T Nation

Gym Culture


I'm writing a paper for my American pluralism class(Gen. Ed. about Culture in America). The assignment is to write about a place on campus. I figured I'd do my paper on the Uni gym, since that's where I spend most of my time/my teachers lifts as well.
The focus of the paper is about what makes this place unique in terms of how people interact. Also putting a little bit of focus on predictability of people there.
At one point during the semester our prof. discussed how one of her larger friends wouldn't lift at the uni gym because they saw it as being the norm that one has to be skinny/in shape to go there. I thought this was strange because in my experience fat people seem to go unnoticed when at the gym.
Was also wondering if you guys feel there is any connection to gym culture and how people act towards others fitness goals both inside and outside the gym. like in this thread:


There is a ton of information about your topic all over this site, but nor necessarily laid out is a nice clean fashion. What is the research methodology requirement for your paper?

Look at the "Squat Rack Curls" threads as a place to start.

Any thread on personnel trainers would probably be good as well.

Much of this was in the Bodybuilding section but you need to go back at least 6 months now as the much of that type of conversation has been moved to the GAL area as of recent.


The assignment really only stated to go there and observe peoples actions for an hour. The assignments pretty easy its just a 3page paper(double spaced), I could easily write it in an hour just thought it'd be an interesting discussion.
Most of the other topics like SRC and about personal trainers while having some interesting stuff also seem to look down on people that aren't fully dedicated to fitness, makes sense for the personal trainer ones.
I was looking more at the social aspect like half the people seem to come in small groups, the types of conversations had, not just the extraordinary stuff like what people point out in SRC.
I'll definitely go through and try to find the stuff that was in the bodybuilding section. My initial search didn't seem to turn up much.


I suppose you can do a gender split,
observe females in the gym, are they watching others more than the guys? Are the girls spending more time talking WHILE working out than the guys?

I've never had that class, is it based on sociology? In that case, you can write about "stratification" in the gym, kind of like your prof. said!


One hour? That does not give you very much. In fact, just about anybody on this site can give you a believable one hour observation off the top of their head. So let's focus on your goal, to see what makes gyms interaction unique.

My take. There may be some gendered geography but I think that depends on the gym/clientele/etc. What I have observed over the past decade+ is that gendered gym space is decreasing. Admittedly, I have not been in a college gym in several years.

I think answering these questions would be helpful before you start:
Do you go to the gym (or workout) with the same people you socialize with regularly?
Do you feel more or less apt to approach someone of the same gender in the gym? of a different gender? and does the exercise (or not) that the person is engaged in matter?
Are most people in your gym in groups or solo?

I think making explicit your own perception of the gym space is key before trying to observe others. Because really you are looking for difference in people's interactions in the gym from how they interact outside. I can give you some suggestions to look at but would like to read your answers to the above questions first.

BTW I teach this kind of stuff at an university. If you would rather have this conversation through PMs, that is fine.


One thing to bear in mind is when you go to the gym. Monday - national bench day, may look very different than a Thursday, in who is there, how many people are there, and how the space is utilized (not just gym but also exercise classes). In fact, I would suggest that going the same hour every day of the week would yield useful observations, probably more than three pages worth.


The prof. is an anthropologist, so the class is similar to a sociology based class.

One of the topics I though might be interesting to discuss is how it's a male dominated area(the cardio equipment is separate from the weight room.)

Another interesting thing I noticed is how freely people that come in groups discuss subjects. The conversations you overhear seem like conversations people would have in their living rooms not a public place. There seems to be a more candid way of talking. I think this plays into the fact that a lot of students see it as a place to hang out and socializing as opposed to actually accomplishing anything.


I usually go to the gym when it's the least busy which is the early on the weekends for my ME stuff.
I did my research on a Tuesday after class(time I do DE lower) which tends to be busier and what I feel would be a more accurate assessment of most people's experience in the gym.
I personally usually lift alone do to the lack of people that are powerlifters.
As for approaching people the only conversations I ever have are asking people how many sets they have left. I tend to ignore most everyone at the gym and keep conversations started with me short but friendly.
There never seemed to be many people going up and talking to each other randomly at the gym to me, do the the high percentage that already come with friends.


I think this is the more interesting part. Gym as social space (verse work space, for you). I think this discussion has played out many times on this site, as in when do you help someone, asking to work in, etc....

So the question for you then is how does the gym function differently (i.e. unique) as a social space? Is it different in dress (this is less a style question as in looking at how much skin is exposed and where, is status displayed some way), physical interaction, status posturing? Does the body become more of a social property/symbol (dude ya guns r swole brah) that might not be commented on as frequently at other times? Is there a different type of bonding occurring than say in a dorm room or club? Is there a ritual involved?

I tried to make the questions geared towards anthropology.

Does this help?


Although off topic a bit, why socialize at the gym?


There does seem to be a percentage of people that are there posturing for status. It seems the skinnier people are, the more skin they tend to show. This doesn't necessarily seem to correlate with how in shape they are though at least for the men. They also often seem to be the more social ones.

In terms of this being a ritual for the social people in groups it seems like more of a ritual before a ritual(i.e. going out to party)

You're off topic question of why socialize at the gym is actually very on topic. It almost seems to be the primary focus of those that come in groups, which furthers the distinction between them and those there alone.
Although you no longer lift at a uni gym have you noticed any strange interactions yourself that would be out of the norm elsewhere?


Hey OP! If you want, you can observe me doing naked front squats.


^that's gotta be socially awkward for everyone involved


Everyone but me. I work out in my garage though so the only person watching me is my own reflection. And the Count.


That gotta be weird when the count squats in front of the mirror.


It's weird because he does it upside down from the ceiling.


I wonder if the status in the gym is the same as the status out of the gym, as far as hierarchy of the group.

Motivation to be in the gym is incredibly overlooked in the social sciences, especially for men. There are assumed motivations but very little work. This ritual before ritual is interesting. Why do you think it exists?

Why the activity needs, for some, to be social is approaching individual psychology and group dynamics. I am sure there are all sorts of theories out there that could sound really interesting. I am sure has something to do with support but I would guess in these groups it is feats of strength for hierarchy + bonding. I think this is different, though related, to your question of what makes gym interactions unique. This short of a paper needs to be well focused if you are going to say anything in the space allowed.

I worked out in college in a hardcore, rusty weights, non-air conditioning in South Texas, where bodybuilders made up 80% of the roughly dozen or so regulars in a campus of over 45,000. The person I saw get the most respect, where the big guys stopped their squat workout to let this person use the lifting platform, was a women who was 5' tall at best and a hell of an Olympic lifter. Much of literature would say this would never happen or it was because of her sexual nature that she was accepted in a male dominated weight room i.e, strange. I would not call it strange as I have often seen women who are lifting hard get respect from the guys in the gym - and guys who are not getting no repsect. (That is not to say the there are not sexist attitudes at play at times but I think it is not gym specific as a 'outdated' way of structuring society and not place specific.) The gender theories are wrong, it was because she could lift some damn heavy weight and that was/is respected. Effort, not gender, to me, is more important in a gym setting. By the way, she was professor at the college as well. This is just one of the reasons I think the gym gender theories are way underdeveloped and overly simplistic.

Well, it seems you have yourself a three page paper.

Do you need any academic theories/perspectives? If you have the time I would suggest a short book, Culture and the Human Body http://www.amazon.com/Culture-Human-Body-Anthropological-Perspective/dp/157766180X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1291586489&sr=8-1 that should ground you pretty well in anthropology and its concerns.


Thanks for all the responses Tex Ag. You've definitely brought up a lot of interesting points.

Don't think I'm gonna have time to read that book since I have 5 final this week. May get it for after though looks like a good read. Thanks again.


No problem man, I hope the paper turns out for you. Good luck on your exams.