I Spent Two Weeks Working Out ‘Like a Man’

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Photo: Courtesy of CrossFit

A quick summary of my fitness regime: I run outdoors and, when it gets too cold to do that, I run on the treadmill. While I wouldn’t say I practice yoga, I do do yoga. I speak fluent Pilates, thanks to my time as a teenager in Southern California. And when I’m feeling antsy, I try a Soul Cycle session (though I find the “squeeze your ass or no one’s going to squeeze it for you” ethos annoying). Basically, I am living in a fitness girl ghetto.

“Women tend to avoid weights entirely, for fear of building muscle, or stick to very light weights and cardio,” says Shari Dworkin, PhD, a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco. She coined the idea of a “glass ceiling” at the gym in her 2001 paper Holding Back: Negotiating A Glass Ceiling On Women’s Muscular Strength. “I’m an athlete and I travel a lot, so I’m in gyms across the country, and the most amazing thing is how common this segregation — men in the weight room, women on the cardio machines — still is across the board.”

And with gyms launching new programs that mimic military training, focus on "functional movement," or even prepare you for obstacle courses with names like Tough Mudder, it also feels like group fitness classes (once the domain of aerobics and step-obsessed women) have also become segregated. To test this hunch, I decided to “work out like a man” for two weeks. Would I get stronger, or just bulkier? Would it tire me out more than my regular routine? Would it be awkward? Would I start grunting?

My first step is to determine what makes a workout “manly.” This leads to the obvious question: Do lots of men do this workout? (That, in turn, leads to some fairly desperate-sounding emails: “Hi, what class have you been to that is packed with guys?”)

After that, I followed my gut feeling. But when it comes to exercise, our gut feelings are already sexist: In a 2003 study on the gender-typing of sports, grade school children who were asked whether “David” or “Jane” would play a particular sport could easily come to a consensus on which sports were for Jane (aerobics and gymnastics) and which were for David (football and wrestling). “Bodily contact” or “use of bodily force against a heavy object” are two qualities that push a sport in the David direction, while “light resistance” and the act of “projecting the body into space in an aesthetically pleasing pattern” make it a more Jane-friendly pursuit.

So, I ditched Jane and her Lululemon-clad cardio queens, and started working out with David. Here’s how it went.

Day 1: Warp Speed at Chelsea Piers
I am the only girl in the class at this speed training track workout, which is supposed to be so intense that it’s been used to get in shape for the FBI fitness test. I expect to be coming in behind the guys, and they don’t seem particularly threatened by any of my times. For one thrilling 100-meter stretch I actually pass someone. My lead doesn’t last long, but the feeling is addictive, and I haven’t put one foot in front of the other with this kind of energy since high school. I get even more ambitious when the coach tells me that I could beat Usain Bolt in a marathon, which I realize later is just a roundabout way of saying that I’m slow.

Day 2: CrossFit
CrossFit’s website promises that “we can leave you lying on the floor, sore and gasping even after one Intro Class.” One Intro Class it is! I head to the bare bones workout facility, affectionately called “The Black Box,” which was the first CrossFit gym in New York City when it opened in 2005. This workout is “manly” in theory only: The focus on Olympic lifting means it passes the David/Jane litmus test (bodily force against a heavy object? Check!) but about half of the people in the gym are women, and so are our two coaches.

First we spend some time sitting in a circle talking about who we are and why we’re here. I feel optimistic that we’re just one overshare away from holding hands and chanting affirmations. Instead, the workout starts — the actual exercise portion of this class is only about twenty minutes long and the moves are circuits of old favorites like squats, push-ups, and sit-ups. It feels easy enough at first, but the burn begins alarmingly soon in each circuit. At the end, the coaches assure us that CrossFit workouts are designed to prepare you for “real life” challenges, like lifting something really heavy above your head. I try (and fail) to remember the last time I lifted something really heavy above my head.

Days 3 - 6: Rest
Men’s Health says days off are important, so I take that to heart, and give myself a generous four days. The day after my first CrossFit session, a date asks why I’m unable to comfortably perch on the tiny wooden stools at the tapas bar, and I explain to him my plan (and the fact that the edges of the stools are hitting my hamstrings, which have been sore to the touch since Warp Speed). “Wow, you’re going to be able to kick my ass,” he says, looking, honestly, a little scared. 

Day 7: Muay Thai Basics at Evolution Muay Thai
According to some of my guy friends, this Thai martial art is “the manliest of all manly exercises,” so I sign up for a lesson. This is by far the worst-smelling gym I have ever been to: Think damp bathing suit scent meets cat litter. The class, which is about two-thirds men, begins with some basic warm-ups, then we put on pads and gloves for sparring with a partner. As it turns out, the only thing that feels more unnatural to me than kicking and punching a stranger, is having a stranger kick and punch me. I’m not taking it well. My discomfort is obvious, and when a male partner isn’t kicking my belly pad hard enough, the instructor yells, “What’s the matter, is she pregnant or something? Kick harder!” He does.

Day 8: Rest
My muscles are so tight, they are craving a yoga session to loosen up. I tell them to man up.

Day 9: DropZone Bootcamp at Reebok Sports Club
“Do not take anything I say personally,” the instructor warns us at the beginning. I’m pouring sweat and panting within ten minutes, and the three other women in the class are already two sets ahead of me. I take comfort in the one grey haired guy (“If he can do it, so can I!”), but as I am running up and down six flights of stairs with a weight strapped to my back, it becomes obvious that he’s my competition, and we’re fighting for second-to-last place. Push-ups, which I have never quite mastered, are an integral part of this class, and when it’s time to start, I drop to my knees for modified push-ups (“girl push-ups,” as some gym rats call them).

“Stop begging, Watts! Get off your knees!” the instructor yells. With my preferred pushup method out of the question, I’m able to do seven of the twenty demanded (which is about five more than I thought I could do) before the instructor shouts “Get out of my sight!” — the magic words that mean I can stop fooling myself and move on to the next thing. (The “next thing” involves more stairs, more pushups, or some creatively torturous way of moving heavy weights across the room.) The sensation my body has afterwards makes “feel the burn” sound like a timid, antiquated saying. I talk to the instructor (who is — surprise, surprise — former military) about my previous approach to fitness. “What’s the point of taking a toning class if you don’t have any muscles to tone?” he asks me. I try not to take this personally.

Day 10: Metcon3 at Equinox
Because my deadline is fast approaching, I have to do this class the day after my bootcamp experience. It is supposed to be a high-intensity workout: A ten move circuit that is completed three times with minimal rest. However, I cannot tell you how difficult this class really is because, on this particular day, putting on my bra in the morning feels like a torture scene from Homeland. Hunching over feels like standing up straight. Sitting is harder than standing. I have entered a whole different stratosphere of sore muscles. I somehow make it through Metcon3 with legs that weigh a thousand pounds and arms that have lost all range of motion. I learn two things: Yoga breathing also works to help get you through a minute of squats when your quads feel like bricks, and heavy metal music is surprisingly motivating.

Day 11 - 12: Rest
I am traveling for the holidays and whip up a thick, chalky protein shake to drink on the way to the airport. According to one study I read, 35 percent of teenage guys drink these, which makes me feel like I’m going through some sort of manly-exercise initiation. It also makes plane food infinitely more appealing.

Day 13: Tough Mudder Training
A few weeks ago, the New York Times identified Tough Mudder races as the new fitness fraternity for banker types. Of course, you can’t just sign up for one of these courses, which involve sprinting through a field of live wires, jumping over bales of hay, and running through fire. So, when I’m home for Christmas, I download one of the training workouts that Tough Mudder offers online and head to my elementary school playground, which has the necessary pull-up bar. I bring along the only pair of hand weights in my house — two pounders.

The moves are meant to prep you for the obstacles you’ll find along the Tough Mudder route: Holding a plank isn’t just an exercise for your core and shoulders, it’s a training move that will build the muscles you’ll need to crawl across a field of mud underneath barbed wire. Luckily, I’ve become familiar with some of the moves and know what to do when the workout tells me to do “burpees” (a jump-squat-pushup combo) or “mountain climbers” (holding a plank while you bring your knees to your elbows). I’ve even improved my push-up form a bit, though without a coach or instructor-type, it’s tough to power through the workout completely, so I head home in the middle of the third circuit.

Day 14: P90X
A few of my guy friends in L.A. have been doing this program since Paul Ryan was just a glimmer in the GOP’s eye. I borrow the DVDs and immediately pop in the yoga disc. The video takes me through a 90-minute session of “Yoga X” led by Tony Horton, the incredibly buff creator of the P90x system. It’s basically power yoga, but Horton is not your average DVD yoga instructor: He breathes heavily throughout the class, tells us we should be “sweating like hell” and, when doing a spine twist, says “let me see if I can get a crack here!” And, of course, the push-up is making all sorts of appearances beyond the usual chaturangas. I can imagine P90X-ers everywhere gain new respect for yogis during this tough workout. I, meanwhile, am learning to appreciate people who use at-home workout DVDs: At one point I am sitting on my yoga mat checking Instagram while Horton and the cast are entering crow pose. Does Paul Ryan ever fast-forward a bit when no one’s looking? Horton ends the workout with a “namaste” and a “thanks for bringin’ it.”

The Results
After my two weeks are up, I am incredibly sore. I call up Rachel Buschert Vaziralli, a personal trainer and fitness instructor I’ve admired since she responded to a New York Times article, “Why Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups,” with a kick-ass YouTube video proving otherwise. She assures me that my soreness doesn’t necessarily mean the workouts were “harder,” it just means that they were different than my usual exercises, and challenged my muscles in new ways. “You have to be constantly changing your routine to really see results,” Vaziralli tells me.  

Now that might just be the one thing at the gym that the meatheads and the cardio queens can all get behind. I’ll be incorporating some traditonally “manly” workouts into my routine (my newest goal: A non-humiliating number of consecutive push-ups). I might even hop off the treadmill and spend some time in the weight room instead. And, guys, consider this your open invitation to Pilates class.