The co-ed gym

17 Mar

I’ve been going to a women’s gym for several years and due to various circumstances, decided to switch my membership to a gym closer to where I live. This particular gym happens to be a co-ed gym.

Working out with only women is its own thing, but working out with men is quite another. The dynamic is different, it smells different, and people behave differently when the opposite sex is present.

I go to the gym because exercise makes me feel good and helps me look good in my clothes, but that doesn’t tell me anything about why a man might opt for the gym, so I spent time reading weight training and men’s health forums and found some good opinions to help me understand a guy’s motivation. I came upon this very honest and revealing opinion from a young man explaining why he loves going to the gym: “There’s this innate need in us to be appreciated, to be praised, and to be admired. Make no mistake about it, 99% of males go to the gym for one reason – to be more attractive to the opposite sex. Females have the ability to significantly alter the male behaviour with their presence alone.”

I’ve been told that the women at my gym tend to do the fitness classes like group yoga and such, while the men mostly concentrate on the weights. I’ve always weight-trained and since I haven’t found a yoga instructor at the gym that I particularly like, I’m one of a handful of women who use the free weights and weight machines in this mostly masculine realm.

When I’m in this masculine domain doing my thing, men notice that I’m there. I sometimes think that they’re mystified that a woman is there using free weights or maybe they’re sneering at my technique; maybe they respect me, or perhaps something completely different.

Dangerous interruption

One day while I was listening to music on my iPod and using a 30 lb bar bell (no snickering please), a big muscle-bound fella comes over and says something to me. I stopped, put down the weight, and took the earphone out to hear him ask me how long I’d be at the bench. I was completely dumbfounded that this person would interrupt someone’s concentration in mid-pump and ask how long they’d be with the equipment. Now,  I can understand if someone spoke to me if I was sitting on the equipment texting or daydreaming (bad gym etiquette), but I was using the equipment. With a heavy weight, I expect that interrupting someone’s routine is potentially dangerous.

I found a soul sister’s comments on a forum for this example: “…if you want to strike out, then be sure to try to talk to me when I’ve got my headphones on, and make me take them out to hear you say something inane. Grrr.”

Women seem to be mixed on the question of being approached at the gym, but I will say that while she’s wearing headphones, it’s a  suggestion of exercise and not conversation.

Testosterone country

But back to the guy. I noticed him walking by most of the machines I was using. I mentioned this to my male friends who laughed at the story. “We used to do that in grade school when we liked a girl,” one friend said. Elementary school? A grown man with the same level of emotional intelligence as an adolescent boy?

I thought about it. Sounds like the old one-track mind routine brought to you by testosterone, the stuff that helps men focus on the task at hand. This time though, testosterone’s control over this guy seemed to reduce what was already lacking and focused on his immediate needs (“need bench”, “need to talk to / irritate woman”). But no one knows for sure.

Does everyone stare?

Now as I said, gender behaviour changes when there is mixed company and when gym-going women choose to dress in tight or revealing clothing, the testosterone focus can switch from pumping iron to pumping blood. I read a comment from one fellow who said that after staring at a woman, he lifted 20% more weight on the bench press. Wow. I didn’t realize that women had that kind of effect on men.

I look around me when I’m working out and notice the people, see what they’re doing, notice what they’re wearing, imagine what they do based on the way their heads are groomed, and I will admit that from afar, I admire men doing pull-ups because bearing witness to a man working his upper body is amazing and awe-inspiring to me. Sometimes the men notice me noticing them but I am usually respectfully clandestine about it – i.e. I’m not ogling them.

Everyone will have their own opinion, but looking to the forums again, I found a range of women’s opinions about what it’s like to be stared at by the men at the gym:

a) As long as it is not leering I take it as a compliment. After all I am working hard to look good. Nice to know it is appreciated.

b) I focus on my workouts and never make eye contact… so if someone is staring I wouldn’t even know…

This young man sums it up quite well: “I’d say noticing is fine, staring is rude, but as long as you’re not camped out with a pair of binoculars and a box of donuts, you’re probably okay.”

I’m not here to judge or get down on anyone, but I think women should be more aware of what they wear to exercise in because men like to look at women and that isn’t going to change. Women’s bodies are very distracting to men and if women don’t want to be noticed / stared at, they should maybe think twice about wearing a push-up bra under their low-cut gym top in full make-up (these choices make me question women’s motivation). One weight-training forum guy says: “I think women who feel offended by [men staring at them] should use good judgment when choosing what to wear to the gym. Some guys are just gonna stare regardless, but come on, don’t wear booty shorts and a short sports bra looking thing to the gym and hop on the thigh master or butt blaster, you’re asking to get stared at.”

I can only speak for myself and I’ll tell you that it makes me uncomfortable to be stared at while at the gym. I don’t think most men want to make women feel ill at ease, so it might be a good thing to be conscious of what your eyes are doing, guys, as in, how you’re looking at women but also how long you’re looking at them.

To sum up this week’s post, I think this fellow says it well: “… in the presence of ladies, the motivation to exercise even harder is never lacking, but there is nothing quite like working the bench press or preacher’s curls… [and] come out feeling more like a man, more masculine, more fulfilled, having achieved something at the end of the day.” Isn’t that what it’s all about, fellas?

5 Responses to “The co-ed gym”

  1. craig hirota June 2, 2011 at 9:45 am #

    re: the issue of being stared at or wearing body conscious clothing

    Leah, one point I think you might not be considering is that people like to look at themselves. Any commercial fitness center is usually wall to wall in mirrors. Despite what some might say, the real reason for those mirrors is not to monitor your exercise form (if that were the case, there’d be mirrors on the ceilings and on angles so you could also see your back), it’s so the people using the gym can see themselves. In a facility designed for performance (college/pro weight rooms, cross fit gyms etc), there are usually very few mirrors.

    Women and men that say they don’t like to be stared at yet still wear body conscious clothing are doing it for themselves. That creates a pretty tricky etiquette dynamic in a public facility designed to accentuate visibility.

    • Leah Morrigan June 2, 2011 at 10:06 am #

      Hello Craig! Nice to hear from you. I appreciate what you’re saying, knowing that you are a personal trainer, and I really hadn’t thought much about the mirrors (and I’m surprised to hear that performance facilities have few mirrors). I know that while I studied ballet, the studios are fully mirrored specifically so we can check our posture and our movements, so I make the same assumption about gyms… am I being naive in my thinking?

      It’s funny because I notice some people looking in the mirror watching their form and others admiring themselves (and I will do a gym version of “Of unconscious behaviour” soon, describing what I see people doing in front of mirrors among other things at the gym, speaking of etiquette). I guess that means that everyone is different. Thanks for your opinion!

  2. craig hirota June 2, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    There is a saying, “movements not muscles” that applies to using workouts to improve a specific sport performance. For those goals, it’s important for the person to be able to develop a feel that doesn’t rely on 2d visual cues as there are no mirrors on the playing field or on the competitive lifting platform. It’s a little different than dance or yoga in that the precision of the movements can often be somewhat secondary to the execution of the lift. Most advanced competitors either use video or coaches or more likely, a combination of both to refine their technique for optimal performance.

    For me personally, I perform better when I can’t see myself. If I see my face straining, what I see overrides what I feel and I notice that my performance suffers. When I can’t see myself and can just concentrate on the lift, it’s just me and the weight.

    For those whose goals are limited to bodybuilding, it very often is a “muscles not movements” based workout. In those situations, observing your muscles contract can be beneficial to the extent that you can see those muscles. This is why so many guys who train to look a certain way spend so much time on chest and biceps. They’re the easiest muscles to see in the mirror. Very often working their back, legs (especially the posterior chain) gets neglected because there just isn’t that gratifying payoff of seeing those muscles flex and pump up.

    • Leah Morrigan June 2, 2011 at 10:29 am #

      What an interesting observation, Craig. I’ll be watching the men at my gym differently with this information.


  1. Of unconscious behaviour: at the gym « In the Key of He - July 14, 2011

    […] how our actions will affect other people. This is also the second post about my observations about behaviour in gyms. I’m melding these two concepts together this week to draw your attention to gym behaviour, […]

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