Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Maxing Out on Intimidation (A Woman in the Weight Room)

Remember when I told you I was signing up for an obstacle course and was going to be able to do a pull-up by year's end? Well, it's just about August, and I'm making progress.

My progress, though, has come to something of a blockade.

I've been doing a weight lifting routine that I'm happy with. It includes the use of barbells for squats, but I need weight that's heavier than what I can safely lift over my head to put back on the floor. I need (gulp) a squat rack.

Power Rack

In my gym, there is a clear segregation going on with the weights. On one side of the gym, there's cardio equipment and a set of lightweight dumbbells, some medicine balls, some lightweight machines, and some kettle bells. On the other side of the gym (separated by a wall and a hallway), there are heavier weights, freestanding barbells, and more substantial machinery. 

It's probably no surprise to you that there's something of a gender divide in their use. The lighter side has a good number of men, but it's often dominated by women. The heavier side is almost always men and one incredibly badass looking woman (there's more than one woman, but there's only ever one at a time. It's some kind of physics rule, I think). 

I want to be the incredibly badass looking woman, but I'm not. I have, however, forced myself to make the trek from the light side to the heavy side because that's where the weights I need live. It makes me feel out of place. I am always intimidated and afraid that I'm standing in someone's way, doing my measly twenty-pound dumbbell curl while the guy next to me bench presses a small horse worth of metal. 

I don't think anyone's actually judging me. I've never gotten rude looks or comments. Everyone has always been nice. The problem here is in my own head, and I know that, but I don't know how to get it out. 

It's time for me to get in the squat rack, but all I can think about is what happens if I put on too much weight and drop it or if I do it wrong and look ridiculous. I'm not even really afraid of hurting myself (unless you count an injured ego).

You know that feeling you get when you accidentally walk into the wrong restroom? That's how I feel when I'm lifting weights: a vague sense of not belonging. Walking up the squat rack feels a little like walking up to a urinal; it makes it clear that I'm not just accidentally in the "wrong" space, but actively declaring my right to be there for its intended purpose. I know that's exactly why I need to actually do it, but it still makes my heart race and my palms sweat, and that makes it harder to hold the bar.


  1. kristenbirthingbeautifulideasJuly 31, 2013 at 9:44 AM

    Your urinal metaphor is spot-on (for me, at least). For what it's worth, the gym in its entirety intimidates me so much that I never actually work out in public. So that's one area of badassery that you've already conquered, in my book. In that same vein, you probably have no idea how many women see you "over on that side" in that very gendered space and think, "Wow, she is such a badass." It might even inspire some of them to join you (and your fellow badass) some day.

  2. I identify with this post a lot - I'm one of the few female kickboxers in the combat stream at my gym, and it's pretty intimidating to walk into a room full of serious MMA-type guys and one or two badass women. I'm just starting out, so when I told my instructor this, she reminded me that all of these muscular guys were beginners once too, and that I can earn their respect simply by showing up and trying my hardest. It's super corny sounding but it actually does make me feel more confident. Maybe try picturing the intimidating weight-room men as their wimpy 13-year-old past selves, struggling to lift what you're accomplishing with ease. It helps me :)

  3. It's *so great* that you are lifting. Seriously, there's almost no single better thing you can do for your body. And now you're up to weights that are too heavy to clear over your head! That's awesome!

    And a twenty pound dumbbell curl is a lot! It sounds to me like you are very strong.

    So, here are my practical suggestions.
    1. Get a pair of lifting gloves. Sweat into them all you want, no one will know.
    2. Learn how to fail safely. Load up the bar with a weight you *can* clear over your head, but learn how to fail with it. In a squat rack, the right way to fail is to 'ride the bar down:' just let the weight carry your body down to the safety pins, at which point you should be in a deep, ass-to-ground squat. People may ask if you're ok. It's ok to tell them you're practicing safe squat fails in anticipation of a new personal record.

    You're *already* the kick-ass woman in the heavy free weight section. You paid your membership just like the boys. You have every right in the world to use that equipment, and unless you're actively invading someone's space/equipment that they're already using, let *them* worry about getting in *your* way.

    Perhaps it might help to check out a few gym etiquette guides? It might help to settle your concerns about doing something wrong. I think you'll find that you are already doing things right.

    Finally and this is personal opinion and highly variable, I have never stopped being just a tiny bit afraid of lifting, even after three years of barbell work. If you're lifting as heavy as possible, you're bound to wonder if you'll be able to do it, and to get a little fear and adrenaline going on. And that is ok.

    Good luck and I am so happy for you that you're lifting and enjoying it!

  4. I understand this feeling. It's been awhile for me, as I'm a pretty experienced weightlifter and quite comfortable in the weight room (now), but starting out it took me YEARS before I was willing to even try power cleans. Partly I was afraid I'd do it wrong, but part of it was the same silly fear that people would look at me and judge. (I started doing them with just the bar, because it is a complicated movement.)

    Never had a problem with the squat rack, though ... one of the benefits of early exposure and coaching, I guess. (I started in high school).

    Anyway, you'll totally get there, and my experience is that the guys are not laughing at you at all --- they like that you're not afraid to try the heavy lifts!

  5. First time reader, but... good luck with your weight lifting endeavors! I was sort of scared of the squat rack at first, too, but now it's one of my favorite pieces of equipment... front squats, back squats, push press... all that good stuff living in one piece of machinery.

  6. I (sporadically) lift at a nearby gym, and I totally get how you feel. The sad thing is, it's not entirely in our heads, at least in my experience.

    The guys in the weight lifting section are noticeably nicer to me than to the other guys, will chat and smile, etc (dare I say they're flirting? I'm pretty clueless, and just want to do my lifting and get the hell out most days). The other day some asshat actually came up to me *while I was doing squats* and started chatting, asking me if I speak French (I do, but not to jerks like him), complimenting me on my 'big legs' (yeah, thanks, not doing this for you, asshole), generally just trying to act like he knew me and giving me tips. Which I neither need nor want.

    The only thing that kind of works is to cultivate my mean scowl-y face and wear earphones. Unfortunately, even that doesn't work all the time... :(

  7. I'm sorry to hear that. I haven't had any negative/harassing interactions, but I know many people have. I think it's almost become an expectation, which can make it an even less inviting space.

  8. Thanks for reading! I'm making some slow progress, and I'm hopeful.

  9. That's a great point. If you start out early, then everyone around you is at the same level of awkwardness, but I feel like I'm the only one in the room who doesn't know what I'm doing. (That's probably not even true, but it feels that way sometimes.)

  10. You're very right! They weren't born doing those lifts, either.

  11. Thank you! It never occurred to me that someone might be looking at me as the badass on the other side. I guess I better wear it well, huh? :)

  12. Totally identify with this. I too am usually the only woman in the weights area; maybe half the time there's one other woman, and at peak time in the evenings I've seen max three at any one time. The gym has opened up a separate women's room for any women who want more space/privacy/assistance which I think is cool, but it doesn't have a squat rack or barbells so I get bored up there pretty quickly! I started using the squat rack in the regular bit recently but I only use the pre-loaded barbells because I have all these questions about loading up my own barbell (how much does the bar weigh anyway? Where are the things to attach the weights on either side? Am I going to look like an idiot? Will people get annoyed at me for taking up so much time in the squat rack?). Now I've maxed out the point where I can safely lift the pre-loaded barbell on to the squat rack so I'm going to have to use the self-loaded one if I want to progress to more weight. And yet I hesitate every time and stick with the lighter weights.. Strange how we let these little things stop us.

  13. Yes! That's exactly what I was doing. I knew I needed more weight, but every time I actually went to get more weight, I'd chicken out--not for the fear of lifting heavy, but for the fear of not doing the silly little things right.

    Since writing this, my husband and I went to the gym together, and he helped me. He helped me max out on several different moves so I could calculate how much I should be lifting.

    I still worry if I'm taking up too much time in the squat rack, but it's usually pretty empty, so hopefully I won't have to deal with it until I'm more comfortable with it.

    Good luck to you! It sounds like you've done a great job getting comfortable doing difficult exercises.

  14. You know, I've been that badass woman in the regular gyms...later, I've been the badass woman in acro/circus gyms. All I can say that not matter how many years I train, or how athletic I look, how skilled I get--every single time I approach any apparatus, equipment, weight, etc I feel like absolute crap and that I will fall off it instantly, to everyone's ridicule and possibly injury or just won't be able to lift it. I hate training with people around me and possibly looking at me. This stresses me out. Sounds like you're the type of person who will do better in private environment. This is true--not just perception-- that ones like you (and me, etc) probably DO NOT belong in machismo-filled, gender-biased weight room enviornment. These places are unpleasant. My advice is to buy own weights and use them at home and learn bodyweight, including plyometric, exercises that can replace weights, at least to large degree. Remind yourself that macho men in the weightroom are most likely inflexible, lack functional fitness, lack endurance, lack skills to handle own bodyweight at all angles, lack dynamic strength and have major joint and tendon problems or will have them later. Have fun.

  15. What helps against harassing interactions is to dress conservatively/modestly, aka no tight clothes (unless you got big muscle already). Say, wearing a baggy t-shirt and men's long shorts, or baggy tracksuit. This will make YOU appear intimidating to them, trust me.