More than just a workout space, Mettle in Sheffield uses weight training to create communities and empower its members to get stronger, healthier, and more confident.
Head Coach Dave Hembrough (far left) with Mettle's youth team photo. (Credit: Dave Hembrough)
Formerly known as Hallam Barbell Club, Mettle was founded in 2009 and now has over 60 members with a range of ages and abilities.
Besides promoting physical and mental wellbeing through physical exercise, Mettle provides its members with social support and a sense of identity, particularly for disadvantaged members of the community.
Dave Hembrough, the founder and head coach of Mettle, began his career as a strength and conditioning coach for elite athletes. “I found working in performance sport enjoyable, but not deeply rewarding,” Dave says.
Outside work, he set up a small weightlifting club for him and his friends, and soon found that was the space he enjoyed being in most – "a space that enriches lives by bringing people together to have fun, make friends and learn new skills."
“With Mettle, I use my coaching and weightlifting experience as a vehicle to bring people together and help people in hardship to have a slightly better existence. The essential purpose of our club is to enrich the lives of people in the city,” Dave explained.
The power of weightlifting
Sport England says that physical activity contributes to happiness and life satisfaction, including through the increased social interaction that often comes with getting active. Dave believes that the sport of weightlifting offers something special in its potential to improve people’s wellbeing, both physically and mentally.
“Traditional approaches to exercise often focus on running, cycling and walking – aerobic activity,” Dave explained.
Recently though, there’s been more of a focus on strength training and how it contributes to wellbeing. Mettle wants to be a real-life example of this philosophy.
WATCH: The power of weightlifting
“We know sport has beneficial outcomes in terms of confidence, employment, social and health. What we’re doing is embedding these qualities into the way we deliver our programmes – the way we train our coaches and design and deliver our sessions,” Dave added.
A low bar to entry
Part of the appeal of weightlifting is its accessibility, Dave suggested. Not everyone can go for a run, but everyone can pick up a weight that’s suitable for them, and then work on a pathway of progression.
“You turn up, you work hard, you exercise frequently and consistently, and you improve, and that feels good. What you can’t do becomes what you can do, and what was difficult becomes easier.”
Competing at the British Weightlifting England Age Group Championships in February 2023 (Credit: Dave Hembrough)
Not your average gym
Weightlifting can be an intimidating sport, particularly for women, Dave acknowledges this – although he believes it is changing. “There’s a lot of stigma and stereotypes about expected standards in most gyms, particularly where the free weights are,” he says. “We offer something very different at Mettle: the right welcome, the right introduction to the language, and peer support and instruction. A coach overseeing your session. We are more supportive than judgmental and celebrate people’s progress and success.”
Mettle currently offers three programmes: Olympic Weightlifting, aimed at competitive lifters; Strength and Fitness, for general training; and Girl Strong, coaching by women, for women and girls.
They also run a Learn to Lift course, which coaches novices through the basic techniques of weightlifting and helps them gain confidence, learn the language of the sport and feel like they belong to the club.
Celebrating a gold medal win at February’s England Age Group Championships (Credit: Dave Hembrough)
A community-building space
As well as providing support to become fitter and healthier, Mettle offers what Dave calls “third space” – a place for values and social interactions. The club holds formal and informal social events as well as supporting each other at competitions – Mettle's youth team won six gold medals at the British Weightlifting England Age Group Championships in February 2023. They also organise an annual awards night to celebrate the members’ progress and success. “There are strong friendships made here. People attach their identity and belonging to an activity and organisation; it provides social scaffolding. We also give our members roles that contribute to the club, like equipment officers and safety officers – they get a meaningful experience and a sense of identity from that.
“One thing that made me realise that we were doing something special and worthwhile was seeing a Facebook post of some coaches and members spending time together in nature. I realised that those people wouldn’t have connected or had that experience if they hadn’t been part of the club. That gave me a real sense of pride.”
Mettle’s gym space in Sheffield (Credit: Dave Hembrough)