As a woman who never actually played any sports growing up, I felt kind of lost in figuring out how to maximize what my body is capable of doing. I didn't know how to handle gyms, really. I spent a few years running like my life depended on it, and I have a secret for you: cardio sucks. Or, at least, I think it sucks. But I ran and ran and ran because I thought it was what I was supposed to do.
Once I figured out that there were other things in life, I started noticing things that I didn't like about my gym. It was cardio-focused, for one. The group classes usually tried to convince me that 30 minutes of floor work was going to coax out some abs.
Much of this advice can apply to the men of the world, too, but I am choosing to address women in this list because I have heard so many women explain that they feel intimidated at the gym and are afraid of the "weird" workouts. I was once one of them -- I felt like I didn't belong in anything but a typical rec center.
I have been a member of two non-typical gyms in my life. While I was a grad student in Columbia, MO, I joined the Heart of America Athletic Training Center. It is technically a martial arts training facility, but they offered basic month-to-month memberships just to use their strength & conditioning equipment. The Mizzou Rec center is nationally recognized for its supposed "awesomeness," but all I got out of it was a bunch of wasted space and annoying undergrads (sorry, undergrads, but you'll understand someday). Right away, I was hooked, and I hated the idea of going back to a regular gym. Among the reasons listed below, there were also smaller benefits. There was always plenty of room to jump rope or do lunges, and I rarely had to sit and wait for some equipment to open up.
I was sad to leave HOA when I moved away from Columbia, but through some investigation and cold-calling strangers, I tracked down Iron Outcasts in Topeka. Iron Outcasts is technically targeted towards the bodybuilding crowd, which is intimidating to some women. I am here to tell you to never feel intimidated by a gym full of strong guys, or any other non-mainstream approach to fitness.
You'll find a great sense of community.
Whether your gym is a training facility for bodybuilders or a CrossFit box, these unique settings come with a group of people looking for something different. I asked some women I interact with online what their favorite thing is about their non-traditional gyms, and every single one of them mentioned the community their gym has built around them. There is a great respect and bond among people who sweat together.
This is probably true of Zumba, aqua fitness, and other aerobic classes, but there is something special about the connection you feel with somebody who is grunting in the squat rack next to you or who just showed you how to throw a solid left hook.
I have had the privilege of meeting several women involved in roller derby, and they have nothing but praise for the group of friends they have made in the process. If the Columbia team schedule had worked better for me, I wanted to try it out just for the group of badass ladies. While I never tried roller derby, I did give Brazilian jiu jitsu the ol' college try. I know a man who leads the BJJ training at a facility called Warriors Academy in Kansas City. Derek finally talked me into dropping in on a class while I was in town one weekend, and "tired" is an understatement for how I felt when I left that mat.
But what I remember most about that class is how patient, helpful, and friendly my classmates were with each other (and with me, the newbie). It was my first class, and I am sure I really sucked at it, but I left feeling like I had done the most awesome thing in the world because of the encouraging community at Warriors Academy. I have never felt that camaraderie at a typical gym.
You'll never be the strongest one in the room.
When you go find these non-traditional gyms, there will be some badass people in there. There will be people who can run faster than you, who can throw a harder elbow than you, or whose kettlebell swings make you look like a toddler trying to carry grocery bags. Whether your goal is speed, strength, or form, the only way to improve is to surround yourself with people who are better than you are.
Furthermore, despite the fact that I'm surrounded by men lifting three times as much as I am, nobody in my gym ever looks down upon my puny 200lb lifts with disdain. I am working, and I am progressing, and that is all that matters. They never treat me like I don't deserve to be there, and from the interactions I've had with the bodybuilding/CrossFit crowd, this seems to be the norm.
It's about more than how you look.
Anybody who says that their appearance doesn't influence their decision to go to the gym is a liar. We all want to look good. It's a natural desire, and there is no shame in that being a factor in your motivation to work out. But at traditional gyms, I often found that appearance was the focus.
"Slim those thighs! Melt away the inches! Get rid of that arm flab!"
I mean, sure, most people would like to do that. But exercise is important because of what it does inside your body. Furthermore, exercise is fun because of what you can do with your body! I mean, I can lift over 200 pounds. I once rode my bike for 40 miles just because I wanted to. When you start impressing yourself with what your body does, the way it looks becomes secondary. (Although, the more impressive stuff you do with your body, the better it's going to end up looking.) Where big box gyms focus on image, nontraditional fitness settings focus on doing stuff. They focus on strength, speed, power, health, and progress. What are you capable of?
Are you progressing? Then you're winning! No body shame. I exercise for me, and I don't want my exercise time to involve a fitness instructor or a poster on the wall telling me what my goals should be. I can try to tune them out, but eventually the fatigue sets in. I prefer to instead surround myself with people just trying to be the best versions of themselves. And while I still have work to do, I have become less consumed with my image and more delighted in what I can do with this awesome machine that is my own for the rest of my life.
The men who come here come to work, not to go meat shopping.
I'm not particularly sexy when I'm exercising. I sweat a lot, and I tend to squint and grimace when I concentrate. But I would still get hit on at my old gyms, which stands to again prove the point that it doesn't matter what you're wearing, where you are, or if you're drunk. Creeps will hit on you no matter what. Or, perhaps worse, they'll stare at your butt while you're busy trying to PR your dead lift. Back up, son. I can see where you're staring.
I have never—I repeat, never—been hit on at any of my non-traditional gyms. There are no creepy, lingering eyes watching my butt go up and down. There are no men trying to chat me up while I warm up and stretch. There are men that talk to me, sure, but this is friendly conversation, not creepy, unwelcome flirting. And I fully believe that if I ever felt unsafe because a creep found his way into IOG or HOA, I could speak with the owner and he would address the issue directly.
The guys that come to work out are there for a purpose. They sought out a different location because they wanted a unique environment to pursue their goals, and while they are at the gym, they focus on those goals. Not on your sports bra. And to me, avoiding the disgusting gaze of man-pigs is reason enough to try out a different gym.
We really should be lifting weights.
Hate to break it to you, ladies, but you need some strength. You don't need to power lift, but just going to spin class is not going to cut it. Strength training decreases your risk of osteoporosis and of needing to ask somebody to help you carry a box of paper products from the car to the door. You will not start to "look like a man." You have to have a lot of testosterone to build like a man. And the women that are totally jacked eat very specifically to build as much strength and muscle as possible (and they are awesome, and I admire their diligence). You won't get that way without eating a LOT of calories. What you will get is an increased metabolism, better sleep, stronger bones, and improved self-confidence.
In non-traditional gyms, whether they are martial arts facilities, warehouses, or CrossFit-style garages, you can bet that you will have serious access to equipment to build your strength. You will also have guidance from the owners, coaches, and your fellow gym goers.
Ladies of xoJane, try something new with your exercise routine. It doesn't have to be a dark, loud gym like mine. But there are incredible alternatives to the Planet Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness facilities of the world. Free yourself from the corporate image of fitness and the eyes of the Creepy McChesters at the gym. Give roller derby a try, or check out power lifting, or maybe even try jiu jitsu. There is nothing more empowering than discovering what you're capable of.
Have you tried a unique approach to fitness? Do you belong to a non-traditional gym? Have you tried roller derby? Is it fun?? I want to try roller derby. Should I try roller derby??