Train, Rest, Reset: Emily Akins
Are you obsessed with exercise, do you know when to stop? We chat to personal trainer Emily Akins about her fitness journey and the importance of striking the right balance between physical and mental wellbeing
By Amy Sedghi
Photography by Chris Baker
If you don’t spot Emily Akins breaking a sweat in the gym on one of the numerous days that she’s there either training or coaching, then you might catch her out in the wilderness of the Welsh countryside soaking up a much-treasured dose of nature. “Everything that I do, I always try to balance out with the opposite,” she explains. “I’m seeking fun all the time. I love being busy and I love people, but equally I’ve really grown to understand the importance of the opposite.”
For Emily, who’s a full-time product developer at Umbro, fitness is a way of life. Although she has always been active (basketball, netball, you name it… she was on the sports team at school), it was when she embraced resistance training in 2016 and, subsequently, bodybuilding, that Emily’s fitness journey went up a notch.
“When I started the kind of training I’m doing at the moment, I fell in love with it,” she explains. Resistance training, such as barbell squats, deadlifts, bench presses and free weights are Emily’s preference when it comes to her own workouts, which she manages to squeeze into a tightly packed schedule. You must be so busy, I say in awe of her energy which oozes forth as we chat over a video call. “Yes, super busy,” she replies with a big grin and a laugh. As well as the full-time job at Umbro, Emily spends three evenings and one day on the weekends in her role as a personal trainer, and yet somehow still manages to fit in training four times a week. “I had the realisation that I just wanted to spend more time doing what I loved,” she says. “I spend all my time around the gym anyway, so it was natural for me to step into the coaching side as well.”
Taking Fitness Further
During the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown, the 33-year-old realised she wanted to dive into the world of fitness even further. “I’d always set myself a goal that I would do a bodybuilding competition. I figured I was doing the training, so why not just go and compete?” she explains. “I got a coach; I did a little mini transformation and that’s when I really kind of got hooked.” Once gyms – and the world – began opening back up again, Emily enrolled on a personal training qualification and has never looked back: “Every step of the way has just made me realise how big it is a part of my life.”
Lockdown also marked another big change for Emily; after having spent time living in various UK cities and, most recently, Manchester, she decided it was time to move back to Wales to be closer both to her parents and the great outdoors. “I just had this pull to move back into a more rural environment,” she recalls. “Being in nature, having space and enjoying that downtime is so important for me…I thought ‘let’s just step back’.” That hit of nature and calm from the countryside that she’d been craving throughout lockdown, is now only a step away from her front door in mid-Wales. “I’m lucky that I can go out every day into the middle of nowhere at my lunch hour if that’s what I need, which is amazing.” She still regularly visits Manchester and loves being able to have the best of both worlds, she says.
Getting The Right Balance – Mental vs Physical
That balancing of opposites – of matching mental strength with physical and also allowing rest of both – is something Emily takes extremely seriously. “In terms of balance, it’s definitely a mind-body thing for me. One has to be aligned with the other,” she stresses. Has she always been so wise as to her needs? I ask. “I’ve grown to learn where that point is,” she says, recalling how preparing for the bodybuilding competition last year drove the importance of this home for her. “I was already working on my mental health anyway, but physically it was something that I’d always skim over. I think you can use [training] as a getaway sometimes because it makes you feel so good. You can use that to change the energy, whereas actually it’s those quieter times where you can reset and step up into the next level.”
Although Emily’s first foray into a bodybuilding competition came to a premature end last year after she pulled out due to health issues, stepping onto that stage is still very much a focus for her. “I call myself a bodybuilder without the competitive side because I wouldn’t want to call myself a bodybuilder, because I haven’t competed,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “It’s hard to put a label on myself, because it’s that thing of I’m training but I’m not competing, so does that make me an athlete?” I’d argue it does but we both note that it’s an interesting nod towards our obsession with categorising and labelling.
In Emily’s world though, the gym is ultimately a place of fun and enjoyment. Moving her body fills her with happiness and she compares the equipment at the gym to toys, which she loves to explore with a child-like curiosity and sense of play. “I’m always looking for something I haven’t done that I can do next,” she explains. “As children, we never thought about how we looked doing something, but then as an adult, the first thing you’ll say is ‘oh, I’ll look a certain way.” Don’t worry about looking like a fool, she urges. “How do you know if [you’re good at something], if you don’t give it a go?” she says wide-eyed, describing how she recently gave bouldering a go even though she’s scared of heights and self-professes as being “really bad” at it. Next up, she’d love to give boxing a go she says.
Emily recalls how in the early days of her gym training, she would go along with her boyfriend at the time and watch other women lifting weights as she worked out on one of the cardio machines. “I remember wanting to be confident enough to use the free weights section. I used to see people, especially women walk over, picking things up, being in their own world and training hard. I wanted to be doing that,” she describes. After being shown how to use some of the equipment, Emily fell in love with it: “I felt strong instantly and I surprised myself. I just loved it. I [still] love the feeling of moving heavy things and being able to progress every session.” Resistance training has also had an impact on her body image. “I was always one of the tallest in my class, I was slim but not skinny, I had ginger hair and I wasn’t confident at all,” admits Emily of her teenage years. “Resistance training allowed me to embrace who I was. I could see my body changing and it was the first time that I felt like I had some kind of control over my body image. If you look around the gym, there are so many different body types and one of the things that made me go for it was seeing women and girls of all shapes and sizes lifting weights.”
The Importance Of Community
The welcoming and friendly community at her local gym in Wales is a source of huge pride for Emily, who grins every time she speaks about it. “Bodybuilders, CrossFitters, weightlifters, Olympic lifters, complete beginners,” she says, listing the mix of people she’ll see when she visits. “It’s amazing because there’s always something to learn from somebody,” she adds.
While Emily undoubtedly gets a high from her own training, the buzz she feels from seeing the achievements of her clients is her absolute favourite, she says. “[When] I can see their growth and confidence – or a complete beginner comes to me and they’ve told me that they are happy to go to the gym on their own now – that gives me the biggest thrill ever,” she says smiling broadly. She adds: “I love seeing women encourage other women and girls. One of the best things is when I walk into our gym and there’s more girls training there than there are men.” It gives her so much joy that she wants to whoop and cheer them all, she shares.
The growth in the number of women taking up lifting weights and focusing on strength also gives her a boost. There are so many benefits, she says: “It’s not just about building muscles and looking a certain way. It’s about strengthening the body and becoming stronger for everyday life. There’s the mental side of things as well; it’s about resilience and overcoming things which you think you can’t do.”
“There’s definitely been a correlation between my strength training and my confidence in general…about who I am. Being confident to step into that person and the confidence of admitting, this is what I enjoy.” Speaking with Emily at length, you can’t help but feel her infectious passion for being active seep into your bones. “Being active, being outside and experiencing new things that are going to make you go ‘wow’, that’s why I like movement,” she grins.