Feeling intimidated in a gym is an experience in which many women can relate. This so-called “gymtimidation” is especially profound for women who might be considering using the strength equipment in a gym, an area often full of stern and serious weight-lifting men. Too often, the average gym environment can be an overwhelming and potentially intimidating place, especially for women who are new to fitness. Enter: Strongher, a female-only strength gym in Bethnal Green in London. Co-founders and best friends, Sam and Tig started Strongher four years ago as a way to give women their power back and take control of their own fitness, nutrition and wellbeing. We sat down with Tig to talk about:
- Why Strongher focuses on strength training
- How women’s fitness has evolved over the years
- What sort of women join Strongher
- How to combat claims that women’s only gyms are discriminatory
Why did you start Strongher?
Strongher started for a variety of different reasons. Both Sam and I used to be professional dancers. We never did any weight lifting and we were really into cardio and lots of ridiculous diets. I started working at LA Fitness as a receptionist and that’s where I was first introduced to strength training. People kept asking if I could train them, but I didn’t know anything about weight training – I was just learning what I could from the other PTs I worked with who were all men.
At that time, government financed PT courses had just started where you could do the course and pay back later. So both Sam and I decided to do it. We both qualified but went our separate ways as PTs. The course focused heavily on theory. We never even picked up any weights. As Sam and I were becoming more familiar with the industry, we realised how generic our training was. We also noticed how few female coaches there were out there.
PT and fitness was continuing to grow but so much of the marketing was boring and unrelatable. It wasn’t actually teaching anyone anything. I decided to do a marketing course where I had to pick a niche, so I picked women and weight training. Because I was a woman who used to be afraid of weight training, I knew these were the sorts of women I could help.
At the same time, Sam was also doing a really similar thing. We had a client approach both of us at the same time and we just thought, why are we in competition with each other? So we decided to team up. Strongher became an amalgamation of everything we wanted to change about the fitness industry. We wanted to put the right information out there and get more women strength training by making it fun and real and relatable.
Why the focus on strength? (vs. cardio for example?)
One reason was that strength training for women seemed like such a taboo thing. Everyone thought we couldn’t do it. Too many women are afraid of it or intimidated by it. I consider myself a confident woman and even I was too afraid to pick up heavy weights when I started.
The other reason is that I feel like for far too long, women have been trapped in an ideology about their place in society. Strength training is an area where women have felt like they didn’t have a place. Strongher is different. If we can shift that ideology and show women that they are allowed to be here, that can have a huge, transformative effect in other areas of their lives.
How has women’s fitness evolved since you started Strongher?
We’ve created a little bubble and it’s easy for us to feel like things are really changing. But when we come out of that bubble, we realise how much work there still is to do.
Without question, more and more women are coming into strength training. Lots of boutiques offer elements of strength training in group exercise classes so women are more aware of it. But the reality is that the focus is still very much on aesthetics, not performance. It’s often about how you look and not how you feel. At Strongher, it’s never about how much you’ve lost or how big your ass is. Women are definitely coming into the space, but a lot of them are still very much aesthetically driven.
Both Sam and I started this way too. So we’re trying to get a different message out there: do it the other way around. Performance first and the aesthetic will follow.
Tell me about your members. What sort of women join StrongHer and why?
Strongher is a place where every woman fits in so our demographic is quite diverse: anywhere from 18 to 65+. One thing that does bind them all together is that many come to us feeling a bit lost and many have anxiety. They are people who perhaps haven’t really fit in anywhere else. Lots of our members would feel super uncomfortable in a boutique gym – they just don’t feel they belong there.
Our most dense demographic is 25-36 year olds. This is the same age as Sam and I so that makes sense. We resonate with this age group. We’re trying to expand to include more women with children by promoting the fact that our space is child friendly.
Have you ever experienced any complaints that women’s only gyms are discriminatory? If so, how did you handle it?
Personally, we haven’t experienced any negative comments like this, but we do know of others trying to start women’s only fitness businesses and getting a lot of pushback on social media.
We’re not here to compete against a traditional gym. We’re like a stabiliser on a bike. Women have been afraid of strength for years and years and we offer a safe space to build confidence in this area. From there, they can feel empowered if they decide to try other spaces.
I’m mixed race and Sam is white. We’re a diverse duo so we kind of broke the fitness stereotype when we started. As a result, we’ve attracted a large membership of Muslim women. These women typically have nowhere to go. They’re relegated to small, back rooms or forced to workout during specific, segregated hours, but here, they are welcome and can train without their hijabs on.
One challenge we have had recently is how to accommodate our gender fluid members and how we integrate people who identify this way.
With large leisure centres often offering women’s only hours, why is there still a need for women’s only gyms?
It’s great to have specific women’s only times, but the all encompassing mission of most large, commercial gyms is to be a facility for everybody. For us, everything we do is targeted toward women. For example, we ask our members what part of their cycle they are on so we can adapt their training accordingly. We’re trying to massively normalise things like this related to women’s health. If you know your cycle and you know where you’re at, it can help explain dips in training and is a good indicator of overall performance. We teach women that it’s OK not to always push to the absolute maximum.
We laugh, but sometimes people cry too and that’s OK. We do it together as a community. Many friendships are made this way.
We’re trying to make the place that was feared a fun, social space and that just doesn’t happen in a gym with segregated women’s hours. The fear is still there.
For more information about Strongher, go to: https://www.strongher.co.uk/