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Obviously, we love crushing a class with a smart, energetic instructor. But it’s even more awesome when those trainers continue to inspire outside of the gym—giving back to their communities; spreading a positive message about fitness, body image, or mental health; and truly changing people’s lives.
We did some digging and asked our network of fitness-minded friends to find 23 pros who are making a difference in and out of the gym. You won’t find these names on any “top celebrity trainers” list (yet!), but they definitely deserve to be celebrated.
Note: This list is in no particular order. Read more about our metrics below.
Personal trainer, Brooklyn, NY
A former bodybuilding figure competitor, Lewis was used to fielding hurtful remarks about her naturally muscular body: Instagram commenters called her “manly” and “too muscular,” she told New York Magazine. Her awesome response: creating the social media hashtag #ThickFit to celebrate her curves and show that you can be inawesome shape at any size. Today the Brooklyn-based trainer runs Body Blast Bootcamp, inspiring women to “train like athletes” and feel good about their bodies.
2. Jenny Gaither
Instructor at SoulCycle, San Francisco, CA
Instructors at indoor cycling studio SoulCycle often become psuedo-celebrities in their students’ eyes. But Gaither’s celebrated for much more than killer rides or heart-pumping playlists: The California native started the Movemeant Foundation, which strives to help young women overcome body image issues through physical movement and fitness. A former dancer, Gaither had battled similar issues and eating disorders, and her own journey to self-acceptance was the catalyst that spurred her to start the nonprofit. She’s also the creator of the annual Dare to Bare fitness charity event in New York City.
CrossFit coach and general manager at Brick New York, New York City
Lanier started his career in PR, but after trying CrossFit in 2010, he was hooked and quickly made fitness his full-time job. Then, at age 28, he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. But Lanier didn’t let the disease hold him back: Following recovery, the popular instructor is back in the box, where he’s known for his positive attitude and contagious enthusiasm. Not only is Lanier an active cancer advocate, but he also founded OUTWOD, an organization committed to spreading awareness of LGBTQ issues in the fitness community.
Yoga teacher and writer, Pittsburgh, PA
When Leyde was 14, her father suffered a traumatic brain injury in a near-fatal car accident. After a career in magazine journalism, Leyde left the publishing industry in 2011 to be a full-time yoga teacher, writer, and influential advocate for traumatic brain injury (TBI) awareness. She’s passionate about bringing the physical and mental benefits of yoga to people with brain and trauma-related injuries, including PTSD. In addition to managing a yoga studio, Leyde also teaches yoga to those recovering from brain injuries. “A routine yoga practice has cognitive, emotional, and behavioral benefits that people are now recognizing,” she says. She has written several books related to her experience, including Move Feel Think: Yoga for Brain Injury, PTSD, and Other Forms of Trauma.
Personal trainer, New York City
Meet your new postive body image hero. But it wasn’t always so easy for Kneeland, a trainer, strength coach, and fitness writer, to be so optimistic. She’s open about overcoming a rough time in her past to become the strong, empowering, and fit role model she is today. On her website, Remodel Fitness, she makes it her personal and professional mission to help women find confidence—in themselves and in their bodies—through fitness.
Yoga instructor, Durham, NC
One look at this yoga teacher’s Instagram is all it takes for us get inspired to hit the mat, stat. A writer, body-positive advocate, and creator of the EveryBody Yoga series, Stanley teaches high-energy vinyasa flow classes that celebrate bodies of every size. As a larger-bodied woman herself, her candid takes on having to navigate around a belly or reposition breasts in certain poses are refreshing and authentic—we’re all for yogis who don’t take themselves too seriously.
Fitness instructor, New York City
Not many of us are pumped to wake up for a 5 a.m. indoor cycling class, but Tsiumis is one of those people—and she’ll likely make you one as well. The fitness pro used to weigh more than 200 pounds while working a typical desk job. After leaving the corporate world and undergoing an incredible fitness journey, she now teaches packed classes at top New York studios Swerve and The Fhitting Room and has competed in bodybuilding competitions. She also shares her passion for fitness by being a trainer with HealthClass2.0, an organization that educates and inspires high school students to create healthy habits.
Yoga instructor, San Diego, CA
Just looking at this 28-year-old’s resume is enough to tire us out: She’s a yoga instructor, retreat leader, wellness writer, fitness model, and even professional tandem surfer (!). After growing up extremely shy and anxious, Hoffman overcame her internal challenges to pursue a career in health and wellness. A full-time yoga instructor for seven years, she’s now focusing on tandem surfing and is currently ranked fifth in the world. Most of all, we love that she’s inspiring people to feel comfortable and confident in their skin: “I teach and strive to focus on what feels good, rather than what looks good,” Hoffman says.
Personal trainer, St. Louis, MO
At age 20, Stevenson was diagnosed with a spinal condition that doctors said was incurable. Overnight, he was in excruciating pain and could barely walk around his house, let alone his college campus. Rather than follow doctors’ advice to “manage” the pain, he dove headfirst into fitness and nutrition and was able to reverse his condition. He went on to become a health expert, personal trainer, and creator of The Model Health Show, reaching 2.5 million people on iTunes. His personal journey continues to inspire his work: “If I could overcome insurmountable odds and regain my health, I don’t want one single person out there to give up hope.”
Personal trainer, Huntington Beach, CA
Burmester is the owner of Surf City Fit Club, where positive fitness is the focus. (“All bodies are good bodies,” the website reads.) With a background in martial arts, MMA, and personal training, Burmaster is also founder of the Body Positive Fitness Alliance, which connects amazing trainers around the world to clients whose goal is to get healthy, strong, and fit (not smaller or skinny). After experiencing the ups and downs of her own 80-pound weight loss journey, she’s discovered what works—and what doesn’t—to help clients realize their goals.
Yoga instructor, Santa Monica, CA
In college, Hamilton wandered into a yoga class thinking it was going to be “easy stretching.” “After having my ass handed to me, I was hooked,” she says. Now, she’s a full-time yoga teacher, writer, life coach, and co-creator of Yogis Anonymous, a leading provider of online yoga classes. On the blog, she writes almost daily about body-image issues, relationships, trauma, and mental health—and about using yoga to overcome those obstacles. IRL, her classes are like a mini therapy sessions mixed with yoga. Her first book, Open Randomly: Fortune Cookies for the Soul, will be published November 2015.
Cycling instructor, New York City
When you take Ashley’s class, you know you’re in for a serious butt-kicking. His teaching style is more drill sergeant than cheerleader, plus he’s intense—as in, zero breaks with constant resistance and RPM increases—and a stickler for form. The workout may feel like hell at times, but you’re guaranteed to get an amazing workout (his waitlist-only Equinox classes prove it). Off the bike, he’s an advocate for several charities, including Cycle for Survival, a cause that’s close to his heart—close friend and student Jennifer Goodman Linn founded the charity before she lost her battle with cancer. With his team, Where There’s a Wil, Ashely has raised $800,000 for rare cancer research.
Fitness instructor, New York City
Mays is the definition of “fierce.” The self-declared “kick-ass trainer and pole diva,” who recently appeared on America’s Got Talent’s 10th season, teaches pole fitness classes and group fitness classes at New York gyms. She also founded Dangerous Curves, a pole-dancing competition for plus-size athletes. Her goal: Celebrate nontraditional athletes, especially plus-size women, and help them shine—even in the face of a fitness industry that doesn’t exactly welcome ”nontraditional” (an issue she’s spoken out about on Facebook).
Fitness instructor, San Francisco, CA
If her name rings a bell, it may be because her older sister, Cassey, is the well-known face behind Blogilates, the uber-popular YouTube channel. But Jackelyn is making her own mark on the fitness world: She’s a Nike Master trainer and group fitness instructor at Crunch and is all about using health and fitness to promote positive body image. Right after graduating from college in 2013, she and her sister founded an online magazine called Fiterazzi, a safe space for non-photoshopped models and positive body talk; today she’s writing about health and fitness at Spright.
Fitness instructor, Minneapolis, MN
If you need more proof that strong is sexy, look no further than Sinkler. A former rugby player and fitness editor, the savvy and passionate trainer co-owns an innovative gym called The Movement Minneapolis with her husband, where she teaches women’s-only strength classes. She also spreads her gospel of strength training (“lift weights faster” is her oft-quoted quip about cardio) through her website and social media. Her ultimate goal: Build a league of “unapologetically strong” women, online and off.
Yoga instructor, New York City
Born and raised in Rome, Bove moved to New York to become an actor, but her career was sidelined due to severe lower back pain. The silver lining: “If it hadn’t been for spondylolisthesis, it probably would have taken me a lot longer to find my true passion,” she says. One day she stumbled into a yoga center and through her practice, she started to heal her back. Bove was inspired to become a yoga instructor and a postural alignment specialist to help others heal through movement. Her classes are an uplifting mix of asanas, playful energy, breathing exercises, and wise words that guarantee you’ll leave on a high note.
Personal trainer, St. Louis, MO
Hansen describes himself as a ”passionate, inspiring, confident teddy bear—although I’m 220 pounds and covered in tattoos.” The trainer found his passion for fitness as a skinny Irish kid from the suburbs, listening to gangster rap while doing push-ups. For Hansen, there’s more to training than showing a client how to squat and eat vegetables. His goal is to be a voice of reason through the static of the fitness world and to help people discover that they are stronger than they think, he says. With a training program and blog, he’s primed to take his message to a much wider audience.
Fitness instructor, New York City
Some workouts seem designed to deplete you, which can be good. But other times we want to feel fulfilled and inspired—and that’s exactly what happens in Stutland’s class. The charismatic former dancer and actress created Shrink Session, a program that combines cardio dance, kickboxing, yoga, positive affirmations, and even life coaching for a workout that’s like no other. (Where else will you repeat affirmations aloud as you work out!?) For Stutland, fitness isn’t just about moving yourself physically—it’s about moving yourself mentally, emotionally, and spiritually too. As one student puts it, “You feel your outlook lifting right along with your ass.”
Founder, Black Feminist Fitness, Rochester, NH
Marshall, a women’s studies and English professor, lost more than 200 pounds and discovered a passion for fitness along the way. Now she’s using her book smarts and body-positive attitude to encourage others to embrace fitness at any size through Black Feminist Fitness. She teaches gentle fitness classes to seniors, disabled people, and recent immigrants in low-income housing projects, and she also educates fitness professionals about feminist and diversity issues. As a CrossFitter, obstacle course racer, pole dancer, hula hooper, powerlifter, Bikram yogi, and much more (yep, all at 250 pounds), Marshall is proof that you can be an inspiring, kick-ass athlete no matter what you weigh.
Personal trainer, New York City
A lifelong athlete, Densmore suffered from chronic pain for 10 years stemming from neck and back injuries as well as fibromyalgia. Longing to return to her earlier fit lifestyle, Megan turned to Pilates—and fell in love. Soon she became certified in Pilates, personal training, and kettlebells. She’s also an actor and producer who’s currently working on Invisible: The Film, a documentary about fibromyalgia and other chronic diseases that aims to raise awareness and end the stigma around “invisible” illnesses.
21. Jon De La Torre
Personal trainer, San Francisco, CA
For De La Torre, fitness is more than exercise—it’s about helping people make lifestyle changes. An experienced trainer, runner, and strength coach, he’s equally adept at helping triathletes finally reach the podium as helping sedentary individuals take the first step toward a healthier life. He pays it forward by volunteering with Diakadi Difference, working with low-income clients who wouldn’t otherwise have access to fitness or health resouces. As he puts it, ”To have the chance to help another person enhance their life through exercise and wellness, sign me up!”
Personal trainer and professor of exercise science, San Diego, CA
From a young age, Matthews knew she wanted to empower people to live happier and healthier lives. She fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming a professor of health and exercise science, as well as a trainer and senior advisor for the American Council On Exercise (ACE) and writer for major health publications. But it was when her sister and father passed away one year apart that she took a more holistic approach to wellness. Now she’s completing a doctorate in behavioral health to better help people change their lives. “I feel so strongly that to best serve people, we as professionals must understand the entire person, not just their physical bodies—though of course, that’s important too,” she says.
Co-founder and instructor, Sixth Street Pilates, New York City
Most people think of Pilates instructors as having lithe, slender yet strong bodies. Maiberg doesn’t exactly fit the mold. And that’s the very thing that motivates her to be such an awesome teacher: ”Oftentimes folks doubt I’m a Pilates instructor,” she says. ”That doesn’t bother me. I’d rather they just see me in action.” Her love for the Pilates method inspired her to open her East Village studio, where she encourages students to be strong and be themselves.
We selected these fitness professionals based on recommendations from students, clients, and others in the fitness community. We looked for trainers who aren’t widely known or considered “celebrity trainers” and for people with diverse backgrounds, training styles, and philosophies who are giving back to their communities in a meaningful way. Know someone else who should be on the list? Tell us on Twitter!