I t’s 6:30 a.m. and the individuals running up and down the track at New Haven’s Bowen Field are breaking a sweat; the forecast is for a high of 90 degrees and it’s already warm.
But the women, clad in black t-shirts with pink and white writing (“I SURVIVED,” one shirt proclaims; another reads “Strong Is the New Sexy” in ten different languages), keep running, punctuating each segment with jumping jacks. They slow down as the sets pile up, seven total, but never stop. That’s thanks to trainer and cheerleader Mubarakah Ibrahim, who’s running the workout.
“Keep your heels flat on the ground,” she urges one squatting bootcamper. Later, as they’re doing upper body strength exercises in unison, visibly fatigued, she shouts, “If you feel like you’re gonna cry, remind yourself, ‘I look sexy!’”
It’s not the sort of thing you expect to hear from a Sunni Orthodox Muslim, but, clad in pink hijab and long sleeves even now, during a workout, Ibrahim isn’t what you expect when you envision a personal trainer anyway.
Yet her religion and culture have undoubtedly been instrumental to her career. Six years ago, her novel position as a female, Muslim personal trainer (still a rarity) landed her a spot on an Oprah segment, including an on-screen chat with the media mogul herself. What’s more, in addition to her personal training and boot camps—open to women of all backgrounds—she’s created a program dedicated solely to Muslim women, Fit Muslimah, with over 20,000 fans on Facebook.
Here on this bright, clear morning, the fact that she’s a Muslim is neither here nor there. She’s simply an energetic coach, with an encouraging voice and a frequent, wide smile. She tells me, laughing, that she makes clients sign a contract promising they’ll show up to sessions, no matter how “sore” or “crabby” they are. When she’s not training, she keeps busy—an understatement—with her four children, aged 12 to 19, her husband (a New Haven Police Officer) of almost 21 years and staying involved in community affairs, including volunteering at Yale-New Haven Hospital and attending the mayoral election debates.
The training is at the core of her routine, though. Right now I’m witnessing a “B Fit Boot Camp,” offered through Ibrahim’s Balance Fitness studio for women. Sessions happen three times a day (5:30 a.m., 6:30 a.m. and 6:15 p.m.) outdoors, like today, or in the studio (at 370 Davenport Avenue, New Haven).
The camps are offered at three commitment levels with different monthly fees: the one-month “jump start” at $297, the three-month “transformation” at $277 and the 12-month “skinny jean guarantee” at $197. Each includes unlimited boot camp sessions five days a week, as well as a meal plan—“green smoothies” are a staple—and monthly fitness assessments.
Fit Muslimah is another example of Ibrahim’s knack for motivating crowds. Through the “online gym,” she reaches women all over the world with fitness programs, retreats, nutrition tips and recipes. She’s currently encouraging her online community to build stamina and eat well in anticipation of the dawn-to-dusk fasting associated with Ramadan, which starts in July this year.
Muslim women were, in fact, Ibrahim’s first clients, although her career really began at home; she suffered complications during her first pregnancy and was in a wheelchair for the entirety of her third trimester, gaining 50 pounds in that period alone. With limited mobility, she read books on exercise and nutrition, vowing to lose the extra weight after giving birth to her son.
Later, she reached out to women in her mosque on George Street in New Haven, devising fitness programs similar to the one she’d successfully designed for herself. A friend noted her natural talent, and suggested she go professional with personal training.
Ibrahim’s been running forward ever since. Her website boasts great success stories, but seeing boot camp in action seems a better testimony—I can almost see the calories burning, as well as the sense of community that develops among participants.
“We’re almost done,” one determined boot camper says during the last set of that morning’s exercises, spurring her exhausted compatriots forward, together, to a well-deserved finish.
Balance Fitness Studio for Women by Mubarakah Ibrahim
370 Davenport Ave, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.