Lifting their own weights

Along with equipment specially designed for women, all-female gyms try providing a healthy psychological alternative for those who don't feel comfortable at mixed gyms.

exercise image 88 (photo credit: )
exercise image 88
(photo credit: )
Women often find that going to the gym can be an intimidating experience. The mere thought of attractive girls in leggings alongside built-up men, blaring music and mirrors on every wall is usually enough to discourage the effort. That is why many women are turning toward single-sex gyms. All-female gyms are sprouting up across the country. Most of them offer, as a key selling point, a fitness program called the "SuperCircuit," designed by Gary Heavin, founder of the Curves women's fitness franchise. This 30-minute workout program was designed for women and is intended to provide results equivalent to an hour and a half-long workout at a regular gym. Women work out on specially designed equipment, which is meant to be utilized in a specific order, allowing the person exercising to achieve a balanced workout in the shortest possible time. Daphna Tzur, franchisee of Curves Ra'anana - one of nine Curves gyms in Israel - says that as Israelis move more toward a fast food diet and away from daily exercise, it is increasingly important for women to find a fitness regime that suits their hectic lifestyle. In addition, she says, it is important that those gyms provide a nurturing environment where women can exercise without inhibitions. "One of our mottos is 'No men, No mirrors, No makeup,'" says Ruth Moses, Tzur's business partner. "You come in your most comfortable clothes, any way you feel like, and you'll see other women doing the same. A lot of the women who come here have never walked into a gym before. They hated the idea of going to the gym," she says. Sometimes women avoid gyms because they are uncomfortable wearing workout clothes in the presence of men, says Tzur. "Not necessarily because they are religious, but because they don't feel good showing themselves in the presence of men. I've heard of women who've said, 'First I'll lose 15 kg and then I'll go to the gym.' But she needs the gym in order to lose it." Ronit Sela, manager of Energy, a mixed gym in Tel Aviv, has noticed this, as well. "Unfortunately, there aren't many very overweight women who come to [my] gym," she says. "I think they're ashamed." She, too, believes women are more likely to try to lose weight before daring to set foot in her gym. Curves's worldwide policy forbids mirrors in the gym rooms. This encourages women to forget about looking attractive and to focus on their workouts. Tali Ben-Asher, founder of what she says is Israel's oldest women's-only gym, Gym Point, disagrees with the no-mirror policy. She says mirrors can provide instant feedback on one's technical performance, especially during exercise classes. "Sometimes you need to stretch your leg and you don't know if it's bent, so you look in the mirror. You improve your [technique] all the time. You feel like you want to become friends with the mirror." Tzur, Moses, and Ben-Asher do agree, though, that a woman achieves a better workout in a women-only gym. Ben-Asher says that in mixed gyms, women are sometimes inclined to put their bodies in positions that are "nicer" or "sexier" rather than in positions that are best for the stretch. This tendency detracts from the overall effectiveness of their workout. Tzur adds that in regular gyms, clients are inclined to work on machines they're good at, not on the ones that are best for them. The SuperCircuit forces women to tackle some less enjoyable exercises, giving them "an all-round, balanced workout." What's more, she says, since Curves gym equipment is positioned in a circle, the instructor can supervise all the women working out at once. In a regular gym, Tzur says, you would have to pay for a private instructor to achieve that sort of personal attention. At Gym Point, Ben-Asher greets every member who walks in with a familiar smile and a warm hello. She seems to know everyone personally. The women gossip and laugh as one changes from her jeans into her sweatpants and the other removes her sheitel (wig). Ben-Asher praises Gym Point's ability to bring women from different backgrounds together. "Women who would never even say 'shalom' in the grocery store to someone with a head covering become more than friends here." Without long skirts or wigs, the clients look the same, Ben-Asher says. "There are no barriers, no walls. They get to know each other's way of life. They understand that simply because they are women, they have so much in common." Ben-Asher says that since its establishment in 1988, Gym Point, formerly Sportali, has become "more and more a women's club." She describes it as a "mechane meshutaf" for its members - a common denominator that allows them to connect. Sela agrees with Ben-Asher that the gym is a place that engenders a feeling of community. She says that one of the reasons people come to the gym is to socialize, and that being in a mixed-gender environment makes the social environment more interesting. After all, she says, the world's population is not made up of only one gender. Sela does, however, say that though their goals may vary, clients ultimately come to the gym to work. She says it is up to the women whether or not they become distracted by having men in the room. This does not apply to those who prefer a single-sex environment for religious reasons, she stresses. But not all women-only gyms are as nurturing. Moses asserts that Curves is not a place where women come to socialize. They are busy, so they come for their workout and go. Women do sometimes meet and chat simply because they happen to be facing each other in the circle of workout machines, but it's not a place where women really make friends, says Moses. Walking into Curves, one might be taken aback by its humble appearance: a small circle of a few machines. The music is soft and every so often - sometimes too often, it seems - a recorded voice instructs the women exercising to move stations. But can such a short time on each machine - only 30 seconds - possibly provide enough of a workout? A few key factors contribute to the SuperCircuit's efficiency. First, everyone is on the same circuit and time schedule, so no one ever has to wait for a machine. This saves time otherwise spent in wandering around a gym in search of an open machine, setting up weights or getting distracted in conversation. Second, a client spends only 30 seconds on each machine, but is encouraged to work at maximum speed. Half a minute is the maximum time a muscle can really sprint for, says Tzur. "Recovery boards" are positioned after every machine, on which the person exercising performs light aerobic activity to relax the muscles and drain lactic acid. The machines are arranged to alternate between working the upper and lower parts of the body, allowing the upper body to rest as the lower body works, and vice versa. Each part of the body rests for a total of one and a half minutes between exertions. "This is the optimum time a muscle requires to recuperate from a very great effort," says Moses. Finally, the machines are bi-directional, working both sides of the body at once. They also provide effective aerobic and strengthening workouts at the same time by combining exercises that usually have to be done separately. For example, one machine works the triceps and biceps on both arms at once, in what could otherwise be as many as four separate exercises. The machines are not only designed for efficiency, but also to suit female physiology. The equipment is hydraulic, eradicating the need for weights or pre-set levels to provide resistance. The person operating the machine sets the level of resistance by the speed at which she moves. The faster she works, the greater the resistance she gets from the hydraulics and the greater the strength she has to exert to overcome that resistance. Both Tzur and Moses say that hydraulic equipment is safer for women than the regular machines offered at mixed gyms, because the hydraulic system allows the resistance to change smoothly as the exerciser's pace changes. Tzur explains that when increasing a machine's resistance using weights, the safest amount to add at one time is approximately 10 to 15 percent of the previous resistance. "For a man who works with 40 kg and then wants to add 5 kg, [the additional 5 kg] equals 12.5%. But if a woman starts with 5 kg and the minimum she can add is 5 kg, she's got a problem. She has to jump by 100%. Now that's a very big jump... So even though women can use these machines, they're not made for women." Sela, on the other hand, says that it can be better to use weights because weights can provide more resistance than hydraulics. Provided that women follow the directions of an instructor, she says, working with weights will help them to increase muscle mass, reduce body fat and prevent osteoporosis. Workout equipment made for women's bodies and a female-friendly gym environment are crucial as exercise takes on growing importance in women's lives. Keeping fit obviously serves a woman's physical well-being, but it keeps her emotionally energized, too. "I can tell the difference between women who work out and those who don't, not just because [those who do] look more in shape, but because you can see they're happier," says Ben-Asher. "This is why I always push women to work out. Not only to trim their bodies or to wear jeans two sizes smaller. To feel better. And women among women feel better."