The 1977 film Pumping Iron, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and documenting the golden era of bodybuilding, features all the hallmarks of what many think of when it comes to weight training: men in cut-off shirts, sweating and grunting amongst a cacophony of clanking metal.
While the spirit of bodybuilding is still very much alive, those in the local fitness industry these days are seeing more gymgoers, especially women, pick up weights as part of their everyday fitness routine, prompting gym owners to accommodate their offerings based on this demand.
One such owner is Skip Lennon, operator of Wilmington-area Fit4Life Health Clubs who has more than 28 years in the fitness industry. Lennon previously owned the Gold’s Gym franchise in the region and later TF Fitness + Nutrition.
This year, Lennon transitioned TF Fitness to Fit4Life, including the gym at 11 S. Kerr Ave. and 4310 Shipyard Blvd. with both locations undergoing renovations. A third location is opening soon in the Murrayville area at 2307 N. College Road.
This shift was in part a response to changing gym trends, Lennon said, with more gymgoers hitting the gym for strength training.
“You still have your studios doing boot camps and stuff like that, but they’re all incorporating weight training; it’s not just all cardio like it used to be,” he said.
This observation seems to resonate with other industry professionals. Every year, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) Health and Fitness Journal conducts a worldwide survey to determine what trends those in the industry are seeing.
In 2022, more than 4,000 respondents identified wearable technology as the No.1 trend, followed by home exercise gyms and outdoor activities. The last two trends seemed to be influenced by the pandemic with people seeking out alternatives to going to the gym, according to the survey.
At No. 4, and perhaps the most influential trend for commercial gyms, is strength training with free weights. Strength training can be described as exercises that work muscles by using resistance with the goal of improving strength, endurance and for many, physical appearance.
With this shift, Lennon said he has revamped his gyms.
“Before, you’d go into a gym, and you’d have two squat racks. Well now, we have 12 squat racks because of the demand of people wanting to do exercises like squats and deadlifts,” he said.
Changes his gyms underwent included doubling the free weight area, adding more machines and equipment, a new turf area with a functional trainer and an updated Kids Zone. The gyms are also now open 24/7. With less need for cardio equipment, the gyms have allocated those areas into free weight spaces.
Lennon’s 35,000-square-foot Murrayville gym will be the new anchor tenant of the Murrayville Post Shopping Center and feature the same space and equipment as the other gyms. In addition, the parking lot at the center will be rehabbed.
Another leading trend Lennon has seen is more women opting for strength training.
“You see more women than ever, especially younger women coming in, doing squats and free weights where you would never see them do it before,” he said. “With the CrossFit generation and then social media, they’re following all these people online and doing their workouts and realizing that they’re building muscle tissue and getting leaner and the look that they want from doing free weights.
“So it’s really been a pivotal change in my opinion.”
This rise in more women interested in strength training can be seen in the Wilmington gym Women in Strength. Founded by personal trainer Mariah MacDowell, the gym opened this year.
Located at 505 S. 17th St., the gym provides one-on-one and small group training, pre-and-postnatal fitness, nutrition and more. It joins other women-focused gyms in the area including Booty Lab and Sole Fitness.
MacDowell got her personal training certification after graduating high school and received a bachelor’s degree in athletic training from the University of New Hampshire. Along the way, she found her niche in helping people reach health and fitness goals.
“I’ve learned that I am very passionate about working with women,” she said. “Especially when it comes to seeing their mindset change about the expectations that society, family/friends, or even themselves have put on them surrounding their body, fitness or eating habits.”
She’s noticed more women wanting to get into strength training versus cardio or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts.
“I love to see it and love it so much that women are starting to see that weights are incredibly beneficial and won’t make them bulky,” MacDowell said.
Having a women-focused gym allows women to be with others who have a similar mentality.
“Women are not small men – yes, when it comes to working out, men and women can and do train in similar ways, but when we dive deeper into nutrition and hormones, men and women are a bit different,” she said.
Women In Strength has a variety of strength equipment and focuses its training on using dumbbells, barbells, medicine balls, bands and more.
“I think there’s been a shift towards strength training because women are starting to see the benefits of weight training, not only physically, but mentally as well,” MacDowell said. “And I think it also comes down to empowerment of one’s body and feeling strong within yourself in many ways.”