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?