes to do on their own.

by Felicity Jackson (she/her)
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