Owning Your Space in the Gym

Owning Your Space in the Gym

I’m Emily, but you can call me Em. I graduated from Oxford Brookes in 2011 with a Communication, Media and Culture degree and I currently lead Social Media across Western Europe for The LEGO Group.

Outside of work, my passion is fitness. I’m a recreational bodybuilder and have found lifting weights to be a transformational process, which has not only grown my physical strength, but helped build resilience outside the gym. I’m currently studying nutrition and personal training qualifications in my spare time, so that I can support as many people as possible to unlock their fitness potential.

Emily Mukalazi

Why you need to own your space

I’m on a mission to help as many of you as possible to own your space in the gym. What do I mean by owning your space? I mean everything from having the confidence to walk in there in the first place, right through to claiming the equipment, not feeling rushed, not feeling you have to be quiet, not feeling you have to make yourself small… and never feeling that you aren’t worthy of being there.

It’s time to let go of misplaced fears about not belonging in the gym, or lifting weights making you “bulky”. Neither of these scenarios is true. The benefits of building strength are vast. Not only will you improve overall health markers and get satisfaction from developing a technical skill over time, but the mental fortitude and focus will carry over into your educational and professional life.

Why there’s a problem

This quest is not something I started on a whim. It’s something I was compelled to do, after many people reached out to me through social media for help. And if I’m honest, the overwhelming majority of these people are female.

During my time at Brookes, quite a few of my modules focused on gender representation in media and culture, which helped me develop a more critical mind when evaluating the dynamics that come into play when women embark upon navigating traditionally male spaces.

You see, whether we like it or not, the gym is a traditionally male environment. Fortunately this narrative is gradually shifting and I must stress that all the men I meet at the gym are generally welcoming and supportive. But nevertheless, the pesky patriarchy lingers; often serving to reinforce the stories we can tell ourselves about not belonging in these spaces.

This is reflected by the number of women lifting weights still being vastly outweighed by the number of men. I’m a member of two very different gyms (one commercial, one bodybuilding) and I’ve been keeping a tally over the past few months. On average, the women in the weights area make up between 10-20% of the total members at any given time.

Start evaluating this yourself. You might see plenty of women at the gym, but what are they doing? Are they deadlifting… or are they doing a YouTube workout on a mat in the corner, with a kettlebell and a band?

Please don’t misunderstand me - I’m not saying one of these scenarios is better than another. The beauty of fitness is that there is something for everyone, depending on what you enjoy.

But the fact remains, we have a gender imbalance when it comes to weightlifting and women should not miss out on this sport because of self-limiting beliefs that have been ingrained over centuries.

Emily Mukalazi

Ben Mark Photography

What holds us back

Sadly, lots of females tell me they fear going to the free weights section. I used to be one of these people. I was terrified to claim a squat rack. Concerns over what other more “serious” people might think about me getting in their way plagued me. I felt I wasn’t strong enough and worried others would judge me for how much I was (or wasn’t lifting).

Even when I did brave it, for the first couple of years I rushed through my sets and never dared to push my training intensity to levels where I’d need to pull faces or, heaven forbid, make some noise.

Fast-forward 5 years and it’s a very different story for me. But these challenges persist for many and if I’m being brutally honest, I believe it’s down to us to take action and reframe our thinking.

We need to stop telling ourselves stories. Perception is reality. Stop telling yourself you don’t belong in the free weights area. Nobody else actually thinks this, but you will if you insist on believing it.

Anything we try for the first time in life is scary, but that’s normal. I still remember the first time my mum sent me to the corner shop on my own with a list and some money. I was absolutely terrified, yet I wouldn’t think twice about doing this now. Trying new things is how we learn and grow.

Tips for owning your space

You will find a lot more ideas via my Instagram channel, but here are a few of my tips for building confidence and owning your space in the gym:

  • Ask for help: Leverage the experts and advice available. Book a free induction so you understand how to use the equipment and don’t be shy to take notes so you remember how to set things up. You can also ask a friend to accompany you for your first session

  • Stop comparing: Comparison truly is the thief of joy. There will always be someone smarter, stronger, leaner, better, luckier… but this doesn’t dictate your capacity to grow and succeed. Focus on your goals and unfollow social media accounts that fuel negative self perception

  • Start conversations: While it might seem daunting, being brave to speak to others in the gym will open up a new support network and in my experience, can radically change the perceptions we wrongly project onto others

  • Take a selfie: I’m serious! After your workout. In public. For no other reason than to show yourself that not only can you take control when it comes to your training, but you can own the right to physically exist in that space and document the moment (posting on social media optional!)

  • Join my community: You can find me on Instagram @empowafitness, where I share lots more tips, guides and am always happy to chat. You can also join my private Facebook community, where you’ll find an incredible group of like-minded people (of all genders) ready to support you with your goals

Sadly the gym didn’t play a role during my time at Oxford Brookes due to a period of chronic illness, but I love how the university places a focus on the power of fitness to support both physical and mental health. If I’d been able to exercise during my studies I hope those more confident would have encouraged me... so if you’re a regular gym-goer reading this, please consider how you can connect with those who may be looking for support.

I’d love to hear if you found this helpful, so do look me up on social media... and let’s chat!

This article was written by Emily Mukalazi, an Oxford Brookes graduate. You can connect with Em on Instagram and join her Facebook group.