On the surface, Shy Girl Workouts might just be another viral sensation, but underneath there’s a real conversation going on around the need for women to feel more comfortable in public exercise spaces.
Alongside Hot Girl Walks and 12-3-30 treadmill challenges, a new workout trend has popped up online – the #shygirlworkout. These faff-free workout routines use no machines, nothing that takes up space, or turns people’s heads. Just you, and a dumbbell or two, in a corner.
The videos have garnered a lot of attention: on TikTok, the hashtag has over 200 million views. One of the most popular videos by creator @califullerfit, which has 473,000 likes and over 110,000 saves, shows her demonstrating bicep curls, tricep kickbacks, tricep extensions and lateral raises to her followers. “I know the gym can be intimidating,” she tells her followers, “but the more you go, the more comfortable you get” and “last exercise! You get to leave after this”.
The trend hasn’t exploded by accident. It taps into a general feeling of ‘gymtimidation’, a colloquial term for feeling anxious, self-conscious and scared when in public exercise spaces.
The shy girl workout is gendered for a reason. Stats vary, but polls suggest that around 65% of women report have gym anxiety compared to 35% of men. And, according to This Girl Can, a campaign aimed at getting more women moving, the most significant barrier stopping women from exercising is a fear of judgement.
“The gym can be an intimidating social context because people tend to assume that it is a place for people who are already fit and have aesthetically pleasing bodies,” says health psychologist Dr Sula Windgassen. “It can feel particularly vulnerable for a woman to go to a setting that may also typically be male-dominated, such as the weight areas in gyms. This is due to the unfortunate level of explicit misogyny and objectification of women that is very much still alive and active in our society.”
Shy girl workouts are the simple solution to these problems, protecting women from potential fear and judgement. They work for gym-goer Anjali Magecha, who says: “I find stepping foot in a gym or class a wholly terrifying experience after I’ve taken a break from my routine. I think it’s because I’m nowhere near as satisfied with my performance and compare myself to other people on the gym floor.
“‘Shy girl workouts’ are a great way to get people moving in a way they can feel comfortable. I always have a dumbbell-only workout in my back pocket when the anxiety is insurmountable.”
There can also be a long-term benefit to using shy girl workouts – think of them as exposure therapy in its gentlest form, getting people to face their fear of the gym without having to tackle the nuances of the space. “They provide an element of safety and reassurance, facilitating access to a setting that perhaps previously would have been too intimidating. This exposure helps them to take steps into other areas when they’re ready,” agrees Dr Windgassen.
Shy girl workouts also helped Ciara Nelder transition from lockdown home workouts into the gym two years ago. “I definitely did shy girl-style workouts before I knew they were a trend. I would just use as little kit as possible so that people would be less likely to take notice of me,” she says.
Although she is now a regular in the weights room, Nelder’s gym anxiety hasn’t left her. “The intensity of it varies. Naturally, it’s much worse when it’s very busy or someone is using a machine that I’ve planned to use in my workout, and I always worry that I’m doing something wrong and getting judged,” she says. Nelder will occasionally revert back to those initial shy girl workouts, “when I want to take up as little space as I can.”
That is the double-edged sword of the trend. If women are more likely to experience gym anxiety because of the overarching and never-ending narrative that they don’t belong there, telling them to stand in a corner won’t fix the issue.
“It is common for women to seek to take up less space because societally the message is that we should do exactly that,” says Dr Windgassen. “These workouts quite literally help women take up as little space as possible, which is sad.
“The worry is that this could become a habitual way of approaching the gym. It's important that people experiment with expanding their comfort zones – like going into the parts of the gym that scare them – so that they are not being held back by anxiety.”
There’s also the point that habitually sticking with shy girl workouts can halt strength and muscle-building gains. While you can do a lot with just a dumbbell, results come from progressive overload – continuously increasing the amount you lift. Having the education and confidence to head to the barbell rack or machines will inevitably improve progress over sticking with shy girl workouts in the long term.
Regardless, if shy girl workouts help more people exercise – and feel comfortable while doing so – they are clearly beneficial. Undoubtedly, they are a good starting point for beginners at least, and a useful tool for gym regulars to fall back on during busy times when free kit is hard to come by or they simply don’t want to face the crowds.
But it’s important to remember that women don’t only deserve the corner. A quick scroll through IG and TikTok will show hundreds of experts and influencers sharing videos of themselves slap-bang in the middle of the weights room to inspire you to go there too. But maybe the success of the #shygirlworkouts suggests that women are excited about the idea of building strength without having to fight for it.
Find a quiet space in the gym. That might mean going at an off-peak time and grabbing a bench in the corner of the free weights area or setting yourself up on a mat in the stretch zone where there’s less footfall.
Grab your kit. Make your way over to the rack of weights and find a pair of dumbbells that suit the exercises you’re choosing. If you’re a beginner, you might want to choose light to medium weights for upper body work (2kg-12kg) and medium to heavy weights for lower body exercises (8kg-20kg).
Choose your exercises. Often shy girl workouts focus on simple moves that won’t take up too much room or make you overthink your form. Think compound exercises like sumo squats, dumbbell deadlifts, overhead presses and bent-over rows. Then add accessory moves like bicep curls, lateral raises, RDLs and glute bridges.
You might find it useful to take a #shygirlworkout video along with you to take you through the exercises step-by-step.
Take earphones too – plugging in can help you tune out the noise from other gym-goers.
Words: Chloe Gray
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