Strength in numbers


Heather Gunn-Rivera (right), co-owner of Grassroots Fitness Project on the Upper West Side, at a strength training session. Photo courtesy of Jesse Herndon
NYC fitness studios are adding new training classes just for women
By Michelle Naim

What could be better than a gym membership on-the-go for the fitness-class junkies among us? Welcome to ClassPass. In 2013, the small start-up hit the App Store and online markets, allowing users to choose from a crowd of boutique studios and fitness classes. Members gain access to a wide range of classes — boxing or cycling class if they’re looking for something fast-paced and intense or, they can opt for a slow-paced yoga class to get a nice stretch in — all for a monthly fee. With all of these options, ClassPass is allowing women to break into the world of strength training, an exercise routine that was once largely the domain of men until recently.

“I think there’s such a stigma around strength being for men and only for men,” said Heather Gunn-Rivera, co-owner of Grassroots Fitness Project on the Upper West Side. In the middle of her passionate reply, the clock hit 9:29 a.m. (the women’s strength training class begins at 9:30am), “Let’s go,” she said. The studio only added an all-women’s strength training class to its schedule a year-and-a-half ago.

A Flatiron women’s-only studio called Uplift Studio, has begun to introduce strength training classes to their class schedules as well. “Strength is our signature class and the most popular,” said Leanne Shear, the studio owner. She initially branded herself as a women-only trainer from the start of her career. “When one of our early group classes got rained out in Central Park, instead of canceling, we herded everyone across the street to a bar to hang out. For hours, women who had never met before were sipping wine, networking, hanging out, and becoming friends and workout buddies. Men have historically created these opportunities (and advantages) for themselves, while until recently, women have not. I saw that and ran with it in the creation of Uplift.”

Empowerment within classes

Shear has also recently begun a #MeToo workshop to serve the community of trainers and instructors on how best to deal with sexual harassment from clients along with Megan Eiss-Proctor, a New York attorney and founder of Heddy Consulting, The workshop is also geared towards male instructors who have wanted to step in to the aid of their female colleagues but didn’t know how.

Neither of the studios would ever think about adding on a men’s-only class, saying that would defeat their entire purpose. Right now, Uplift holds all of their classes in an all-women’s setting although Shear said her trainers would be willing to work with men at special events. And, for Gunn-Rivera, “It’s not just about bringing women together ... because we want to say no-males. It’s about giving the women a safe place to figure out what [strength is] for women — how are we going to define that?”

Gunn-Rivera added that the empowerment within the classes is different than classes which have both men and women, “The way they lead, the way they support each other has a different attitude, has a different air, has a different feeling, you know. It’s so new to everybody. Were in such a time now where the confidence of women has grown.”

The beginning of an ordinary all-women’s strength class at The Grassroots Project feels like a therapy session. It’s a vulnerable space and is almost like a support group getting together to talk about their insecurities. Topics of conversation include questions Gunn-Rivera asks like, “When were times in your life when you lost and gained your strength?”

Gunn-Rivera said teaching women has been personally eye-opening to her, “It’s learning how to coach women in a strength environment because the wording is different, the language is different ... we’re not allowed to make disclaimers in the class: ‘Oh I can’t do it.’ You hear the disclaimers come out all the time and I just stop it in its tracks ... because we become what we say. We become what we think.” She continued, “I feel like I have to become somebody in order to teach a male [but] I don’t have to become [anybody] ... to teach a female.”

Shear, on the other hand, does not believe there is any substantial difference between the way women and men are taught: “Women are incredibly strong and train incredibly smart. A good instructor ... is going to bring the best out of any student/client no matter who they are!”