I’d like to address a persistent issue in the fitness community that I encounter on what I would consider to be regular basis. There is a problematic phrase in FitLand that creeps up in the oddest of places. Businesses have even built entire models on this phrase, and this phrase Frosts. My. Cookies. It’s time we put this garbage to rest.
It all started when I returned to my hometown to help a family member having a significant surgical procedure. I knew I would need a place to work out, because workouts can’t just stop. (Duh.) I morph into an impossible bitch and it’s just better for everyone involved if I don’t miss leg day. When asking my mother for options, she responded, “They just opened a gym up the street.”
Upon hearing the name of the gym, I cringed. I had heard of this place before and knew I likely wouldn’t be welcome. But, workouts are like the postal service – rain, snow, hell, or high water, I had better deliver – and I wasn’t in a position to argue. Terrified, I walked in and asked for some options. For ten dollars a month and no cancellation fee, I was signed up and ready to hit the weights after a “quick orientation.”
The orientation started with the following statement. “We are a judgement free zone. We don’t like intimidation and we don’t like having bodybuilders in here.”
“Well, we don’t like people who lift really heavy weights, and we aren’t interested in their criticism of others or their judgment of others.”
(Is the irony lost on anyone here?)
My worst fears were realized. Everything I heard about this place was true. I timidly responded, “Well, um. I’m a bodybuilder, will this be a problem? Can I still come here? I really only need to be here for a week, and I just need a place to – ”
“Well,” she snapped her gum and replied with a simultaneous smile and a snarl. “Just keep in mind we have, like, 80-year old like, grandmas in here working out and they don’t need your intimidation. AT all.” She snapped her gum one more time for punctuation, and then polished the admonishment off with a sweet smile.
I carefully considered her statement for a moment before concluding that I had zero intention on snapping in a gear-fueled rage and chucking a dumbbell at an 80-year old’s head as she was reading her Kindle on the treadmill. After all, I’m not anywhere NEAR peak week, so I have plenty of carbs to offset my carefully controlled temperament and can confidently avoid coming completely unhinged. On an 80-year-old. On a treadmill. For no reason other than she exists. “I somehow don’t think that will be a problem,” I replied. This seemed to change her topical assessment of my clearly violent tendencies.
On the wall was a bright blue hockey goal-style alarm. Enshrined beneath it? Fancy signage announcing the definition of a what I can only assume is how this business (mistakenly) interprets bodybuilders to oft behave. Apparently we slam weights, grunt, wear “bodybuilding tank tops” (what even is a bodybuilding tank top? Do I own one of those? Is there a qualification process to acquire one?) and carry gallon water jugs – and it’s amazing because while we mentally juggle all four of these tasks, we filthy primates apparently have some IQ points left over to walk around and “judge others.” They sound the alarm whenever we arrive and participate in these rituals. You know, in the judgement free zone. They sounded the alarm – on me – when I politely asked if they had a stash of foam rollers somewhere. A simple “no” would have been just as effective and slightly less embarrassing, but we all have our ways of communicating, don’t we?
I put my head down and took my complimentary slice of pizza home to my mom, but not before sitting in the car in a momentary stupor. What just happened? Now, before you go clapping back with “There! See? NOW YOU KNOW HOW IT FEELS!” Dear Reader, hear me out on this one. Trust me.
I thought this odd phenomenon was contained within the boundaries of this singular establishment, but I soon discovered I was wrong. My mom is a member of a “boot camp” style gym. She loves it. She goes to her class 5 days a week, the class is a half-hour long, and she gets a proper workout in with trainers who look out for her when she needs modifications on her exercises. What’s better is that they push her when they know she can do more. She has friends she meets in class to work out with, and I’m pleased to report she can now do more with a ten-pound dumbbell than most people. I hope one of those things is not throwing it at an 80-year-old on a treadmill. She could if she wanted to. But she’s not a vicious bodybuilder. Yet.
While visiting at home, she asked me to attend classes with her and of course I agreed. We finished class and did what all normal people do and headed over to the cinnamon roll shop next door for a post workout treat (this the part of the story where my coach now has permission to spare the 80-year old and throw that 10 pound dumbbell at my head.)* The lady behind the counter asked where we had come from, and my mom, being my mom, (well, being any mom, really) started telling her alllllllll about boot camp. Her first question for my mom was, “That sounds like fun, buuut…is it… judgmental?
Okay, people. As someone who used to be overweight and is now a bikini competitor, I think I’m in a uniquely qualified position to address this monster. We have to stop this. Now. Yesterday. This “Fit People Are Judgy Assholes” schtick needs to just go away. If you’ve ever asked, “But is it judgmental?” about a gym, read on. I’m about to share a few of my brain cells with you (what’s left anyway after I drink my daily gallon jug of water) and give you some insight in to this world that feels – feels, not is – unattainable by many and why we need to just be done with this already. Quick caveat: I’m not the mouthpiece for the entire bodybuilding community, so please understand that no one hired me to be a spokesperson for my “kind” but hopefully this will give some reassurance to the “judged” from the (non-existent) “judgers.”
Like all complicated issues, we’re going to start by “following the money.” What can a company can gain from an ostracizing mentality such as this? On the surface, it looks great. No one likes judgmental people, so if we are up front and inform them they are not welcome here, then the rest of us non-judgmentals are “safe” to go to the gym. But there’s a subtle sales tactic hiding underneath that vitriol for the fit disguised as righteous inclusion. If “all fit people are judgmental”, then that reduces your health, humanity, and wellness to something binary. You can either be fit and an asshole or carry a few extra pounds and be kind and polite. Better not get too fit. After all, no one likes a critical asshole. Keep paying your ten dollar per month fee and eating that post workout pizza. Don’t move over to “that” category of people at the gym. If you look good in your body, surely your soul must have soured ugly. Your subconscious is being told that you shouldn’t want to be fit because you will lose your personal integrity. It’s subversive sabotage on your physique. And why do people continue to go to the gym? They are looking for results! If you aren’t getting them and you keep taking the free pizza every time you leave, you never reach your goals and you are on a figurative (and literal) treadmill for the rest of your life. But at least you’re not judgy. Pretty clever, huh? This isn’t about judgmental gym goers. This is about money.
Let me explain what’s really going on in the mind of the “critical” gym goer.
To begin, I have exactly 1 hour and 30 minutes to get my s**t done. I cannot waste even 30 seconds of time sneering at people who are also trying to do the same. Also, why would I? They are here just like I am, and they are paying the same amount of money I pay to be there. We all have a right to our health, and if you’re there exercising (ha! See what I did there?) that right to health, then awesome! You showed up today, and I did too! We are awesome people. If I’m looking at you, I’m probably thinking to myself that you have great arms, or well -developed back muscles or working on a good start on them, anyway. Did you hear that? I’m mentally complimenting you, not intimidating you.
If you are spending ten minutes on the treadmill at the gym and it’s even 1 minute more than you spent yesterday, or two days ago, or last week, then you are making progress. And we are all at the gym to make progress. It looks different for everyone, but that’s why we ALL go to the gym – to make progress.
To expand on that, if you shoulder press 3 pounds and I can shoulder press 20, it’s easy to think I just “showed up” that way. I can assure you I didn’t. I started with 3-pound weights, too. I’ve just been doing this longer, is all. Did you get mad at your college professors because they knew more than you? No! Of course not. They’ve “trained” in their subject longer! They are supposed to know more than you, that’s why they are the professor. For some reason, we seem to overlook this when we set foot in the gym. Bodybuilders do this to other bodybuilders, by the way. Those of us starting in our first years expect to look like pros. It’s not going to happen that quickly. Those pro bodybuilders have been working on building muscle for a long time.
I’m going to let you in on a secret. The “intimidating” guy at the gym? The one over on the bench press loaded up with plates and chains and all manners of miscellaneous equipment? The one who comes complete with a spotting partner and primal screams with every press of the bar? Yeah. That guy doesn’t just intimidate you. He intimidates everyone. While he’s lifting. But you know what? He’s worked hard for that physique. And if he wants to improve himself (just like you do – remember it’s why we’re all here) he has to lift that hard. And the reality is that if he’s one of those vicious “bodybuilders”? When he diets endlessly to expose his giant biceps and fully developed rack of abs, he can barely stand up because he’s so calorie depleted and exhausted. He probably hasn’t had a carb in like 3 weeks, and really, people, is that any way to live? He also probably owns a rescue dog and cries during the feel-good Superbowl Budweiser commercials – just like everyone else. Yep. He’s a bro. But that doesn’t automatically qualify him as an intimidating dick. Most of those bench press screamers are actually really nice if you give them a chance.
Let’s also talk for a second about what you’re good at. I might be able to move through a gym confidently, but I probably can’t knit a sweater like you can, or paint a picture, or golf, or teach someone how to scuba dive, or build a comprehensive retirement portfolio (is that even a thing? I don’t even know.) like you can. And I certainly don’t march on to your turf asking if your stock portfolio building desk is in a “judgement free zone.” Everyone is good at something. Some people are really good at lifting weights. Remember what you’re good at when you go to the gym. It’s a lot easier to say, “Wow, that girl has great hamstrings. But you know what? I can make my grandkids smile and I make a mean Thanksgiving dinner.” We can all do a lot of things! And over time, you will be “good” at the gym, too. Just give it time. And don’t worry about the people who got a head start on you by working out consistently for loner than you have. You’ll have a head start on the person who doesn’t start until next year.
Finally, and this is a mirror gazing moment, it’s high time we stop hiding behind the “other people are judging me, that’s why I don’t go to the gym” excuse. Because a) no one is, and 2) it’s a super easy way to get out of hard work and sweat by feigning discomfort that is being placed on you by others. The only judgement you are experiencing is what your inner voice is projecting on to the “gym bro” who happened to glance in your direction while he was merely thinking about what he was going to eat for dinner. Yup, I said it. The only “intimidating critic” at the gym, dear friends, is you. It’s so much easier to get sympathy or a pass if you think your thoughts about you are coming from others.
I remember being in that place where I was in transition from the cardio equipment to the weights. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. I was right in the middle – no stranger to the treadmill, and a total foreigner near the weight rack. I thought I could feel all the weight lifter’s eyes on me. “Go back to the cardio equipment where you belong.” But I soon realized that was my voice, not theirs. I still feel intimidated from time to time. It’s all internal.
In closing, here’s what I certainly will judge you for at the gym – don’t sit on the benches or machines and sit on your phone. Those glares that come from me are real. Get off the machine if you’re not gonna use it. Resting between sets? Your machine. Posting photos of your dinner from last night to Insta more than 90 seconds after your last set? In the words of Luda, Move, Bitch. Get Out The Way.
I will also judge you if you take unsolicited photos or video of anyone at the gym. For any reason. EVER. NOT COOL. Those people who you think are the intimidators and the judgmental ones? We’ll be the first ones to straight up f**k anyone up who is doing this, especially – especially – if it’s someone who is new to lifting, fumbling through a workout, or just trying to do their job at the gym like the rest of us. YOU are the reason why we are even having this conversation TO BEGIN WITH. So just stop it. The people who do this are not “intimidating bodybuilders with gallon water jugs in bodybuilding tank tops.” The people who do this are assholes.
The “intimidating critics” at the gym are invented. They are invented by large gym corporations who are banking on your insecurities. They are invented by the demons in your head. The faster you ignore them, and then banish them, the faster you can be an “old face” at the gym. I belong at the gym. And when you’re ready, you belong too. Now get there. Before I throw a dumbbell at you.