The term “woman” is used in this article to refer to all woman-identifying persons.
Slamming weights. Inappropriate looks. A chorus of obnoxious grunting, no matter how much weight is on the bar.
That’s what University of Wisconsin-Madison senior Georgia Hancock deals with whenever she lifts in the basement of the Nicholas Recreation Center, commonly referred to as “The Nick.” She and other students said the gym’s design creates masculine strength training spaces that intimidate women, leading them toward cardio and group workouts.
“It feels uncomfortable,” Hancock said. “You just feel like you don’t belong.”
The Nick has five floors, each with varying combinations of training equipment. Its different “neighborhoods” are a deliberate design choice intended to offer students diverse workout environments, according to University Recreation and Wellbeing Assistant Director of Inclusion, Club & Community Programs Abby Van Note.
But, Hancock sees an obvious gender divide between neighborhoods when she visits The Nick. Men dominate strength training areas while women populate cardio equipment along the windows, especially on the second floor.
The disparity is striking on the lower level.
“That area is always 90% men, at least,” Hancock said. “I feel like there's a gender divide there for sure.”
Even the floor’s name — the “Powerhouse” — makes the space feel more intimidating for women, explained UW-Madison senior Kennedy Matuschka.
“I feel like that in itself is very manly, more masculine,” Matuschka said. “It’s just so intense.”
Hancock added that The Nick’s open floor plan makes her feel like she’s constantly on display, adding to her unease at the gym. She’s caught multiple men staring at her while squatting.
“You'll just feel so uncomfortable if you catch someone looking at you,” Hancock said.
Hancock and Matuschka both avoid the Powerhouse during their workouts. However, the Powerhouse is the only floor of the Nick with deadlift platforms and other intensive strength training equipment.
That leaves the women with a tough choice — either brave the Powerhouse to complete their workout or make do without its equipment in another fitness space.
Group workouts make space
Hancock now does most of her fitness training in group workout classes or intramural sports instead of solo workouts. She said the group environments are less intimidating and more private than the overcrowded Nick.
“It feels nice to have that space set aside for group fitness, as opposed to going and having to wait a super long time for a machine,” Hancock said.
Matuschka found her fitness community through Mind Body Badger, one of multiple women’s fitness and wellness groups for UW students. Group members meet two to three times a week at local fitness studios for various workouts, including yoga, Zumba and strength training.
As the club’s president, Matuschka organizes workouts and hosts activities like painting workshops and meditation sessions to foster a holistic wellness experience for approximately 150 Mind Body Badger members.
The guided group workouts are “empowering” and allow women to access the equipment they need without judgment based on skill or gender expression, according to Matuschka.
“There's so much energy in the room. Everyone's smiling,” Matuschka said. “You leave feeling good about yourself, no matter what.”
Mind Body Badger’s group workouts also forge friendships that last for years, according to club vice president and UW-Madison sophomore Alayna Wilderman. She met one of her best friends at a group workout in Hilldale during her freshman year.
“Her and I bonded over being freshmen and living in the Lakeshore dorms, and then we went to Target together and walked home,” Wilderman said. “I'll always remember that… It shows how you can meet such good friends from our club.”
Are group workouts enough?
RecWell used to provide an array of group workout options before the pandemic hit in 2020, according to Van Note.
Van Note said she and other staff are working to bring those spaces back this fall because they understand group workouts are safe fitness spaces for women and other marginalized students.
“I think it gives a sense of community to a lot of folks,” Van Note said. “[It] gives that level of comfort to come into our spaces.”
Van Note also said the new Bakke Recreation Center, opening in early 2023, will include more space for group workouts and “semi-private” fitness areas that prevent students from feeling like they’re on display when working out.
But, group classes aren’t a cure-all for fitness inclusion, according to Hancock. Group fitness rooms at The Nick don’t have heavy weights, meaning Hancock can’t do a full range of strength workouts. If she wants to deadlift, she still has to head down to the Powerhouse.
And that’s assuming she even gets a deadlift platform.
“Ten guys will hang out and use the platforms for way too long,” Hancock said. ”No one else can use the space super effectively.”
Hancock doesn’t mind sticking to lighter weights now that she works out more for mental wellness than physical gains. However, she and other women want the freedom to access Powerhouse equipment in a less intimidating part of the gym.
“I think bottom line, group fitness classes are great,” Hancock said. “But it would still be better if The Nick was set up to have more lifting areas conducive to all of the people that actually want to use them.”
Tyler Katzenberger is the managing editor at The Daily Cardinal. As a former state news editor, he covered numerous protests and wrote state politics, healthcare, business and in-depth stories. Follow him on Twitter at @TylerKatzen.