Woman exercising in a gym class

Tackling negative gym culture to help you reach your goal

Unfortunately, there are some negative sides to gym culture that can make navigating your fitness goals a challenge, both physically and mentally, especially if you’re just starting out.

Body dysmorphia is a growing mental health condition among young men - knowing the signs and ways to help is very important.

Ego lifting and competing with others can lead to suboptimal results and increased injury risk.

When starting out, or even progressing, your fitness journey, it can be difficult for men to navigate the fitness and gym environment. Social media can put pressure on people to look and behave a certain way. Pair this with endless, often misleading or incorrect, information online, and it can be difficult to know what’s right and what’s wrong. These pressures can then translate into poor mental health, increase the risk of injury and generally cause suboptimal results. Our fitness experts have come together to highlight and help you navigate some of the negatives that have become a part of gym culture and what you can do to overcome the negatives and achieve your goals.

Body dysmorphia

Body dysmorphia is a mental health condition where a person spends a lot of time worrying about their perceived ‘flaws’ in their appearance, which are often unnoticeable to others. A type of Body dysmorphia called Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder is concerned with not being sufficiently muscular or lean and is a condition that mostly affects men. This illusion of lacking muscle or an athletic body type can lead to unhealthy obsessions with dieting, addiction to muscle enhancements such as steroids, and over-exercising. It’s common to compare yourself to others when in, and out of, a gym environment, which can lead to reduced motivation and loss of confidence.

Some tips you can use to help reduce comparing yourself to others include:

  • Reducing your exposure to social media.
  • Personalising the exercise routine to you – do the exercises that you enjoy.
  • Setting goals that are realistic and achievable to you.
  • Using social support – surround yourself with a supporting group of friends that you can exercise with, to help you accomplish your goals.

A final comment to leave you on when discussing this topic is if you notice you are comparing yourself to others and thus feeling despair, remember this quote “Don't compare your beginnings to someone else's middle”. If you feel you may be impacted by body dysmorphia, contact your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) provider for further support.

Constantly seeing how strong you are and ‘ego lifting’

This is one for those who are mainly looking to increase their strength and/or muscle size. Quite often in the gym, there’s a tendency for men to try and lift as much weight as possible, probably to be seen as the ‘alpha-male’ or at least ‘worthy’ of being there. However, there’s a big difference between building strength and testing strength. By constantly seeing how much you can do for one repetition you’re not actually setting yourself up to increase strength.

There are three key issues with doing this. Firstly, by always seeing just how much you can lift, particularly for one repetition, a huge amount of fatigue is generated which can negatively impact your recovery capabilities. Second, this is only really testing your strength, not building it. This is because not enough quality repetitions are done from session to session if you are constantly just seeing what you can do for one repetition . And finally, quite often lifting as much as possible comes at the expense of good technique. The combination of all three greatly increases the risk of injury and will lead to poor results. If building strength and/or muscle is your goal, a different approach is needed.

Try these tips and watch your progress improve:

  • If building strength is your main goal, lifting within 3-8 repetitions for most of your training is best.
  • If you also want to build muscle, repetitions can be taken as high as 30.
  • Look to stop sets 2 repetitions short from failure, there isn’t much more to gain by going past this and a lot to lose, as this is where there’s an increased risk of injury.
  • If you train with someone else, try not to compete with them, but instead support and motivate one another. Ultimately the only competition to focus on is with yourself. Remember, progress comes in many ways, not just more weight as this can negatively impact your form. More reps and better technique are also great signs of progress. Interestingly, improving technique will also increase the stimulus and will make the exercise harder and more effective.
  • Rehearse the movement perfectly when warming up and try not to worry about onlookers in the gym, as ensuring you warm up properly will only benefit your progress and ability to develop in the future. Take your warmup sets slower and spend this time focusing on technique.

Not asking for help

Particularly among men there is this feeling that we should naturally know what to do in the gym, whether this be knowing what an exercise is, how to do it perfectly or generally being competent in the gym environment. You may feel that anything less than this would not be considered masculine enough. Combine this with a general assumption of asking for help being a sign of weakness and it could lead to some men doing exercises incorrectly and choosing poor exercises for their body and their goals. The end result of incorrect technique and not asking for help when you need it is inevitable injury.

So, what to do instead? Change the narrative. View asking for help as a way to grow, enhance your knowledge and increase your results, as opposed to a weakness. Accepting that you don’t know everything as an opportunity for growth is one of the biggest changes you can make to your mindset and goes beyond the gym to everyday life as well - embrace it. After all, you can’t know how to do something if you’ve never been shown!

Supplements

It is hard not to notice the ‘boom’ in nutrition supplements. Whether it is aimed to shed body fat or make you become the next Hercules, we have no doubt seen advertisements or overheard people in the gym saying that they are taking ‘the next best thing’.

People often look to supplements as a quick fix, maybe to make us work harder in the gym, to help us recover faster or to aid us someway in our goals. Yet, we neglect other areas of our nutrition or the ‘food first’ approach.

When it comes to nutrition, I want you to think of a pyramid or cake; we need a strong base to build our cake or pyramid on. In this instance, our base should be: fruit and vegetables, water, protein intake, adequate fat/carbohydrate intake and good daily habits and behaviours such as sleep quality. Supplements should then be considered as sprinkles on the cake or form the very top of the pyramid. These days, the cake is inverted, i.e. the wrong way around.

It doesn’t help that many athletes are seen either endorsing these types of products or talking about how they use them. However, athletes take supplements that are often tailored to them, their sport and their diet, as they are looking for those marginal or 1% gains, but for the average person, these marginal gains are unlikely going to be seen.

Once we have built those strong foundations, then, and only then, should we consider supplements. Even then, there are only a small handful of supplements which are supported by research that support us in our goals, performance or recovery. These are: protein, creatine, caffeine, carbohydrate sources (during exercise bouts lasting longer than 90 minutes) and maybe vitamin/mineral supplements (where there is a deficiency).

It can be common for men to fall foul of parts of gym culture which can result in poor results, injury and mental health issues. Try to avoid comparing yourself to others as much as possible and remember your fitness journey is yours, and yours alone. Saying that, don’t be afraid to ask for help, it’s always available and the right advice is worth its weight in gold.

References:

Lamarche, L., Gammage, L.K., & Ozimok. B. (2018). The Gym as a Culture of Body Achievement: Exploring Negative and Positive Body Image Experiences in Men Attending University. SAGE Open Research Article. doi.org/10.1177/2158244018778103

NHS.uk. (2020). Body dysmorphic disorder. Retrieved here 

Ralston, GW et al. (2017). The Effect of Weekly Set Volume on Strength Gain: A Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2017 Dec;47(12):2585-2601. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0762-7.

Scientific Principles of Strength Training; Israetel, Hoffman & Wesley-Smith, 2014.

Essentials of Strength & Conditioning; Baechle & Earle, 2008.

Schoenfeld, BJ et al. (2016). Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Nov;46(11):1689-1697. doi: 10.1007/s40279-016-0543-8.