The female-to-male membership ratio in many facilities may be pretty evenly balanced, but there’s still a huge gender discrepancy on the weights floor. Jennifer Anders-Dawson looks at what we can do to help more female members reap the benefits of strength training.
In the typical weights area of a gym, there can be a gender split of approximately 80% to 20%, with more men than women in this zone, and more women than men in the cardiovascular training zone. There are specific factors at play that give rise to the strength training gender gap. For instance, in the thesis Gender Discrepancy in the Weight Room, Colby Norris argues that many women stick to cardio zones because they feel it will permit them to achieve fitness goals while maintaining the ‘ideal feminine physique.’ Of course, we know that strength training has benefits for all genders, and the Australian government’s Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that all men and women include strength-based training in their regular exercise at least twice per week, alongside aerobic-based activities.
Although most facilities provide a range of activities that include cardio and strength/resistance-based classes or sessions, there’s still a reticence on the part of many female members to incorporate resistance training into their regular routines. Personal trainers and gym staff should make a point of informing female clients about the many health and fitness benefits that strength training can facilitate, from increased endurance to weight loss and osteoporosis prevention.
A study by Ohio University researchers found that women who wish to build muscular strength and endurance would do well to opt for traditional strength training, as opposed to low velocity, routines. Personal trainers and clubs can educate members about such findings and organise women-only strength/circuit training sessions to help those who’ve been reluctant to hit the weights room feel more comfortable using strength and resistance equipment.
There’s still an underlying fear among many women that strength training will result in their developing a more muscly physique than they want. The fact is, of course, that putting on muscle mass just isn’t that easy, and it takes a program dedicated to that goal in order to achieve it. Those who train with strength-focused programs, as opposed to hypertrophy programs, can obtain the health benefits of strength training, without drastically altering their muscle size. Meanwhile, those who do wish to bodybuild and create a new silhouette can be provided with training options to help them do so.
Sometimes, a lack of engagement with strength training apparatus can stem from uncertainty around how to operate heavy strength training equipment. Make a point of going out of your way to explain and demonstrate to members how to safely exercise on various apparatus, pointing out the safety features and protocols as you go.
In addition to a lack of confidence with using certain equipment, some female members may give the strength zone a miss due to the discomfort of feeling like others are evaluating their physique. Another reason is unwanted attention from other gymgoers. These aspects should be taken into account and steps taken to increase comfort and confidence in participating in strength training. Depending on the size, staffing levels and nature of the club, this might look like having a dedicated strength area with fitness professionals on hand to help clients familiarise themselves with both fixed equipment and free weights exercises.
A study by researchers at Penn State University found that some women do not enjoy strength training because they can receive unsolicited advice from men at the gym. Facilities can overcome this challenge by setting up codes to be followed, including that of allowing other users to use equipment without receiving advice they did not ask for (unless it is to urgently intervene in a potentially dangerous mis-use of apparatus).
As found by Stephanie Coen, assistant professor at the University of Nottingham, gym layouts are an important factor in making women feel uncomfortable about working out. A gym’s weights zone should not be set within a ‘cave’ or markedly delineated area. Nor should free weights and machines be placed in dark corners of the gym. These can be uninviting and instill a sense of ‘entrapment’. Instead, weights should be visible and placed in a sunny, open floor plan-type setting so that seeing other women using weights becomes the norm. Gyms can also consider setting up two separate areas for men and women, with a smaller area for joint workouts that contains more expensive equipment.
The gender gap with respect to strength training can be detrimental to the progress that female members make in their training, as well as to their health. With some thought and planning around education, protocols and environmental factors, we can make our facilities places where everyone can feel comfortable and confident hitting the weights floor.
Jennifer is a freelance writer and passionate fitness fanatic. Prior to her writing career, she spent time as a nutritionist and personal trainer on a self-employed basis as well as with a large commercial gym brand. When not working out or writing, she enjoys taking her kids abroad as often as possible.
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