Poorna Bell – author, journalist, powerlifter – is sick and tired of receiving unsolicited advice from men at the gym.
I had the perfect set-up for my bench press. My back was curved, my shoulders were tight and my hands had just clamped on the bar. I took a deep breath to brace myself for the lift and then, all of a sudden, a voice came out of nowhere.
“You know you’ll injure yourself like that right?”
I breathed out, my shoulders collapsed and, just like that, I had lost the entire set-up.
“What you need to do,” said this gym bro, unfazed that I was now upright and glaring at him, “is to keep your back flat on the bench.”
Never mind that this guy was giving me unsolicited advice, or that it was potentially dangerous that he had chosen a moment just before I was about to handle a heavy weight. The worst thing is that his advice was WRONG.
I’m a powerlifter, and I take safety when handling weights very seriously. Arching your back in a bench press allows you to lift the most weight while protecting your shoulders. When I tried to explain this, he wouldn’t listen and in the end, I put my earphones in and ignored him for the rest of my set.
Most of the time, I do my heavy lifting in the same gym as my trainer Jack. It’s a weightlifting gym so the environment is supportive, there are few egos, and it’s especially nurturing for female lifters, mainly because Jack co-owns the gym and would tear someone a new bumhole if they were disrespectful to women. From time to time, though, I have to use commercial gyms –your Fitness Firsts, Virgin Actives, Gym Box – and the level of gym bro swagger and mansplaining never fails to astound me.
Mansplaining, in its broadest sense, is giving unsolicited (and usually incorrect) advice, cobbled together from things a man has learned mostly from his mates. It’s fake concern, comments on your workout when they have no idea what your athletic ability is, what training programme you’re on, whether you’re injured, recovering from surgery. It’s the assumption – whether it’s the fast lane in the swimming pool or the weights on your bar – that you’re just a widdle helpless woman who might do yourself a mischief if you aren’t saved from yourself.
“I was training with a barbell once,” said Georgia Scarr, former fitness editor for MTV, “when a guy approached me and said: ‘Hey, have you heard of kettlebells? They look like this (he then does the gesture). They’d be better suited for your goals.’ I thought, ‘why thanks pal, I’d no idea you knew my goals as an absolute stranger. AND I know what a kettlebell is!’”
She’s not alone. With her words ringing in my ears, I asked my weightlifting team (who are predominantly women) and put it out on Twitter asking women about their experience with mansplaining and the response was shocking.
“I was told the setting on the rowing machine I was using was wrong and I needed to use my arms more. I’m an international rower and coach the sport at performance level,” Rachel Hooper tweeted.
Faye Andews, who is an international ice hockey referee and former elite player was told, while doing explosive box jumps into sprints with a weighted sledge: “Here love, that won’t help you lose weight. You’re supposed to push the sledge.”
The archetype that, by default, women must be physically weak is underpinned by sexist rhetoric used in gyms – for instance, calling the lighter 15kg barbell a ‘ladies’ barbell. Or the push-up when your knees are on the ground are ‘women’s push-ups’ and the rest are ‘normal’ push-ups – and supported by language used by gym instructors. True story: in a mixed boxing class, where I was the only woman, the instructor said during the circuits: “Come on guys, the girl is outdoing some of you.”
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It is utterly galling when the perceived limitations of a woman’s strength is used as a counterpoint to shame men into working out harder. Men’s bodies might be genetically pre-disposed for strength, but it doesn’t render the strength women have as irrelevant or invisible. I mean, one gender has a body capable of housing and pushing out a human for Christ’s sake!
A common refrain from other women is during gym inductions, when trainers assume they won’t want to do weights. Siobhan Norton, assistant editor at The I Paper said: “I got a tour of a gym once, and he walked straight past the weights room: ‘You won’t be needing this!’”
My teammate Charlie said that she was told a few years ago at a different gym: “I was told that the weights area can get pretty full and ‘intimidating’ for a woman, so the machines were better.”
Which leads us on to another assumption, which is that if you’re a woman, your main goal must be to lose weight rather than get strong.
“When I first started going to the gym,” says Mara, a London-based PT, “a male PT told me I shouldn’t bench press as it’s an exercise for men only.”
Bhavini Goyate who works at the Young Vic theatre, said that she went to use the lat pull machine and a guy who was walking around the gym on a Skype call, came over and said he was using it. “He then told me that I should stay on the cardio machines because I will get too muscly and tired if I lift weights.”
Gym mansplaining is an issue because it’s designed to keep women in a particular kind of box. A small study in 2018 looked at the gendering of physical activity in gyms in Canada, and found that women stayed within the confines of what was perceived to be ‘acceptable’ for their gender. That included not taking up too much space, on the gym floor, and what kind of equipment to use.
Interestingly, this mirrors the double standards women experience in other areas of life such as the workplace. For instance, there are certain behavioural traits deemed totally acceptable in men – being assertive about using equipment, aggressive on the gym floor – that would be viewed as totally unattractive and unacceptable in women.
The thing is… look, I know it’s not all men. But frankly, at present, it’s too many men. Even the ones who think they are progressive come out with things like ‘you’re strong for a girl’ or tap you on the shoulder mid-workout to tell you how impressed they are by how much you are lifting. And there are no pockets deep enough to contain the zero fucks I give about a random man complimenting me on the strength of my workout, when I’m just trying to get about my day.
Women have every right to be in the same spaces as men, without worrying if they’ll be hassled. And all of that faux concern about our safety is completely unnecessary: in my experience, women tend to take better safety precautions because they don’t see it as a loss of macho pride to ask for guidance.
However, to all those women are so put off by the mansplaining or the inductions that they never go back., I have this to say: there is a growing community of us who are looking out for you, who will have your back (literally) when someone swaggers over to you.
And if one of us isn’t around, and there is some guy still yapping his unwanted advice at you, don’t sweat it. That’s why God created earphones.
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So, whether you’re a beginner or already have strength-training experience, Stylist Strong has a class to suit you. Come and try our strength-based classes at our own purpose-built studio at The AllBright Mayfair.