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How Can Men Get Back in the Gym? Expand Your Idea of Manly Exercise

Why letting go of the need to prove yourself may jumpstart your fitness routine.

Key points

  • When exercise is burdened by the need to assert one’s masculine identity, it keeps men trapped in perpetual dissatisfaction and fear.
  • Chasing an idealized image of manhood that can only be earned in the gym is a barrier to feeling confident in your own skin.
  • The more you create intrinsically rewarding exercise goals, the more likely you are to workout regularly.
  • Reconnecting with your body on your own terms, free from the need to perform or prove yourself, is a radical act of personal power.

There are few places filled with more hope than the gym floor: The hope of building a better body, regaining health, and developing strength for life’s challenges.

Yet anyone who has set foot in a gym can tell you that hope quickly dies. Progress is slow. Competing commitments take priority, and showing up once is not the same as working out regularly.

Source: BearFotos

If you’ve fallen off the workout wagon, you’re in good company. Several studies have found that between 40 percent and 65 percent of people stop working out in the first five to eight months after joining a fitness club (Middelkamp,, 2017). In some cases, nearly a third of participants stopped heading to the gym after one or two visits. (Radhakrishnan,, 2020)

Despite there being over 64 million gym memberships and 32,270 health clubs in the U.S. (IHRSA, 2021), there's a disconnect between aspirations and reality. With the promise of greater health and wellness at every turn, why is it so hard to work out consistently?

Barriers to Working Out

There are financial and cultural barriers that cause men, in particular, to fall off the workout wagon: a lack of time, money, and education on how to use the equipment. A lack of diverse membership also makes many fitness spaces unwelcoming for people of color.

But even gyms that try to move beyond the predominately white, heterosexual norm must contend with a legacy of isolated, individualistic notions of the body as an object to be manipulated rather than lived in and cared for.

In fact, the word gymnasium comes from the Ancient Greek term “gymnós” meaning "naked" or "nude." In Ancient Greece, only adult male citizens were allowed to use the gymnasia. It was a public place built specifically for masculine performance. Many gyms still carry the legacy of male supremacy and aesthetic appreciation of the male body.

What About Exercising Outside of the Gym?

One solution is to forgo the gym for other venues and forms of exercise. Yet only 26 percent of American men report sufficient activity to meet the relevant aerobic and muscle-strengthening guidelines for health promotion (CDC Physical Activity Guidelines, 2018). If it were as easy as strapping on running shoes or finding a park to exercise, more people would be doing it.

Clearly, we need something more than threats of ill health, slick studios, or outdoor fitness to keep us moving. We need to face a deeper, often undiscussed barrier to working out—performative masculinity.

What Is Performative Masculinity?

According to the British Science Association, performative masculinity is “a socially-prescribed set of ideas around what it means to be a man, whereby men must act ('perform') in certain ways in order to appear masculine” (Herr, 2011).

Many traditional forms of working out are colored by performative masculinity. Just imagine a stereotypical weight room, with men grunting in displays of dominance, toughness, and competitive posturing.

I did not fully realize this link between working out and my identity as a man until COVID closed gyms and I was forced to find new ways to work out. For years, I would head to the gym, bang out a few sets, flex in the mirror, and think to myself, “I’m getting strong. I’m not there yet, but I’m on my way.”

On my way to what, you may ask? To becoming a real man.

In hindsight, my younger self was chasing an idealized image of manhood that could only be earned in the gym. All this effort to take care of my body could be passed off as “healthy,” but it was really as much about reaffirming my identity as a man.

Working out was essentially punching my “man card”—the gym ensured I had a body that could play the role.

Do "Real Men" Need To Workout?

When life is already burdened by a huge pressure to perform—perform the role of provider, protector, and breadwinner—additional pressure to assert one’s masculine identity via exercise creates a real barrier for men who want to work out.

This is what I call the double-bind of fitness for men. Either you have to work incredibly hard to maintain a strong, athletic, muscular body to avoid the risk of losing your signifier of manhood, or you feel inadequate in the face of a stereotypical masculine body that is out of reach.

Either way, you feel like you need to prove something you never quite feel like you have.

The unspoken narrative of performative masculinity says if your body doesn’t project power and demand respect, you’re somehow failing as a man. This creates an enormous psychosocial pressure that looms over every workout. It breeds perpetual dissatisfaction and fear.

“It’s easier to not workout out and accept my inevitable ‘dad bod’ than it is to deal with the labor of trying to live up to a masculine ideal where I'll never win,” one client told me. Sadly, he’s not alone.

Why would any guy choose to exercise when it provokes body dissatisfaction, feelings of weakness, and an investment in an image that seems imposed and unrequested?

The good news is that there is hope for men who’ve fallen off the workout wagon. It begins with the audacity to break free from outdated notions that men must constantly earn their identity through feats of strength, and it creates avenues for men to engage with their bodies on their own terms.

Hope for Men Who Have Fallen Off The Workout Wagon

According to Snyder’s cognitive theory of hope, there are three main components that separate hope from despair (Rand, & Cheavens, 2009).

  • Goals: mental targets that guide your behavior.
  • Pathways: creating multiple routes to your desired goals.
  • Agency: the ability to initiate and sustain movement along those pathways.

Workout Goals

Rather than doubling down on old approaches that reinforce the need to perform, win, and appear dominant, ask what you truly want for your body. If you just want to dance, then dance. If you just want to play, go for it. Shift the goal of exercise from the future realization of an idealized body to a present moment experience of being with your body, experiencing pleasure and discomfort, and moving to feel good.

The challenge is holding this goal in light of social pressure to conform. Even if you don’t aspire to look like The Rock or David Beckham, conceptions of the desirable male body are in the air we all breathe. Accept it and move on. The more you find intrinsically rewarding goals, the more likely you are to exercise for the pleasure of having a body rather than the performance of a role.

Pathways to Working Out

We live in a Golden Age of exercise, with a variety of classes and workouts available online. However, a large number of these exercise classes are still highly gendered.

If you have never seen a man using a pilates reformer, dancing in a Zumba class, or doing Barre, it may be because of stereotypes about what constitutes a “real man’s” workout.

Ask yourself what you’re actually risking by moving beyond gendered notions of fitness. Embarrassment? Reputation? Imagined judgments of others? Are these worth denying your own health and happiness?

Although there are real biological differences between male and female bodies, any exercise can be modified and adjusted to you. For instance, when I first did cardio drumming I was the only man in the workout class. I decided to not care what anyone thought of me. I decided to risk my masculinity being questioned to experience something novel. And I loved it.

It’s a shame to foreclose on pathways of physical activity just because of social pressures. If a man is supposed to appear powerful, I’d say that reconnecting with your body on your own terms is a radical act of personal power.

Building Your Agency

It’s hard to become what one cannot see. Men need each other to model new ways of being in their bodies. And we need this more than we realize.

The way forward is through connection and belonging. We need to build communities that support bodies at their best, regardless of gender roles or social expectations. We need to lift each other up onto the workout wagon when we're feeling too weak to do it alone.

Go online, explore what’s offered in your neighborhood, or start your own group if you see a need that’s not being met. Take the responsibility to role model the type of exercise you want to do, even if you don’t see other guys around you doing it.

While there will be significant social, cultural, and economic costs to overcome, any man can step up to the challenge of leading rather than following. This builds your agency and empowers other men who've fallen off the workout wagon to believe in themselves and follow their bodily wisdom. We can only shift away from performative masculinity through a collective transformation of what men are allowed to do with their bodies.

Reimagining The Workout Wagon

Letting go of unnecessary gender stereotypes of what a “real man’s exercise” is doesn't mean avoiding gyms or stopping lifting weights. The goal is to expand possibilities for everyone to move their body as they want.

Ultimately, we want to co-create more access to our human birthright—healthy, joyful, and purposeful movement. Removing the pressure to perform or prove yourself can not only help you feel more motivated to exercise, but it also can benefit society at large.

This starts with reconnecting with your body and engaging in exercise that makes you feel liberated. It ends when a new generation of men feel free to exercise however they want, without fear of appearing vulnerable or unmanly.


Herr, O. (2011, November 18th). How performative masculinity has played a role in the COVID-19 pandemic. British Science Association.…

IHRSA Research: Media Center (July 1, 2021)…

Martin, B. A., & Gnoth, J. (2009). Is the Marlboro man the only alternative? The role of gender identity and self-construal salience in evaluations of male models. Marketing Letters, 20(4), 353-367.

Middelkamp, J., van Rooijen, M., Wolfhagen, P., & Steenbergen, B. (2017). The effects of a self-efficacy intervention on exercise behavior of fitness club members in 52 weeks and long-term relationships of transtheoretical model constructs. Journal of sports science & medicine, 16(2), 163.

Norman, M. E. (2011). Embodying the Double-Bind of Masculinity: Young Men and Discourses of Normalcy, Health, Heterosexuality, and Individualism. Men and Masculinities, 14(4), 430–449.

Radhakrishnan, M., Misra, A., Balan, R. K., & Lee, Y. (2020, May). Gym Usage Behavior & Desired Digital Interventions: An Empirical Study. In Proceedings of the 14th EAI International Conference on Pervasive Computing Technologies for Healthcare (pp. 97-107).

Rand, K. L., & Cheavens, J. S. (2009). Hope theory. Oxford handbook of positive psychology, 2, 323-333.

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