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The Evolution Of Gym Culture

From the era of Mr Universe and body building in the 80s to the Jane Fonda-led aerobics revival and the ultra-thin 90s yogi: How gym culture has evolved through the decades…

No pain, no gain has long been the mantra for fitness fans but if you’re working hard when working out, that doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun too.

The need to marry exercise with enjoyment has led to various fitness crazes over the decades from Jane Fonda’s aerobics classes to Zumba taking over the world.

Meanwhile, changes in technology and body image have also influenced fitness fads, while people increasingly want to know how to burn calories in minimal time.

Here, we look back at how gym culture has changed with some trends you may remember fondly… and others you may wish to forget…


Back in the Eighties Simon Cowell’s best friend Sinitta was a pop star who had a hit with ‘So Macho’ – and that’s exactly what men hitting the gym in the decade wanted to be.

Inspired by muscular action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme, men wanted to beef up by body building. This meant pumping iron for hours at the gym using machines and heavy weights to do bench presses, deadlifts, squats, cleans and leg curls.

This was coupled with a high protein diet, low carb diet, full of steaks, eggs and lots of milk. The bulkier the better was the aim to achieve rock hard pecs, beefy biceps and super strong quads.

While for some the desire to bodybuild was to achieve a toned physique they could show off in tight T-shirts, for others it was aspirational – after all, Arnie had gone from being a little known winner of Mr Universe to an in-demand Hollywood leading man thanks to his body building.

Meanwhile, the women of the decade were also inspired by a Hollywood star – Jane Fonda. She rose to fame in the Sixties in films including Tall Story and Barbarella and then turned fitness guru in the Eighties when she launched her first exercise video.

Women, who may have been put off going to the gym thanks to those Mr Universe beefcakes making it feel like a male domain, embraced Jane Fonda’s Workout.

Her best-selling aerobic-based exercise routine encouraged viewers to ‘feel the burn’ and raise their heart rate while toning the muscles with leg raises and arm reaches. They were encouraged all the way by a leotard-clad Fonda, who sparked a fashion trend for women working out in bright leg warmers with matching belts.


In the nineties, aerobics literally stepped up as Step classes became all the rage. These involved various moves using a small step and workouts could be done at home or in group gym classes.

Meanwhile, Mr Motivator became famous for putting viewers through their paces with his breakfast TV appearances and the ‘Thigh Master’ was the must-have piece of equipment everyone who wanted for shapely legs.

The end of the decade saw the rise of super slim yogis who swore doing sun salutations and holding poses like the downward facing dog, tree and half cobra were the secret to good health and wellbeing.

Celebrities like Madonna and Geri Halliwell fuelled the trend as they were evangelical about the benefits of yoga.

Geri transformed herself into a self help yoga guru after she left the Spice Girls, telling viewers of her Geri Body Yoga DVD: ‘Yoga is about changing your body and mind from the inside out, teaching you focus, understanding, destressing, detoxing and of course toning your body.’


Two fitness classes truly took off in the noughties and remain popular today – Zumba and Spinning.

The Latin-inspired Zumba dance workout started in Colombia and spread around the world as people got their groove on to work up a sweat in time to music. The success of Strictly Come Dancing, which began in 2004, also led to gyms offering a number of other Latin and ballroom-related dance classes to help people get fit.

Spinning had been invented decades earlier in a garage in California but soared in popularity in the noughties as more people starting jumping on static bikes in group sessions for a heart racing, quad burning workout.

Inspired by the feats of long distance runners Paula Radcliffe and Haile Gebreselassie, running also started to become more popular with soaring demand for entries in mass participation races like the London Marathon and many hit the treadmills at gyms to get their training in.

This kind of cardio-based workout was believed to be the best way to stay in shape.

Meanwhile Michael Cunico Head of Fitness and Head of Personal Training at Fitness First, said the introduction of Crossfit in the noughties ‘had a huge impact on the fitness industry’. At times a polarising topic in the fitness industry, CrossFit did highlight the benefits of strength training with intensity.

He said: ‘Crossfit put more barbells in people’s hands than ever before (including women) and this had a significant impact on how people trained. Suddenly your local health club, which maybe had one or two squat racks previously that were occasionally used, had a line up for people to practise their squats and deadlifts. This was an extremely positive thing as previously the weights room was the domain of the boys.’


Following on from Crossfit, weight training for men and women has remained popular this decade, with the aim of achieving a toned physique that’s not as bulky as the Eighties Mr Universe look.

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) – doing short bursts of exercise for a short amount of time with a short recovery inbetween – has also become hugely popular.

Explaining why, Michael said: ‘It is most likely due to the effectiveness of this style of training regardless of your training goals, i.e. fat loss, maintaining muscle mass or improving cardiovascular capacity.

‘There is research to suggest that this style of training is more effective than long, steady state cardiovascular training. This style of training is more efficient as well, getting more done in less time which is an attractive option in our very busy society.’

Social media has added another new element to gym culture as people now share their workouts and gym selfies on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

While some may find it boastful, others can find it inspiring and Michael says this can be a good thing to help get people motivated to improve their health and fitness.

He said, ‘It can be positive and place training options and programs on peoples phones, making training accessible wherever you are.’

‘Once they start and begin to see the impact this style of training has on their physique it then inspires other woman to try it as well. Social media has also put this style of training in front of people who previously didn’t think there was that much benefit to resistance training.’

Article sponsored by Fitness First, written by Lucy Waterlow for MailOnline. Image from Fitness First.

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