Picture the weight room at your gym. You see weight lifters pumping barbells and flexing their guns. Now, picture one of the exercise studios, where people stream in and out for yoga and Zumba classes.
If you envision two distinctly different groups, ones divided mostly by gender, you’re not being sexist—you’re right. For decades, men and women have largely led independent fitness lives, going their separate ways at the doors of the gym to work out in different ways.
But old-fashioned dividing lines are fading as women become more interested in high-octane programs like CrossFit, high-intensity interval training and TRX suspension training, and men dip their toes into stretching and strengthening exercises such as yoga and Pilates.
For the first time, trainers and gym owners say they’re seeing men and women consider a wider world of fitness, a move they say benefits everyone’s health.
Separated by Myths
So why have our fitness worlds been divided for so long?
The split at the gym is an outgrowth of years of history, says Lynn Herrmann, a public health professor at Northern Illinois University and a fitness instructor who has researched gender and exercise issues.
For centuries, men were the ones who did physical work on farms and in factories, and fought in wars. Women, on the other hand, weren’t supposed to be physically strong. And these roles persist. Even well into the last century, experts fretted over the thought of women injuring themselves while competing in sports.
Though millions of women are now regular runners—many world-class—females were not allowed to compete in one of the sport’s most famous events, the Boston Marathon, until the early 1970s. In 1967, organizers of the race tried to physically pull a female runner from the race when they spotted her on the course.
And though women have been competing in the Olympic Games since 1900, they’re still picking up speed. Ski jumping, for example, wasn’t offered as a women’s Olympic sport until 2014, in part because organizers thought for years that women’s bodies couldn’t handle it.
“The whole idea was that women are physically inferior to men and therefore shouldn’t be engaging in certain activities,” Herrmann says. “It really has permeated into multiple areas of our lives, but it’s especially notable in fitness.”
At the same time, experts say both genders have followed these myths and stereotypes, pigeonholing themselves into certain exercise routines.
Rick Daman, owner of Daman’s Strength Training in Monaca, Pa., says he consistently hears the same inaccurate concern from women when it comes to strength training.
“They say, ‘We shouldn’t lift weights because we’ll get bulky,’” Daman says.
Men, meanwhile, tend to over-focus on building up certain sections of their bodies, which is a mistake, says Ron DeAngelo, director of sports performance at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
DeAngelo says no matter your gender or your fitness goals, we all need the same types of exercise. Most men focus on building a buff chest or arms, leading them to spend all their gym time lifting weights. Some don’t think budgeting time for cardio will make a difference, so they don’t bother with it. Similarly, many women spend hours trying to burn calories with cardio, never trying anything else.
“The human body needs both strength training and some kind of cardio component,” DeAngelo says. “In reality, men and women can give up a little bit of time for a different activity, and probably still get what they were looking for—and maybe get it better—by crossing over.”
Don’t forget—working out is a head game, too. Maybe more than we’d like to admit, many of us are afraid of looking silly in front of our fellow gym goers.
Herrmann says mostly women attend her TRX classes, in which participants perform strength-training exercises using their own bodies as resistance weight. Men have tried the class and not returned, and Herrmann says she thinks in part because they find it different from the type of strength training they’re used to, and they don’t necessarily excel on the first try.
“It can be a lot harder than it looks,” she says. “Somebody who comes in and benches 200 pounds thinks, ‘I can do this, no problem.’ But it’s a different plane of movement.”
Lately, a handful of fitness programs that combine strength and cardio into intense workouts are blending the genders in their 60-minute sweat sessions.
“I think you see it with the CrossFit craze—everybody is doing that,” DeAngelo says. “That’s where people crossover and meet in the middle.”
CrossFit, the military-style program that has participants pushing tractor tires between punishing sets of pushups and box jumps, is joined by traditional boot camp-style programs, and programs like HIIT, which incorporates strength-training moves with short bursts of cardio activity.
Daman says programs that blend multiple disciplines are a good way for all exercisers to get comfortable in many styles of fitness before moving to the next level of training in any one specific area. He says his boot camp programs, which are open to both men and women, have actually been more popular with women since they started.
And his trainer mentality isn’t focused on gender, but on each individual.
“Male and female, our approach is the same for everyone,” he says. “You find their goals and help get them there.”
While fitness instructors say group classes are still predominately women’s domain, Herrmann doesn’t think men will be far behind, since her research found them more likely to strike out on their own.
While many women take group classes because they like the support of friends, men typically look at fitness as an individual practice. Those who tried a group class did so without needing reassurance from a buddy.
“It came out of intrinsic reasoning, not feeling like they had to have a friend to come with,” she says. “They didn’t care that other people who were like them weren’t there. It’s kind of a double standard, but that was kind of inspiring and hopeful.”
Separate but (not yet) Equal
Despite the crossover happening in gyms, experts say it’s still far from being a totally mixed space.
More gyms are offering women-only classes and programs, which trainers say can offer reassurance to women who would otherwise be too intimidated to try strength training. At the same time, however, fitness experts say too much separation will only perpetuate stereotypes and feelings that men and women should occupy separate fitness spaces.
“In general, we feel more comfortable with people like us, and I think the women-only (class) is a safe zone for a lot of women, just like the weight room is a safe place for a lot of guys,” Herrmann says. “But the notion is we divide and stay divided, or try to blend together and make it work.”
For now, branching out means being willing to deal with stares from people who are confused about why a woman is bench-pressing or a man is downward-dogging.
Danielle Pietrocarlo, owner of Dani-fit, a Buffalo, N.Y., fitness center, says she still faces a gender divide, even though she’s made her career in fitness.
“If I go into a gym and I’m in the free weight area with Olympic-size bars and I go to squat, the men look at you like you’ve got four eyes,” she says.
“And you can’t ask a guy to spot you, because what is he going to do other than correct your form because he thinks you’re an idiot or try to get your phone number?”
Still, she and others are optimistic, as more people come to understand that the differences in men’s and women’s bodies don’t mean that they need to train differently or feel limited to one workout world.
“It all depends on what your goal is, not really what your gender is,” Pietrocarlo says.