By Jessica Fynn
Approaching the gym on your own can be daunting. You’re fresh-faced and newly returned from the winter break, armed with a set of New Years’ resolutions that demand you get in shape and reach your fitness goals. You’ve already completed the hard part and bought the overpriced gym membership, but the day finally comes where you can no longer put off the dreaded first workout. So, you enter into the main gym area, headphones on and water bottle in hand and you find yourself in the home of the treadmills, cross-trainers and rowing machines. Perhaps somewhere towards the back of the gym space, you overhear the clanging of metal-on-metal and grunts of physical exertion from above the sound of your music. These sounds alone are enough to put anyone off, but as you glance over towards the weight section, trying desperately not to catch anyone’s eye, what you really notice, is the lack of female presence.
Maybe you’ve heard the benefits of weight training, or maybe you’ve been wanting to see the strength of your own body, but you’re reluctant to be the only girl in the weight section. You feel intimidated by the fact that weight training is new to you, that others appear to know what they’re doing. You feel that perhaps you don’t belong there, or you’re worried about what people might think. So you look away. You return to the workout that feels comfortable to you and hope that you’ll still be able to reach the goals you set for yourself from outside of the weight section.
Last week, I asked a friend of mine to train with me in the weight section of the Leeds University gym on campus. Returning over the winter break had re-energized my own feelings of gym intimidation and I knew that having the comfort of a friendly face would help to ease myself back into the training routine I’d been consistent with back at home. This friend was new to weight training, so I made the promise of light weights and a focus on form and movement. Post-warm up, we made our way into the weight section, past the rows of barbells resting on squat-racks and swarms of guys surrounding benches. The look on her face spoke her intimidation better than any words could have. I sympathised with her. I knew that being one of a few girls to brave the weight section of the gym was daunting. I too, felt slightly intimated. A new gym setting is always off-putting: you don’t know where things are, you’re reluctant to reach out for equipment that might be in use.
On our walk over to find a quiet spot, she turned to me, and told me that she couldn’t do it. She was terrified of what people might think, intimidated by the number of guys in the weight section and the way that their movements seemed to ooze confidence. With an apologetic smile, she headed back the other way towards the area of the gym that felt comfortable to her. I, not necessarily by my own will, did what I initially had come to do, and I trained on my own.
Later, I spoke to my friend about what had happened, together with another mutual friend of ours. Sympathizing with this experience, and perpetuating ideas of what females can and can’t do, she asked:
“But I thought the weight section was only for guys?”
With a curt nod, I let the issue go. Feelings of inferiority and self-consciousness were at some level embedded in the female psyche, and I understood these feelings all too well. It is only having been on both sides, that I could see how damaging this mentality was for progression and self-confidence in or out of the gym.
For a long time, I was too afraid to approach the weight section of the gym. Greater than my feelings of inferiority in front of those I believed to be overwhelmingly confident, I was one of a number of girls who still bought into the myth that weight training would make your physique “bulky” or “masculine”. Even after reading countless articles online about how this type of physique is achieved- through a combination of being in a caloric surplus and work-outs focused on progressive muscle overload (and steroids or other bulking drugs)- for a while I still chose cardio-based workouts when I could muster the motivation and will to get into the gym. My motivation to get into the gym was rare and sporadic. I didn’t enjoy running on the treadmill, I found it relentless and tiresome, and for the amount of time I spent working out, the rewards were practically non-existent**.
I started my own training just over a year ago now, at BOXR, a boutique gym located in London that focuses on HIIT-style, functional training. I joined with a friend who was familiar with the location and there I started boxing. For me, boxing felt like a middle ground. I was training in an environment that was male dominated, but I didn’t have to risk going into the weight section of the gym. Boxing made me feel powerful and I came away from every training session feeling that little bit stronger. It was only until a trainer from my home gym questioned why I hadn’t yet approached the weight section, that I began to question myself too.
A few months down the line, I began to train in the weight section of the gym. I was doing movements, albeit with some initial uncertainty and the guidance of those I asked for help, that had terrified me. But it was here that I was making the most progress. Greater than the physical goals I had in mind for myself, I craved the confidence that I saw in others.
At BOXR, we train with a boot-camp like mentality: think hill sprints, chest-to-floor-burpees and sledge pushes. Male and female alike are encouraged to focus on strength and endurance training, pushing the body and mind to its limits. I now crave the intensity of these training sessions, yet they still push me out of my comfort zone, every time.
I see the relationship between comfort zones and progression as a strange but intimate one. Someone once told me, that to reach your goals, whatever they may be, you need to be moving in the areas that scare you. Only there is where confidence and strength will grow. This semester, I hope to see more girls training in the weight section of the gym. Let “gym intimidation” drive you, not scare you away.
**Quick disclaimer. This is not to say that forms of cardio are not “good” work outs. Of course they are. Cardiovascular training has incredible benefits for the body and mind. By all means, run endlessly, if that’s your thing.
Photography by Rob Luca (@itsrobluca) from BOXR (@weareboxr)