Celebrity trainer Ngo Okafor got me in shape in 28 days. I quickly grew accustomed to being less horrified when I see my naked form in a mirror and so I’m a gym rat now.
A funny thing happened after a couple of months of going to the gym at more or less the same time every single day. I became familiar with the habits and regimens of all the other gym rats and began to seek patterns between behaviours and the types of people. I noted, for example, that older gym goers are more likely to be found diligently performing exercises that seem to have been prescribed by a physical therapist to help them rehab after surgery or correct postural problems accrued from decades of sitting at a desk for eight hours a day. Younger gym goers, on the other hand, tend to be the ones who are sucking down the sorts of pre-workout drinks with loud branding that—due to a commonly used amino acid called beta-alanine—make your skin feel as though it’s on fire.
But the starkest contrast I observe in the things people do in the gym is along gender lines. Some of you maybe be muttering that gender is a construct under your breath. That may be, but I’m just speaking broadly here about the prevailing themes I’ve noted in the way that men and women get their gym on.
Generally speaking, the men at my gym—and every gym I’ve ever stepped into—tend to lift heavy, aren’t afraid of making guttural noises as they do it, and pound protein supplements in the locker room. The main outcome of this is that many pack on an amount of muscle that looks neither functional nor symmetrical and requires an inordinate amount of calories to maintain.
Though it’s certainly not always the case, I’ve observed that women tend to bogart the cardio machines, largely avoid resistance training—particularly resistance training that targets the upper body—and often perform fewer movements but at higher volumes.
“That’s how it is at pretty much every gym,” Ngo says, when I bring up my casual observations and sweeping generalizations.
He then voices the hypothesis that’s been forming in my mind. “There are a typical set of mistakes that men make in the gym and a typical set of mistakes that women make in the gym,” he says as we warm up on a pair of stationary bikes. “The funny thing is that men and women would get better results—aesthetically, functionally—if they took note of what the other sex is doing right.”
As if on cue, a muscle-bound, top-heavy dude drops a stack of weights with an emphatic grunt. Ngo shoots me a knowing look. He tells that from his observations, men want to get “big” and women want to get lean. “But, as you can see, they’re so focused on those goals that they’re getting in their own way," he says. "But who knows—maybe that guy actually wants to look like that.”
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Certified trainer Dorian Cervantes backs Ngo’s analysis, telling me that her female clients fear of getting bulky is the biggest impediment to achieving their goals. “It’s a myth,” she tells me, adding that she spends a lot of time explaining to female clients that building muscle is key to revving metabolism and reducing body fat. “Women I train want to be lean and tight with a little muscle tone. They want a smaller waist and an ass you can bounce a quarter off. Cardio alone ain’t gonna cut it and resistance training is not going to make you look like a bodybuilder. These are annoying myths that I have to get my clients to let go of.”
Cervantes adds that men tend to limit cardio because of a fear that it whittle away some of that hard-won brawn. What they are not taking into consideration, she says, is that cardiovascular training may actually get them closer to their goals of growing muscle mass, also known as muscle hypertrophy. While it runs counter to bro-based gym lore, the positive correlation between cardio and muscle building has been noted in several studies. A review of 14 such studies which found that “aerobic exercise acutely and chronically alters protein metabolism and induces skeletal muscle hypertrophy.”
But bro-science isn’t the only thing that’s preventing guys from making all the right moves in the gym. “There are exercises men don’t do just because they aren’t thought of as ‘manly’,” says Sasha Tsvietkov, training director at Limelight Fitness, my new home away from home. Tsvietkov points at the hip abduction machine—the one that invites you to sit on it and open your thighs to the 10 and 2 position—and says that its always occupied by women and rarely utilized by men. “I know this because I used to be one of those guys,” he says. “But using this machine really does wonders for your squat strength. But then, unlike women, men are notorious for not prioritizing lower body exercises like squats. But if they want to grow their upper body muscles, they really should."
Tsvietkov explains that because the glutes, quads, and hamstrings are among the largest muscles in the body by volume, skipping leg day means missing an opportunity for men to up the natural production of anabolic hormones which will help grow muscles throughout their body. “I don’t see too many women doing deadlifts,” he says when I ask him about movements he’s seen women avoid in the gym. A deadlift—in which a loaded barbell or dumbell is lifted off the ground to the level of the hips, then lowered to the ground—is a compound exercise meaning that it engages two or more different joints to fully stimulate entire muscle groups.
“The deadlift is one of the three powerlifting exercises—the others are the squat and the bench press—and, for that reason, probably not thought of as being particularly feminine,” says Tsvietkov when I ask him why many women avoid this effective back, glute, and hamstring working movement. “Without perfect form, it can be dangerous. A combination of these two things is why many women avoid it I think. The funny thing is that the deadlift is an incredible exercise that works so much of the body. If I could only do one exercise, it would be the deadlift.”
For Okafor’s money, the other exercise that women avoid and that men love is the bench press—another powerlifting exercise. He explains that while the breasts themselves are mostly comprised of fat, the pectoral muscles between them and the rib cage can be built by utilizing the mother of all chest exercises. A visually imperceptible increase in muscle mass here won’t alter cup size (so please ignore articles like this one), he says, though it may provide a slight lift.
But while the effect that exercise has on breasts is certainly intriguing, I’m more interested by a 2015 study that looked on breasts effect on exercise. The British study found that breasts were fourth biggest barrier for exercise adherence among women. (The top three were energy/motivation, time constraints, and health.) "I can't find the right sports bra" and "I am embarrassed by excessive breast movement" were the most influential breast related barriers to activity among the 17 percent of women who said that their boobs kept them out of the gym reporting that breast pain increased with vigorous activity and poor breast support.
While previous reports about the origins of men and women coming from different parts of our solar system increasingly appear to be unfounded, many people at either end of the gender spectrum do seem to be more prone to comporting themselves in a certain way when working out, often to their detriment of their goals. If you identify as either a man or a women and feel as though your efforts aren’t bearing fruit in the gym, freeing yourself of gender-based mores may be part of of the prescription for progress.
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