Gender Stereotypes in Fitness

By Matthew Sweeney

As a total body conditioning program, Pilates benefits are immense: increased body awareness, muscle control and tone, flexibility and mental clarity. While there are other modalities that offer similar benefits, Pilates is situated at a unique place as a program that enhances the ability to control and refine movement in order to perform better in any athletic pursuit. This said, Pilates seems to exist in a gendered space in the world of fitness, marketed towards women seeking to achieve a certain aesthetic rather than overall health. So we're starting a course titled Pilates for Men to illustrate to men (and women) that Pilates has wide ranging, though different, benefits for either sex.

Most men carry the misguided perception that Pilates is just a stretch class for their wives and girlfriends, an opportunity to wear expensive leggings in neon colors. And while that may be partially true, it's reductive and a bit insulting. I used to teach mind-body work at a Cross Fit gym and lost track of the number of times I was told I wasn't teaching a "real" workout. And I also lost track of the number of guys I'd convince to take my classes who could barely make it 15 minutes into a class without a serious check to their ego. Guys who dead-lift almost twice their weight couldn't hold a plank for 30 seconds without violently shaking.

While I have seen a shift in the last couple of years towards more balanced and mindful training, most of the men I've met in the fitness world fall into one of two camps: There are the competitive sportsmen who like to do team activities, usually with a game component that allows for winners and losers. And there are the men who train for aesthetics, lifting heavier and heavier weights to bulk the superficial muscles. Of course there are people who don't neatly fall into these categories, but a lot of the motivation for fitness starts in one of these two places. And that's why men have a harder time connecting with Pilates, because from the outside it's hard to see how a body conditioning program would help either of these situations.

This is why a Pilates for Men class is important. The perception of Pilates as a fitness program that creates "dancer bodies" is off-putting to guys who are used to competitive activities or traditional gym workouts. But Pilates is profoundly important as a compliment to both of those types of work. Because Pilates focuses more specifically on the intrinsic and deep stabilizing muscles instead of the bulky superficial muscles, incorporating it into an overall fitness routine allows for increased performance and the ability to achieve more. If your goal is to do better overhead squats, have quicker sprints on the basketball court or a more powerful golf swing, Pilates can help.

And Pilates is challenging. With traditional weight training, most of the effort is on concentric actions of the muscles, form isn't as heavily emphasized and there are rests between sets. Pilates focuses equally on concentric and eccentric actions of the muscle in order to control the spring resistance. Form is the most important aspect of Pilates training, far more so than the amount of weight you're using. And ultimately Pilates is a non-stop workout program centered around constantly challenging a variety of muscle groups with various exercises to work stability and mobility in a whole body context. Part of the challenge and benefit for men is that Pilates not only works overlooked muscles but works them in a way that is generally unfamiliar to their bodies.

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The reason that a "Pilates for Men" class is so important has even less to do with the physical challenge than with the psychological. Putting aside gendered stereotypes about what fitness programs are for men or women, it's hard for guys to set aside their ego and do something they're unfamiliar with. And while women can find this difficult to, there is an extra blow to the ego when you're in a workout situation where you're one of if not the only man and clearly having the most difficulty. So the Men's class is a safe space for guys to come try out a new fitness program that will have amazing benefits for them without the fear of being judged for not being better than the girls. And, hopefully to appreciate how much of a bad-ass their wife or girlfriend is for doing this work all the time.