Skip to content

Gyms target guys for single-sex classes

Kurt Wiggins.jpg

As gym membership grows to new heights, club owners are offering single-sex classes to cater to men who don't feel comfortable working out in front of women, want to pay special attention to their backs and tight hips or may just prefer building camaraderie with the guys. (Marilyn Morrell/Courtesy of Pilates Body by Valentin)

Ben Etling.jpg

The men in an advanced Pilates class at Pilates Body by Valentin in Dublin, Calif. wear uniforms so that loose clothing does not impede exercises. Most men-only fitness classes take the workout seriously, either with uniforms or by keeping talking to an absolute minimum. (Marilyn Morrell/Courtesy of Pilates Body by Valentin)

leegoss.JPG

Lee Goss, 49, began taking Pilates classes almost four years ago. The former marathoner still can't touch his toes, but he has closed the gap from six inches to just about an inch since starting at Pilates Place in Lexington, Ky. (Joseph Thompson/Courtesy of Pilates Place)

withsharyl.JPG

Instructors often have to modify exercises for men to accommodate their flexibility limitations. Many single-sex classes were started so instructors could monitor the altered positions better, rather than having men change moves themselves and risk getting hurt. (Melissa Korn/CNS)

short spine.jpg

Although these days many coed or women's classes advertise dance-infused, choreographed Pilates classes, the fitness regimen was originally created by Joseph Pilates to help keep World War I soldiers in shape. Men are often shocked to find out how sore they can be after trying a few sessions of what they think is a "woman's exercise" themselves. (Marilyn Morrell/Courtesy of Pilates Body by Valentin)

Doug Johnson considers himself to be in pretty good shape. Johnson, a 50-year-old computer programmer, plays basketball and tennis in his time off from his job at the University of Colorado at Boulder and still works out regularly even after having had a hip replaced four years ago.

But he was shocked by how uncomfortable he felt in a coed yoga class in 2005 at the elite Body Dynamics fitness center in Boulder.

“So much of the class I wasn’t able to do or even come close, because there were women in it, and they didn’t have these 30 years of lack of exercise and stretching,” Johnson said.

After struggling to manipulate his body into awkward poses, he approached the owner about starting a class just for men who were similarly inflexible. Thus was born the eight-man Tuesday night Flexibility for Men class, made up mostly of men over 50 who are in good shape but need a little help stretching and strengthening the right body parts.

In many gyms these days, you may just pass by a room of men fumbling to touch their toes without a single sports bra in sight. With gym memberships at a record high, according to research by the American College of Sports Medicine, fitness class demographics are beginning to change.

Over the last two years, a growing number of gyms have been offering men-only yoga, Pilates and even aerobics classes. Just as self-conscious women have made places like Curves and Lucille Roberts so successful, men who aren’t comfortable with their bodies, either because they are out of shape or inflexible, are also beginning to see the appeal of single-sex classes.

Men say they prefer the new emphasis on exercises that cater specifically to their physical needs. Gone are the stretch-leg-above-head expectations, replaced by a focus on tight hamstrings and lower backs. Men also embrace the no chitchat environment of the high testosterone workout scene, where exercise comes first and conversation is limited to brief commiseration.

Pilates is among the most popular men-only classes, perhaps because it was originally created for soldiers to stay in shape during World War I. But men with big bellies or super-tight backs aren’t necessarily cut out for some of the same Pilates moves that women do, at least not right away. It takes time for many men to be able to lie down on a mat with head tilted up and put their legs straight up in the air at a 90-degree angle.

Sharyl Curry, an Alvin Ailey-trained dancer and owner of Park East Pilates in Manhattan, helps men modify exercises to fit their physical limitations. Instead of making her male clients try that mat exercise immediately, she lets them bend their knees as they raise and lower their legs, easing the stretch slightly. Although this standard exercise would be manageable for most women, even flexible men may feel awkward performing it in a coed class.

That was one of the main reasons single-sex fitness classes were created in the first place. Curves was established in 1992 in part because many women were uncomfortable with their body image, age and fitness level in a mixed-gender environment, according to Becky Frusher, a spokeswoman for Curves. By removing the other half, much of that pressure disappears.

It’s not that different for men. Whether they admit it or not, some instructors say, the guys need a safe space to not feel judged by those who are performing better.

“Men are more sensitive than women, so you have to really make them feel good in order to make them come out of their shell,” Curry said.

Without babying them, she encourages her clients to master modified exercises so they build confidence quickly. Then, they are willing to push themselves with exercises that might be more challenging.

While women prefer to focus on their abs and legs to get a sleek body--hence classes like Stiletto Strength at Crunch Gym, for calf definition--fitness instructors say that men often just work to ease back pain by stretching that body part for an entire class or to improve basketball and tennis performance by incorporating stop-and-start balance techniques into their aerobic workouts.

“A lot of men aren’t concerned about ‘long and lean,’” said Valentin, who goes only by her first name, owner of Pilates Body by Valentin in Dublin, Calif. “For them, it’s functional rather than a beauty thing.”

However, working out with other men may be more than just a matter of physical comfort. Same-sex groups can provide better motivation for strength conditioning, according to sports psychologist Joel Fish.

“The goal there is to find a partner of equal ability,” said Fish, director of the Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia. “There’s a competitive thing that can happen, in a good way.”

Even when men improve their flexibility significantly in their single-sex classes and are at an ability level on par with women, as happened with Johnson, they still tend to stay with their men’s groups. While Johnson said he found the coed yoga class easier, and even joined a coed Pilates class, he continued participating in the men’s Pilates class.

Their own classes, many men say, keep a better balance of camaraderie and productivity without becoming too casual, something a number of them disdained about the classes with women.

Though he used to teach coed classes himself, Jim Carlson, 43, said he appreciated the more focused, in-and-out workouts he gets in his single-sex class. Carlson, of Livermoor, Calif., now attends the advanced class at Pilates Body by Valentin.

“Women approach it with a big social aspect to it,” said Carlson, who oversees the senior center and pool at a recreational center. “For me, time is important. I work, I have a family. I just want to go there, get my workout in and get back to my life.”

E-mail: msk2135@columbia.edu