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Creating Space in the Gym

I work at an all-women’s gym in Cambridge, MA, called Healthworks. Many of the women I’ve met, at least in part, joined because of the absence of men. (We do have men working there because of equal opportunity, but I’ll vouch for them.) Women report to me that some of the local co-ed gyms feel more like singles bars than a place to get sweaty. Others have said that they feel less pressure to perform their femininity at a women’s gym — they can wear a ratty t-shirt, no makeup, and make sincerely ugly strenuous-effort-faces because they don’t have anyone to impress. Most often, though, these women report feeling intimidated by men at the gym, often because men seem to take up all the space in the weight area and stare blankly (or snidely) at any woman who dares pick up a dumbbell (or worse, a barbell).

I get it. Before I worked at Healthworks, I went exclusively to inexpensive co-ed gyms. There were rarely any women in the free-weight areas. If I went during lunch, I’d jog to the gym, grind out some intervals on the treadmill, take a quick tour around the dumbbells, perform 7,000 crunch variations (all the while wondering why my back hurt), and jog back to work to complete my paper-towel shower. After work, I’d head to a strength or cardio class. I didn’t have a great routine; I wasn’t really sure what to do, so I winged it, which didn’t boost my confidence. I’d watch these beefy guys come in, hop on a bike or treadmill for 5 minutes tops, and then hit the weight room. They all seemed to know exactly what they were doing (though, looking back on it, most of them probably had no clue). Whether or not they were watching me, whether or not they were judging me, when I stepped on that weight-room floor, I definitely thought they were. It’s not that I felt unsafe, I just felt like an idiot.

So here are some lessons I’d like to teach my younger self (aka, Little Shan):

  • If you don’t know what you’re doing, learn something. Pick up a book, read some blogs, and watch videos on form. If you can, get in some sessions with a personal trainer. If that trainer won’t give you a program to work from, ditch them. (They’re not under an obligation to give you 30-days of programming for free, but they should at least make the workouts you do together available so you can do them on your own.)

  • If you think everyone is judging you, change your narrative. Catch some dude eyeing your squats? Instead of assuming that he’s cataloguing your failures in form (both exercise and physique), decide he’s impressed (and not by your ass). Walk around the gym like you belong there. Take up space. You have every right to get in the workout you want.

  • Learn gym etiquette. While taking up space, it helps to know what’s expected on the weight floor.

  • Plan to share equipment (called, “working in”). Rather than collecting every weight you’ll need over the next 45 minutes, grab what you need for the exercises you’re about to perform. If someone asks to use something you have and you aren’t in the process of using it, you can say something like, “Yeah, I have a couple more sets, but we can share.” Sometimes they’ll decide to wait until you’re done, but if they get the etiquette, they’ll be cool with working in.

  • Pay attention to what’s happening around you. If you’re in an area where people are swinging kettlebells or performing cleans and jerks, that’s probably not a safe place to set up your mat for planks. And watch where you’re walking — don’t walk behind someone doing burpees or lunges. It won’t end well.

  • Take up space, but be aware that other people get to take up space too. Don’t set up right in front of a piece of equipment, especially if you’re not using it. If you need a dumbbell, grab it and go. Don’t stand in front of the dumbbells to get the work in. And don’t put your stuff on a bench you’re not using.

  • Wear headphones. Listen to your favorite music or a podcast to put you in your own world. You’ll still need to be aware of what’s going on around you so you don’t get smacked in the face with a barbell, but you can soften your perspective if you have something to distract you.

  • Avoid mirrors. I’m of the seemingly unpopular opinion that mirrors are superfluous in gyms. Working out in front of a mirror is more likely to make you feel self-critical and contributes to a negative body image. In my opinion, it can also inhibit your ability to feel your body working and create muscle memory. If you really need to check your form, record yourself so you can see what you’re doing wrong (and right!) and then fix it.

  • If someone makes you feel unsafe, get help. If someone hits on you (or just acts like a asshole), feel free to shrug it off the way you’d shrug off any unwanted advances (or assholery). But if someone won’t back off, find an employee and lodge a complaint. Chances are, they don’t want to deal with it either, but it’s their job (not yours). And if this person gets enough complaints, eventually they’ll be asked to find a new gym. If the employee makes you feel like it’s your fault or won’t take you seriously, find a new gym and tell everyone you know (and everyone on the internet) about your experience.

Those are some lessons I would’ve liked Little Shan to internalize. If you’re having trouble with confidence on the gym floor, give these strategies a try and report back. If you find (or have already found) something else that works for you, please let us know in the comments section!

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