Women in Gyms

It was my first semester on my college climbing team. I was one of a small few who had been climbing for many years before college. Anyway, there was this girl who just started climbing a few weeks ago. She was talking to someone standing next to me, telling this person how upset she was about her forearms. She said her grip strength had been improving—which made me want to jump for joy…good for her, right?!—but her forearms were getting bigger. In my mind, I was like, yeahhhhh buddy it’s time to get SWOLE. But, wait. She was upset about this. She was upset that, despite her climbing improving, her forearms had, ever so slightly, grown. She said she thought muscular girls didn’t look good.

I looked down at myself, and I saw what I hope everyone else sees. Just sheets and bulges of muscle. For a moment, I pondered what she thought I looked like, but then I realized I really didn’t care. I like being muscly. And not because it makes me a better climber, but because I like it.

I like to lift heavy weights. In this Part I of Women in Climbing, I’m going to share with you what it’s like being a woman in the gym.

I used to work out solo at my local YMCA. It was incredibly awkward. I would workout after class, which was around the time the football players would do the same. They would crowd the free weight section and the benches. I would start with some body weight stuff, and so I’d grab a mat next to the girls stretching and doing abs. Then I would try to find a spot by the mirrors and free weights, and usually it was just a sliver between benches. Sometimes I could feel the guys’ eyes on me when they were resting. When I took a bench—I felt totally wrong. I felt like I was taking something that wasn’t mine. But I deserved to use it as much as the big guys. And so that was my time at the Y. Always feeling out-of-place and feeling wrong for using the “men’s” equipment.

One afternoon before my swim practice, I was talking to a few girls about my workout schedule. One said she was looking for a workout partner, and I got really excited. My last partner had recently moved, and I was working out solo again. He and I were really great workout partners, and we pushed each other to try as hard as we could. I never felt out of place. But, alas, it was time to find a new partner. She said she didn’t want to get big. She said she liked to do lots of reps of lighter weight, and the other girl concurred. Reluctantly, I told her that I like to do fewer reps of really heavy weights. They told me not everyone wants to be as beefy as me. It took me a while to understand why.

One of my closest friends from college is pretty small. She would call herself the “skinny legend.” She knew she was smaller than was healthy, but she felt compelled to stay small. That’s her story to tell, but I remember when she told me she worked out, I got excited again. A work out partner?? At least a running partner?? She then told me that she only runs on treadmills (she wouldn’t run outside…she didn’t want to get “snatched”) and she would do some core. My buddy, BC, and I were talking about our workouts, and we said “hey, why don’t you try some bi curls or something?” (in case you didn’t know, I have disproportionately strong biceps and no lifting exercise makes me happier than bi curls). She said she didn’t want to get big. We suggested maybe just some 15lb dumbbells or something…but she was afraid of gaining muscle.

This pattern repeated in similar manners with countless female friends of mine. Some just considered themselves too weak to workout. Some wanted to stay small. Others felt uncomfortable in gyms. Others still just wouldn’t talk about it. It was when BC and I became workout partners that I fully realized what was happening.

Being a well-rounded guy, BC keeps good fitness overall. Nonetheless, he wanted to get SWOLE. As for myself, I’m always down to get stronger. At first, we were totally opposite. BC could kick my butt running on the track. After the first 200m I was left in the dust. Plus, he could plank longer than me. In the weight room, though, I’d wipe the floor with him (except for triceps…I don’t have those). It was this contrast that made everything clear. Our partnership was very flopped. You see, it was weird that he was the better runner and I was the better lifter. Girls are supposed to be the ones always running for cardio and working abs to keep the tummy fat away. The dudes are the ones lifting a barbell a million different ways to get jacked.

Every day that we’d walk into the power room, I was the only girl there. Most of the barbells were taken by edgy-looking guys with AirPods and baseball/lax/football/powerlifting shirts. There would be a few pairs benching together, maxing out after 5 reps. Generally, it was pretty tense in there. So BC and I would slink past everybody to the back of the room and do our sets on the open barbells in the corner. I felt like I belonged more because I was working out with a partner, and a male one at that. Then something clicked into place. Women are supposed to yield to men; we’re conditioned to give up something we might like for a guy. And that’s why, in my experience, women feel weird lifting, especially in power rooms. Women are too weak and thus shouldn’t take a rack from a strong man who needs it for his workout. BC and I have been turned down when we ask our friends if they want to join us in the gym because they don’t want to bring us down. But we’re more than happy to have the company, and it’s never a problem to teach a friend some new tricks. In reality, any guy is happy to share a few plates if you ask. But, somehow, this pattern continues.

Outside the power room, you might find a few girls working abs and doing squats. But I noticed I was the only one doing pull-ups. Doing bi curls. Lateral raises. And I just didn’t understand. What’s the difference between using a dumbbell/kettlebell for legs and using them for arms? Then, after watching some TikToks over my friend’s shoulder, it hit me. The difference is what you hope to gain. On the internet, we idolize women with slim waists and larger glutes. So, for some women, that’s what they need to work on. Women need small shoulders and waists to fit into dresses, but a little bit of lower body volume to accentuate and fill out the dress never hurts.

It was after this, and noticing the enormous amount of women in group fitness classes, that everything just came together. We don’t need a barbell and rack for women only, like I once dreamed of. We don’t need less men around gyms. We don’t need to make dresses that cut differently. We need to get a hold of the standards and norms we create as a society. It’s okay if a guy or girl wants to be small and stick to just the treadmill. It’s okay if a guy or girl wants to get big and live in the powerlifting room. It’s great if a guy or girl wants to be somewhere in the middle, or totally just not on this spectrum. It’s not okay to assume guys are strong and girls are not…guys should be strong and girls should be strong in character…guys should wear t-shirts and shorts and girls should wear leggings and crop tops…guys should be all back and shoulders and girls should be all legs…girls should leave the rack to guys…guys should leave the treadmill to girls…all of it. I’m sorry if, like me, you’ve ever felt uncomfortable in a gym. You deserve to workout however you see fit, wherever you’d like. My wish for you is to stay on the grind, whatever that might look like for you, no matter what society deems appropriate for your stereotype.

Tell me…what does your gym look like?

High-Clip (Co-writer)

40 Replies to “Women in Gyms”

  1. I hate that stigma of “we get big if we lift”. It’s all dependent on your dna. I love lifting heavy with fewer reps. I have to work super hard to get visible muscle definition. I’m strong but it doesn’t show. I LOVE when a woman is ripped. It’s a sign of dedication and determination. I LOVE when a man is ripped too. It helps that my husband is my workout partner and he pushes me to lift heavier and run faster.

    Love this post!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I liked having muscular legs because that meant I could run the way I wanted to run, in short, powerful bursts, up hills. I recently saw a photo of me from the late 80’s (I was in my late 30s) and I’m sitting on the tailgate of my truck, putting on my hiking boots. My calves were immense. they were launching pads, hill climbers. I think a beautiful body is a useful one, the body that allows us to do what we love, the body that is our partner. I’ve only had ONE female “workout” buddy in my whole life. There was a man at one time who should have realized who I was because he was the same and we would have been true partners, but he didn’t. More than 20 years later he said he regretted being so “superficial” 25 years ago. All I could think was, “It’s not my fault if you were obtuse and stupid. That ship has sailed.” It’s total BS what women are “supposed” to be. Everyone should be who they ARE.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. To be honest I struggle greatly with keeping the courage up to lift weights, but I can absolutely say I love it. I’ll never forget when I started hanging out with some guy friends who were all about getting swole and they started inviting me to lift with them. I instantly fell in love with just improving and the self competition. Then my boyfriend at the time said something along the lines of “I mean it’s cool, just y’know, don’t get jacked or anything like that.” I don’t think I ever credited how much those words affected me until reading this post, so thanks for that. Renewing my motivation to get back in there when COVID is all set.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I can related to so much of this…I used to feel like I didn’t want to “get big” from lifting, just wanted to improve my climbing a bit. Being exposed to and surrounded by strong, bad ass ladies changed that for me. Although I’m feeling weaker these days, I’m hoping to get strong again soon! Thank you for this post!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. College starts in a while for me, and being able to continue gym-ing would by my wishhhh! Very well put up article. Excerise at home is what I resort to currently

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I didn’t join a gym until I was 41 years old. And, it was a personal trainer gym, so not your typical free-for-all set up. I was always self conscious, but never felt that way with this gym! And, I like the muscle look on me too. I don’t have to bulk for a body competition. But being muscular is my body type without working out, so might as well embrace it and sculpt it! (not that I’m sculpted right now! haa.)

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Thank you for sharing! There are lots of guys in my gym. Girls are usually on the treadmill, at spin or fitness classes. I was one who never enjoyed the gym, then December 2019 that changed for me. I got a membership at the rec centre and decided to make one-time, complimentary appointment with a trainer at the gym. I told him my goal-lose some weight and tone some muscles. I told him I swim regularly. After an introduction to various machines and equipment, I gave it a go. First, swimming then the gym. I actually was enjoying myself and noticing some definition. I feel better about myself. I miss it now and have learned to adapt some of the exercises I found most helpful to home life.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Loved “the difference is what what you hope to gain” Personally I feel that anyone trying to improve their own health and inspire others is a winner 💪🏽Great post! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I loved this article! I am a woman who has been in gyms for almost 40 years! I quickly adapted to being comfortable in the weight room and have helped countless women do the same over the last 3.5 decades. Women have been working around those “social norms” forever. Thanks for sharing your article!

    Liked by 3 people

  10. As a skinny little runner type (guy), I’ve long felt much of the same intimidation that you feel in the heavy room. It doesn’t matter that I knew I was more fit than everyone else, they were so much… bigger. I’ve never in my life seen a woman ‘too muscular’. I think a healthy big body is a lot more attractive than a tiny weak body (for women or men).

    Liked by 3 people

  11. I definitely feel strange working out alone in a gym. I’m not self conscious about my looks or anything, I’m just bored and unmotivated (no one will know if I finished my set or not, so my workouts don’t always turn out great). I’ve always dreamed of having a workout partner, it would just make everything easier. You have some competition, some help, and someone to chat with while getting in a good workout. I’m fairly new to town and I don’t know how to go about finding a gym/workout buddy. Any suggestions?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ashley,
      I have struggled with the exact same issues. To be honest, I can’t say I’ve found the perfect solution, but I have a few tips. For one, forcing workouts rarely yields good results. Doing things that you enjoy (i.e. me doing bicep curls) help you stay motivated and encourage you to workout consistently. The exercises you enjoy may not be the popular ab shredders or fat burners or whatever a really fit iron junkie recommends. Let yourself enjoy first, and the rest will fall into place.
      As for a workout partner…they are unbeatable! I have moved a few times myself, and I’d say starting small works best. You can always ask a peer to go for a run or join you in a fitness class. Then, you can ask about their workout schedule and ask if you can join, or if they’d like to start a workout routine with you. Most people, like yourself, would love the opportunity to have a buddy to workout with! Best of luck!


  12. I just recently said the exact same thing to someone, that I don’t want to get big. I just recently started working out again and am already seeing muscle gains. Which makes makes me happy but also self conscious. I am a bit over 6′ tall and have often been told I’m not very feminine. My worry is that with larger muscles, I would be even further from that feminine look I have always wanted.
    I love being strong, but overcoming insecurities about my body is no easy task.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Totally! I always say: give it a shot. Get muscles and if you really don’t like them you can stop working out…and then you’ll be back to where you are! But you’ll never know how you feel until you try:) Good luck!


  13. I started lifting with my husband but at first felt very uncomfortable going to the barbells and dumbbells. But then realized everybody’s doing their own thing and nobody cares if I’m lifting weights. I do think the stereotype of women is to be smaller and not bulky. But I also think the beauty standard is changing to be more muscular. For me, I don’t care what the standard is and wouldn’t mind having a little muscle.
    It also takes a lot of work to get bulky as a woman and the average woman probably won’t get bulky lifting weights. I kinda laugh when my friends say they don’t want to lift weights cause they don’t want to be bulky. Unless their training to be a power lifter or crossfit athlete they ain’t gonna get bulky. lol

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Enjoyed your reading how you and many others perceive the gym. I have always found being in the gym a tad bit intimidating to an extent no matter how often I go. Your absolutely right though, it’s all about what you as an individual are looking to gain out of the gym not by what or how you see others working out. Different goals for different folks!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Such a great post. You are spot on with this perspective, don’t be afraid to give anything a go!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s