[Note: This blog post uses binary language for simplicity and because the specific stories I am sharing on this topic involve men harassing women. That being said, I am not discounting that men also harass non-binary people in fitness spaces.]
Recently I was chatting with my friend, Ally, and she told me a story about an exchange she had with a guy at the gym where she works out. She was doing squats in the squat rack, getting ready to do a warm-up set with 90 lbs on the bar. While she had the barbell on her shoulders, the guy in the squat rack next to her frantically waved at her and loudly said, “Excuse me! Hey!”
Ally assumed it must have been urgent, so she re-racked the barbell, took out her headphones and asked him what was up. He pointed to her barbell and said to her, “Just so you know, that’s a men’s barbell” referring to the standard 45 lb barbell she was using. She looked at him incredulously and replied, “Yes…I know.” He retorted with, “I was just checking. Just making sure you knew so you didn’t try to load too much weight. There’s a women’s one over there if you want that instead,” referring to a smaller 33 lb barbell nearby.
As someone who has worked out in commercial gyms for over a decade, I have had my fair share of bad experiences with men at the gym, and I have heard plenty of stories from my friends. But Mansplainer Chad from Ally’s story truly reached new heights of patronizing. Her experience inspired me to ask around on social media about women’s experiences with men at gyms, and the majority of the women I spoke with (though not all) had tales of their own.
Stories were especially common from women who worked out at commercial gyms. Most women who worked out at more community-oriented boutique gyms or specialized studios seemed to have much better experiences with the men who worked out alongside them.
Some of the stories I heard were so common that I decided to put together five guidelines for men who interact with women at the gym (spoiler alert: you should treat women in the gym pretty much exactly how you treat other men in the gym). Read the guidelines below, take some time to absorb them, and then implement them.
Guideline #1 – Use Gender-Neutral Language
The guy at Ally’s gym made many bad decisions the day he interrupted her, not the least of which was referring to the 45 lb barbell on her shoulders as a “men’s” barbell and referring to the lighter, 33 lb barbell nearby as a “women’s” barbell. And barbells aren’t the only thing in fitness culture that have been given a gendered label. For example, most of us have heard knee-assisted push-ups called “girl” or “girly” push-ups.
One of the reasons gendered language is problematic is because it feeds into assumptions about different gender identities (e.g., the stereotype that women are always weaker than men and shouldn’t train as heavy). Further, the use of gendered language also completely leaves out non-binary people. Are they not allowed to strength train?
Avoiding gendered terminology in favor of gender-neutral language is not that difficult to do. The vastness of the English language makes gendered descriptors in the gym completely unnecessary. Instead of “men’s barbell” or “women’s barbell,” you could say “standard barbell” and “lighter barbell” or “45 lb barbell” and “33 lb barbell.” A push-up performed on the knees can simply be described as a “knee-assisted pushup.”
Guideline #2 – Keep Unsolicited Advice To Yourself
Of all my gym pet peeves, men who give women unsolicited (and often bad) advice is probably the one that annoys me the most, and women are confronted with it all the time. These gems are great examples:
“In the gym I worked out at long ago there were two ‘fixtures’ (men who apparently lived there) who CONSTANTLY went around correcting women’s form and telling them they should not ‘bulk’ areas of their bodies because it was unattractive.” – Nicki F.
“I’ve had numerous times where men have given me unsolicited and very *wrong* advice… like telling me as a woman I shouldn’t bench press and only stick to lightweight chest flyes. The worst, though, was when I was in my early 20’s and still pretty new to lifting. A man approached me and said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that you have a pretty good shape, and if you keep at it and lose some weight, you’ll end up with a really good body.’” – Eliza C.
Most of us feel the urge to give advice because we want to be helpful and we think the information we have to provide would be useful for the other person, which is understandable. But individuals rarely respond well to uninvited advice from strangers who don’t know anything about their situation, especially if the advice feels like it is shaming them or calling them out for something. An even more important reason not to give out advice at the gym is that your advice might be wrong in general or wrong for that individual.
Somehow it still needs to be said that (1) women can do whatever they want with their bodies, and (2) women do not have to stick with certain training plans or tools by virtue of identifying as women. Not all women want or need to use a lighter barbell, just as not all men are strong enough to use the standard barbell. Women can train all the same body parts using all the same exercises as men, and assuming that you know better about how exercises will affect an individual woman’s body composition and what a woman’s body “should” look like is patronizing, patriarchal, and none of your business.
When it comes to exercise form, I understand and empathize with the desire to correct incorrect form. I cringe, too, when I see someone deadlifting with a severely rounded back or swinging their arms around during bicep curls. But strangers at the gym have not hired me to help them, so it’s not my place to say anything unless in that exact moment it looks like they are going to really hurt themselves.
No, not hurt themselves as in, “If he keeps doing that exercise that way he is really going to mess up his back.” I am talking about, “Holy crap, she didn’t set the safety bar and it looks like she is going to get crushed!” Not only is it not your place to correct someone’s form, but I have seen things in the gym in the past that looked “wrong” to me only to find out later that the thing I had seen was legitimate. Never assume you know everything there is to know about exercise, because I can promise you do not.
Guideline #3 – Don’t Provide Physical Help In The Gym Unless You Ask First Or Have Been Asked
Someone is probably going to start yelling at me about how feminists are killing chivalry, but it’s just not a man’s place to try to physically help women in the gym who don’t want or need their help. Here are some examples of men “helping” women in the gym that are less chivalrous and more egocentric:
“I was trying to swap out the grip handles on a cable machine. The carabiner had sticky gunk all over it (gross), so I was having some trouble prying it open. This guy came out of nowhere and said with a sly smirk, ‘Need some help with that, sweetheart?’ Before I could utter ‘No, thanks,’ he reached up and started messing with the carabiner. I just stood back and watched as he struggled with it. Finally, he looked at me, shrugged, and said, ‘It’s stuck,’ and then walked away. I mean, dude – it’s a carabiner. I know how to operate a carabiner.” – Krystle N.
“One time I was on the main floor of my gym doing barbell squats. I was coming up from my last rep and ready to re-rack the bar when I felt the weight lifted by a pair of hands behind me. A man I DID NOT KNOW took it upon himself to ‘spot’ me even though I wasn’t having any trouble squatting. He continued to come talk to me between sets.” – Carly S.
Let me remind you that neither of these women had requested assistance or actually needed it. Similarly, when I first started strength training, men would often move barbells or large weight plates for me without asking at the first sign it wasn’t a breeze for me to pick those items up.
Yes, barbells and weight plates can feel heavy, especially when someone is first starting out. But women are presumably in the weight room to lift and move heavy things. And the times I actually needed help, like when a guy left all of his plates on a barbell on the top position of a squat rack, I always asked for it.
If a person is pinned underneath a barbell on a bench or panicking at the bottom of a squat, by all means, please go help them! But if there is no obvious danger, do not spot a person or move any equipment for someone who hasn’t asked you to.
If you really want to help someone because they are struggling and you think it would be the polite thing to do, then ask sincerely if they would like your help. The few times men in the gym have actually asked me and I did want help, I accepted it. If I didn’t want help, I just said “I’ve got it, thank you,” and that was that. It is far better to ask someone if they need help and be told “no” than to start helping without talking to the person about it first.
Guideline #4 – Allow Women To Take Up The Same Space and Time In The Gym As You Allow Other Men To
A client once lamented to me that several men on different occasions at the gym I used to coach at had asked her if she could move so they could “get their sets in.” Apparently they had decided that their sets were more important than her sets. So many women have told me similar stories, including these:
“When I was doing a superset using two weight machines back and forth, guys would freely help themselves to my second machine and change all the weights I had set up without acknowledging my existence, while the same guys would be very polite asking other guys if they were done with equipment before taking over.” -Sarah M.
“Men jump in when I’m clearly using a [piece of equipment] and move all my shit around without asking.” – Symone S.
At the gym, men feel much more comfortable asking women to move, pressuring women to give up equipment (or just taking it from them without asking), and coming into women’s personal space than they do with other men. This kind of (often passive-aggressive) behavior sends the message, “You don’t deserve to take up space here,” when many women already feel uncomfortable using the weight room because they are the minority in those spaces.
Treat women in the gym with the same respect you treat men in the gym. If you want to work in with a woman, ask her if it’s okay first. And if she says no or that she is almost finished, respect that and back off until she is clearly done with the equipment. If a woman has equipment near her, don’t just assume she’s not using it. Always ask before making a move to take it. Lastly, don’t lurk too close to women or try to hurry them through their sets. Give them the same berth you’d give another man.
Guideline #5 – Don’t Interrupt Women Who Are Working Out Unless You Have A Good Reason
One time I was doing barbell back squats at a commercial gym in Chicago, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a guy walk up behind me and pick up my programming sheet. I was so taken aback that I cut my set short, re-racked my barbell, took out my headphones, and turned to look at him. Completely nonchalantly he said, “Hi. I’ve been watching you, and I was just curious what your program looks like. Can you tell me more about it?” I was so annoyed by this guy that it completely ruined the rest of my workout.
Another woman told me the following story:
“I was deadlifting 195 lbs for reps on the deadlift platform. There were these two older guys doing some kind of crazy looking, bootcamp-type, CrossFit mess of a workout. I am of the slow and heavy crowd of lifting, so I took my paces around the gym in between sets then came and sat down by my heavily stacked barbell. I was just sitting and changing the music on my phone. I like to rest about 3-5 minutes between heavy sets. One of the dudes came up to me and said, ‘Are you lifting or are you Facebooking?’ There was an open platform next to me, so why he needed to even talk to me was confusing to me. ‘I’m resting between sets,’ I replied with a steely glare. He said, ‘Looks like you’re playing on your phone to me!'” – Tyna M.
I don’t think the guys in either of these stories had malicious intent. I imagine they were probably looking for excuses to talk to us. But the last place I want to be interrupted or distracted is when I am doing anything with a heavy barbell. Hell, I don’t want to be interrupted at any point during my workouts unless there’s a good reason.
I’m not saying it’s inappropriate to ever strike up a conversation with someone at the gym. If there’s an opportunity for a natural conversation—maybe you and a woman are both waiting for squat racks to open up and you start talking to her while you’re passing the time—then fine. But please don’t interrupt women while they are working out.
Not to compliment them, not to ask for a date with them, not to give them advice or correct their form (see guideline #2), and definitely not to subtly shame them about whatever it is they may be doing. If you really want to talk to a woman at the gym out of the blue or ask her on a date, then do so when she is completely finished with her workout. This way you won’t throw off her workout or put her on the spot when she is trying to focus.
If you need to interrupt a woman to ask her if she is using a piece of equipment, if you can work in with her, or for anything else that would be kosher for you to interrupt one of your bros for, that’s fine. Just do so politely, and wait to ask until she is between sets instead of while she’s slinging weights around.
All Of These Guidelines For Men At The Gym Are Common Sense
More and more women are discovering strength training and making their way to the weight room, guys. You’re going to have to get used to sharing the space. And to the men out there who have always treated their sisters of the iron with respect and dignity in the gym, keep doing what you’re doing. We appreciate you, and the respect is mutual.
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