A Man’s Territory: The Gym

By Jessica D.

By now, many know the health benefits associated with being physically active: avoiding heart disease, depression, obesity, diabetes, and the list goes on. Exercise participation and barriers to physical activity have been widely researched for many decades. Some of the most commonly reported barriers to physical activity include lack of time, lack of enjoyment, lack of social support and lack of past exercise behavior (Trost et al., 2002). However, are we neglecting the fact that intimidation exhibited by male counterparts in a gym environment may account for a large quota of female dropout in physical activity?

The Health Survey for England (Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2011) reported that only 29% of the UK women were achieving recommended levels of physical activity compared to 39% of males. In a study done by Pridgeon and Grogan (2012) whom observed exercise adherence and dropout, all non-adheres were conscious of the presence of others while exercising at the gym. Moreover, when it comes to the way girls dress or the weight they are going to add while doing their bench press at the gym, the presence of males plays a highly influential role.

Traditional public perceptions of a male are expected to be strong, independent, and athletic, whereas females are deemed to be the “weaker sex”. When these gender norms are violated either at the gym or in a sport context, it is common for labels to be given (i.e. “she must be a lesbian”). For this reason, females are left feeling vulnerable in a gym setting, thus, discouraging them from pushing themselves to become in great physical condition, and to most certainly not exceed the condition of their male counterparts.

Although I am no stranger to the gym, the thought of working out next to sweaty guys huffing, puffing, and grunting as they try to bench press hundreds of pounds always makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Take the weight room at the Currie Centre, for example. It has become the norm for women to breeze past the room simply because of the male dominated environment that has been created. For many years, I did the exact same thing myself. I felt as though the glares and stares I was receiving while lifting, at times, as much weight as some of the men in the room were making me feel as though I did not belong in that space. However, being a fitness enthusiast, and being well aware of the health benefits associated with adhering to a weight-training program, I did not let the intimidation of male bodies in the room drive me away. I really enjoyed this post “8 Reasons Why You Should Lift Heavier Weights” : number 7 which caught my eye in particular, mentions how “you’ll feel empowered” and that lifting weights is associated with a boost in self-esteem.

While both men and women work out in contemporary gyms, popular conceptions of the gym as a masculine institution continue. That being said, many alternatives need to be considered for women who do not adhere to gym participation as the result of male intimidation. Women-only gyms, exercising partners, and comfortable clothing, to name a few, are good examples of ways to boost a women’s self-esteem and self-efficacy while at the gym. In the end, shouldn’t we be working towards creating a more accepting gym environment? Don’t women have every right to flaunt their muscly arms and toned legs too?


Trost, S.G., et al., 2002. Correlates of adults’ participation in physical activity: review and update. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 34 (12), 1996–2001. doi: 10.1097/ 00005768–200212000–00020.

Health and Social Care Information Centre 2011. Health Survey for England – 2008: physical activity and fitness. Available from: http://www.ic.nhs.uk/pubs/hse08physicalactivity [Accessed January 2011].

Pridgeon, L., & Grogan, S. (2012). Understanding exercise adherence and dropout: an interpretative phenomenological analysis of men and women’s accounts of gym attendance and non-attendance. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 4(3), 382-399.


4 responses

  1. Interesting post Jessica.

    There is no denying that when women go to the gym they feel self-conscious about how they may come across to other males and females who are working out. As discussed in class, this is shown in how women dress when they go to the gym, and how some of them do not like to sweat because they may be seen as more masculine – when realistically no one really cares, we all sweat. In class we discussed body image and how this has an impact on women who workout, being seen in a weight room with males with give a stereotypical view of being a lesbian as you mentioned.

    I have witnessed first-hand women lifting more than men in the weights room and the looks that they get from passers-by. It is almost as though women are seen as aliens when they workout in the weight room, almost as though they do not belong. Although, the majority of the time it is interesting to see that the women have a better technique than most men that are in there. It could be a possibility that the looks women get are because men are jealous of women who tend to go into the weight room, as they are able to lift heavy weights.

    I think the be all and end all of women working out around men should be that we should be happy to work out around men. Women should be proud to show off that they are athletic, strong and capable. We should not have to live in a world where we are perceived as being too masculine because we are working out.

    From a personal perspective I quite enjoy working out around men. If I am lifting heavier weights than some of them it gives me a sense of achievement, to know that my hard work is paying off, and that I am not just another number who is being judged, or being a stereotypical girl in the gym (lifting weights to look good in front of men).

    The point raised at the end about women-only gyms caught my attention. If this was the case to make gyms specifically for women, is this not taking away from the overall goal of women being comfortable in a gym with men? Although they would become comfortable lifting around women, this may not transfer into the gym with men. Ultimately, they may just stay in their women only gym, which will just lead to a larger divide in sexes.


  2. Excellent post, Jessica!

    Stereotypically, the man is the breadwinner and gets paid for his labour so much of leisure time and funds are allotted for his use. Therefore, leisure spaces such as fitness centres have been predominantly men. In the 21st century, bridging this gap, it can be difficult and intimidating to be a female and work out beside a male. Many at-home, no equipment workouts are more geared towards women so that they can do them in “minute vacations.”

    I have also noticed this phenomenon at the Currie Centre where girls immediately pass by the weight room and go upstairs. Women are more often found using the elliptical and other cardio machines while men are most often using the weight machines or in the weight room. The gym is one place where the stereotypes of men and women that we have discussed in class are still seen. It is an unspoken rule of society that creates the intimidation and stares felt in this setting.

    Last summer, GoodLife Fitness in Saint John closed the single women-only gym they had open in the area. Although I do not know the specific details of their closing, it may be that the location or interest was not there or an attempt to create mutual territory for both men and women. Another location, that is coed, has added childcare services to their list of services available.

    To combat popular conceptions about the gym, it will simply take time and a shift in societal views to change participation rates. Sharing the benefits of lifting weights and encouraging women to venture into the weight room, with a friend, are important to creating a gender-equal society.

    – Andrea J

  3. So glad you wrote about this, Jess! It’s a topic that we all, in Kin, know about but never really discuss in depth.

    For the Varsity athletes on campus, both male and female teams have to work out in the same gym at LB High Performance Center with focus on performance and success, so our point of view may be very much different than those who work out at the Currie. Like Laura said in her comment, we’re proud to workout along-side the male athletes and feel a sense of accomplishment when we rack higher (i.e. I’ve schooled a couple guys in split squats). But that’s because we’ve been constantly surrounded by the dominate male ideologies of sport and performance all of our lives, but then again, I’m talking about my team and our sport of soccer.

    I recently stumbled upon an article (which can be seen here:http://montrealgazette.com/opinion/letters/letters-reasons-for-women-only-gym-at-mcgill-extend-beyond-religion) talking about how some female McGill students were requesting women-only hours for those women who feel uncomfortable with sharing the gym area with male counterparts. The request was eventually denied. But there we’re two valid sides to the argument. Taking the more feminist approach, many said that the women can workout along side men, creating “gains” as much, if not more, than those men; further establishing that women and men are equal. Then there’s the other side of the coin; many women just don’t feel comfortable. They wanted a place free from gazes and comments on form and their bodies. It must have been a very difficult decision to make. It’s tough to find that balance.
    I believe if there’s enough women who want these hours, why not give it to them? I know we are all working towards an equal playing ground; but if women aren’t comfortable doing something, they shouldn’t have to do it that way, and it shouldn’t stop them from doing what they want all together (which may be what happens if the hours aren’t established). Physical activity is important and we all go about it in different ways according to our comfort levels and needs. Some women don’t mind working out alongside men, so they don’t have to go the women-only hours. But for those who want to work out without apprehension, this option is available to them. Maybe once they become comfortable, they can start going outside women only hours; and if they don’t, it doesn’t matter! I think women only hours would be a great option to have, even at UNB! That way, women have the choice to workout how they want and beside who they want. Plus, we won’t have to wait at the squat rack for 3 hours, waiting for the guys to finish.

  4. I really like your post Jessica. I completely agree with all you have to say about the gym being a mans territory. It feels completely intimidating for girls to participate in weight lifting at the down stairs of the Currie center. Most woman feel very intimidated when they see all these huge body building men lifting heavy weights and tend to draw themselves upstairs more then ever. When woman go in there I find the stereotype is like what in the earth are you doing down here go upstairs that seems to be the negative concept that people get when they go into that male dominated environment. I like how you feel like woman have the right to flaunt their muscles and arms just as much as men do. Many woman feel more comfortable when they go to an all girls gym rather then a multisex gym. I feel like us as woman do not put ourselves in full mode capacity at the gym when males are watching us, it feels uncomfortable and weird.
    Desiray Wells

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