January 18, 2011

Gender at the Gym

new janisBy Janis Prince Inniss

Even if you slept through the ball drop in Times Square and missed other signs, there are several major clues that we're at the beginning of a new year.  Many of the indicators are related to weight loss. (There’s a slimmed down Jennifer Hudson in yet another Weight Watchers commercial!) I suppose the hyper focus on losing weight is a result of our overindulgence in high calorie food and drink during the holidays, and also because so many New Year’s resolutions center on weight loss. So as you shop in big and small stores, you'll see weight loss products featured: weights, exercise mats, purported diet aids, and gym clothing. On TV you'll see ads for all of these items, and for gyms.
If you have a gym membership—one that you use—then be prepared for the crowd! Arrive early for your favorite step/cycle or other class because the gym will be packed. All of these “extra” people provide an opportunity to people watch, however. And as a sociologist, people watching is one of my favorite sports. (It’s also one of the reasons that I don’t plug my ears up with music at the gym; I need to hear what’s going on to be fully engaged in my observations! But I digress…)

clip_image002At my gym, most of the cardio machines are on the second floor of a two story building. The second floor overlooks the first and while I sweat and am supposed to be catching up on my newspaper reading, I have a great view of the goings-on downstairs. From my perch above the main floor at my gym, I can witness all kinds of things; in particular, how we “do” gender.

clip_image004In the many years that I’ve been going to gyms, I can’t recall seeing a single man of a certain age with a trainer. Do you know what age I’m referring to? I guess it would be the age at which men think of themselves as in their physical prime, because they appear not to have any interest in being told by anyone how to work out until about age 40 or later, despite the fact that they might be quite clueless about how to properly use the equipment. (Most gyms don’t have regular members under age 18.) I’ve seen young men grunting and sweating “pumping iron” with great confidence, even when their technique was wrong. After about age 40, men seem more willing to get some direction, even from a female trainer…but more on that later.

Women, on the other hand, seem to be the bread and butter of trainers. They are much less likely to strike out on their own with weights or machines than similarly ignorant men. Of course, this is not true across the board, but overall my observation is that women are comfortable in group classes (yoga, Zumba, Pilates, step, kick-boxing and other classes are usually almost exclusively the domain of wclip_image006omen, with a few brave males appearing occasionally). Usually, women are also found on various cardio machines such as stationery bikes, stair masters, and treadmills. But even the most ardent female runners seem reluctant to step into the unknown world of weights and machines.

Yes, lots of women train with free weights and weight machines, many of them without trainers. What I’ve observed though, is that women who don’t know how to use something seem to bide their time and then get a trainer to show them the ropes. For example, Ella (this is the name I’ve given her) is a cardio regular. At least six days a week, she runs or uses some other cardio machine, in addition to attending a spin class! Yet despite her apparent mastery of cardio, a few weeks ago Ella began using weight machines under the direction of a trainer. A man of Ella’s age—I would guess she’s around 30—and fitness level would be far less likely to hire a trainer based on my observations.

clip_image008Another way that I observe gender differences at the gym is by noting the ratio of male to female trainers; males in this profession out number females greatly! (As with other such gendered divisions, I have observed a change in the direction of equality: There are now far more women trainers than just a few years ago and in some areas of the country, the ratio may be about equal.) I’ve also noticed that women are more likely to be clients of the few female trainers.

Why do you think that is? Are men—when they do seek direction in this arena—less willing to take instructions from a woman, in what might still be seen as a masculine endeavor? Would your gender and that of a trainer influence your decision about what trainer to employ? How else do people “do gender” in public spaces?


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I had never thought about the ration of girl trainers to guy trainers before but you there are a lot more men than women. I witnessed that in my high school gym class. We have two male teachers and when we had a female student teacher everyone thought it was weird. I also noticed, like you said, that boys tend not to ask for help on different weight lifting machines. There was only five girls in my gym class and we were always asking how to work machines and the boys never would and they always used the machines in the wrong way. I think it is interesting because I had never thought about the things you said but once I did I defiantly was able to connect it to my everyday life.

I dont know, in my gym classes i had two girl teachers until they retired. Then we got a male teacher we thought that it was strange. We then got a student teacher who was a girl and it kinda balanced out. I think guys tend not to ask questions because they think they know how to use the machines and that if they ask it will seem like they dont know. Its like when some guys dont ask for directions going someplace, they would rather get lost then ask for directions.

This article intrigued me, not only have we only had one female gym teacher at our school she was specifically the middle school gym teacher. She was more than capable to teach at the level of high schoolers, but they just gave the job to a man. And now that man has the job to administer all the gym classes in our school now. I believe that men are more likely to be in shape to be a trainer so that is why you see more men then women trainers. And men don't need a trainer because they will fell less dominant if they need help from another person, so instead they go out and mess something up.


I feel like the observable differences this article recognizes between, or is it among, genders in the gym can be explained by factors other than stereotypical gender traits. First of all, young men are unlikely to have trainers for a few reasons. First, the weight routine for a man is much more simple than it is for a women because of (of course socially based) the focus on strict muscularity and not proportional toning, which is easier to achieve without instruction. Second, the weight routine of a man usually require spotters, so in some sense men do work out with a trainer, which is their spotter. Third, men are more likely to have had gym experience and therefore don't need instruction because more of them participate in competitive sports in school, which comes with weight training and instruction. Then, of course, your observations come into play. I don't think anything is overdeterminative.

Amherst College, Sociology Major, 2007

I find it interesting how different the roles are for different genders. Poeple expect to see a man in a more independant and self-controled situation, where as women are expected to be dependant on men. This is the exact same thing going on in any sort of gym. Men don't need trainers because they're "independant," while it's expected for a women to have a trainer because she's not as "strong" and more "dependant" when it comes to extrenuous physical activies. It's a fairly cliche thought.

I noticed too, that guys do not seek help when in the gym, even when they have no idea what they are really doing.

This was a great blog because I have a work out class that I attend 5 days a week and I have a female trainer who is great! There are only 5 men in that class out of about 30 people total. I'm not sure if it's because most men just don't like taking directions from a woman like you stated or if they just don't like to attend. They're about 40+, so that many also have something to do with it. Even when guys in the gym have no idea what they're doing and could injure themselves, they still take no note or even a thought of considering to grab themselves a trainer, male or female.

I think that men are very careful about not "looking bad" in a gym. This may explain why they are not willing to seek the help of a trainer. They may be afraid that if other men or women see them getting help, they may seem inferior to those who are on their own. I personally would have a problem taking instructions from a female trainer just because my instinct would tell me that they don't know what they are doing because they aren't as strong as I am, even if I was wrong. The gym is one of the best examples of where our gender differences really stand out.

I believe men even if they do not know what they are doing in the gym they will not seek for help. Once your in the gym a sort of arrogance comes over you and feel like nothing can stop you. Men also i think dont like taking advice from a women in the gym. I think this hurts a mans ego. I think if men need help in the gym they want the muscle head trainer that looks like hes been almost a masterpiece or has a body made from stone

I can see where you are coming from. As a guy, I would have no interest in having a female teach me how to lift weights. Men like to think of themselves as the stronger and more physically fit of the two sexes and getting help with "pumping iron" by a female may come to be embarrassing for them. The male is a proud, independent, and sometimes ignorant species. This reminds me of cliched episodes on tv where a man and a woman are driving somewhere obviously lost and the man refuses to ask directions while the woman pleads him. Men like to think they can do things and figure out things on their own.

I think that men are stubborn and don't want to ask for help because they might think that other view them as clueless. Men want to have the upper hand and want to viewed as a stronger independent person. Women are not afraid to asked help if they need it. It's like in my family my dad is to stubborn to ask a person for directions and my mom will ask anyone if she needs the help. I agree on what Jakob said, men find it embarrassing asking a women for help lifting weights. It is more than just weight lifting that men would find it embarrassing to ask a women for help.

I also can imagine how men are too stubborn to get aid when it comes to working out. It seems most men think they are perfectly equipped with the skills needed at the gym to get more fit. Once a male has his mind set to go workout they are usually motivated and don't have the insight to have a trainer help them along the way, but this is not in every case. For example athletes, who most likely yield a trainer through their career, and also any typical male has been through some type of lifting program. Most males who had gone through high school would have taken some kind of psychical training course and may have some knowledge on the "how to's."

I think that men feel like they don't need a trainer because they do know what they are doing and for a women they do need a trainer because some women don't feel like they are doing well. I do see some women try to lift more weights than guys and sometimes they don't need a trainer. I know men do feel ambarrassed when other men see them get trained by a trainer.

I liked this article because it described gender roles in a location where one usually doesn't, the gym. It shows how different men and women are physically, because of their choices in workouts. Also, it's an example of how women have advanced in society recently because of the increase in the number of female trainers, which traditionally is a profession for men.

I am only 17 but I dont like doing yoga and all those other classes. i would much rather run and use weights or machines to help improve my arm straingth. The first time through these machines i like to have someone there to help me so i dont hurt myself but i dont think i would care if it was a male or female. I also thing that males want to think of that they are manly and not in need of help. They may also want to impress someone and having help is not as impressive as doing it on your own.

After reading this article, I can see how it relates to my everyday life. I have never really thought about how guys are always more into the workout equipment whether they are doing it right or wrong; whereas girls are more apt to ask for help and direction for the exercise. At my high school we only have male gym teachers and there are always more males than females in the classes and girls are always asking if they are doing an exercise right, and the guys just do it. This story really related to many ideas I hadn't thought about.

I think its interesting to see the difference in the way men and women work out at the gym. Men seem to have a larger fascination with watching themselves work out in the mirror than women do. I agree with Janice when she talks about the guys that lift weights with absolutely no technique, I can only wonder if some guys go to the gym to show off. I have also noticed the absurd amount of men that use the gym for social hour, it is easy to distinguish the ones that are there to seriously work out and those who are there to socialize. Personally, I would love to have a trainer to show me how to better my exercised and benefit the most out of working out. Janice is totally right when she says that men under 40 don't really use trainers because I rarely see younger men using them.

I found this article very interesting, and I agree with quite a bit of it. I work out pretty frequently in my school's weightroom, and while I do use free weights and machines more than the treadmill, most other girls my age can be found on the bikes, rowing machines, or treadmills. I'm not exactly sure why this is, maybe its because many women associate lifting weights with big muscles. Who knows. But, I also agree witht the point you made about many guys carelessly lifting weights. Their form is clearly not correct, and yet they refuse to ask anyone to correct them. Males feel the need to look strong and confident, especially in a weightroom or gym where there are females watching. I never realized the role of genders in a weightroom or gym before, so thanks for pointing it out!

From my personal experience, I think that women are now becoming more popular in becoming trainers is because they have caring quality while trainer and just asking a question, rather with men. I’m not saying there is no nice men trainers out there, but sometimes I do get a little bit intiminated by them. Like for example; one time I was using the weight machines improperly ( I honestly didn’t know what I was doing) and a male trainer said, “ What are you doing? Your doing this wrong, this is how your suppose to do it.” once he left without asking any questions I felt kinda stupid. But after I was done using the wight machine, a female trainer walks up to me and says, “ How’s your work out going? Is everything ok? Do you have any questions or need any help with anything?” Having that caring attitude about trying to work out really helps me out on a personal and phsical level.

I can see where women would need help more. My dad works out and its like he just always knew what he was doing and he really wanted to be in the gym. My mom has to be made to go and then she needs my dad to show her what to do. Some of the girls at my school take weight training buy they have to shown what to do and watched to make sure they do it right. They guys just go in and do it. I think the women like men trainers because they like the guy attention and feel more comfortable because they like the attention and it just seems natural that a guy knows more about it and will help more. The guys don't want trainers because they know what their doing and do not need someone to help them. They may like a girl trainer for the one of the same reason women like men, the attention. I think it goes along with the chemical makeup of male and female, men are the hunters and women the caregivers. In training, men just do it and women need to make it a relationship thing.

I think that men feel the need to show off in the gym, whether it be to women or to feel superior to the other men there. This is probably why they do not like to use trainers as well. Women like to know they are doing things correctly as well so they are more apt to ask for help or advice on how to use machines properly.

This is one of those things that you don't notice, in my opinon. But it is so true. I hardly ever see guys getting help doing things in the gym. Whether it be a personal trainer or learning how to use the weight or cardio equipment, they just never ask for help. They think that it will make them less of a man if they ask for help because this is supposed to be their laboratory and if they can't operate the things inside of it then they think it will make them less of a man. Women are more likely to ask how to do things in the gym because they want to know how to use things properly just so they have that peace of mind that they are doing everything correctly and that they won't hurt themselves in the long-run.

This is a very interesting observation that I hadn't really thought about that closely! Most of the guys that I see work out fall into that same category of not wanting to have help working out. I think for a lot of guys working out is something that correlates with their pride. It is something that they invest a lot of effort in and don't want to have to attribute any success to others when they are proud of the end result, even if they could have better results if they asked for help. Women, however, tend to feel more self-conscious in a weight room that is stereotypically male-oriented. They don't want to feel out of place so they invest in the time and effort to have a smooth transition to the new environment.

I would have to agree with the fact that men don't seem to need a trainer because they think they know what they are doing. At my gym there are no female trainers and only male. I have 3 trainers and they are all male. When ever I go to the gym there are always a ton of guys with the weights, and the girls on the cardio machines. I personally use both the cardio machines and the weights because i know how to use them properly. I see a lot of women getting trainers for their work outs. I am yet to see one guy have a trainer. Guys don't want to seem less than a man by getting a trainer to help them with working out. Girls don't worry about what others think, they just go into the gym and get a work out in and get out.

This was a great article. I really enjoyed your observations of the gym participants. Its interesting how these little things have a must bigger meaning that not everyone would understand.

It is strange that at a simple evironment like a gym, you can see examples of the differences in genders. Many are like many of the gender stereotypes.

I think that one problem with males is that their pride gets in the way, god forbid they don't know that answer to something. I am a male, i am 17, i use the gym, and work with a trainer. I have no issue taking advice from someone else. In fact all i have ever known about exercising was taught to me by someone else and the ability for us to pass this along is really beneficial to other people. I think if males are more open to advice they could get so much more out of their gym experience. Woman on the other hand wouldnt be caught dead in the weight section so i think that there is a little bit of closed mindedness on both sides of the spectrum.

The concepts of this article were intriguing. I am also the type of person to observe others when in public, and in the gym, I have also observed young men doing certain workouts incorrectly. For example, I often see men moving too quickly and pulling with their backs when weight training. Although I am a girl, I know this is incorrect and can be harmful. However, young men not letting others train and help them surprised me because I thought of coaches. Most boys in high school have a coach whom they respect and look to for advice. If boys can feel comfortable receiving advice from a coach why is it difficult to receive at the gym by a trainer? I think men can be hesitant to receive help from a woman; however, I think once they acclimate to it, it can be useful. For example, at my high school, the throwing coach for girls and boys is female. Both genders have respect for her and neither has questioned her ability as a coach because of her gender. I find this to be unique but also an eye opening observation. Both boys and girls can be taught by a female coach, but a female trainer, training a man, is hard to come by.

I found this article very interesting, it's so typical of people, but it hasn't occurred to me to read more about it. I think it's typical behavior of men, especially when they see themselves as being in the know about working out and in the gym. I think women are less arrogant and can ask for help. If they are going to exercise, women want to be doing the right thing to get results, not just working out for the sake of working out.

I had never previously before made the relationship between the amount of female to male trainers and the willingness of men and women to use those trainers. I thought that it was very interesting and true how men usually don't use trainers while in their prime. I had never before really thought about it but it is quite obvious. Because of the stereotype of men being physically far superior to women, I feel like it will continue to be harder for women to become trainers than men even though that isn't fair. Men are definitely less likely to ask for help and thus the women and few men who actually ask for help are the ones getting the best work out which I found very ironic.

Fascinating article Janis!
In my late thirties I found the need to start a fitness regimen. In this time, perhaps the most interesting combination, and maybe the rarest, has been the female trainer with the older male student. What a test of ego and non-traditional role assignment for the male! I myself would not 'personally' be adverse to taking direction from a female trainer. I think my biggest challenge would be to get ignore the looks, smirks and stares from other gym users while in a training session. This skill does, thankfully, become easier with age. After all, some of the best bodybuilding advice I've ever received was from a woman. Cheers!

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