Weight training: why is there still a gender gym gap?

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The male-only weights room is a thing of the past, so why is there still a gender gym gap? Personal trainer Alice Liveing has had enough of the judgment.

Last week, I was in the weights area of my gym along with a few men squatting with barbells on their shoulders and bench-pressing dumbbells. As I began setting up my next exercise, putting weights onto a landmine (a barbell propped in a corner that you lift up), I could feel someone watching me. 

I turned to see a man who’d been doing bicep curls next to me roll his eyes. He picked up his weights and sighed before stomping off. It was clear I had irritated him. But what had I done? Was I doing the exercise wrong? Was I in his space? Suddenly, I felt like I didn’t belong there.

Then I remembered who I was: a personal trainer with five years’ experience training with weights who knew exactly what she was doing and, like every person, had every right to be in that space. As I continued my training, those initial insecure thoughts quickly flipped to fury. If I’d been made to feel out of place, then what on earth must it be like for someone just starting out on their fitness journey?

Indeed, a recent survey by Sure Women suggests that one in four women are intimidated on the gym floor, and half have felt negatively judged while working out. You’d think this would no longer be a thing: more women than ever are training with weights (London boutique gym Third Space says over 50% of their strength and conditioning class attendees are women), while online fitness communities led by women are thriving. Seeing females in the weights area is no longer stare-worthy like it was when I started out in 2015 – a time when men would often question whether I was capable of squatting the bar that I had racked up heavily (I was). 

woman lifting weights at gym
The gender gym gap: ne in four women feel too intimidated to go to the gym

Yet five years later, I’m still receiving messages most days from women who have experienced similar situations: they’ve been patronisingly asked if they need help; told that they won’t be able to lift something; offered a training session from men with no more knowledge than them. This is what keeps many women on the weightlifting sidelines.

Unwanted advice

Another female personal trainer recently told me that an unqualified man began offering her client tips when she was training them. Journalist Laura Snapes’ tweeted that she slipped a disc after taking a man’s advice in the gym. It’s a classic example of why people shouldn’t judge someone else’s workout: you don’t know the ins and outs of their training or their body. But it’s not just the unsolicited advice; it’s the looks and the OTT tuts between sets that can make us feel uncomfortable and hyper-aware of our place – and our bodies.

It doesn’t help that although there are plenty of gyms packed with women, many are visually gendered towards men, which I think reinforces the gender gym gap. Some people are also stuck in the mindset that a woman showing physical strength is a strange phenomenon. See female athletes being constantly judged on their appearance, while men are celebrated for looking strong and muscular; see Love Island where the guys are the only ones shown in the gym, even though female contestants have said they exercised during their time in the villa.

While social media is helping to normalise weight training among women (influencers like myself have grown huge audiences by sharing workout routines and encouraging people to get into the weights room), it can still be a perilous place of comparison that impacts our body image and fuels our gym fear. A scroll through #strongisthenewskinny on Instagram (1.7 million posts and counting) shows image after image of lean, toned women. Variety in bodies is limited, and so self-doubt creeps in. As a society, the acceptance that women in bigger, muscular bodies can be healthy is still thin on the ground. I hear it all the time. Often, it’s because they’re not fulfilling a sexual ideal constructed by men.

Discomfort zone

Then there’s the awful matter of harassment. Recent statistics from fitness equipment review site FitRated suggest that, shockingly, 71% of women have been sexually harassed in the gym. Just last month, a tweet from a woman showing her gym’s response to a complaint about a man’s judgmental and aggressive attitude went viral. The brand excused his behaviour, putting it down to ‘high testosterone levels’ when training. I know, outrageous.

A man and woman in the gym talking
There’s no reason why men belong in the free weight section more than women do

I’ve heard people suggest more women-only weights areas, but aside from religious or cultural circumstances, I can’t see how that’s the solution. We should tolerate everyone in a public space, and we shouldn’t make changes for those (men) who can’t get their head around others (women) deadlifting 80kg.

Here’s the thing: the gym can feel like a really exposing place. When else are you that stripped back and pushing yourself to your limits? But it should also make you feel empowered – I like to think of training as bullet-proofing my body. Weight training is beneficial as it increases bone density, an issue especially relevant to women as we’re at greater risk of osteoporosis. Studies show it also hugely impacts mental wellbeing. But lots of women are missing out on all of this because the gym floor is yet to feel like a truly comfortable space for them. And that’s when it becomes more of a serious health equity issue.

A little bit of knowledge goes a long way. If you can’t afford a personal trainer, then find some (with proper credentials) to follow online. I recommend Tally Rye, Shona Vertue and Lucy Mountain for simple workout routines you can follow when you feel unsure. Beyond that, do whatever it takes to make yourself feel comfortable in the gym – if that means wearing make-up, then wear make-up; if it means wearing a baggy T-shirt then wear a baggy T-shirt; if it means working out in the corner while you gain confidence, that’s fine too.

Unfortunately, we can’t get rid of people who grunt loudly while doing a deadlift or huff and hover over your bench while you finish your reps. But you can drown them out by listening to your favourite playlist. And if someone ever does or says anything to make you feel self-conscious or intimidated, as a paying member of a gym, you should absolutely raise that with the staff.

I see the gym as a microcosm of society. It’s no surprise female strength training has gained popularity as conversations around empowerment get louder. But if women feel uneasy in the gym, perhaps it’s a reflection of how we feel in our wider lives. We’ve still got a long way to go in the fight for equality, but the gym really is the perfect place to fight for it. A place where, despite lingering stigma, women are proving that we are exceptionally strong.

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I see first-hand, every day, that the physical strength we gain positively impacts our mental strength, too. So get in there, keep training and I promise you this: with every lift, you will become more empowered to stay. That space is yours. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

Series two of Alice Liveing’s Give Me Strength podcast is available now.

Join the movement

Follow Stylist’s fitness community on Instagram @StrongWomenUK to access weekly strength training workouts that you can take to the gym or do at home. Strong Women is all about getting fit in a safe and informed way, because we know proper form is essential to avoiding injury. Learn from our certified trainers as they discuss correct alignment, as well as effective post-exercise stretches that will help your muscles recover in time for your next workout.

Photography: Getty Images

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