Check Your Gender at the Door: It’s Not All About Bulk, Brah

In the early 2000s, I worked as a personal trainer at a big box gym in Portland, Oregon. I remember those early days as grueling and necessary for character building. I worked long shifts and constantly lifted weights between clients. No matter what my other goals were, I wanted visible results, like muscular growth. I joined various group fitness classes and always felt frustrated. When I would go on a yoga or spinning kick, I would get discouraged and end up in the weight room pumping iron to maintain muscle mass. As a young adult, I remember that I always wanted to be big and strong. Every time I saw a guy in the gym who was super fit and muscular, I would think, “I want to look like him.” I believed that most guys who lift weights and stay motivated require two things to keep at it: increased strength and visible muscular growth.

One warm summer afternoon, I finished training my clients and did a two-hour lifting routine. When I could no longer lift my arms, I asked my coworker if she wanted to grab lunch. Lori mentioned she needed to drop something off to her mom first. Lori said her mom exercised at a small Pilates studio to help with her chronic back pain. She thought it was like “yoga on machines” and that it was very popular with dancers.

The Pilates studio was the strangest looking set-up I had ever seen. The entire right side of the facility was filled with middle-aged women making noises that sounded like Lamaze. There were four or five teachers and roughly 10-15 students. The left half of the studio looked familiar, with dumbbells, cable machines, and benches. The other half I would describe it as medieval.

Seven machines were lined up against the wall, and the students were all lying on their sides with straps on their feet making circles with their legs. Two benches in the center of the room looked like hospital beds, and the women on them were twisting and rolling around. They were breathing so loudly you could probably hear them outdoors. In the back room, there was a group of women jumping and dancing and holding small balls. Jazzercise, I wondered? There were no guys, so I thought this was something like Curves, “for ladies only.”

I must have looked like a fish out of water, because one of the teachers spotted me and headed my way. She introduced herself as the owner, then looked at me like she had X-ray vision. If you’ve read my blog, you know I had suffered a skiing accident years earlier. This woman I had never seen before was able to identify every injury I had suffered and describe all the pain symptoms I lived with. I was truly awestruck. I told her I was a personal trainer, and how helpful it would be to be able to read my clients the same way. How was she able to ready my body with such precision? She replied, “I am a Pilates teacher.” That day changed my life.

I was very curious about Pilates, but wanted to know where all the men were. Were there any male teachers? I began to study with the owner and, out of seven students, I was the only guy. Years later, I took a comprehensive training course and again, out of 20 students, I was the only guy. Today, the percentage of men who practice and teach Pilates seems way below what I would expect from a form of exercise that was created almost 100 years ago by a man named Joseph Pilates.

When I started my business in 2007, I worked primarily with middle-aged women. The occasional man would walk in and last maybe two or three classes before he decided that it was not for him. It is a huge misconception that Pilates is for women. Thankfully, men are starting to slowly come around. The thing is, Pilates is often portrayed in magazines and on social media as being for women. What men need time to realize about Pilates is that, at first, it is more mental than physical.

Recently, I asked Pilates teachers from all over the globe why men shy away from Pilates. The consensus was that most men are intimidated to start. This is understandable. Many men I have worked with don’t make it through their first class without feeling frustrated, intimidated, and utterly confused. Everyone new to Pilates uses muscles they have not used in a very long time, and the struggle can be an ego crusher. Additionally, certain personalities—not only men—tend to power through their workouts. But Pilates demands precision and development of quality movements. Men seem to want instant results, like I did, where women are satisfied with feeling the change. It also may be easier for women to get introduced to Pilates, not based on the actual movements, but based on how society genders exercise. Men are drawn toward building muscle, and gyms offer them that platform. Women, on the other hand, are drawn to exercise that tones their body and doesn’t require lifting heavy objects. In addition, men are individualistic about their workouts, while women are frequently more comfortable in small groups.

If you enter a studio that teaches classical Pilates, you will see that they focus on breathing techniques, spine alignment, and core control, and that the practice omits muscle building. This is perhaps another reason why men shy away from Pilates. Neither gender is more body aware or predisposed to excel at Pilates. Perhaps men, regardless of their exercise goals, do not see value in Pilates, or do not understand how it can positively impact weightlifting and other sports and leisure activities. Pilates is equally difficult for both men and women. In a gym, without any education, an individual can grab weights as heavy as they want and pound out a workout. Pilates, on the other hand, requires you to learn the foundational moves before progressing to more advanced exercises.

People can go to the gym year after year, lifting heavy loads and expecting their bodies to get better with age. I have learned firsthand the value of Pilates, and I hope to continue to reach more men. I always tell both my male and female clients that if the load you are lifting is greater than your ability to properly control your core muscles, it’s not worth it. It’s pointless to have huge biceps and a ruined spine. The few men I have worked with long-term tell me they wish they had discovered Pilates years earlier.

As always, thank you for reading my latest blog. I appreciate everyone who contributed. I want to inspire the Pilates community to reevaluate their practice and discover new ways to attract both male teachers and students. Additionally, the Pilates community would grow exponentially—and perhaps be the number one form of exercise—if we could successfully introduce an athletic approach to the classical method.

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