The gym and I have a love-hate relationship. I love going to the gym when I’m in shape; I find it comforting to workout when I know some of the regular gym-goers and staff. It is a social safe-place of people with common goals and winning attitudes. As I reach my fitness goals, I’m always greeted with approving glances from instructors and peers alike.
Conversely, when I break in a new gym, even if in the same city, there seems like a unwritten code of conduct that holds the “gym culture” together. Being completely entrenched in the gym for such a long time–I worked as salesperson and trainer for several years–I never felt out of place until I found myself out-of-shape, after an intestinal surgery left me thirty pounds overweight.
I now understand how going to the gym for some people can be a terrifying ordeal, especially if they haven’t been in a while. After a few failed attempts to stay consistent with my stated New Years resolution–to lose thirty pounds in a year–I felt the summertime’s heat creeping around spring’s corner. I wondered why I couldn’t stay consistent. Once I reflected on my failure, it boiled down to my perception of myself as weak.
I began hating the gym because I hated feeling inadequate in comparison to former self. Even more compelling was how much I thrived off competing with the other men in the gym, either directly or indirectly. It was essential to my gym experience.
Even though I beat myself up internally for being weak, externally I continued to project a machismo, as if I was satisfied with my workout. See, the gym tends to privilege a masculine posture in men (and women) in order to gain a measure of respect. We have all witnessed these characters in the gym:
The guy who slams the weights down on the floor rumbling the floor after 3 reps, stares down every person in his vicinity, and/or throws a tantrum if someone complains.
The woman that challenges every guy in the gym to strength contests.
The creepy guy who walks around the gym invading women’s space, making disgusting gestures, and asking for every woman’s information and making unwanted advances.
The baby boomer and former bodybuilder who wears the spaghetti string tank, which barely covers his nipples, and works just enough to say “he feels the pump,” yet feels the need to impart his wisdom on everyone in the gym.
An endless number of masculine postures dominate gym culture. From overly aggressive salespeople and trainers to the banging of heavy steel weights, the gym is turning into more of a masculine machine than a symbiotic place to improve one’s fitness. This is prevalent when one observes the stratification of the gym areas.
The free weight areas in the gym are always are dominated by men and aerobic classes are majority women.
Granted, working with free weights poses extreme risks for a beginner, but there are light weights, yet men will try to intimidate anyone who gets in the way of their workout, hovering over weight benches and machines with postures that suggest impatience and intolerance. It doesn’t help that everyone clammers to the gym at around the same time, making it impossible to engage in a smooth workout, and usually at these time you see the clear hierarchy on the gym floor.
Some would say that one needs a clear aggressive attitude when attacking a workout, especially in regards to resistance training, but does that energy have to extend to everyone in the gym?
In response to the overly aggressive men, most large gym chains have started to accommodate people who don’t fit into the hyper-masculine culture. Gold’s Gym offers a “women-only” section that features only machines, encouraging women to circuit train in a relaxed gym atmosphere. Curves, a “women-only” health club chain, seems to have gained it’s six million members as a retort to the hegemonic masculinity dominating gym culture. It seems no one asks why women would need these spaces or feel uncomfortable working out side-by-side with men.
My friend Sherica Rosser, an avid gym-goer, explains what she feels as women who clearly notices the pressure to take on a masculine attitude in the gym: “I think it a posture. If you carry yourself in a certain way, people aren’t going to mess with you, but if you are very timid and act like you don’t know what doing, you’re going to get messed with.”
Is this the reason that out of the fourty million Americans that have gym memberships, only twenty percent attend the gym regularly? Is this why home workout dvd sales continue go through the roof?
The majority of people that go to health clubs have novice to intermediate knowledge of weight training, so maintaing confidence in the weight can be worrisome. Most gym’s offer a self-serving way to alleviate the angst by encouraging personal training, but most trainers abide by the gym’s aggressive tone and are very expensive in comparison to aerobic or yoga teachers, whose classes are usually included in the membership. So, again the question arises, why go to the gym just to feel marginalized and out-of-place at a club you’re paying for every month?
What helped me stay focused on my goal was first to accept that “gym culture” was not going to change overnight, and then I figured out how to workout outside the gym. Running and calisthenics became the focus of my workout, while I limited my gym time to once or twice a week. Most people can put on their music and block the gym politics out, but this only will send a message to gym executives that business as usual is OK. The most effective way to balance gym attitudes is to help people understand that “gym culture” is uninviting and superficial in hopes of empowering someone to speak up when they’re uncomfortable.