When it comes to working out, men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
Sure – we’re all aware of the typical stereotypes – men as loud, grunting meatheads only interested in bulk, and women just making sure they look good in the mirror.
But does any of this typecasting really hold up?
Some of it, yeah …. But some of it’s overblown, with each gender closing the gaps from each side.
Motivation is a big difference.
According to this WebMD article on gender differences in the gym, men like working out because it’s a sport, it’s fun, it’s competitive or it’s just something they’ve always done. Sure, they also work out to improve their appearance – but the focus is more on getting bigger and bulkier.
Women, the article says, work out mostly to look good. They see the Instagram pictures of models and celebrities and feel the pressure to keep up.
Indeed, according to a 2014 study on gender differences in the gym, women reported exercising for weight loss and toning more than men, whereas men reported exercising for enjoyment more than women.
But not all reports corroborate. A 2001 study by St. John Fisher College on gender differences in fitness motivation said appearance was the top motivator for both sexes.
And more women are working to define success in the gym according to their own standards and not society’s.
“My fitness ideal comes from myself,” explains one woman in this “A Sweat Life” blog post on gender perspectives on fitness. “When I feel strong and energetic from maintaining a positive, well-rounded lifestyle, my whole perspective improves. I know what it takes to feel that great, and it isn’t easy, but it is worth it.”
“My fitness ideal is looking bomb in some of my favorite outfits,” says another. “But I know I could look bomb at 10 lbs. over what the Insta models say I should be.”
Upper body vs. lower body
“Men typically work out the upper part of their body more,” says Hayden Franks, a Houston-area gym-goer. “Women focus more on the lower half.”
And research does seem to back this up. In one gender differences-in-exercise study by L. Mealey (1997) and a 2010 follow-up study by PK Jonason, the males focused their energy on making themselves look larger, focusing on building their upper body, while women focused more on losing weight, with an emphasis on the lower body. The biological/evolutionary reason, researchers theorized, was competition within each gender for a mate.
Biological differences may also have something to do with men and women targeting different areas. Women, for instance, store fat differently in their body than men. They have more subcutaneous fat (between the muscle and skin) with more of it settling in the lower half of their body – especially on the butt, hips and thighs. Men, in contrast, have more visceral fat - the fat that collects around the organs, higher up. This gives rise to the classic female “pear shape” of weight gain versus more of an “apple shape” in men.
Women are more polite – maybe too polite
When it comes to the gym, one recent study says women are inclined to avoid encroaching on men’s time and space – and it the process, often conceding what’s rightfully theirs.
At least that’s according to Stephanie Coen, a postdoctoral associate in geography at the University of Western Ontario, who interviewed 52 gym-goers of both genders from the same city.
"What was so embedded in the environment of the gym,” says Coen of her 2017 study on gender differences in the gym, “was a lot of women talked about ways they would minimize their consumption of time and space; they didn't want to 'get in the way of someone else.'"
One woman told Coen, for instance, she couldn't be authoritative in asserting her place and using the equipment because she might be perceived negatively. But she felt like if a man were to do that, it would be acceptable.
Men care less about how they look
“Is it possible that men may be less concerned about their physical appearance when they work out?” asks Chuck Sawyer, a Rochester, NY gym-goer. “Or is it just me?”
Nope, it’s not just you, Chuck. Apparently, men aren’t as concerned with how they look when exercising as women.
“Women think everyone else is looking at them so they're afraid to put on workout clothes or get out there in public with their cellulite jiggling,” says Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Body-for-LIFE for Women: A Woman's Plan for Physical and Mental Transformation. “Do men care what they look like when they're working out? Of course not!”
“All I know is, walking into the gym I sucked my stomach and butt in to try to look good working out,” says Virginia Beach gym-goer Sue Van Goidsnoven. “I probably have more muscles in those areas due to that. I didn’t want to look heavy”
Here are some other differences we found. Do they hold true or not? You be the judge.
- Women more are more balanced in their workout approach, blending cardio, strength training and mind-body practices like yoga or tai chi. They’re also more likely to focus on toning and flexibility, while men tend to go for strength training and bulk
- Women are more likely to ask for help, and they’re generally better at taking instructions. Men don’t like to look like they don’t know what they’re doing.
- Women more likely to go for exercise that requires dance or other coordination; such activities are deemed too feminine.
- Women more likely to do exercise as a group, often because they like the social aspects of exercising.
- Women tend to work out less, citing a lack of time – often family responsibilities - as the reason. Some researchers say that’s because they’re biologically and culturally wired to be caregivers.
- Men are more likely to go with sports-oriented exercises.