Since I got injured I’ve become obsessed with indoor cycling. Right now nothing comes close the sweaty endorphin boost I get from pounding it out on a bike, plus it’s a really good way to keep my fitness up when running is off the cards.
Because I’m a woman on a budget, and I don’t always want to go an workout at work, I decided to start hitting the spin classes at my local gym - Brockwell Lido. For just over forty quid a month I can take as many classes as I want, and if I stick to my goal of three bike sessions a week I’ll definitely be getting my moneys worth considering how much classes as boutique studios like Psycle are (although I do love them so!). So last Monday I toddled off to the Lido to check out my first class(s - obviously I decided to hit a double).
Being totally straight I wasn’t expected classes even close to those I’ve taken part in at Psycle, Boom or Heartcore, after all the Lido is essentially a local leisure centre not a trendy studio, and the offering reminded me a lot of the Spinning classes I used to go to occasionally as a teenager. The instructor shouts out a resistance and an RPM and you do your best to keep up, no fancy choreography and no faffing about with upper body, it is all about the bike. What I wasn’t expecting was the instructor to should out one level of resistance for ‘the ladies’ and another for ‘the men’, calling out those who weren’t on track as he wandered around the studio.
Maybe I’ve been training alone for too long, or maybe I spend too much time in high end studios, but I honestly thought that this approach had died a death. While I’ve heard stories of ‘ladies weights’ I figured that type of thing was a one off, and that I wouldn’t experience sexism around performance in any gym I went to.
Now this isn’t about my capabilities or ego - if anything my current injury means I need less resistance rather than more - but it is about the messages we share with men and women about their capabilities as athletes (and in this context I’m using athlete to refer to anyone who moves, because Chevy Rough raised me right). It’s also as much an issue about men and masculinity as it is about women - reinforcing notions that as a man you should be able to achieve a particular level of athleticism based on your chromosomes, something we are gradually realising is deeply damaging. Similarly, it reinforces notions that women are inherently weaker than men, and therefore need to tone down their exertion, which again promotes damaging stereotypes. Yes, men and women do have physiological differences that can impact performance, but at the level of a sports centre cycling class this isn’t an element I think is particularly relevant.
Leaving class the instructor’s directions played on my mind, and I decided to ask some of my friends who teach indoor cycling for their thoughts. Was this actually a relatively normal approach that I’d simply missed by riding in fancy studios? Was there a good reason for gendered resistence?
Honestly most people I spoke to (including other staff at the Lido) were really surprised that anyone still took this approach, although (and much to her credit!) Mollie did fess up and tell me that she thinks that she’s probably done similar when training people on Keiser bikes (where there’s a visual display of resistance, so similar to what I was riding during this class). Mollie commented that as an instructor it can be hard to know where everyone is at in terms of strength, and while you could give guidance based on the idea of beginner and advanced riders it is easy to cheat, and some people might identify more with directions based on gender. I can see where Mollie is coming from, but I’d argue that we need to take care around reproducing narratives - it’s like your Mum always says, just because so-and-so does something it doesn’t mean you have to as well. When it comes to gender ideology (and this scenario is a prime example) we need to be alive to challenging rhetoric and language if we want to promote change.
I was curious to know how this all worked from a training perspective, and Carly chatted me through the various approaches to coaching in a class setting. Reflecting on my experience she explained how the instructor I encountered may have slipped into assumptions around gender and performance - when teaching indoor cycling you can work on watts (power) and give an indication on what athletes should be aiming for, and her thesis is that the instructor may have interpreted this as related to the factual biological capacity of each gender. Which does make sense, although as I mentioned earlier in this post I don’t think is necessarily relevant when considering performance in the context of a leisure centre fitness class. But then maybe I’m underestimating my fellow Lido goers and my analysis is actually based on bias?
Carly told me that the approach used in my class wasn’t one she’d use herself as she’d worry about alienating women and making men feel ashamed if they weren’t able to reach the prescribed resistance, as well as bringing negative segregating language into an environment where she’s trying to make people feel good (God I love that woman). She also highlighted that performance is affected by a myriad of different issues, some of which can vary almost by day - take my leg injury for example - and really prescriptive instructions about things like power and resistance aren’t helpful if you take this into account. While the intention might be to encourage people to push themselves, this could really backfire. It’s a tricky balance.
I can’t begin to imagine the challenges of teaching a group fitness class, but I do think community environments have a responsibility to be conscious of the impact of words and actions and that it’s important we reframe athletic efforts if we want to break down gender barriers in sport. Hell, we need to do this if we want to break down barriers that suggest you can only participate if you’re already fit or athletic.
What are your thoughts on this? Do we have a responsibility to be mindful of the effect of our approach on gender, or am I being a bit extra?