Elisabeth “Lis” Saunders stands out front of her personal fitness studio. The team’s unicorn was painted by local artist Dana Harrison. / Photo by Sarah Darow

Team Lis Smash Offers Inclusive Strength Training Catering to Women and Queer Folks

It’s been quite a journey for Elisabeth (Lis) Saunders, a local personal trainer, power lifter, powerlifting coach and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).


For over 12 years, Saunders has trained clients around Georgia. Early in her career, she coached at various CrossFit gyms and was also a part owner of a barbell gym in East Atlanta. Then, she went on to rent/borrow space until she finally found the perfect location to fulfill her dream to open her own personal training studio in February.


Saunders’ Team Lis Smash has its own brick and mortar space to call home, bringing her vision of an intentionally inclusive training space for bodies of all sizes and experience levels to get stronger to life.


It was during her time as a CrossFit coach in 2010 that she realized there needed to be changes made within the health fitness industry, specifically regarding the diversity of coaches. According to Saunders, the coaches were mostly cis male, and there were not many women or people of color.


“I fell out of love with CrossFit,” she said of her decision to break ties with the then popular fitness movement to get into powerlifting and strength coaching. Saunders competed in her first powerlifting meet in 2012 on a dare by a friend. She only had five days to prepare for the meet, and although she was not fully prepared, she “really enjoyed it.”


Since competing in her first meet, Lis now holds Georgia state squat records in both the USAPL and USPA. Last year, she competed and won gold at the Drug Tested USPA National Championships in Atlanta and also competed at the IPL Powerlifting Drug Tested North American Championships in St. Louis. She won a bronze medal at the 2019 USPA Drug Tested Nationals in the 75 kilogram Sub master class in Las Vegas and also placed eighth in the 72 kg Open class at 2013 USAPL Raw Nationals.


Although most of the clients who work out and train regularly with Saunders at her studio at 2179 Bouldercrest Road identify as women, femme and/or queer, she said allies and men are welcome.


Unlike at most workout spaces, Saunders’ focus is different as a personal trainer. There is no emphasis on monthly weigh-ins or before-and-after photos. Realizing that clients may have different insecurities or traumas surrounding their bodies or past experiences, Saunders took part in a trauma-informed training course in 2019 in New York.


As a trauma survivor herself who put in the work to reclaim her body, Saunders said she realized that she could help a lot of people. Using what she learned, when she meets and works with her clients, it’s a collaborative process.


“They’re the expert on their own body, but what we can do together is to help you feel better,” she said.


According to Lis, there may be times a client may come in and may not be in the headspace to actually do the scheduled workout, but they may simply decide to do other workouts — like slow, controlled body weight work or stretching. “It’s about compassion and recognizing that it’s okay,” Saunders said. “I wanted to create a very friendly environment — inclusive of any gender and without the toxic mentality [characteristic of other gyms].”


The studio is a safe haven for clients who were uncomfortable going and working out at bigger facilities and for those who never saw themselves as strong or as traditional athletes. Some of her clients actively train to compete in local, state and national powerlifting meets throughout the year, but many do not. Many of the clients simply want to learn to lift weights and/or to get stronger. Although they may not have a desire to compete in powerlifting, Saunders said she offers various events for clients to see their progress — mock powerlifting meets and lifting fundraisers that raise money for local charities near and dear to the hearts of many of the clients.


Ormewood Park area resident Sophie Cox found Team Lis Smash through the Facebook group FATlanta.


“I knew I wanted to learn to lift more, but I needed someone to help me with technique. I’d already injured myself running,” Cox said. “I looked to FATlanta for guidance — I wanted to be able to go to a small gym or even someone’s house where I could get more one-on-one training without all the gym hustle and bustle. I trusted the recommendations in FATlanta becauseI knew folks there would tell it to me straight regarding finding a trainer that would work with fat bodies without anti-fat bias.I wanted to find a space that would help me get strong and not worry about anything else (no before and after pics, no diet talk, no pressure to pound protein shakes).”


Cox has been training with Saunders since March and she said she is glad she reached out to Lis about training at the studio. “I’ve never been much of a gym girl; I enjoyed working out at home and outside. I have been to some classes in the past and I remember feeling bummed when the group class instructor would center the workout around getting ‘summer ready’ and all that bullshit, and I’m glad Lis doesn’t make that a focus.”


“My experience has been great! Lis is motivating and fun to be around,” she said. “I look forward to my sessions, and I know that even if life feels overwhelming and crazy at times, at least I got it in and lifted heavy.”


Max Hostetter also found Team Lis Smash online while looking to start a new hobby or routine.


“I tried to get in with a different coach at a different gym, and he was full,” he said. “Then I looked up Lis and noticed she was really close, and I came and did one intro session and was pretty much hooked after that.”


Six months later, Hostetter is still training with Lis.


“It’s been really neat,” he said. “I quickly sort of realized or got to a place where I just liked to come in and show up. I communicate with Lis and keep getting stronger and that’s kind of my goal. So, that’s really cool, and it’s been fun in a lot of ways.”


Tye Tavaras, who resides in Venetian Hills, found Saunders through a Google search. She was looking for an inclusive powerlifting gym, and Team Lis Smash was the first thing that came up.


“I was finally in a position where I could afford to train, and where I had the space in my life to do it,” Tavaras said. “I went through the website and read about how it was. We’re an inclusive space, it was trauma informed training. And so it was a no brainer, really, to just go out and try to get started.”


It was just the environment that Tavaras had been searching for in a personal training studio.


“What’s been fantastic about training at this studio, and with Lis is the environment, I feel seen, heard and respected,” Tavaras said. “I mean, you can’t not feel welcome in a space when you walk in and you see all the Smashers on the board, and it’s got names next to pronouns. And that was one of the first things I noticed is walking in and seeing everyone who’s training — their name and their pronouns, let me know that this is a place that really cares about the individual person.”


“As I’ve gotten to meet more smashers and train at different times, there are people from all walks of life just working out together,” she added. “Chatting, sharing stories, having a good time. This studio feels personal. It feels like family. It feels like home. It feels like that every time you walk into the studio. Folks are looking out for you. They’re helping. We’re helping each other. And I’m really excited to be a part of this. I moved back to Atlanta, and this was just going to be the best space for me.”


Team Lis Smash encourages more than just building strength; it builds community. Saunders has been able to host lifting benefits for the community that have benefited Lost-n-Found Youth, Planned Parenthood Southeast Advocates, Southern Poverty Law Center and City of Refuge.


“I wanted to host lifting events that would support our community: LGBTQ, women and reproductive rights, etc.,” Saunders said of her goal. “Not only do we raise money for various groups, we create a very friendly environment that is inclusive of all genders by creating lifting events that everyone can participate in and give back to our community and members of our team.”


She was also able to host world class powerlifter Tamara Walcott’s “My Strength is My Sexy” tour in May. Tamara pulled a world record deadlift of 636 pounds in September.


Lis also hosts Fantastic Beasts, Atlanta’s LGBTQI+ Powerlifting Club. The group meets monthly and gets to learn and work on the three main lifts of powerlifting — squats, bench and deadlift.


While the focus began as barbell strength training, Lis also now offers “no bar” classes (barbell-free strength training), beginning powerlifting lessons, open gym, and remote coaching.


For anyone interested in strength training with or without barbells or anyone looking to get into powerlifting, Saunders said she has availability to take on new clients. Check out her website for more information and pricing at teamlissmash.com. She can also be found on Facebook at facebook.com/teamlissmash and Instagram @teamlissmash.