NORTHALSTED — Noopur Shah found freedom working out at Han Training, a gym welcoming all body types and abilities that recently opened in Lakeview.
Prior to discovering the gym — which used to operate under the name LiftyBoi out of owner Minky Kim’s apartment — Shah said they were gym-hopping, feeling afraid because they didn’t feel comfortable as a queer and trans person in most workout environments.
“I experienced body dysmorphia, gender dysphoria and weight stuff my entire life, so all that kind of informed my fear,” Shah said. “But since training with [Kim], I don’t look in the mirror and think, ‘You’re fat’ anymore. I think, ‘You’re strong and bulky, and you have a presence.’ It’s shifted not only my physical health, but healed some of my mental health, especially around my body dysmorphia.”
Kim opened Han Training in January at 743 W. Irving Park Road. They started the business two years ago to create strength training programs that align with their values of radically dismantling white supremacy, queer- and transphobia, fatphobia, ableism and classism.
Now as a brick-and-mortar business, Han Training boasts features like gender-neutral bathrooms, wheelchair-accessible entrance ramps, benches that are heavier weighted so people with bigger bodies can access them, thicker mats for those with stressed joints and more, Kim said. The gym also offers sliding scale pricing for people of varying financial situations.
“Han Training is really a queer-, trans- and POC-focused, radical gym,” Kim said. “It’s for all the folks who don’t feel comfortable at a Planet Fitness, LA Fitness or whatever. We’re about body liberation and body neutrality, recognizing you’re allowed to be whoever you want in a space that’s made for you.”
For Shah, it’s exactly the type of environment they’ve craved.
“Han Training took away the intimidation of going to the gym,” Shah said. “There’s something really comfortable about it, and why I stayed is because how much Minky cares about you. They have so much sincerity and drive for other people to feel liberated in their own bodies.”
A Place To Turn Pain Into Strength
Han Training focuses mostly on strength training, bodyweight work and floor work, offering classes in strength training, powerlifting, conditioning and mobility, Kim said.
The gym takes its name from the Korean word “han,” a concept used to describe the inter-generational sense of rage and anguish that’s essential to Korean identity and a result of forced occupation, oppression and colonization of the Korean people by various nations, Kim said.
“They say that Koreans are born of and will die of han. It’s in our blood,” Kim said. “When I discovered the term, I was like, ‘Oh, I know this feeling, and I recognize it so well.'”
Kim said many of the communities the gym caters to can likely relate to the concept of han, and part of the gym’s experience is to translate that pain into strength.
“I think that so many of us who are marginalized and have experienced a lot of discrimination can feel that rage and anger going down back into our roots,” Kim said. “The idea is to take those feelings and use them to build our queer army, getting strong and feeling like we can do something about it instead of just sitting in the grief.”
Kim likes to keep their classes small so they can work individually with people, getting them to work on their form and become more aware of their bodies, they said.
“I try to make everything suitable for any kind of body, so it’s a lot of exploring different movements and recognizing that you don’t have to lift weights to be strong,” Kim said. “You can also do things with just your body and slowly moving through the space and rediscovering movement in ways that are different than what we’ve been told.”
Shah said this type of training helped them heal from a back injury they suffered several years ago while deadlifting at a crossfit gym where the trainer wasn’t paying enough attention to correct them.
“I’ll never forget this session with Minky because I was very scared of re-traumatizing my body, but they said we’d go slow and focus on form the entire time,” Shah said. “As we were training, they were attentive, asking whether I was having a trauma response, pain or discomfort, creating a language and connecting it back to my body so I could understand how to concretely create my form.
“It sounds silly, but that has been one of the most deeply healing parts and shifts in my trajectory around my body ever.”
Since training with Minky, Shah has grown more comfortable deadlifting again, and their back pain has “fully dissipated,” only ever flaring up now when they take a week off from the gym.
Shah is even participating in Pull for Pride, a national deadlifting fundraiser rooted in transgender and gender-nonconforming participation. Founded in 2017, Pull for Pride is a series of strength-sport fundraisers happening in cities across the United States that raise money for LGBTQ organizations and causes.
Han Training is hosting the Chicago Pull for Pride event, happening June 4 at the gym, Kim said. All funds raised from the event will benefit the Brave Space Alliance, a Black- and transgender-led organization on the South Side.
“I’m so excited to participate in that to not only show off my deadlift, but to have people cheering me on in a diverse space that’s full of trans, queer, gender-expansive, fat and neurodivergent people of different colors, shapes and sizes,” Shah said.
Hosting Pull for Pride is important because transgender athletes are banned from competing in most powerlifting competitions, Kim said.
“So it’s kind of a ‘f–k you’ in that we’re going to do this anyway in a space that’s meant for us and surrounded by people who will validate and affirm us,” Kim said. “My hope is to get more POC folks in the space and more fat and disabled folks to show up so we can build that community.”
That sense of community is also one of gym’s main draws, Shah said.
“I moved to Chicago pretty recently, and some of my best friends now are people I met through Han Training and that community,” Shah said. “At Han Training, everyone is encouraging and cheerleading for each other. It’s queer magic.”
Part of Han Training’s community is a group that meets Saturdays to practice on the gym’s bouldering wall, where people can practice rock climbing at a safe height without ropes or harnesses.
The gym will also soon host topless workout classes for transmasculine folks who want to workout shirtless in a safe environment, Kim said.
“The feeling of working out with your shirt off is like a whole new level of euphoria for some of us,” Kim said. “I think a lot of folks feel uncomfortable being shirtless and trans because people can clock you, so it’s nerve-wracking. But we’re creating a space where we’re celebrating being trans, which is super important to me.”
Jes Scheinpflug said they discovered Han Training after trying more mainstream gyms where they felt judged for their weight and queerness.
“I’ve had tons of experience going to gyms where the barriers have been so intersectional in terms of fatness and transness, so it’s been very nice to find a gym where they’re not fatphobic and they welcome everyone,” Scheinpflug said. “There’s no expectation for who you are and what you do. Instead you focus on your own goals and the workouts are centered around that.”
Aelijah Lynch, who started training with Minky more than a year ago, said they found their “happy place” in Han Training.
“It’s a welcoming and opening space where it’s safe to be your whole, radical self,” Lynch said. “It’s tough for me to find spaces where I can be affirmed as both a trans/nonbinary person and as a self-described disabled person. But Han Training is a safe space I can go to without running into a ton of micro-aggressions or people looking at me funny.”
Han Training is open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays.
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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