June 2013 Issue

The Male Mindset
By Jennifer Van Pelt, MA
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 15 No. 6 P. 44

Learn what exercises most appeal to men and what will help improve counseling sessions.

In 1992, the book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus hit bookstores and was an immediate best seller. The basic premise of the book—that relationships between men and women can improve if their differences in needs, desires, and behaviors are acknowledged—also can apply to fitness.

Men and women may share the same goal of getting and staying in shape, but their motivations and exercise choices are very different. In this month’s column, I’ll discuss these differences and outline strategies for adhering to an exercise and fitness plan that dietitians can share with male clients.

Men who are competitive athletes, seniors, or overweight or obese have specific fitness needs that generally transcend gender differences. Therefore, I’ll focus on the average male exerciser, who’s slightly out of shape, carrying a few extra pounds, and interested in developing an exercise program for maximum benefit.

Exercise Choices
Your male client’s age may influence his fitness choices. “Younger men are more concerned with getting stronger and tend to focus a lot on strength training and not as much on cardiovascular exercise,” says Joe Cannon, MS, a personal trainer and National Strength and Conditioning Association-certified strength and conditioning specialist. Older men, on the other hand, pay more attention to cardio and may be more concerned with exercising around injuries or conditions they may have, such as arthritis or diabetes, Cannon adds.

Age also may influence the risk of injury. “Middle-aged men sometimes think they’re still 20 years old and are bulletproof, so they lift weights that are too heavy too fast and put excess strain on ligaments and tendons, increasing injuries,” Cannon says.

Chief Motivators
Research studies and sports psychology theory1-5 suggest that men are most motivated by competition, social aspects, peer influence, ego and performance, and strength-training activities. Women tend to be most motivated by body image, improvements in health, and calorie-burning aerobic activities. These male motivational factors contribute to the success or failure of maintaining an exercise program, the physical activities chosen, and risk of injury.

Understanding the male mentality regarding exercise can help guide fitness counseling. Two of the most common exercise-related male mindsets that fitness and nutrition professionals must overcome when counseling or training male clients are what I call “weekend warrior syndrome” and “muscle obsession.”

Weekend Warrior Syndrome
Weekend warrior syndrome involves overexercising on the weekends, with little or no exercise during the week mostly because of busy workdays and family schedules. While anyone can fall victim to weekend warrior syndrome, men are more susceptible because of the motivational factors of competition, socializing, and peer influence. Participation in weekend-only recreational sports appeals to their “manliness” but also increases their risk of injury.

Exercising only on weekends, while not ideal, is better than no exercise at all; however, injuries occur because weekend-only exercise typically is too intense for the client’s fitness level. For example, weekend basketball, racquet sports, and soccer games involve 60 minutes or more of interval training requiring bursts of high-intensity activity. A deconditioned exerciser will have a much higher risk of injuries, including muscle sprains, falls, and even heart attack.

Combatting weekend warrior syndrome is challenging, especially when its cause is a busy work schedule. Encourage clients to add at least two exercise sessions during the week. Thirty minutes of cardiovascular conditioning twice per week, perhaps over lunch or immediately before or after work, combined with stretching at the end of the day can contribute to their overall fitness level as well as reduce the risk of weekend warrior injuries.

Muscle Obsession
Muscle obsession is fueled by an emphasis on strength training, ego and performance, and socialization. Go into any health club, and you’ll notice that men dominate the free-weight area and often compare muscle size and the amount of weight lifted. Many men tend to focus on building bulk rather than strength and endurance, favoring fewer repetitions with heavy weights over multiple repetitions with lighter weights. For the average man, lean strength with endurance best serves the requirements of daily life. Unless your client plans to compete in weight lifting or has a job that requires lifting heavy loads a few times per day, bulking up isn’t functional. Strength training is an essential part of a well-balanced exercise program for both men and women. But muscle obsession leads to an exercise imbalance for many men. Often cardiovascular and flexibility exercises are ignored in favor of weight training.

Muscle obsession and excessive weight training can decrease flexibility, thereby increasing the likelihood of injury. Though heart rate increases during weight lifting and moving quickly through a series of strength exercises without much rest can provide cardiovascular conditioning, cardiovascular benefits from performing 30 minutes or more in the target heart rate range generally aren’t achievable with strength training alone.

Cannon says men often get caught up in the perceived rules and myths of exercise, such as “always do strength training before cardio“ and “no pain, no gain.” Dietitians should counsel male clients on the benefits of a safe, balanced workout regimen that includes all components of fitness.

Exercises Suitable for Men
Luckily, there’s no shortage of exercise options for men. Most local health clubs and personal trainers offer programs geared toward men, and at-home online and DVD training also is available. Some programs involve all aspects of fitness, including strength, cardiovascular, and flexibility conditioning, in one workout session. Others address one or two aspects and can be combined for a balanced regimen. Suggest one or more of the following exercise options that will appeal to the male mentality and motivate them to maintain a balanced fitness program:

Athletic boot camp workouts are available at most health clubs for small groups as part of the fitness class schedule or from personal trainers in a pay-per-session format. With catchy names such as Brute Camp, the Spartacus Workout, and Platoon Fitness, these classes provide a total body workout formatted to appeal to men who are motivated by competition. Encourage clients to participate with friends to engage their social and peer influence motivators.

Core conditioning is important for overall fitness and strengthening postural muscles (abdominals and back). Although Pilates is an excellent core workout, men tend to avoid this activity unless a Pilates class has a male instructor. Pilates exercises often are masked in male-oriented classes, such as Six-Pack Abs and Hard Core Circuit. Strengthening the core muscles also prevents injuries and low back pain, both of which can afflict the weekend warrior.

Boxing and martial arts workouts are offered at martial arts studios, boxing gyms, and health clubs. Mimicking the movements of boxers, kickboxers, and mixed martial arts fighters, these workouts can be done at home with minimal equipment or at a facility with gloves and bags. Previous experience with boxing or martial arts isn’t necessary. Boxing-based workouts focus more on cardiovascular and upper body conditioning. Martial arts workouts that engage the lower body for kicking provide a total body, high-calorie-burning workout, including strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular training.

Indoor cycling workouts are offered at most local health clubs. Cycling on specially designed bikes at different speeds and resistance to simulate outdoor cycling racing and climbing is another high-calorie burner. These classes focus on cardiovascular conditioning and lower body strength with minimal impact and provide intensity equivalent to or greater than running. Indoor cycling along with boot camp workouts are considered the most male friendly of the common group fitness classes.

Yoga is offered at studios, health clubs, online, or on DVD. While women now dominate most classes, yoga originated with men. Attendance by men has been increasing, and some studios offer yoga classes geared toward men. Depending on the style of yoga practiced, male clients can improve both strength and flexibility. Slower-paced gentle yoga classes address only flexibility. All yoga classes provide stress relief and relaxation, which may help men with stressful jobs.

Recreational sports leagues and fitness clubs provide social and competitive motivation for men. To avoid weekend warrior syndrome, encourage male clients to find a league that runs games or practices at least once during the week as well as on the weekends. As mentioned, sports provide an interval-training workout that contributes to cardiovascular conditioning. Fitness clubs usually focus on one nonsport physical activity, such as walking, running, or cycling, and may appeal to men motivated by socializing and peer influence. Clubs that provide training for races also will attract those motivated by competition as well as ego and performance.

— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a certified group fitness instructor and health care research analyst/consultant in the Reading, Pennsylvania, area.


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