Is There a Fitness Double Standard?

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When my girlfriend and I first started dating 3.5 years ago, one of the major attractions between the two of us was that we both had an insatiable appetite for fitness.  Well that, and we both had an insatiable appetite in the literal sense, too.

On our first date we crushed fajitas.

But fitness and living a healthy lifestyle – whether it be heading to the gym to get our swole on, making a cameo at Harvard to do stadium sprints on a Sunday morning, hitting up various local farmer’s markets, or trying our best to avoid gluten like the plague – has always been a “theme” in our relationship.

Funnily enough, when we first met, Lisa wasn’t that much of a hardcore gym rat.  Sure, she would go to the gym and do her thing following various routines she’d read about or come across in books or magazines, but more often than not the one’s she’d follow had the foo-foo body-part split, “Tone Your Abs in 17 Minutes,” or “Tighten Your Tush by Tuesday” vibe.

To her credit (and so that I don’t get the look of death from her after she reads this), she grew up in a very active family and was always highly encouraged by her father to lift weights. In addition, she was a volleyball player all through high-school and college – even being inducted into her alma mater’s Athletic Hall of Fame, thank you very much – and as such, understood the importance that strength training had on her success as an athlete.

Even as a non-athlete after college, she carried with her the drive to be active and fit, and still made weight training a priority in her life moving on into adulthood.

When our paths crossed back in 2009, Lisa had already established herself as a very popular spin instructor in Boston (she still is) and she supplemented that with her training routine – which, admittedly, and at the risk of being sent to the doghouse tonight, resembled one of those foo-foo routines I mentioned above.

Well maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but suffice it to say, she wasn’t routinely lifting heavy stuff…..;o)

Anyways, during my courting of her (you know, dates at Chipotle, Star Wars marathons, and me bringing her containers of protein powder instead of flowers – true story) I’d occasionally go to the gym with her and show her a few new exercises here and there.  I also had her read The New Rules of Lifting for Women, and just tried my best to support and educate her along the way.

Trust me:  this wasn’t a damsel in distress scenario by any stretch. Lisa knew her way around the gym floor – I just had to nudge her a little bit towards the squat rack and the deadlift platform.

Needless to say, I created a monster.

Not to brag or anything, but Lisa routinely deadlifts 1.5x her bodyweight for reps, can bench press 135 lbs for multiple reps, can perform multiple sets of unassisted chin-ups, and I’m pretty sure if she arm wrestled a tank, she’d win.

And she looks goooooooooooood.

I write her programs on a monthly basis, and while she and I will sometimes butt heads (you’re going to do box squats and like it!!!!!!!!!!), it’s been fun to see her make so much progress and enjoy her training.

Because she follows a bit more of an unconventional program compared to most, she’s constantly getting questions from random people and remarks from trainers.

Most are just curious about a certain exercise she’s doing and wondering what muscles it targets, while others just stop to give her some praise – which is always cool, and Lisa is more than happy to stop and talk some shop.

But I can’t help but notice the massive double standard that exists.

For like the 18th time some random dude approached Lisa at the gym the other day in between sets of deadlifts and asked her what she’s training for.

“Are you training for some kind of sport or something? ” the man asked. To which she replied, “nope, just training for fun. What are YOU training for?”

“Uh, well, football I guess, ” he replied. “But, you know, I don’t play now, I used to back in high school. I’m 30 now, so I just train to train, ya know?”

I find it interesting that guys never ask other guys the same question. Well, it happens it’s just A LOT rarer.

Guy #1:  Hey dude, you’re pretty ripped.  What are you training for?

Guy #2: I’m heading to the club in like an hour, I gotta get me swole on.

Guy #1:  Right on.  Okay, nice talk!

While the above example is a bit facetious, just think about it: when many of us see a ripped or jacked or yolked (or whatever brospeak verbiage you want to use here) dude getting after it in the gym we generally don’t think anything of it. He’s just training.

Yet, when many (men AND women) see a strong female lifting weights they automatically assume she’s training for a sport or some kind of figure show or something.

I’d love to hear other’s thoughts on this.  Am I just over-analyzing, or do others notice the same thing?

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

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Comments for This Entry

  • Andrea Dietzenbach

    I've been asked this question based on doing vertical jumps to warm up. Apparently a woman isn't even allowed to jump in the air in a commercial gym unless it's for a very specific purpose.

    October 24, 2012 at 11:16 am | Reply to this comment

  • Leah

    Some dude at the gym asked me that when I was deadlifting one time - he wanted to know why I would deadlift if I wasn't training for something. I wouldn't say that I took offense, but the attitude is a bit strange. Obviously this guy thought heavy lifting was a worthwhile pursuit for himself or he would have been strolling on the treadmill reading a mag like the other 50%.

    October 24, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Reply to this comment

  • claudia

    This exact conversation happened to me at least monthly at my gym when I would squat or deadlift. My theory on this is that the line "what are you training for" actually means "wow, I've never seen a chick in here doing that, and I'd like to say something but can't really think of what."

    October 24, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Tara @ Sweat like a Pig

    I get asked this question all the time. At first I took it as a compliment because I thought it must mean I look like an athlete (haha!), but then it became quite annoying. When my husband and I joined our current gym, a number of people asked me what I was training for, but didn't ask my husband. It's a total double standard. I love when men don't ask what I'm training for, but say something like "wow, I've never seen a woman lift such heavy weight" instead. It's a nice little ego boost!

    October 24, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Reply to this comment

  • barath

    I am sorry if this comes across as harsh, but it is because a good majority of women plainly waste their time in the gym. Women who train like Lisa are rare. Not that I condone guys randomly approaching girls to say something snarky, of course. You can argue men do a lot of stupid shit, like spending too much time curling etc. But most of the times, they do put in good effort. The number of women sitting down on those cycles pedalling quasi-statically is way too much. Yesterday I saw a girl on a bench, lying down, checking her phone, getting up, and repeating. She did two sets of about 8 with just the bar (with legs up in the air, you know, to work the pecs). By that time, I had finished five sets of high pulls and six sets of BTN push-presses. I wish I were making that up. Really. So the reaction of men who ask about Lisa's weight training, though not in complete good taste, is entirely understandable. I do want to point out that I don't intend to offend anyone with these remarks. It's just what I perceive as truth.

    October 24, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Reply to this comment

    • FreakSammy

      I would say the majority of men AND women I see at the gym are largely wasting their time. Sure, it's good to at least go, I suppose. But I wonder if some of these people even own mirrors. Years and years of riding a bike to nowhere, followed by aimlessly pushing a few weights on crappy machines, and what they have to show for it is: zero body composition changes.

      October 24, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Reply to this comment

  • deb

    I play hockey in the winter, so I am usually training on one leg, because if you're not on one leg in ice hockey, there's a pretty good chance you're standing around. But it helps for so many things that I get asked what I am training for a lot. I actually don't mind it. I don't like the presumption in principle, however. I see some of the trainers at the gym training women and I want to cry. Don't make them do bicep curls! Don't make your heavier clients do tricep push-downs for an hour! Make people move! Thank you for training folks the way you do. Really.

    October 24, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Ann Marie

    A few weeks ago I had a guy tell me, "You do the coolest workouts.". I see him at the gym a lot. I thanked him and told him I would pass this on to my trainer who writes my programs. Thank you Jonathan Fass who has been writing my programs for six years. I like being one of the only women in my gym doing free weights.

    October 24, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Matt T

    I'm a dude and I too get asked all the time what I'm training for. If I'm pushing the car, someone stops to offer to help and when I tell them the car works fine and we're just working out, it's always followed up with "Oh what are you training for?" If I'm throwing a medicine ball at the park, I get asked. When I am climbing playground equipment I've even been asked if I'm training for the circus! I say no and get a look like "Then why the f are you doing that..." I think it's a Seattle thing. Everyone knows you do yoga, run, and bike for "fitness". Anything more serious than that and you MUST be training for something. Possible double standard there, but I think a lot of people just have a hard time accepting that someone would work really really hard because they enjoy it, whether they're male or female. But again, this didn't happen as much in Idaho so I imagine there's a cultural aspect for sure. If someone saw me walking around a park with a 150lb sandbag on my back in ID they would ask if I'm training for something sometimes, but rarely and weren't as likely to look flabbergasted if I said "Nope just working out".

    October 24, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Matt T

    Another important point: a hardworking male is WAY more intimidating than a hard working female as far as most are concerned. I imagine people want to ask you what you're training for all the time Tony, but they see those pythons and feel the ground quake between your 500+ pound deadlifts and think "Maybe I'll keep that to myself" whereas a female is not as statistically likely to crush your neck for interrupting their lifting session ;)

    October 24, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Reply to this comment

  • FreakSammy

    I have never asked a woman who is deadlifting or squatting (for real) what they were training for. I have, on occasion however, said it is nice to see a woman doing real work in the gym. I've also had that conversation with the few guys who do real lifting. And by "real lifting" I don't mean heavy; I mean proper real lifts. It's almost like we're all part of some exclusive club of people who have discovered the secret key to fitness. Where the true dilemma lies is whether to stay silent when some guy is showing his son how to do squats and then letting the kid put too much weight on his shoulders and commence with leaned-over 1/4 squats.

    October 24, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Reply to this comment

  • moi

    I HATE THAT. I think it is worse when men act like I should be really proud that they mistook me for a fitness competitor. I wear huge headphones now and am probably regarded as a bitch at my gym, but it's the only way to workout in peace.

    October 24, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Reply to this comment

  • kylee

    I get it all the time as well "what are you training for" and i tell them for fun but also for synchronized swimming. Which is true. I dont mind it though, I feel like a lot of people avoid me in the gym because I am usually the only woman and I think they are intimidated. So i like it when someone is nice. Some people give me dumb tips as if they know more than me because theynare male but i just smile and take it. Most are interested in why a synchronized swimmer is lifting heavy but it is amazing how it helps me in the pool! It is also amazing how the inverse is true. I barely got to the gym because i was swimming so much and at the end of my season went to the gym and busted out more pullups than when i was doing pullups in my workouts.

    October 24, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Cheryl

    YES! I experience this all the time. Guys are always asking what sports I play, or what I'm training for. It's infuriating because you don't see guys asking other guys WTF they're training for when they do bicep curls for 2 hours (no kidding). Next time I'm just going to answer "to be a better pole dancer".

    October 24, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Liz

    Hm, I find some of the responses interesting. I've had the same experience (and actually right now I'm training for my first PL meet, but that wasn't the case until a few months ago) but... so what? I think its flattering that someone notices how hard I'm working. Plus, sharing is caring-- some misled triceps kickback girl might go back to her trainer and say, "That girl squats heavy just to look hot, more please." OR a dude sees I'm following Show-and-Go, asks me about it and starts pursuing information from sources besides his trusted bro-science bodybuilding online forum. I'm happy to talk shop. If I'm in a hurry or in trying to stay focused I don't find it hard to politely dismiss them. Next time I make sure to smile and say hey so they know I'm not a bitch around the clock.

    October 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Jess M. Howland

    Nope, you're absolutely spot on. I know my wife who is an avid lifter and whose story of getting together is much like yours, however we haven't watch all the Star Wars movies yet, but I'm working on it. She was more of a kettlebell trainee, while I was into a hybrid sort of training focused on building strength, size and overall conditioning. Guys used to approach her while she was squatting or deadlifting and chat with her, most likely because she was lifting more weight than they were or as a I want to get to know this gal tactic. I truly think women should become more involved in weight lifting, but the old dogma of getting bulky is still out there and scare quite a few away, regardless of how far away from the truth it is.

    October 25, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Get Smarter Today: Friday Reads from K. Reed – Strong Girls Win

    [...] Is There a Fitness Double Standard? by Tony Gentilcore  Ladies, if you follow SGW protocol (you know, pick up heavy things and train hard without following magazines’ ideas of what a “fitness routine” looks like) you’ll get questions like Tony writes about. I used to get asked all the time what I was “training for” when I training in commercial gyms. My standard answer: *straight, serious and warrior-like face* “I like picking up heavy things. (coating those words with menace to indicate that I detest being interrupted by bros who only curl in the squat rack…)” *walk away* [...]

    October 26, 2012 at 10:49 am | Reply to this comment

  • gostillers11

    First of all, because you met Lisa, I was introduced to the New Rules of Lifting for Women. So, you changed Lisa's life, but also mine in turn. So glad you guys met. A few weeks ago, while I was doing hand switches on my mobility day at my work gym, an older gentleman came up and asked if I was training for the olympics. While I'm flattered that he thought I was young enough for that :), he also didn't understand the answer that no, I'm just training for, as the picture above indicates, life.

    October 26, 2012 at 11:18 am | Reply to this comment

  • crista

    it's funny this has been a topic of discussion lately in my life. I do find it to be a double standard - but it seems one that many women are doing a great job of changing. I personally have never been asked what I was training for but I constantly get asked if I'm a gymnast. I take that as a compliment. Also, I have lived in different parts of Asia and my favorite thing about China and Singapore was when I would run outside with just a sports bra on or do pull ups in the park without a doubt at least one old man or woman would get my attention and then give me a big, smiling thumbs up or point (or poke sometimes) my abs and give me that thumbs up. Best reaction ever.

    October 27, 2012 at 9:34 am | Reply to this comment

  • Sam

    While for men the aesthetic standard is indeed 'swole', for women, the aesthetic standard right now is essentially muscle-less and skinny-fat. So women who are in the gym on the elliptical for 2 hours don't get asked what they're training for: we assume they're BURNIN' THOSE CALORIES since that's the cultural default. But when we're to be found in the weight room doing single-leg deadlifts or pistol squats, suddenly there's some curiosity. By the way, I notice the same thing with men who RUN; while it's assumed that most guys hit the weight room to stay in shape, those who do lots of cardio are often asked curiously why they're doing so, since the masculine ideal is muscular rather than runner-stringy. Of course, if a woman is doing barbell hip thrusts and asked what she's training for... weeeelll...

    October 28, 2012 at 8:56 am | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Excellent point on the men running. I never thought of it that way. But you're right, by default women are expected to stay in the cardio room and let the men tend to the weights. It's absurd.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:14 am | Reply to this comment

  • Whitney

    Tony, fantastic post. I'm definitely not as strong as your fabulous girlfriend (but working on it!), I love to train hard. When I go visit my family, I work out in a commercial gym and more often than not, AT LEAST 1 person (male and female) will ask me what I am training for when I'm doing unconventional exercises (in their mind). My answer, "Just for fun. I just love to lift weights!," leaves them with a "...Really?" expression. I love that I get them thinking about just training because you like it, but hate that it has to come to that. Keep up the great work!

    October 29, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Commercial gyms are always great for their entertainment factor, that's for sure. Keep it up Whitney! We need more women like you out there setting the good example that lifting weights won't make you a she-man.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:18 am | Reply to this comment

  • Top Good Reads Weekly Breakdown: Oct 21 – Oct 27 | LaVack Fitness

    [...] Does it Work? – Running Physio Top Three Fitness Myths (That Must Die) – Daniel Wallen Is There a Fitness Double Standard? – Tony Gentilcore How Do Rowing Exercises Differ? – Chris Beardsley How to Manage Your Fitness Expectations [...]

    October 29, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Top Good Reads Weekly Breakdown: Oct 21 – Oct 27

    […] Does it Work? – Running Physio Top Three Fitness Myths (That Must Die) – Daniel Wallen Is There a Fitness Double Standard? – Tony Gentilcore How Do Rowing Exercises Differ? – Chris Beardsley How to Manage Your Fitness Expectations […]

    September 12, 2013 at 9:44 pm | Reply to this comment

  • ben

    Its a way to start a conversation with a fit girl haha

    February 3, 2014 at 5:41 pm | Reply to this comment

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