I think it’s fair to say that the topic of women’s fitness has had something of a renaissance over the last few years. While we as a society are still mostly obsessed with the aesthetics of a thin body, the conversation has shifted from “how to get into a pair of size six jeans” to “how to squat yourself a peachier booty”. The idea of women adopting strength training routines is no longer unheard of; it’s on-trend. And as we’ve all heard about a billion times before, “strong is the new skinny”.
But although we may have filed away our Jane Fonda workout videos for now (no hate, I love Jane Fonda), there are still gaping holes in the way the fitness industry considers women and their bodies.
This was brought to my attention about a year ago when I was interviewing Olympian, gym-owner and all-round fitness expert, Louise Hazel, for another story. I was speaking with Hazel about the difficulties of training as a bigger-busted woman (it’s a thing) and she made a comment about how frustrating she found it when she saw trainers instructing women to jump up and down, despite the obvious discomfort it was creating.
The message I got from this interaction was that while women are very much involved in the world of fitness nowadays, their bodies can still feel like an afterthought when it comes to exercise and the businesses surrounding that.
I reached out to Hazel again, and over the phone, she explained to me that in a nutshell: the fitness industry is in dire need of more women in the driving seat.
“I think it’s fair to say that the fitness industry has been, you know, dominated by men… since its inception,” she told me.
“And women have always played, I’d say, a subsidiary and secondary role.”
Follow the funds
She explained that, in the simplest of terms, the large majority of investment has always been on men and male-dominated workout styles.
“You only need to look in, you know, high end gym chains and global gym brands nowadays, and look at the square footage [free weights and machines compared to studio fitness] to understand exactly where the money is, and where the investment is being spent,” she said.
Of course, that’s not to say that weight machines are women free zones; we know that’s not the case. But if you’re to take a general sample of the demographic that tends to take fitness classes compared to that of the weights section, there would likely be a clear gender divide.
And this point is interesting because it’s created something of a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to women’s fitness, more broadly. The “extremely patronising” way women are catered to, Hazel said, often leads to a skewed perception of what women’s workouts “should” look like.
Speaking in general terms, the picture Hazel painted for me was this: many women feel excluded from certain workout styles (strength training, weights), so they navigate towards the styles that they feel cater to them (group fitness, aerobic style classes). As a result, women continue to have certain types of workouts marketed to them. And on the cycle goes.
Hazel pointed out that there is still a large group of women who hold the fear that strength training will result in a bulkier body. And although “we’ve seen in the past few years a real emergence of strength-based training for women, a lot of the time that strength-based training for women is still provided to us by men”.
But it’s not exactly black and white
According to the Australian Institute of Fitness’ Head of Training, Kate Kraschnefski, the situation is a complex one.
“The latest data profiling the fitness industry in Australia suggests that from a participation perspective, gender is quite even. If anything, women are slightly more active than men,” she shared over email.
But while there is even representation of genders at the Australian Institute of Fitness (AIF) “curiously, there seem to be more men going on to careers as personal trainers” despite industry calls for more women PTs.
She explained to me that when it comes to workout styles specifically, women generally do favour social exercise varieties.
“The classic ‘weights room’ has been, and still is, dominated by men,” she said.
“This is changing, but I do think it has an impact on how many women engage in traditional forms of weight training. Given the fact that strength training is an important factor in health for both men and women, this could be detrimental.”
Gendered exercise is a perception issue
Kraschnefski went on to state that at its core, “the presumption that strength training is designed for men is more an awareness and perception issue, rather than a physiological barrier”.
For the most part, there is no physical reason for men and women to need to adopt different training styles. (Unless, you have pre-existing health concerns, or even the thought of jumping up and down hurts your boobs.) But, like Hazel touched on, Kraschnefski said that “historically, bodybuilding was a men’s sport, so much of what we know has originated from the experiences of men”.
“Like many areas of society that have arisen from a patriarchal structure, it can be harder for women to relate and feel comfortable. And like many areas of society, if we addressed this imbalance, it would be positive for us all!”
What we do overlook is the significance of hormones
While exercise doesn’t need to be split to suit the bodies of different genders, one area where the experiences of women and people with uteruses are being overlooked is our hormones.
Put simply, if you do not have a uterus you will not experience the same “hormonal variations over time,” Kraschnefski shared.
She explained that “different stages of our menstrual cycle are better suited to certain types of training”. This is also the case for the stages of pregnancy and menopause, and it’s vital that fitness professionals understand how to design programs that consider this.
Tori Clapham, Founder of Peaches Pilates, knows all about the benefit of training around your period. In fact, she’s designed an entire workout schedule based on menstrual cycles and how they affect the body. Flo Week is a seven-day calendar that has been fitted with bespoke workouts purposefully designed for certain stages in the period cycle.
She told me over the phone that “our bodies go through a monthly cycle that is centred around ovulation. In the build-up to ovulation… you feel your best, you have your best energy, you’re often feeling really creative, you’re often feeling fucking sexy as well,” she said.
When our period rolls around, however, “…hormones can not only cause fatigue, and perhaps, you know, mood issues.” It’s also common to experience pain. She said that rather than push through the discomfort and continue training, it’s better to listen to your body and give yourself a break. Then when the cramps subside and your energy levels increase you can “start to shake the cobwebs off”.
Clapham pointed out that every person and every cycle is different, but that there is a real benefit in “honouring” your menstrual cycle in this way. You may just find you “feel more recharged” as a result, she said.
Because often, that’s not what we do.
“The approach to women’s cycles has been like, shut up, shove a tampon in and get on with it,” she said.
And that attitude, in its most extreme form, has considerable health consequences
Earlier in the year, the ABC touched on growing concern over energy deficiency in elite athletes due to excessive training and not enough fuel. The outlet highlighted that industry dieticians and nutritionists have come to realise that athletes (of all genders) are unknowingly living with a condition known as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (REDS) because of “higher training loads”. It’s a worrying trend that has serious health impacts, irrespective of gender.
In the case of women and people with uteruses, however, REDS often results in an irregular period or the loss of your cycle entirely.
“It’s something that was seen a lot of, particularly in the last five years,” Clapham said.
Essentially, this tends to happen when women “don’t have enough healthy body fat to support a menstrual cycle”.
“…if having children is something that you want to do, and not every woman does, certainly, but if it’s something that you want, that is a very serious and dangerous position to get yourself into. So we want to encourage women to honour their cycles and respect them and not be ashamed of them and work with them.”
So what do we need?
As Kraschnefski and Hazel both shared, there have been positive steps forward when it comes to women’s fitness as a whole. Attitudes towards strength training are shifting, the body positivity movement continues to grow in popularity, and “fitness professionals are definitely getting better at understanding the specific needs of women,” Kraschnefski said.
But for as long as the industry continues to have men placed at its centre, and leading most of its businesses, women’s fitness will always be playing catch up.