Years ago when I was teaching group exercise classes, I remember begging some of the male club employees to come to my classes. I admit that part of the reason I wanted them to attend was to show them that group classes weren’t for “sissies,” as these employees tried to make the female instructors feel. Maybe part of me wanted to see the men struggle a bit trying to keep up with the choreography, totally out of their natural environment (aka, the free-weight room). This “us vs. them” attitude, however, is exactly why men don’t attend classes. Many men don’t see group exercise as a challenging workout. What they do see as challenging are the choreography, the sometimes effeminate music and movements, and yes, the reputation that real men don’t do group exercise.
“I refuse to do exercise classes,” says Drew Tybus, a publicist in New York City. “I work in an office that is 80% female, and [the women are] constantly trying to get me to do one, but there is no way! I know myself, and I know how coordinated—or uncoordinated—I am, and I don’t think I need to share that experience with a classroom full of about 98% women.”
Why are males so hesitant to join a class? “Men want to get in shape and have fun doing it,” explains Barry Van Over, vice president of Premier Martial Arts, which has 62 locations nationwide. “Men like the social aspects of a coed class, but most will shun a class that risks making them appear antimasculine.”
“Many men may feel reluctant to attend a class, because they don’t want to look or feel silly in a room full of women or in front of a female instructor who is strong and intelligent,” adds Luis Perez, a certified personal fitness trainer (PFT) in Plantation, Florida. “Fitness classes that are dominated and taught by women [can be] major affronts to the male ego and ‘macho mystique.’”
Tybus echoes these thoughts. Since the group exercise studio is not “man’s territory,” neither are the typical movements you find in these classes. He feels he might risk making a fool of himself. “Fumbling around trying to learn stuff is hard,” he says, “and it’s not any easier when there’s a cute girl next to you who’s looking at you with eyes that say, ‘Hey dopey, what don’t you get here? When he blows the whistle, you jump!’”
In a recent New York Times article, program directors were quoted as saying that they know members stay longer when they’re involved in group classes. Since member retention is high on everyone’s list, what can you do to pull more men into your classes? We polled several fitness professionals for their opinions and tips.
“Brazilian Butt Lift,” “Tone and Stretch,” “Cardio Funk” . . . these are the types of classes men will most likely steer clear of. Tybus says if he’s going to join a class, the name and description will hook him first. “‘Bikini Bun Toning’? No way. But if it was something like ‘Bruce Lee Kickboxing,’ ‘Navy SEALS,’ ‘NFL Combine’ or ‘Spring Training’—especially if it catered to men—I’d do it.”
Rebecca Christensen, RN, fitness director of Fuse Wellness in Bentonville, Arkansas, knows that it takes a good first impression to get men into the studio. “We incorporate a lot of athletic-style classes into our schedule,” she says. “Examples include ‘Sport Yoga,’ ‘Boot Camp’ and our running club. We include an explanation of the class in the description, and mention how participants can focus on general fitness, strength or sport-specific training.”
Class promotions go beyond just words. “Promotional imagery filled with fluff and Lycra® won’t fill the room with men,” says Phillip Mills, founder of Les Mills International. “Take a balanced approach by including some athletic male role models [in your promotional material].”
When you were training to become a group fitness instructor, you learned how to choreograph routines to a T. You also learned how to keep four and eight counts in your head while giving instructions and modifications with your mouth. You’re used to memorizing all your routines, and your regular attendees know your common moves, which may (or may not) lean toward the effeminate side.
Many typical classes are driven by choreography, says Stefan Aschan, president of STRENGTH 123 in New York City. “Take, for example, the Zumba craze. Many of the Latino dances and some of the choreography incorporate hand gestures and hip movements that tend to be a bit feminine.”
His suggestion for instructors wishing to draw men to their classes is to limit choreography. “Keep it simple. Men aren’t used to remembering step after step. They want to play, get their aggression out and just sweat.” Aschan recommends going for height, distance and speed to challenge male students and keep them interested. Incorporate plyometrics, medicine balls, heavier weights, calisthenics and sprinting, as these call more to the male nature.
Another way to appeal to men’s sensibilities is with specialized equipment like kettlebells (think cannonballs with a handle). “I’ve found that more men are attracted to kettlebells because they’re seeking a lean, functional physique rather than the bulky bodybuilding look,” says Sarah Lurie, founder of Iron Core, a certified kettlebell fitness studio in La Jolla, California. Lurie also suggests adding more “masculine” choices to group classes: “Introduce more body weight exercises, like push-ups, jump squats and one-legged dead lifts. These make the guys feel comfortable enough to do the other aerobic-type moves that they sometimes feel are too feminine for them.” Lurie also suggests a timed circuit, which involves no choreography on the instructor’s part (see “Plug Into the Circuit for Men” on page 92, for example).
As for music choices, “It’s Raining Men,” “I Feel Like a Woman!” and “I Will Survive” are not the songs men want to hear when they’re working out, sources say. Choose more moderate, or as Perez calls it, “genderless” music for your coed classes. And don’t be afraid to just ask men what they like. This will not only make them feel part of the class but also get them actively involved in how it is run.
As Tybus mentioned, a group class specifically for men is something he’d at least be willing to try. A separate class to learn the basics before joining the female crowd would also be helpful, he says. Aschan applauds these ideas. He suggests that clubs offer special introductory sessions in which men can have their physical strength and endurance measured. “Offer free strength assessments in a class format. Include a warm-up, a performance section and a cool-down.”
Aschan recommends that participants do a certain number of exercises—for example, as many push-ups, supine leg lifts and squat-jumps as they can do in 2 minutes. Afterward, the participants announce their totals to the class, to foster healthy competition. “The instructor keeps a tracking sheet for the class as a starting point,” he says. “The objective is to improve as a team.” After 4 weeks, participants repeat the challenge and compare measurements. The class “winners” could receive a special award, such as a free 1-month membership or a class ticket, if desired.
Fuse Wellness does something similar, says Christensen. “We conduct a ‘specialty’ boot camp class once a month with a former Army Ranger as the instructor,” she explains. “He goes through a series of intense Army boot camp drills. After participants have completed three classes, they receive a T-shirt stating that they survived ‘Ranger Boot Camp.’”
It sounds so simple—and obvious—but many instructors forget the art of friendly conversation when it comes to getting men into classes. “Program directors need to encourage their instructors to speak to men on the floor,” says Aschan. “They should encourage instructors to establish the first contact.”
Anne Tremel, certified PFT and group fitness instructor with Elite Fitness & Racquet Clubs in Wisconsin, echoes this thought. “My most successful approach [to bringing men into my classes] has been one-on-one chats to let them know what the benefits of a particular class may be.”
This works even for classes that traditionally may be geared more to women. “After speaking to men directly, I’m seeing more of them show up in my Pilates classes,” says Tremel. Once you’ve got the men in your class, don’t make them feel trapped or foolish. “Be welcoming,” says Perez, “but don’t call attention to a new male participant.”
Mary Anne Scrobe, a certified PFT and group fitness instructor in New York City, also directly invites men into her classes and gives them reasons to attend. She mentions core strength and overall strength and endurance as being good not only for various sports but also for job performance and function. “Be empathetic to how they may be feeling walking into ‘women’s territory,’” she says. “Remember the first time you walked into a gym filled with only men?”
Scrobe also asks men what music they would like to hear and makes sure the movements are kept simple. “My style is to use heavier weights and exercise all body parts. I incorporate core strength work and some athletic/power movements as well. The warm-up is simple and athletic, not ‘dancey’ or complicated.”
By offering optional variations of each exercise, Scrobe also allows the men to personalize their workouts. “[Participants] can push themselves to their own limits.”
In order to draw men into your classes, you may need to slightly modify your presentation style. Valentin, owner of Pilates Body by Valentin in Dublin, California, asked several of her male clients what draws them to her classes. Their overwhelming response was her teaching style. “My instructional style appeals to a certain type of man who wants results,” she explains. “The men who take classes from me have very healthy egos and high self-esteem. They see the value in what I offer and don’t find it demeaning or degrading that they are learning from a female. I’m not a female in their eyes—I’m an instructor.”
Teaching style, personalities, movement choices, personal invitations to select the music, and the name of the class—all play a role in how men perceive group fitness. Your job is to move them from perceiving it to achieving it.