Bro, Do You Even Lift? Gym People, Gym Culture, and the Spotlight Effect

by Isabelle A. Martinez

Gym culture. You know what I’m talking about. Going to the gym is a relatively new experience for me—I’ve been going consistently for just about two years now. It was hard for me to get there, I’ll be honest, and the gym “look” was a significant hurdle in that process. I’m a small-ish girl who can barely bench 25 pounds; I have no place at a weight rack next to the whey-protein-drinking, shaker-bottle-holding, “Real Men Don’t Skip Leg Day” -wearing, wannabe muscle men of the Walton Lifetime Health Complex. Despite my glaring disadvantage (that is, not being able to lift heavy weights), I overcame my own mental blocks and have become a regular attender of the gym. As time has passed, I have discovered that I love going. It’s a sort of daily liturgy, a time I get to spend alone, listening to music, being creative with workouts. This newfound daily activity has caused me to glance around—observe the fashion, the people—and to start a casual sort of . . . taxonomy, you might say, of gym folk.

The gym has its own fashion. This should not come as a shock. Once again, when I say “gym style” you probably know what I mean. Men in cut-up tank tops—the better to show off their biceps, right?—and shorts. Women in matching workout tops and leggings. Here’s the thing that I want to make resoundingly clear: while I’m taking a sarcastic tone here, I fully understand that I’ve been indoctrinated into this fashion subculture. How does the saying go?—takes one to know one? When I get dressed to work out, I know what to put on to match the gym’s vibe. To my chagrin, the days of Nike shorts and t-shirts are over for women. Now is the time for leggings and tanks, for lululemon, for Hokas. Anything less is sooooo last year, come on. 

With each gym comes its own people—people whom, I’ll admit, I love to study. Maybe its the psychologist in me, but I’m always people-watching, thinking about who these folks are. At this point, I believe I can successfully categorize most gym-goers. I can’t list them all, of course, and my, er, sample size is limited to this area, but I’ll take a stab at it nonetheless.

We have, at most usual gyms, the GymShark couples, the Crossfitters and bodybuilders (and the people look like they do Crossfit and bodybuild. Regardless, they all go hard). We’ve also got the soccer moms, the high-schoolers, and the normal people. (For the record, I’d classify myself as a normal person.)

Let’s break these categories down. We’ll begin with the GymShark couples—my personal fave from these five categories. These people come to the gym in pairs. They’re both usually swole out of their minds, and they’re usually matching … often in neon. They’re Fitness Instagram come to life. The woman is tan and beautiful and the guy has Colgate teeth and biceps that look like they’d tear through the sleeves of his shirt—that is, if he ever wore anything other than tank tops. Close your eyes and imagine these people. If you can’t picture them, then do me a favor and type “GymShark couple” into the Google search bar. Look through the images for a second, you’ll see what I mean. And if you're dubious: yes, these couples really do exist. I see them at my home gym in Tulsa all the time. Seeing them is like spotting a unicorn: you’d like to stop staring, but you can’t quite tear your eyes away. 

The Crossfitters and bodybuilders are next. Now before you get defensive and start shouting “Crossfit and bodybuilding are not! the! same!” hear me out. Both sorts of people have—be honest— the same gym presence. I like these people. I usually look at them with envy because I wish I looked as competent as they do. These people, men and women alike, are usually midway through some super creative, intense, intimidating workout. They’re the ones making noises and breathing funny, veins popping, faces red. Sometimes they talk to themselves while they’re working out. It can certainly be annoying and it can definitely be intimidating, but they aren’t usually arrogant. If you talk to them, they’ll be super nice and friendly. My limited interaction with this breed consists of them asking if I am done using a (not very heavy) medicine ball, so that they may take it and do something that I deem absurd (like throwing it super hard against the ground or a miniature trampoline). I have basically never seen this category of person on a treadmill—they’re always doing weights.

The soccer moms, on the other hand, only interact with the treadmills, stair-steppers, and the occasional yoga class. These ladies are usually decked out in lululemon, talking WAAAAyyyyy too loudly about their air fryers or instant pots, and paying way too much for highlighted hair. If they weren’t at the gym, I’d expect to see them driving an Escalade with a latte in hand. These ladies aren’t particularly problematic, but they can keep up an icy, don’t-talk-to-me kind of aura. Hard to interact with.

The high-schoolers, on the other hand, are a fun group to observe. They move exclusively in packs. The high school girls commonly sport big t-shirts, tiny shorts, and cool sneakers. They do more standing around chatting than they do actually working out. If they do decide to exercise, they are usually too full of giggles to get much done. The high school boys know exactly where they’re going: the basketball court. Gym-goers rarely catch a glimpse of the elusive high school boy unless they venture into hardwood territory.. You can determine the age of these boys because they’re still wearing Nike Elites and KD 4’s, the stage that's just up from the pre-teen neon activewear look. And last, but certainly not least, we have (drum roll, please) the normal people! The normal people go to the gym to engage in a healthy lifestyle. These people come in all shapes and sizes, with a whole range of gym knowledge. 

I often wish I could get into the heads of gym-goers, because—as much as I recognize them—I can still find them daunting. When I go to the gym, it is easier for me to put up a facade of confidence. It’s a defense mechanism; there’s a reason why the term “gym-timidation” was coined. Going to the gym can become more than just a daily activity that is meant to keep you healthy. Instead, it can be a sort of toxic comparison culture, one in which I fear I’ve taken part.

I want to address this here, especially because there’s a psychology concept which can help to dispel some of the “gymtimidation” that we probably all experience. It’s called the spotlight effect. Basically, it’s our tendency to think people are paying more attention to us than they actually are— we’re overestimating how much people observe us. To an extent, this is an understandable mentality. We are the center of our own worlds, so of course we imagine that we are the center of everyone else’s worlds, too. You might have experienced this in a different way: when you spend the whole day walking around only to realize (at the END of the day) that there’s a horrifying zit in the center of your forehead. When you ask your mom how bad it looks and how she could’ve failed to mention this to you, she says “Oh honey, I didn’t even notice it!” She’s not just being nice, people. She really didn’t notice it. You think she’s paying way more attention to you than she actually is. It may be as shocking to you as it was to me: I am not, in fact, the center of your universe. You are not the center of mine. This news flash, while somewhat upsetting, is also insanely reassuring, especially at the gym! Although I may feel somewhat incapable at the gym sometimes, and although I often feel like the soccer moms are whispering about me on the stair stepper, I find it comforting to know that we’re all striving for the same thing. We all want to care for our bodies and live an active lifestyle. So, whatever your gym category may be, consider going to the gym. If not to work out, than to people-watch. 

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