How Celebrity Fitness Trainer Val Desjardins Is Inspiring Others To Use Their Voice
Val Desjardins, a personal trainer and health coach who is also widely known as “Pump Fitness” to her global fans, has leaned into her truth ever since she was a young girl growing up in Montreal, Canada.
Desjardins was an athlete since childhood, and an incident of gender bias that occurred when she was 10 years old inspired her to ensure others advocate for themselves too.
During one particular soccer game, a coach asked Desjardins to prove that she was indeed a girl, as she was playing on the girls’ team. She had the innate courage and prowess back then to stand up for herself and prove her gender to the coach — an act of fierceness that still guides her.
It’s her ability to stand fearlessly in her truth and stand up for herself, even as a 10-year-old, that helps Desjardins serve as an authentic leader to her team of gym trainers and a trusted health coach today. And this is only one of the many reasons Lululemon invited her to serve as one of 10 global ambassadors, during a “Pride Month” campaign this past June.
While Desjardins was clear about her female gender early on, she became vocal about her truth as a member of the LGBTQ community while in her 20s.
“At 22 I said to myself, Okay, here’s where I’m at. This is who I am. It’s official. Let’s go.”
On the career front, Desjardins was also clear about her passion for athleticism and the power of community. She dove into coaching, for the Montreal Roller Derby League and cross training.
“About six years ago, I decided to go full-time into personal training. That’s when I acquired the higher level of education.”
Desjardins was working the personal training circuit at the Victoria Park Health Club, and gained notoriety as the go-to trainer and coach for high-profile clients like Jennifer Aniston and Michelle Pfeiffer.
The ultimate flex?
Desjardins purchased the Victoria Park on her 40th birthday, in September 2019.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, forcing gyms to close (in other words, five months after Desjardins became an owner), she began offering up her classes on social media, and attracted an international audience and new wave of “Pump” devotees while on Instagram Lives — especially thanks to the high energy of her “Sunday Sermon,” which she cohosts with her wife, Jennifer Pregnolato (who is a certified barre and dance instructor, and creator of the exercise program, Sculpt Nation™️). Despite the collective uncertainty, Desjardins buckled down and gathered her team of coaches and trainers to offer their expertise and sessions on the gym’s Instagram feed. Desjardins led with resilience and optimism, even though she admits that there wasn’t a strategic “masterplan” at the time — she was leading with her gut.
The need to pivot to social media was an obvious one — but it also makes you wonder, is it a business risk for trainers and coaches to offer up their work for free on social media?
“The confidence I have now as a coach allows me to be an open source and share, but I do think it comes back as a circular approach, like a wheel of sharing,” Desjardins explains. “I’m inspired by others and I want people to be inspired by me.”
Like the rest of the world, and especially those in fitness who up until March of 2020 were exclusively working with clients IRL, Desjardins and her team were faced with a business model that was suddenly at risk.
“As a coach and someone in wellness, I want to make people feel good. It’s that basic. I know I have a strength and an ability to support others and lift them up. And I’m pretty good at making people have fun. I’m good at leading and taking that kind of control over an environment, so it became about, what can I do with that intention and talent, and how can I best serve the community right now? And that’s how we ended up on Instagram Live.”
It helped that the first six months of Desjardins’ gym business placed the fitness center in a healthy position to go into a pandemic for a few months.
“It was absolutely devastating to close the doors and stop life. But from a business perspective, I thought to myself, we’ve got this, we’re going to figure it out. Let’s trust the universe, we’re all in this together. So whatever happens, I know I’m going to be able to figure it out in some way, shape or form, and what’s meant to be will be and what’s not, we’re going to have to deal with,” Desjardins continues. “It’s kind of like an episode of Chopped, where you’re given a mystery basket, and you think, what are you going to do? What are my options? I can be on Zoom. I can do group trainings. I can absolutely create content for Instagram. So I turned the camera on myself in my Instagram Stories for the first time ever! I’ve never done that and wasn’t comfortable doing that, but then I thought, how can I reach and have impact on my whole community right now or whoever is watching? So I just started doing it on Stories and offering tips and tricks, and aligning with what we’re all going through and how the pillars of wellness can support people.”
Desjardins was fueled by the flood of positive messages coming through (she makes a point of answering all her DMs): “People were sharing the importance of the workout for them in their Stories, and it fed me every week. They said, ‘you need to start charging us. Please know that we would absolutely pay.’”
Desjardins decided to permanently shutter Victoria Park (which was a multi-facility 20,000 square foot space), in line with the global shift occurring in the fitness and wellness industry where large spaces are being replaced by more of a “boutique” vibe. She instead opened a 6,000 square foot space called The Studio in October of 2020, to serve as a headquarters for her new platform. This more intimate IRL location is now where the digital fitness content is filmed and virtual trainings take place, while doubling as a home for her trainers and staff, and eventually serving as a boutique space for personal training and small group classes, as soon as lockdown rules are lifted.
The digital fitness platform and app, The Studio, features a mix of on-demand high-intensity cardio training in a digital library (including the signature “Sunday Sermon”) with mat pilates core work, yoga and spin, as well as toning and sculpting sets, and is always infused with Desjardins’ holistic approach to wellness which includes the right nutrition, recovery and mindset practices.
“As a trainer, people have been telling me that I should really have an app and do something digital for years now. I have also realized I like it! First of all, things like accessibility became a very important topic. It also got me thinking about how inaccessible I’ve been to different communities. I’m not practicing the ‘community accessible’ kind of mentality that I’ve aligned in my message and have been preaching, by being in a pretty high-end facility where a specific socio-economic population has access to me. There was a disconnect and I realized that I absolutely had to create something digital — and we dove into it.”
(The digital studio offers an “All You Can Pump” monthly subscription as well as a “Pay Per Pump” model.)
“The digital platform is really for this massive influx of clients and connections. It happened through being online instead of being hidden in a space, limited by geography. I have a lot of new clients, everywhere from Calgary to New York to Los Angeles, for example. So the digital studio is for them — and because we’re still in a pandemic and don’t know what the next few years are going to entail.”
Desjardins’ vision is always reflected on her social media branding and all digital elements, as she’s always been passionate about visual arts, writing and creating.
Desjardins received a master’s degree in visual arts at NYU and made herself the subject in her master’s thesis around gender, sexuality, and the performance of gender.
“Anytime I post on my Instagram, it’s genuinely me and what I want to say. Especially as someone who didn’t feel represented or didn’t feel like I had a voice, and didn’t see myself in the spaces I’m working in. Just to have the opportunity to be that loud queer voice is super empowering, so it pumps me up. It’s a joy to do it.”
When she decided to dive headfirst and launch her own brand of personal training as a coach six years ago, she created her logo and made a commitment to herself to only align with partnerships that felt authentic to her.
“I don’t do anything that doesn’t feel authentic or right for me. Around four of five years ago when my Instagram gained a lot of following and traction, I started getting emails about typical brand sponsorships, representation and collaborations, and for me, it didn’t feel organic because I felt it was getting in the way of the message for me, which was already centered around my family and me being queer. I needed to define my voice. So going forward, I have made decisions that always remain authentic to how I feel.”
Desjardins’ brand on her Instagram now focuses on the family she and her wife Jen have built as the parents of a young girl, Brooklyn, and her story, in the hopes to inspire others to be themselves.
As for training people virtually — Desjardins and her Studio team will continue to bring the positive vibes on the virtual front, until in-person training can restart.
“I absolutely love training people physically in person. I think there’s a lot of value in that, as well as eye contact. There’s never been a fear that digital is going to take over an industry. We are human, we are molecules and cells, and we need to see each other’s skin, feel each other and breathe together. And so I see value in both. I think the next few years are going to be a hybrid of physical and digital. It’s made people realize they can get a good workout at home. It’s not just Plan B. It can be legit.”