Reclaiming the Gym from the Jocks and Bros: We Chat to a Queer Personal Trainer

[Questions and answers were edited for clarity and space]

I’m tired of being endlessly stuck at home and living my life with the aerobic intensity of a three-toed sloth. I know being a writer is not the most physically demanding of jobs, but I’ve tried my best exercising in the 4 by 7 foot space next to my bed and there are only so many times you can accidentally kick the nightstand while doing a Bird Dog Pose before you decide to throw in the towel. My silly little walks around the block just aren’t cutting it anymore and I’m chomping at the bit to feel the blood pumping in my veins again which is why I’m looking forward to the gyms (safely) re-opening.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit to being just a little scared at the prospect of stepping into a room full of dudes pumping iron. It’s not for the usual reasons, 46 million people in the UK have at least one jab and I’m still masking up indoors, so I feel alright on that front. What I find frightening is the pervasive and toxic straight jock culture that saturates so much of the fitness industry.

I wish I could say I was imagining things, but two-thirds of the LGBTQ community believe that sports are homophobic/transphobic and one in eight of us avoid the gym altogether because of discrimination. The last thing I want is to hear a slur thrown my way just because I decided to wear a neon tank top with one of the Golden Girls on it (Betty White, in case you were wondering).

To avoid a locker room confrontation I needed to search for someone or some place that understood queerness and even celebrated it. Luckily, I came across the cheerful Matt Boyles (he/him), a personal trainer with over a decade of experience, who focuses on helping queer people reach their fitness goals. We discussed the issues with toxic gym culture, how the fitness industry can be more welcoming to queers, and he even put me through my paces with a workout routine designed for laptop monkeys like me.

U: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.

MATT: I am an online personal trainer and I’ve been in this industry for 10 years, the first six and a half of those as a more traditional trainer. I worked in the park, trained people face-to-face, which was fine, but I wasn’t changing the world and was only able to help the people who lived within walking distance of the park.

I had seen the rise of online trainers and thought maybe I could do something like that. There were other things I could bring to the table as well to make it a bit more special and the pieces just started to fall into place.

I had been on my own fitness, health, well-being journey, to boost my self-esteem and find my place in the world and fitness played a big role in that. That was partly why I became a personal trainer in the first place.

But realising as I grew up that as a marginalised community—gay, bi, trans guys who are really the people I have the biggest connection with because that’s the life experience and body that I have, not to say I don’t work with other people cause I do—I knew that I’d not had a great experience with fitness and sport growing up and left it.

When I did start to realise it didn’t have to be rugby or something that I didn’t enjoy as a child it felt like the scales fell from my eyes and all of a sudden, “oh, actually it does make you feel good!” It does boost your mood. You do sleep better. Your self-esteem can go up.

All of these and another million things they don’t tell you about at school or when you’re growing up and getting into fitness and sports. That was when I realised the power of it and how as a marginalised community, we often do feel outsiders, especially in the super bro-y fitness industry.

So I realised that my mission was to help our amazing community. I can help people to see through that old way of doing things and realise there’s a kinder, nicer, slower if necessary, way to approach fitness. That by taking that step back and being silly sometimes and just softening what fitness is, has helped so many people find their groove with it. That’s why I love, am very grateful, and am super proud of what I do. 

That’s fantastic! I picked up that vibe from your online presence. You mentioned the ‘bro-yness’ of the industry, so as a professional, what do you consider toxic gym culture and how has it kept queer and marginalised folks from seeking physical fitness?

Part of that is unfortunately barriers we create in our own head. When I was first getting into fitness, 15 or 16 years ago, I remember walking into a gym and I have no recollection of whether or not it was ‘bro-y’ particularly, but in my head I felt uncomfortable. So I would get on a treadmill for 15 minutes and then go home because I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t feel comfortable there.

I created this experience of how the gym was going to be, but I can’t actually tell you if it was or wasn’t ‘bro-y’, that was just my own perception at the time. This is precisely why I chose to work with my amazing community, because I’ve spoken with other trainers, for example, some straight trainers are brilliant and have the right level of empathy to understand where people are coming from, but a couple of other straight trainers have said things like, “I just can’t understand. Surely all gay guys are happy in a gym with all those other guys in lycra and stuff.” They just don’t get it, and never will, that it’s not a welcoming experience or environment.

Everything can feel super—not necessarily intense—but exaggerated. The music’s pumping, people are chucking weights and when you glance at the weights they feel like they’re enormous and you’ll never lift them. Coupled with that, you’re usually wearing fewer clothes than you are outside. You haven’t got your protection, your armour of clothes, so it’s like the worst of some people’s experiences boiled down into one flashpoint that, of course, makes them feel uncomfortable.

Even before lockdown, about 40% of my clients were doing homework accounts because you’d never need to go to a gym if you don’t want to. You can absolutely, in the comfort and privacy of your own home, build the strength, fitness, health, and the confidence you want. 

You’re right, the heightened experience of a gym especially if you’re trying to create a body and you’re not there yet or if you’re suffering from body image issues like so many of us do, can be off-putting. What would you do to counteract these toxic environments and make fitness more welcoming for queer and marginalised identities?

If we’re talking about the fitness industry in general, it has to be the marketing and the advertising that people put out there. Representation is so important. Some gyms over here actually have it. There was an advert recently, it’s so wonderful because it shows people who aren’t normally shown on screen doing fitness, like a disabled girl or a guy in a wheelchair, in the same gym as everyone else.

I’m actually getting goosebumps thinking about it because I just love it, and cynics might say, “oh, they’re just ticking boxes.” It’s more than that, they’re representing people who don’t see themselves on screen or an advert and that is a beautiful thing. That inclusiveness is so important for people before they even get anywhere near a gym or fitness centre.

Also, it is training people who work within fitness environments to be a bit more sensitive to the world as it evolves because of different people’s needs. For example, it could be a really lovely thing if name badges in the gym had pronouns as well. Such a simple thing.

I’m grateful for any client who wants to work with me, but I’m hugely grateful for the trans men I’m working with because it’s been such a beautiful journey for me as well too. Obviously, trans men are men a thousand percent. That’s what I believe and that’s what I know, but of course there are slightly different physiological histories that you need to take into account, so being kind and empathetic enough for someone for to feel comfortable in bringing their story to life and anything that I specifically need to know in working together because I want them to have the best experience, get the most from our time together, and can continue to flourish afterwards.

Why do you believe that kindness is essential for everyone’s fitness journey?

Because for so long, it wasn’t part of the fitness world. Growing up, fitness was hard and rugby and manly and if you’re not puking it doesn’t count. It always felt so off-putting when it’s that level of extremity or it takes over your life. It used to be all fitness was a serious man’s game which only resonates with a few people. 

So the more you can soften it, the more you can show people there’s no right way or wrong way to do it. Anything you do is going to be a step forward. Some people think, “if I can’t find an hour, it’s no good” or “I was doing something and then I stopped so it’s all ruined.” No, it isn’t. Take your time, get the support you need and just get back to it when you can. That level of self-kindness is what I’ve tried to instil in people to realise that they haven’t messed up. There is no messing up. Even if you stop for six months, just get those wheels turning again.

You could go for a 10 minute walk in the sun tomorrow around lunchtime or learn to meditate for 10 minutes. There are so many components to helping you feel better, not just how many squats you can do. It’s all these other different facets that can lift you up. That’s what I want people to understand.

It’s at this point that Matt helped me to be a little kinder to my body by getting me to move my bones around the most spacious room in my house—the kitchen. Poor posture and neglected muscles are endemic to the writing profession, so I asked him to guide me through an exercise routine made to counteract the long hours spent glued to my keyboard.

We go through a few initial dynamic moves which get my joints rotated and engage muscles I forgot I had. Seriously, sitting down for 8+ hours a day can make you feel like you’re just a brain in a jar with fingers for tweeting. Matt’s sunny disposition bolsters me as I stumble through the balance related moves and narrowly miss punching the fridge.

The encouraging atmosphere created by Matt’s supportive guidance is something I rarely felt in my gym going days. I may not be graceful or know the names of these exercises off the top of my head (dead bugs, anyone?), but I didn’t feel judged once. Instead I had a one man cheer squad who truly wanted me to succeed and it felt great.

After the challenging, but invigorating workout, I briefly wondered what it would be like to have the muscles of a Marvel movie character. I mean, if Kumail Nanjiani could get sculpted into a Greek god with 4% body fat then surely I could achieve something reasonable within the lesser pantheon? I quickly shook that silly thought from my head when I remembered the team of doctors, nutritionists, personal chefs, and piles of Hollywood money that it took to execute such a transformation in that short span of time. I’ll just have to be satisfied with running after the bus without pulling a hamstring.

Matt Boyles

He / Him | Instagram | Twitter

A gay white man wearing a neon green tank top and blue shorts is lightly smiling at the camera.

Written by Gabriel Novo | Illustrations by Ellie Bassford

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