How to Claim Your Space as a Woman in the Weight Room
I did it over a decade ago and never looked back.
Tomas Barwick / Getty
It’s Tuesday afternoon, and a typical scene is unfolding at my local commercial gym. I’m bench pressing alone, safe in the cocoon of my hoodie, listening to a playlist of Deftones and Nicki Minaj, as I focus on my reps. In between sets, I make notes in my training journal or scroll through Instagram. Occasionally I look up. I am, inevitably, surrounded by men.
Men of various ages, body sizes, and ethnicities crowd the free weight area, lifting with questionable form, making loud noises, unapologetically taking up space. Watching themselves unabashedly in the mirror, flexing, taking selfies. I glance over at the nearby cardio section. As always, I see mostly women, trudging on the treadmill or pedaling on the elliptical while watching television. Occasionally a woman will wander over to the smaller dumbbells, do a circuit in the corner and quickly leave. I lie back down on the bench, close my eyes, and think, “There has to be a better way.”
I’m not writing this to continue the long-standing war of weights vs. cardio or even men vs. women. I write this because even after nearly 13 years of working and training in numerous gyms all over the country, I still bear witness to the stark gender divide in commercial gyms. Due to the surge of popularity of CrossFit and strength sports over the past ten years, it’s more common to see women lifting heavy weights on social media, usually in dedicated barbell clubs, CrossFit boxes, and home gyms. However, in the realm of the commercial gym, the weight room still remains consistently dominated by men. So how do we claim our space?
Since the inception of the modern day health club, our society has always associated lifting with the stereotypical masculinity. “Fitness for women has always been seen and engaged with as a beauty regimen, rather than a health regimen or as athletic/sports training,” says Katie Rose Hejtmanek, a cultural anthropologist and professor of anthropology at Brooklyn College. “Therefore ‘fit female bodies’ are closely linked with conventional version of beauty.” Media, of course, plays a huge role in what we expect women's bodies to look like. Fitness publications, commercials, and sportswear companies are populated by female bodies that are skinny, young, and overwhelmingly white. Women are expected to remain attractive to the straight male gaze, which traditionally means small and slender—not overly muscular or too big (read: strong). Female fitness has also overused the most ambiguous and frustrating term of all: “toned.”
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In terms of physical health and aesthetic goals, lifting heavy weights has numerous benefits to women that some traditional cardio activities, yoga, or barre classes don’t hold a candle to. There are the obvious benefits like development of lean body mass, improvement in bone density, and injury prevention. There are also mental health benefits: “Every woman who engages in a strength training regimen focused on growth and increased weight is rebelling against diet culture and a society that overwhelmingly tells us we must be small and take up less space,” says Chelsea Savit, co-founder and coach at Beefpuff Barbell, an online coaching service. “It feels fucking good to rebel against a culture that results in eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and other psychological disorders.” She also notes how weight training creates more positive change outside of the gym as well. ”Once you start to appreciate the feeling of putting more weight on the bar, you may begin to optimize other areas of your life to increase your performance, such as sleeping more, and improving your nutrition to support gains.”
Most women who I’ve spoken to about lifting at a commercial gym have expressed feeling uncomfortable or alienated to some degree in the free weight area. Some experience blatant verbal harassment, some feel self conscious about their bodies, and others are afraid of looking inexperienced and foolish.
Some women are overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. One solution to all of this while getting stronger is to find a gym that specializes in barbell sports, which are frequently labeled as “black iron” or “powerlifting” gyms. Although these spaces are not completely free of terrible gym bro behavior, the culture encourages its women members to develop their strength and skill. However, in major metropolitan areas these spaces are sometimes prohibitively expensive, with membership rates of 200 dollars a month and up. Most people don’t have the means to roll up at a pricey, elite barbell facility. So what’s a gains-hungry, financially strapped woman to do?
Implement a training program.
Confidence is key, and it’s something that we can acquire over time with practice. I’ve found that a person who, regardless of ability and background, starts to identify themselves as an athlete, they will be more likely to prioritize their training. A clear goal and a structured program will completely transform your daily gym reality. I would suggest that all women start with a basic novice linear strength program such as StrongLifts 5x5 or Starting Strength. Both are very simple programs that emphasize proper barbell technique and slow, linear progression. There are also many individual online coaches (such as myself) who can offer technique adjustments to clients via video. Look for credentials and experience.
Training is different than merely “working out"—it’s purposeful and will endow you with a sense of purpose when you walk in the gym. The more you train, the more you will notice that the majority of people in the weight section have no clue what they are doing anyway.
Claim your space respectfully but by any means necessary.
The gym, much like public transportation, is a shared space. It can feel crowded and overwhelming. For me, a good pair headphones and a killer playlist are both great tools to establish a sense of ownership and safety. Wear clothes that make you feel comfortable and powerful, regardless of your size. In commercial gyms, there are frequent battles over space, people hogging squat racks and benches and engaging in shenanigans with no real purpose. That’s where your plan gives you the upper hand. If your program has squats, you know you have to use a squat rack. If the squat rack is being occupied by someone doing curls, don’t be afraid to ask, “How many sets do you have left?”
Be polite, but firm. It takes practice, but gets easier every single time you ask. If someone asks you the same question, tell the other person unapologetically what you need to do to finish your work. Sometimes sharing equipment will make sense logistically, sometimes it will not. If the gym is consistently overcrowded and stressful when you need to lift, consider lifting at another time.
Seek support and be supportive.
Befriend fellow female lifters you find on social media and in real life. If you have the money, get a coach who will help your learn proper barbell technique—look for credentials and experience. If you don’t have the money, read voraciously and discriminately about technique (still, lifting without learning how from a trusted and experienced person is a bodily gamble). Having a training buddy can also be an excellent form of support, so start lifting with your friends and hold each other accountable. Doing something as empowering as lifting as a crew can carry confidence (plus, hello endorphins) over into your life outside the gym.
Women, I invite you make your way to the weight room the next time you’re at the gym. Take up a ton of space, make loud noises, flex, and take mirror selfies. See you out there, and don’t be afraid to ask for a spot.
Saysha Heinzman is a certified USAPL Club Coach, certified Yoga Teacher, nationally qualified 84kg USAPL powerlifter, and strength/hypertrophy specialist with over 13 years experience in the NYC fitness industry.
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