Meet the hijab-wearing Muay Thai boxer who’s redefining what it means to be “strong”

Sick of the #strongnotskinny hype? So is Muy Thai boxer Nesrine Dally, who believes that “strong is enough” – there’s no need to bring size into the equation. She’s teamed up with functional training pioneers TRX to encourage people to move anywhere, any time, so who better to ask about all things strength, diversity and fitness habits?

What does “strong” mean to you? Maybe it means looking like Dina Asher-Smith or Alice Liveing. Perhaps it’s being able to hold a plank for five minutes, or deadlifting more than your own bodyweight. 

Or perhaps you’re all about the whole #StrongNotSkinny movement – prioritising muscle gain over weight loss. If you’re in that camp, don’t expect fitness coach and boxer Nesrine Dally to join you. “Many women, including myself when I was a teenager, have been teased and bullied for being ‘skinny’ – which I hated being anyway,” she says. Given that for years, the fashion industry has pushed being skinny as the ideal beauty standard, it’s easy to see how an “anti-skinny” movement has popped up. But, Nesrine says, the rhetoric around choosing whether to be strong or slim isn’t necessary – particularly for those who find that language “triggering and offensive”. 

So, how can we talk about being strong and encourage others to celebrate their inner strength without resorting to potentially offensive or inaccurate slogans?

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Strong is “enough”

“Strength means different things to everyone; it encompasses both the physical and mental sides of life,” Nesrine says. “Strong is enough – we don’t need to object to being ‘skinny’ too.”

That’s an interesting idea, and one that may have been overlooked in a bid to move away from the size zero culture that many of us grew up with. Body neutrality – the practice of not attaching morality to any kind of body shape or size – can be difficult but it’s easier if you’re able to lead with a feeling of strength, rather than thinking about looks. But that’s not to say that as a society, we’ve not made a positive shift away from a narrative that has been damaging for so many women. Now, the challenge is to ensure that strength, and our idea of what that means, don’t become yet another meter to beat us with.

“Anything that holds all of us to fit one standard and criteria is unhealthy, damaging and excluding. As women, we come in all different shapes and sizes and at no point should we be trying to uphold a beauty standard created by an industry that at times benefits from our deepest insecurities.”

The next big challenge for the fitness industry, Nesrine says, will be to ensure that recent diversity commitments don’t get lost in the scramble to meet “the next big trend”

Diversifying strength

One of the problems that the fitness industry has had to come to terms with in very recent times is its chronic lack of diversity. While we might see a range of races and abilities at a professional level (e.g Olympians and Paralympians), the number of older, bigger, darker or differently-abled fitness influencers, brand ambassadors and celebrated trainers is paltry. 

The fitness industry, Nesrine believes, has made some positive changes in the last two or three years, “but we still have a long way to go and the road ahead is long”. Her concern now is whether diversity will continue to be a priority “when the next popular topic has come along”. “Diversity isn’t just about including one person of colour in a team. It’s about changing the way we show, speak and represent fitness within the industry.” 

To lock diversity into fitness, we have to address how inaccessible fitness can be for many. “If our classes are £30+, if they’re only in central London, if most instructors are white, cis men and women, then we can’t be surprised when we attract a certain demographic of people from a particular socio-economic group. Entry levels, price-point, location and the brand culture all have to be accounted for and considered.” After all, the saying goes that “we can’t be what we can’t see”.

With all that in mind, how can we get more women prioritising strength and feeling confident in these fitness spaces that may traditionally have been reserved for people who don’t look like them?

We should focus on getting stronger, Nesrine believes, because it “builds confidence” – allowing us to “find purpose and enjoy the journey rather than being fixated on an aesthetic goal”. Strength “isn’t a number, a size, a shape – it’s a feeling, it’s the feeling of empowerment and the process of loving your body’s endless capabilities!”

For her, the feeling comes when she’s testing her physical and mental limits – be that attempting a new record under a barbell or simply “asking my body and mind to go somewhere it hasn’t before.”

The one thing Nesrine wishes more women knew about strength training? “That it doesn’t make you bulky.”

5 tips for levelling up your strength training regime

To box and compete in martial arts at the top level, you’ve got to be pretty darn fierce – in terms of dedication, physical prowess and mental resilience. Who better to get tips for levelling up your training than from international Muay Thai fighter, Nesrine? 

Her five rules to live by include:

  1. Get yourself a proper programme (like the SWTC training plans)
  2. Stick to that programme
  3. Take two rest days a week
  4. Prioritise sleep (seven hours minimum)
  5. Nourish your body to fuel your training and promote good recovery

“Do these and you can’t go wrong!”

TRX, the global pioneer in functional training equipment, has launched Let’s Move – a campaign shedding light on the ability for fitness to happen anywhere, anytime.

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Images: TRX

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