- Plurality of U.S. adults (36.5%) claim that “abs and core” training is more challenging than other body parts
- Women have more difficulty training legs, glutes, and arms than men
- Men have more difficulty training chest than women
- Respondents aged 55 and over report much greater difficulty training their back than younger adults
- Gender-based stereotypes and beauty standards seem to have a large effect size on perceived training difficulties between men and women
- No significant geographical variations to training challenges exist within the U.S.
According to a new nationwide survey published on January 31, 2022, U.S. adults find that abdominal and “core” muscle training are more difficult than any other body part-specific fitness training. These findings hold true across demographic groups, including men and women of all ages, and also across geographical regions.
Figure 1. Source: Google Surveys
More interesting, however, are the age-based variations in survey responses. Among those aged 45 and older, back training difficulties are reported at significantly higher rates. This likely reflects the fact that as many as 65 million Americans report a recent back pain experience. Worse yet, approximately 16 million Americans (8% of all adults) suffer from debilitating chronic back pain.
Although geographical differences in self-reported training difficulties were found to be non-existent, gender-based variations emerged in the data. In general, women were more likely to cite difficulties with leg and glute training, whereas men cited chest training difficulties in higher numbers.
January 2022 Survey: 29.8% of Adults Aged 55+ Cite Back Training Difficulties
Analysts at Gymless, a free educational resource dedicated to bodyweight fitness, recently launched a nationwide survey that found that nearly one-third of U.S. adults aged 55 or older experience significant difficulty with back (upper-body posterior) training. The question put forward was written as follows:
“Which part of your body do you find the most challenging to work out?”
Data was collected between January 21 and January 23, 2022, and included 1,413 survey participants after weighting for demographic representation. The results found that abdominal and core training are, across all groups, the most likely exercise types to cause difficulties.
However, back training issues are particularly prominent among older respondents. The chart below (Fig. 2) demonstrates that close to 30 percent of participants aged 55 or older cite that back training is more difficult than training any other part of the body.
Figure 2: Results filtered to display responses from only those aged 55+
These findings are statistically significant, and raise questions about the nature of aging on fitness. For instance, compare the responses of those aged 55 and older (Fig. 2) with those aged 18-34 in the graph below (Fig. 3). Only 22.6% of the latter group claim that back training is the most difficult.
Figure 3: Results filtered to display responses from only those aged 18-34
Back Pain and Training Difficulties in Older Adults
Medical research has long proclaimed that older adults experience chronic or transitory back pain at rates much higher than the general population. In particular, rates of lower back pain (LBP) have been demonstrated to increase year-over-year as one enters old age. Often, untreated LBP results in disability or partial debilitation of movement.
In one study, it was found that an astounding 58% of those aged 77 years experienced chronic LBP. This is a testament to the wide extent that back-related pain issues affect older populations.
Given that older populations are much more likely to experience chronic LBP and back-related health issues, it makes sense that they report back training difficulty in higher numbers. It stands to reason, therefore, that LBP treatments and therapies may assist in remedying back training issues.
Abs and Core Training: What Explains the Difficulties?
What’s less understood is why abdominal training is universally seen as difficult. All age and gender groups found that “core” training (e.g., abdominals and obliques) presented more difficulties than any other body part. In fact, 36.5% (a plurality) of all survey respondents agreed that ab and core training was the most difficult.
Anecdotally, it’s been well-documented that ab exercises are simply hard to perform. Many gym-goers find that abdominal crunches and other exercises designed to target the flexion of the rectus abdominus cause discomfort in one’s midsection or back.
It’s also likely that many exercisers feel disappointment with core training due to aesthetic pressures. Since many athletes deeply desire visible abdominals (i.e., “six-pack abs”), it may be aggravating or frustrating to train these muscles while still having one’s abs invisible due to higher subcutaneous body fat levels.
Gender Differences: How Do Men and Women Compare?
Of those who answered that leg and glute training was the most difficult, 60.4% were women. By contrast, those who claimed that chest training presented the greatest difficulty consisted mostly of men, at 64.3% of respondents.
On average, women have more difficulty training legs, glutes, abs and core than men. Among female respondents, 39.9% cited that abs and core were the most difficult. Men were considerably less likely to cite abs and core as the most difficult body part for training, at 32.9%.
Figure 4: Male-only results
Below (Fig. 5), we’ve filtered the survey results to only display responses from female-identifying participants. There are sizable differences in response sizes between genders that largely correspond to societal beauty standards and gender-based stereotypes.
Figure 5: Female-only results
Gender-Based Stereotypes and Beauty Standards
Equally interesting is that 12.4% of men claimed that their arms were the most difficult body part for training, compared to only 7% of women. This mirrors the difference in response size between men and women who claim that legs and glutes are most difficult; however, it’s women who report greater frustration and difficulty with leg and glute training.
It stands to reason that gender-based stereotypes play a major role in determining which body parts are difficult to train. Women, who experience greater societal pressure to develop muscular glutes and legs, cite more difficulty in training these body parts. The same is true of men with their frustration in training arms, for whom large, muscular arms are a sign of virility and masculinity.
In sum, it would appear that gender-based beauty standards have a large effect not only on training preferences but also on how difficulties are perceived in the gym.
The survey recruited 1,516 participants using convenience sampling. However, 87 respondents were automatically excluded from the final results by Google Surveys in order to fairly weigh the responses across demographic categories, resulting in 1,413 final responses.
All survey respondents were sourced by Google Surveys and consisted of users on the AdMob Network. Users had the option of participating in the survey in exchange for in-app rewards. The population pool spanned every U.S. state and region, including Hawaii and Alaska.
After weighting adjustments, among those who participated in the survey, 727 identified as female whereas 744 identified as male. Survey responses were collected over a 48-hour period commencing on January 21, 2022, and were submitted via an online portal hosted by Google Surveys.
Some limitations did find their way into the survey. For instance, calf muscles (consisting of the gastrocnemius and the soleus in the lower rear portion of the leg) were omitted from inclusion in the survey as their own response category. This may well have biased some of the results, as calves are seen as notoriously difficult to train by many athletes. Notably, “shoulders” (i.e., deltoids) were omitted as their own response category as well.
Study Details and RMSE Score
- Audience: Users of the Google Surveys Publisher Network
- Method: Representative
- Age: 18+
- Gender: All genders
- Location: United States
- Language: English
- Frequency: Once
Figure 2. Source: Google Surveys
Root mean square error (RMSE) is a weighted average of the difference between the predicted population sample (CPS) and the actual sample (Google). The lower the number, the smaller the overall sample bias.
Conclusion: Calisthenics a Suitable Solution?
These survey results point to three central conclusions. First, older adults (aged 55 and older) experience far greater difficulties with training back muscles (e.g., latissimus dorsi, erector spinae) than younger respondents, likely due to chronic back pain issues. Second, gender-based stereotypes influence training difficulties between genders. Third, ab and core training is universally perceived to be the most difficult part of the body to train.
Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions to gender-based issues. However, difficulties in ab and back training may be remedied by experimenting with new and innovative training styles. Bodyweight training, such as calisthenics, can provide a low-impact alternative to traditional weight training that makes back training gentler on joints and soft tissues. With calisthenics, athletes can minimize pain and discomfort when training.
Those who are stuck at an impasse in their training regimen—whether they’ve reached a roadblock in their back, ab and core, or any other part of their fitness journey—are encouraged to try calisthenics. To get started today, contact the head fitness coach at Gymless, Pat Chadwick, for a free calisthenics consultation.
I’m Pat Chadwick, a qualified Level 2 and Level 3 calisthenics coach and athlete from London, England, with six years of experience. I’ve competed in various UK competitions, including the Kalos Stenos Championships, where I achieved third place in the lightweight category. My passion is highlighting the beauty of calisthenics as an authentic and pure form of body expression. I believe that everyone has the potential to become a champion of their body and mind, and that calisthenics opens the door to personal empowerment.