Weightlifting and fitness academy Strength Academy Wales (SAW) is planning to deliver health, well-being and social prescription to those who are disadvantaged in Pembrokeshire.

Having recently been awarded the InSport club honour, the group, working in partnership with Pembrokeshire Leisure, has been achieving excellence in weightlifting, disability powerlifting and performance conditioning.

And most of the success is brought about by dedicated volunteers and members themselves, encouraging individuals from diverse backgrounds to participate in fitness activities to improve their health and well-being whilst also socialising.

Around 20 volunteers work hard to create an informal meeting and training place for a varied range of members. Weightlifting and fitness activities are used as a medium for members to interact socially, build confidence and encourage each other. It is estimated that almost 40% of club users are from disadvantaged or minority groups, of whom about a quarter are adults and around 75% children.

Club coaches and volunteers connect with members regardless of ability, background or social situation, and SAW offers a supportive environment. Volunteers pride themselves on developing an environment where members become more confident and socially active. The group already has a track record of changing attitudes and perceptions, in particular of those who come from disadvantaged groups.

Recent surveys conducted by the organisation revealed that members formed good friendships and an understanding of other people’s needs.

A high number of females have developed positive eating habits, learnt to manage healthy body weights and gained a better understanding of exercise. Other individuals with additional learning needs have developed socially. Older members and volunteers have improved their mental health through being socially active through training activities and helping others develop within the club.

The good work by the organisation has led to an InSport award by Disability Sport Wales which demonstrates a commitment to deliver inclusively of disabled people.

Angela Miles, Disability Sport Development Officer for Pembrokeshire: “We have been working in partnership with Strength Academy Wales on their InSport journey and are delighted that they have now achieved the InSport Ribbon award for their commitment to inclusion."

Gail Jones, 56, has a spinal injury and has difficulty with everyday life, but has set herself long-term goals through training at Strength Academy Wales.

“In August 2017, I had a routine disectomy which had a 5% chance of paralysis. Following the operation to remove the intervertebral disc I was left paralysed.

“I spent four months at Rookwood rehabilitation hospital in Cardiff. I also had sessions of physiotherapy every week for five months, but it mostly consisted of the tilt table and medi bike. No actual physio or exercise.

“When back home after the physiotherapy ended I found there was little support and it was difficult to find a place where I could work at building my fitness and confidence

“I struggle to live an independent life due to the level of my disability (T9) and I suffer with leg spasms. I have no reach or bend so therefore cannot open doors or pick things and am unable to transfer due to weight gain and a shoulder injury.

“My long-term goal is to be able to transfer with help, in and out of chairs. This will enable me to access areas in Pembrokeshire which I love to visit, such as my favorite beach. With fitness training, I hope to develop my flexibility and strength to enable me to physically move more. I may also find I can manage through my core strength and be able reach further and lift more.”

One SAW member, 47-year-old Darren Rogers, said volunteering has helped his depression.

“In the past I have suffered with anxiety and low levels of self-esteem. Over a lengthy period I suffered from depression and was prescribed heavy amounts of anti-depressants. I found it really difficult to cope and it affected me in many different ways, as well as those close to me. I find being around supportive people who I can talk too and actually assisting other people, really helps me a lot.

“When I started volunteering at SAW, I helped at local weightlifting events which I really enjoyed. I remember the first competition, a school’s event, and I was one of the bar loaders. From here on I took more of an interest in the club.

“I was encouraged by the club to take the Technical Officiating course. The volunteers gave me praise and encouragement, I made new friends with other members, and I enjoyed training myself and helping out at more competitions. So I gave the officiating course a go and began helping out at larger events, like the Welsh Championships.

“I have to say that volunteering has given me a focus and I look forward to being part of what seems to be a really supportive community of weightlifting.

“Sometimes, I can’t believe how much has happened. A few years on and I am now heavily involved with weightlifting in Pembrokeshire and I officiate at Welsh, British and International events. I do really believe that being part of the weightlifting community has been vital for my mental health.

“I am now working towards the highest international officiating award and hoping to officiate at competitions such as the European and World Championships, but I still really enjoy supporting the local competitions in Pembrokeshire.

“I have also taken the coaching awards and sometimes help out at SAW. I really enjoy that too and look forward to it.

“Being a volunteer has definitely helped me with my self-confidence and I really do feel a part of a team.”

SAW’s youth member Bleddyn Gibbs, 14, is preparing for his first strength event.

Bleddyn is a pupil at Portfield Special School and a member of a satellite class at Haverfordwest High VC, and has enjoyed training at SAW for a few months now.

During sessions Bleddyn works at developing powerlifting movements and assistant exercises. He has developed strength, learnt new skills, improved his knowledge of gym safety and his lifting technique.

More importantly, Bleddyn is sociable and interacts fully with members of all ages and is a valued member of SAW.

He has been receiving support and encouragement from members in his build up to his first event, the ‘Pembrokeshire Strength Festival’.

The festival is SAW’s first fundraiser to aid the development of a future programme to open up participation to those who are disadvantaged. By competing in this event, Bleddyn is helping the organisation to fundraise.

Following Bleddyn’s first competition, the club hope to enter him into Special Olympic Powerlifting competitions and have been liaising with Special Olympics Wales.

  • SAW operates an informal referral system with schools and charity groups, providing opportunities for individuals to boost well-being, return back to fitness, or tackle inactivity and obesity. The aim is to encourage individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to use the facility.
  • In terms of the forthcoming project, plans are underway in collaboration and with the Pembrokeshire Association of Voluntary Services. The Pembrokeshire Strength Festival this July has already kick started fundraising. An online survey is available for anyone who lives in Pembrokeshire and feels disadvantaged in any way, and responses will help shape the service provided by Strength Academy Wales. The new service is planned to be in place by late 2019. To have your say on the project, visit www.strengthacademy.wales.