Emma Middlebrook: “I don’t believe in diets”

To have free space in your life, you must have structure. You’ll get more done faster and it’ll free up more free time. Depending on how heavy my day is results in what I’ll be able to do for myself when the work day is done. Do I want to see friends or do I […]

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To have free space in your life, you must have structure. You’ll get more done faster and it’ll free up more free time. Depending on how heavy my day is results in what I’ll be able to do for myself when the work day is done. Do I want to see friends or do I want to hangout on the couch with my partner, two cats and a dog? Being structured helps you have a life outside of work.

As a part of my series about “5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emma Middlebrook.

Emma Middlebrook is the founder of REP Movement, a Portland based phobia-free, anti-racist, body-affirming, pro-queer gym. After 15 years of working with elite clients in NYC, Emma thought that getting someone into a dress for the Met Gala isn’t why she started training, so she headed out west to get weird in Portland and opened a sleek space with the core value of representation when getting in your reps at the gym.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the story about how you first got involved in fitness and wellness?

I had just moved to New York City and was enrolled at The Swedish Institute. I wanted to become a massage therapist but soon realized it wasn’t the right hands on profession I was looking for so I thought, “what do I do now?” I was working out at Equinox one Sunday afternoon pondering my future when I was approached by one of the trainers and asked if I’d ever considered being a personal trainer. Until that moment I could safely say I had not. My look was pretty bold (mohawk, tattoos) and when I spoke I had a thick British accent. I couldn’t decide if the trainer thought I had “curb appeal” or if he liked how I worked out. Either way, I entertained the idea and decided to look more into it. Equinox offered in-house training, which involved a very intensive curriculum and examination process. I took the course and passed with flying colors. I was offered a job almost immediately.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

My favorite story was early on in my career when I realized being a trainer was more than just creating workouts. To get the best from someone you have to truly connect. I had a client who wanted to lose weight for health reasons. This was someone who previously had bad encounters with trainers and also an eating disorder as a teeneager. Weight loss journeys can be very long, there are many setbacks so over the two-year span we worked together, we had to change a lot of old habits, help build her self confidence, and work through injuries. It was a real journey. She lost over 100lbs and years later has kept it off. I was able to help someone get over their fears and now she loves working out, cooking, and has a healthy relationship with food. The body is strong but the mind is stronger, I realized there are so many mental hurdles that you have to overcome to be successful. It is not just about “losing weight.”

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

All of my humorous mistakes are definitely equipment related and I’m very thankful that Instagram and Facebook had not been invented yet to immortalize these moments. I once set up a bench press for a client and put too much weight on for me. I also forgot to put clips on. I went to demo, picked it up and my arms collapsed, the barbell dropped, and the metal plates went crashing to the floor. The gym came to a halt, all eyes where on me, it was very embarrassing. My takeaway was to always put clips on and don’t try and lift something that’s too heavy for me, physically and metaphorically too.

Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fitness and wellness field? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?

I continue to grow in my career and after 16 years of doing this I’ve learnt some stuff. My knowledge makes me a very good trainer but I think what’s bigger than that is that I have a natural gift of being able to truly connect with someone. I am the consummate professional, but I’m able to break down someone’s walls and really get to the route of why someone hasn’t been successful in their fitness journey before. I can put someone at ease and help them get over past obstacles. I try to work with people who are often uncomfortable in gyms and fitness studios. I love showing someone what their body can do, helping them overcome fears, building confidence and basically building bad asses.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I sat with this question for a while and I couldn’t think of any, truly. I was, in my younger days fiercely independent and if someone offered me help I probably wouldn’t have taken it but I can’t honestly think of anyone who tried. When I first started in the fitness industry it was the time of “The Biggest Loser” and all those other dangerous shows that created unrealistic body goals. The trainers didn’t look like me, I didn’t know about any queer trainers and all of the female trainers I knew were very different to me. I often felt like an outsider. When I left Equinox and went out on my own, I took a pure leap of faith that I could be successful. It was terrifying but so rewarding.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, exercise more, and get better sleep etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

I think the biggest one is procrastination. There’s always a reason to start tomorrow, or the day after that. People often wait for a big life event to get started, i.e. a wedding or new year’s resolution, but unfortunately that usually results in people losing their drive and eventually falling off. Another big one is intimidation. Working out is hard, nutrition is hard. We’re inundated with information constantly, what’s real, what’s not? People become overwhelmed and then never start. I think the major one is finding time, because we are all so busy. How do we create time to take care of ourselves? Sometimes there’s guilt that goes along with that. It’s a complex mind frame that’s hard to shut off.

Can you please share your “5 Non-Intuitive Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”? (Please share a story or an example for each, and feel free to share ideas for mental, emotional and physical health.)

To have free space in your life, you must have structure. You’ll get more done faster and it’ll free up more free time. Depending on how heavy my day is results in what I’ll be able to do for myself when the work day is done. Do I want to see friends or do I want to hangout on the couch with my partner, two cats and a dog? Being structured helps you have a life outside of work.

When you don’t have time to exercise or meditate is when you need to exercise and meditate the most. The days where I don’t think I have time to workout I find time, even if it’s 15 minutes. It makes me more productive and makes me make better choices throughout the day.

Stop worrying about what others think about you, there is no one in this world like you; own it. I once had a client who was on the autism spectrum. She couldn’t make eye contact and liked to workout in silence or with headphones. She was smart, funny and charming but had had problems in the past finding a trainer. Once she began to trust me she really opened up. Being comfortable with who you are is one of the greatest freedoms you can have. Also letting someone be themselves is one of the greatest gifts you can give.

Showing vulnerability shows your strengths, not your weaknesses. We are all vulnerable in some way, sharing ways in which you are vulnerable creates trust because you’re being honest. When I speak about some of my body issues to clients it makes them relax and see me as an equal and it generates a bond.

Exercising when you’re tired gives you energy. Some days i’ll see ten clients and by the end of the day i can start to drag, but i can’t do that. My remedy is always to do a fast workout even if I’m exhausted. I instantly feel energized and focused again.

As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for the public. Aside from weight loss, what are 3 benefits of daily exercise? Can you explain?

The biggest benefit to exercise is the role it can play in our mental health. We are at a point in time right now that we’re all starting to feel the effects of 2020. Exercise doesn’t just boost your serotonin levels and makes you feel good but it also is helping us break up the monotony of our day and alleviate the boredom.

Strength is also a major reason to workout. My goal has always been to build strength, weight loss has always been secondary and a byproduct of exercise. I don’t want some young person trying to help me with my luggage when I’m in my 70s or 80s off on some adventure holiday. I want to be able to do that all on my own.

Self Confidence. Being in shape and strong makes you feel good about yourself. It should never be about how you look, but how you feel.

For someone who is looking to add exercise to their daily routine, which 3 exercises would you recommend that are absolutely critical?

There are so many great exercises and a lot of fundamental ones that a lot of folks get wrong. So I always work on fundamentals. The 3 best exercises I would recommend are push ups, it’s a full body exercise and helps build overall strength. I think squats are another important one. I see a lot of people do squats incorrectly and I believe if you’re going to spend the time to do something, do it right. The benefits of squats are numerous when done correctly. Lastly I would say a plank, again something a lot of people do wrong. Push ups will help strengthen your plank and vice versa.

In my experience, many people begin an exercise regimen but stop because they get too sore afterwards. What ideas would you recommend to someone who plays sports or does heavy exercise to shorten the recovery time, and to prevent short term or long term injury?

Soreness is a real concern and if you play a lot of sports or train heavy it’s often par for the course. Hydration can really help with muscle soreness, so drink lots of fluids to help keep your muscles hydrated. This sounds obvious but stretching really helps with injury prevention. My favorite and most dreaded method is the ice bath. Not everyone has access to an ice bath but sometimes a really cold shower after you workout can be just as effective. An ice bath should not be higher than 59 degrees or below 50 and I think 10 minutes is the right amount of time to help your body heal.

There are so many different diets today. Can you share what kind of diet you follow? Which diet do you recommend to most of your clients?

I don’t believe in diets, they don’t really work in my opinion. They are often very restrictive and just not sustainable long term. I try to work with my clients and talk about intuitive eating. Listening to your body and understanding what it needs will create long term success and build a better relationship with food. I try to get my clients to slow down and think about what they’re consuming and encourage them to cook instead of takeout or dining out regularly. Understanding where our food comes from and understanding what’s in it is more beneficial than following a fad diet.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My dream has always been to build an inclusive fitness platform. There are still so many individuals who are not seeing themselves represented in the fitness and wellness world. There are some amazing fitness platforms out there and while they might be diverse and have diverse trainers, they’re not inclusive. I have worked with some amazing people and I want to create a platform that shows that their bodies are beautiful, that they are strong and that they are seen.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

When I heard Steve Jobs say, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life,” it really resonated with me. I knew that to be truly happy and to feel fulfilled I’d have to forge my own way. I’d had a few job offers from some well-known companies but knew I’d always be working for someone else’s dream. I didn’t want that life. So even when I tried and failed at something I was doing it for me and my dreams.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Wow there are a lot of amazing people out there. I love trailblazers, I love strong women, I love people who rise above the odds. So based on that I’d have to say Megan Rapinoe. She is one the greatest athletes of my lifetime. I’ve watched and admired her for years and her reach goes far beyond soccer. I’d love to talk to her about politics, her advocacy, her queerness and her sneaker collection.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

I can be found on Instagram @repmovement or at

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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