The day has finally arrived and you are a spectrum of emotions: Excited for a change in your life; hopeful for positive transformation; eager to improve your health, and yet FROZEN WITH FEAR at the thought of finally purchasing a membership at this strange place known worldwide as “the gym.”
When you first walk into the place it could almost give you sensory overload. There are almost too many sights and sounds to take in to make sense of it all. From all the strange and complicated looking machines, the constant “clink” of metal plates on those machines making contact, the humming of the cardio machines along with the soft thuds of feet running on treadmills, the racks of barbell plates (all different sizes with numbers on them) all over, the grunt of someone straining in the background on every rep, the trainer in the corner counting reps and loudly “motivating” their client, someone in front of the mirror taking their gym selfies, and several of the gym members doing weird movements that you have never seen in your life.
You stand there for a moment and think to yourself:
“What the hell am I getting myself into?”
You are not alone. Many of us, if not all of us, have had that feeling in some way when we first walked through that door.
Granted, for many of us it’s a lot more nerve-wrecking when we don’t have any kind of athletic or fitness background and feeling self-conscious because we’re out of shape. Understandably it’s very normal to feel out of place because you have taken a step outside of your comfort zone to be at this strange place where you have to confront your fears. But to take it a step further, its understandable that many new gym members, even you probably have felt like all eyes were on you – judging your appearance and mocking your inexperience. You’re not comfortable in your own skin, adding to the fact that comfortable workout clothing doesn’t make it any easier to hide. You have the feeling that every muscle head, vain leggings girl, selfie taker, HIIT maniac, and even the trainers are all scrutinizing every detail about you, from your head down to your sneakers.
Then….. you actually try to do a few exercises on machines that look like they were conceived from a torture chamber. You’re not sure which machines you should use, how much resistance to use, or how to even move it properly. You slip onto a simpler looking machine like a chest or leg press when someone is done with it, as covertly as possible and just try to emulate what that previous guy did for a few reps.
To top that off, the trainers might be the biggest jerks of all. It’s their livelihood to be super fit, and some have never struggled with any significant weight loss or health challenges (or dealt with them in quite a while). Which leads them to turn cold, cynical and unempathetic. They’ll only be nice or helpful if you’re their client, and even while you are paying them they’re still condescending.
Let’s go another step further that many people deal with – falling off the wagon and making a return to the gym after several weeks or even months of being inactive. You were making such good progress with workout frequency, lost a few pounds, increased your strength and even had some muscles shaping up. Then for whatever reason (job duties, family responsibilities, financial trouble, dating, injury, sickness, etc.) you lost your momentum and all work is down the drain. You feel a little embarrassed to make it back to the gym because the gym crew that saw you there previously might notice you’ve been gone, and even worse, that you’ve returned to your original point from where you started. It’s a total mind-job to build that consistency back up, to reconcile with the returned extra weight and loss of strength, and……. everything hurts like a beginner, again. After your first few weeks during your first season the initial soreness after a workout eventually plateaus. But now that you’re starting up again you have to get used to feeling like you got hit by a truck for yet another workout phase. And it sucks.
Additionally, even if you ever feel like you have reached an optimal level of fitness; if you’re not careful there is always the insecurity of always feeling like you must measure up to the other fit people in the gym. I myself have constantly peeked over at someone that’s stronger, or bigger, or leaner, or does cooler exercises, or is more flexible than I am.
Now then………what can you do about this gymtimidation?
The main principle of overcoming it is to raise your level of comfort going there. If you would describe your feeling every time you walk through the door as “mortifying” then let’s improve it to “tolerable.” At that point it won’t be such a mental battle to get yourself there. Once you can move past tolerable to anything remotely pleasant, positive or even enjoyable, then you have succeeded.
But, here’s a little real talk before you get into nuts and bolts……so I’ll start with three sayings I tend to refer to from time to time:
“Never compare your worst to someone else’s best”
If you think someone else is stronger or has achieved a more desirable aesthetic than you have, then chances are – you are correct! And you know what? Who cares? They earned it. But you can and will earn it too. Don’t make the mistake of weighing the differences of their years of hard work, with your struggle to build up some consistent effort to get moving. Let you worry about you!
“Everyone was once a beginner”
No one is born knowing how to walk, talk, drive, perform vocational skills, or even have sex (yeah, I said it!). And for damn sure, no one knows how to exercise or lift weights until they learn from a source.
I myself started lifting when I was 16 in my sophomore weight training class in high school. All we had was a bench press, squat rack, and a few old cable machines. I barely learned from what my teacher told us to do and from watching everyone else. However, it was enough to get me rolling. Over the course of the next 26 years I would continue to learn and improve my technique. Even today as a professional trainer and award-winning competitor, I AM STILL LEARNING. You will learn as well.
“Suck it up, buttercup!”
It has been often meme’d in various forms “suffer the pain of discipline or suffer the pain of regret.” Like so:
Considering this, working with many people that deal with gymtimidation, I am very empathetic to the fact that going to the gym can be scary and intimidating. Keep in mind that every worthwhile goal that pushes you outside of your comfort zone will scare you, since doing something new and unfamiliar surrounds you with new rules, new people and new experiences. You also need to weigh the cons of your fear in contrast to the pros of all that you will accomplish with yourself. If you can get yourself moving forward by motivating yourself with the pros instead of the cons, then that is mental toughness. So get it done.
As a bonus, consider that not everyone is watching you. Some people are too self-absorbed to notice, and others are trying to blend in themselves.
All that being said – the following five suggestions are ideas to guide you along. They are not guarantees, but…….
- If you have the finances to do so, then hire a trainer. I’m not trying to sound self-serving here (well………. maybe a little!) but the adjustment to this new lifestyle change could be overwhelming and you may need a professional to make sense of it all for your needs. Even if it’s just for a small bundle of sessions you can get a trainer’s help to learn how to move properly and to set realistic goals. A lot of people have been burned by subpar trainers in the past. There are trainers that are snobs, and that fat shame, or are inexperienced, or torture everyone with the same impossible workout, or can’t relate to older populations, or are just condescending in general. I’ve met some of them and have heard many stories of others. Yet there are many solid, professional and capable trainers that are empathetic, knowledgeable, honest and that practice what they preach.
Never, ever just start working (and paying) with any trainer based on their appearance. Try to get a consultation with a few trainers, check out their social media, and when you do talk to them, ask them a few questions about themselves. Follow your instincts when you think you’ve found a good match your yourself. If you are a member at a gym that just assigns you a trainer after a sales presentation, and that trainer is horrible, please do yourself a favor and complain and ask to be switched to someone else. Aside from the knowledge and accountability you would gain with from a trainer, it would also allow you to have some camaraderie with someone else at the gym, and that relationship could potentially lead to more connections at the gym. If you are starting out I do recommend that you work with a trainer that you must meet in person and not an online trainer. Online training is for people that have developed a consistent habit of working out but need to reboot or tweak their routines. However if you are in the Bay Ridge or Sunset Park area of Brooklyn, New York, look me up and we can set up a consultation:
2. If your budget is not flexible enough for you to hire a trainer, then prepare yourself with knowledge. Every single person that endeavors to be more fit should be educating themselves, even in the smallest of ways. TAKE THE TIME to do your research about exercise and movement, about nutrition, about gym culture, or even about the human body in general. Search for blogs and videos on anything and everything fitness related.
Just a little warning here: There is an abundance of information online about fitness and nutrition and there are a lot of well-meaning but misinformed enthusiasts passing out flawed information. As you come across various topics, make mental notes about recurring themes and ideas, as those are key principles that you should stick to. Especially check out videos on YouTube about exercise machines, gym etiquette and workout philosophy. The more you equip yourself with those tidbits and immediately APPLY them, the less fearsome all that fancy equipment and those muscle heads will appear. Here is a previous link that has some detailed suggestions about how to sift through the fitness info maze:
YT: https: https://www.youtube.com/c/jptotalfitnessny
3. Go out of your way and make two friends at the gym. Some of you introverts are already convulsing at the thought of it. Isn’t going to the gym frustrating enough already? But hear me out……
Relationships are one of, if not the foundational element of any social experience or worthy endeavor. Some of you may be petrified at the thought of meeting people. But being alone at the gym is already torture enough. Reach out to someone that you either see regularly at the gym that seems approachable, and if possible that has a similar physical condition or stature, and possibly similar goals to yours. I’ll even lend you a few ice-breaker statements to start conversation:
“What do you think of that machine?” (equipment they just used or any random piece for that matter)
“I see you here often……you’re dedicated!”
“What are you working on today?”
Then, if you are daring, reach out and try to be familiar with someone that is at the next level of fitness where you want to be, and appears approachable. That acquaintance will serve as an inspiration of what to strive for. If you’re fortunate enough, that person will be encouraging. Like our parents used to say “you are who your friends are” – so naturally, fit people are friends with other fit people.
Just a warning to you males: don’t try this on the ladies there. Girls have a harder time getting used to gym culture because they get hit on as well, so don’t be a flirty douchebag.
As a last resort try bringing a friend to sign up at the gym with you. Prioritize the times you will meet to go there together and text or e-mail your goals to each other. Try getting a friend who wouldn’t normally go to the gym to go with you. Having someone waiting on you can lead you to be more likely to go workout. Plus, you can chat to each other and ignore any haters.
4. Admit to yourself that there are jerks in the gym and do everything in your power to ignore their looks and remarks. People that body-shame do so because they are insecure with themselves and must put others down to validate themselves. I’ve once heard it said that there’s only two ways to own the biggest building in town: tear all the other buildings down or build one up that dwarfs the others. Those shamers choose to tear other down, and it reflects their lack of character and poor sense of themselves. So put on some headphones, keep your eyes on your weights and burn it up!
5. Another strategy may be to find times during the week to get to the gym when it’s not crowded there – but within reason to your schedule.
We all have lives. For many of us, the two non-negotiables for our time is work and family. Could you possible find a time in your schedule to get a workout in at the gym when it’s not busy, make it a priority, make it a plan, and take the effort to go? After some concentrated effort, you just might find that you like your new time slot – free from all the hubbub. Find out from the gym staff or other members when the ideal times to come in to workout might be. You might have to adjust your workout routine a bit to get enough time for a burn. Consider doing 30-45 circuit training sessions or supplementing your lifting with shorter and more intense cardio.
But, even if all of these don’t work out for you and you’re stuck with a membership at a cold and callous environment, try another gym. Check out a few and make sure the staff provides a tour of the facility. When you see a gym that looks doable then sign up for a short-term membership with an option to extend to purchase a longer one. But if that doesn’t work out it’s possible that a conventional gym just isn’t for you. Believe me, that is not a bad thing. Many people really find their groove with boot camp & HITT classes or boutique training studios. Granted, many of those places may require more of a financial investment on your part, and you might have to adjust your fitness goals. Lastly, if all else doesn’t work out, you can always keep moving with home workouts. I did those for years. It’s not the same as having all the equipment in the gym at your disposal but with a few key pieces of resistance tools you can stay strong and in shape. It also depends on how much space you have, and if you’re in an apartment if your neighbors will complain from any jumping. I had one of those combination bench press/lat pulldown/leg extension benches for years, along with a barbell, dumbbells, 5 to 50 lb plates, and some resistance bands in my bedroom (later my hallway) for years and I made it work way before I became a trainer.
Ultimately it is my hope that you overcome your fears, face your insecurities and bloom where you’re planted.