A single man sits at the bench press, resting between sets. He’s wondering if he can do eight more repeats if he adds twenty more pounds. That’s all he cares about . . . until he sees her.
She’s stretching on the mat across from him. She’s finished her thirty minutes on the treadmill and she’s getting ready to leave. She’s got blonde hair and she’s wearing her usual outfit – soccer shorts and a t-shirt. He’s always wanted to talk to her but never seems to find the right time. Or the nerve.
She looks up at him and he feels his face flush.
Oh no! he thinks. She caught me gawking. Wait – was that a smile? Should I smile back? Should I go talk to her? Should I bench press my max to show her how strong I am?
Ah, the gym. Of all the environments in which courtship occurs, it is one of the most difficult to navigate. Established rituals are few. Conversations can be awkward. Still, many a man hopes to meet Miss Right in this place where people congregate to sweat.
I’ve been going to the gym a few times a week for almost twenty years. Though I do this for my health, it gives me the chance to do informal field research as a psychologist. For over two decades, I’ve observed the courtship rituals of fitness facilities. I’ve noticed behavioral patterns in the human male when a female of the species is nearby. Most men employ one of five different tactics to engage the attention of women they find attractive. Let’s take a look at each and talk about how well it works.
1) Becoming a fitness trainer. Let me start with a disclaimer: fitness trainers are usually good folks. They help people stay motivated and lead balanced lives. They have great intentions . . . most of the time.
About once a week, I see a male trainer get a little too “hands on” with a female client. While it’s necessary for trainers to touch their clients once in a while, I’ve seen guys stop just short of groping. One time I saw a trainer with his paws all over a woman who was a student in one of my psychology classes. I began to dash over and shout, “Hands off, punk!” Then she beat me to it.
You don’t become a personal trainer in order to meet women; you do it to help people achieve fitness goals. If that’s not your one and only motivation, pick another profession. Hitting on a client takes advantage of her trust and abuses your professional role. It’s also a good way to get fired, sued, or both.
2) Teaching a woman how to do an exercise. If you offer to show a woman how to use a piece of equipment, she’ll know you’re hitting on her. If you’re lucky, she’ll indulge you and let you teach her what she already knows. Otherwise, she’ll say something like, “No thanks, I’m good.” (translation: “stop treating me like an idiot and go away”).
Asking if you can “work in” with her is a much better alternative. That way, all you’re doing is sharing a machine. She’ll still probably sniff out your agenda, but that’s not always a bad thing. If she initiates polite conversation with you, she might be open to getting to know you better. Of course, if she turns up the volume on her iPod and ignores you, that’s also a signal.
3) Posing in front of the mirror. One guy at my gym must work out at home, because I work out ten times harder than he does and he’s more ripped than I’ll ever be. He lifts a weight about once every ten or fifteen minutes. He spends the rest of his time flexing and preening in front of the mirror. Occasionally, he’ll offer to help a woman with an exercise, and she always says no.
Prancing around like a peacock tells the ladies that you’re vain and pretentious. It’s also important to remember that most women don’t like the beefcake. They like guys who are healthy and fit, but not dudes without necks who look like they’re training for professional wrestling. Most ladies surmise that such a man is too
self-preoccupied for a healthy relationship. And they’re usually right.
4) Joining a fitness class filled with women. Not a thing in the world wrong with this one. If you attend something like aerobics, yoga, or a spinning class once or twice a week, it gives you the opportunity to get to know a woman gradually. You don’t have to be too obvious or move in to fast. Just talk to her a little bit before and after class. If the two of you get along and have things in common, ask her to coffee. Then ask her out on a date. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
5) Having the guts to talk to her. This is how a real man does it. No games or maneuvering, just good old-fashioned communication. Here’s how it works:
Introduce yourself and get acquainted. Say hi, tell her your name, find out hers, and then ask her some questions. Keep the conversation light in the beginning. Don’t interrogate her about politics, religion, and her family history. Tell her you’ve seen her around and ask her how long she’s been coming to the gym. What does she like and not like about it? It might be fun to discuss your grievances about the gym. Most people enjoy complaining, so ask if the women’s shower has as much mold as the men’s.
Evaluate her response. You know all that stuff you hear about women being more verbally expressive than men? That’s not the case here. Research shows that women switch to nonverbal forms of expression whenever a man initiates any type of courtship behavior. This means the woman won’t tell you whether or not she wants to talk to you – she’ll show you. If she crosses her arms, looks away, or stands perpendicular to you, she’s less than enthused. If she looks you in the eye, smiles, and gets closer as the conversation continues, it’s a good sign.
Be authentic. Research also shows that women expect men to be deceptive when they flirt. Blow her mind by doing the opposite. You don’t have to reveal your most embarrassing moment; just be honest. If she tells you how much you she loves country music and it makes you nauseous, say, “I’m not much of a fan.” Though it’s too soon for transparency, don’t hide who you are.
Don’t take it too far. After a few minutes, say something like, “Well, I better get back to my workout. Hope I see you again.” If she tells you when she usually works out, that means she wants to get to know you better. If she just nods and smiles that means she’s not sure yet. Be patient and see how things go next time. But no matter what, don’t ask for her phone number the first time you talk to her. Healthy relationships begin slowly, so wait until you’ve talked a few times before trying to score digits.
Some women exercise in their underwear. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve never taken a count, but I’d guess that over ten percent of the women at my gym work out in sports bras. I’m not sure why they do this. Do some women dehydrate so easily that they can’t handle a t-shirt? Is it a fashion thing, like wearing a little black dress to a party? Or do they want to draw attention to their bodies? If that’s the case – mission accomplished. It’s against the rules to work out in jeans at my gym, but apparently wearing next to nothing is no big deal.
If you struggle with wandering eyes and lustful thoughts, you’ll be exercising your will power more than your body at most gyms. Sometimes pop culture and the media even imply that sex and fitness go hand in hand. For example, most muscle and fitness magazines nowadays resemble soft porn. They’re filled with scantily clad men and women covered in oil, staring out of the page with bedroom eyes. The implicit message is that working out leads to sex. It’s a marketing technique. It also sends gives tacit permission to show up to they gym almost naked. Focusing on fitness can be a challenge when you’re surrounded by so much female skin.
Don’t let a trip to the gym result in sin. If lust gets the better of you, consider changing some things. Look for a gym with a predominantly male population. Weight rooms affiliated with sports facilities sometimes provide this. See if there’s a local college or high school that opens its facilities to the public at certain
times. Exercising with football players amidst the aroma of gym socks will do anything but turn you on. Larger churches sometimes have places to exercise where people dress modestly. You can also work out at home. The cost of exercise equipment can be cheaper than a gym membership in the long run.
Then there’s my personal favorite – outrunning lust. When unwelcome thoughts enter your mind, go into an exercise frenzy. Hop on the treadmill and crank that puppy up until you’re panting. Lift more weight and do more reps until you’re exhausted. This redirects your energy. Not only will you be too tired to think about sex, but the biochemical elements of sexual desire can fuel a more intense workout. God made our sex drive flexible so we can channel it in productive ways.
Modern culture bombards us with plenty of illicit images, making life difficult enough for guys who don’t go to the gym. If your health club makes sexual purity a challenge, ask God for help finding ways to cope. I’ve given you some general ideas, but He can reveal the perfect plan for you.
Though friendships can begin at the gym, it’s usually not the best place to find love. You’re much better off at church, a friend’s social event, or even an online dating service like eHarmony. Rebecca Brown, editorial director of women’s magazine Divine Caroline says, “Don't ask a woman [at the gym] something petty just to talk to her unless it's related to your workout, like, ‘Mind if I work in with you?’ People go to the gym to work out, not get hit on; women will see through lame small talk or excuses and just be annoyed.”
It’s not hard to tell if a woman is open to mixing sweat and sweet talk. If she’s wearing headphones or appears focused on her workout, leave her alone. If she’s taking her time and smiles as you pass, it might be okay to say hi and strike up a conversation. Finding out if the two of you get along and have things in common should be your first goal. See if you have fun chatting and exercising together before asking her out. The gym is a good place to see a woman on a regular basis and form a friendship over time. Just remember that most health clubs aren’t filled with ladies looking for a stud who’ll teach them how to use the bicep machine.
A gym isn’t a temple. It’s not a place to worship hot women or your own rippling biceps. It can, however, help keep your temple healthy. Before a man pursues romance he needs to pursue health and balance in his life. The gym can help keep you physically healthy, but it won’t make you whole. Neither will a girlfriend. Only God
can do that.
Stephen W. Simpson, Ph.D.
is a psychologist in Pasadena, California and a clinical professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is author of What Women Wish You Knew about Dating: A Single Guy’s Guide to Romance (Baker Books), Assaulted by Joy: The Redemption of a Cynic (Zondervan), and co-author of What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew about Sex: A Guide for Christian Men. Check out his new ASSAULTED BY JOY website at http://www.assaultedbyjoy.com
. For information on speaking engagements, books, and counseling visit www.stephenwsimpson.com