For a long time, I was afraid of the gym. To some people, this might sound silly, but as a scrawny computer geek, the idea of walking into a building full of beefed-up man-beasts was an unpleasant one.
Whenever I thought about going to the gym, I couldn’t help but assume:
- I wouldn’t fit in.
- I’d hurt myself.
- I’d embarass myself.
Basically, the gym wasn’t for me because I wasn’t “the sort of person” to visit a gym.
But I desperately wanted to lift weights. I wanted to squat and bench and deadlift, and one day be less of a scrawny computer geek. Even so, there was this gap between how I saw myself and who I wanted to be, and I wasn’t sure how to close that gap.
If all of this sounds familiar, fear not:
I’ve found the solutions.
1. Start by training at home
My greatest mistake was approaching the gym with an “all or nothing” mindset. The gym, I knew, would be the most effective place for me to train, so because training at home would be less effective, I simply did nothing.
As I’ve since learned though, a wonderful thing about being a beginner is “beginner gains”. This term refers to the fact that, when you’re a beginner, doing anything to improve your strength and fitness will have a significant impact. Eventually, you’ll reach a point of diminishing returns, where you’ll need to train more effectively to make consistent progress, but if you’ve never trained on a consistent basis, that point is a while away.
With this in mind, don’t wait to overcome your fear of the gym before you start training. You can make a ton of progress with a pair of cheap, adjustable dumbbells. Throw in a pull-up bar (or some gymnastic rings, if you’re feeling fancy) and your upper-body at least can develop at an impressive rate. Training your legs at home can be difficult, but doing goblet squats on a daily basis will at least prepare you for heavier squat movements.
The side-effect of this is that, once you’ve spent a few weeks or months training at home, you’re going to feel a lot more confident about your physical condition, which will make the gym seem less intimidating. Plus, you’ll have developed your technique in a handful of exercises, which means when you do show up at the gym, you won’t be standing around aimlessly, doe-eyed and unsure of what you should be doing.
2. Understand what not to do
If you want to be invisible in the gym, don’t annoy anyone. If you’re not stepping on people’s toes — literally or metaphorically — it’s much easier to blend in with the scenery and train in peace.
But I don’t want to make it seem like gym goers are one misstep away from hulking out in your direction. I’ve made significant mistakes before, such as unloading a barbell incorrectly and dropping 200+ pounds of weight plates onto a tiled floor, and no one has ever scolded me. Most people are at the gym to zone out and train. They’re not looking for a fight. But if you’re aware of the most common pet peeves at the gym, you will greatly reduce the odds of ending up in an uncomfortable situation.
Typically, these are some things you should avoid:
- Adding weight plates to a barbell but not putting those weight plates back where they came from when you’re done.
- Dripping your sweat across a bench or machine and not wiping it down with a towel when you’re done.
- Claiming multiple pieces of equipment at once.
- Resting for absurdly long periods of time while you browse the web on your phone. (Rest is an important part of training, but it’s rare that you’ll need to rest for more than 3-5 minutes.)
- Getting in the way of other people (especially if they’re lifting heavy weights, as being too close to them can be dangerous).
- Wasting time with equipment that you don’t know how to use. (If you don’t know how to use something, either ask for help or use something else. Don’t just fiddle around with the equipment with a confused look on your face.)
- Using the squat rack for an exercise that doesn’t require a squat rack (such as curls or deadlifts).
This might sound like a lot to remember, but it’s simpler than it seems. The trick is to stay focused. If you visit the gym with a specific plan and don’t get distracted by your phone, you’re most of the way there. The majority of people who irritate others at the gym are generally ignorant and careless. They treat the gym as their own, personal space, rather than a communal space. The very fact that you’re reading these words probably means you don’t fall into that category.
3. Do your research
Ignorance — and specifically, the uncertainty that stems from ignorance — is a huge source of fear. If you walk into a gym without a clue as to what you’re doing, you’re going to be more afraid than someone who does. This might sound obvious, and yet people still make the mistake of just showing up to the gym and trying to figure it out as they go. Aside from being an ineffective way to learn, it’s also unnecessary. We’re in the information age, so no matter what you want to learn, you can learn it without expending a lot of effort.
At a minimum:
- Read the Starting Strength book.
- Read everything on the Stronger by Science website.
- Watch the most popular videos from Athlean-X.
You might also want to start spending some time on various fitness sub-reddits, such as:
Just make sure to take everything you read with a grain of salt, as some of the least-informed people can have the most vocal opinions.
As for personal trainers, they can be useful, but they’re hit and miss. You might end up with an incredible trainer who understands your needs, or you might find some guy just going through the motions. With this in mind, even if you do work with a trainer, that’s not an excuse to not study this stuff outside of those training sessions. You need to know enough to understand whether or not you’re working with someone who knows their stuff.
4. Start small
The first time you go to a gym, don’t try to survive a full 40-60 minute training session, or cycle through a range of different exercises. Instead, only commit to doing a single, relatively simple exercise (such as pull-ups or dumbbell curls), and then leave. The specific exercise doesn’t matter. The point is that you pick an exercise that you feel comfortable doing.
Repeat this process a few times during your first week, each time attempting a different exercise, and you’ll soon feel comfortable with showing up to the gym and pursuing your full training plan.
This strategy might sounds silly, but don’t underestimate its power. It’s a core part of cognitive behavioural therapy, which is used to help people overcome much more life-affectiong anxieties. It works by basically vaccinating yourself against fear. You experience your anxiety in a small, controlled dose, and over time your comfort zone begins to grow. Soon enough, the thing that made your palms sweaty just doesn’t seem as overwhelming anymore.
5. Start easy
If you’re afraid of the gym, your goal should be to overcome that fear. You don’t have to necessarily commit to any specific training plan right away. If you try to do both, it can make it more difficult to do either.
With this in mind, for the time being, it doesn’t actually matter what you do at the gym, as long as you walk through those front doors and do something.
Maybe, for instance, you eventually want to lift weights and get ripped. That’s great. But if the idea of lifting weights is intimidating, that’s also fine. You don’t have to lift weights right now. You might find it easier to get yourself into the gym if you set your sights on the treadmill or the elliptical.
The point is to do whatever you can to get yourself into the gym and feeling comfortable with the environment. You’ll find that your comfort levels increase surprisingly quick, and that’s when you can switch your attention to your overarching goals.
6. Have a backup plan
If you show up to the gym with a training plan, but the equipment you need to use is currently taken, what do you do?
How you answer this question doesn’t really matter. It’s just important that you have an answer, as standing around aimlessly can be a painfully uncomfortable experience.
In my case, pull-ups are my backup plan. If I want to squat, for instance, but the squat rack is taken, I do pull-ups. That’s because there’s almost always some kind of pull-up bar available and they’re an exercise that can be safely done in bulk. Another good option though is to pick up a pair of dumbbells and either do curls, overhead presses, or lateral raises. They’re fun exercises that probably won’t interfere with the rest of your training, and most gyms have enough dumbbells that you’ll always have some ready to go.
7. Visit the gym at off-peak-times
Generally, the busiest (and therefore, the worst) times to visit the gym are during lunch, after work hours, and on the weekend. These are also the most convenient times to visit, but for your first handful of visits, a little inconvenience — such as visiting the gym before work or school, or (very) late at night — can ensure that you don’t feel suffocated by larger crowds.
The exact peak and off-peak times of a gym though will depend on that gym’s location and demographic, so it’s worth Googling that gym to see if the “Popular times” widget appears, which should reveal the best times to visit that gym.
If the Google listing doesn’t display the “Popular times” widget, simply email the gym and ask them when their quietest hours are.
8. Join a boutique gym
The worst gyms are typically the chain gyms, like 24-Hour Fitness, Fitness First, and Anytime Fitness. They’re big, crowded, loads, and attract the least considerate members who are only there because of the coupon they received in the mail. That why, if possible, it’s worth signing up to a “boutique” gym. These are basically gyms that cost more money but offer a quieter, more relaxed environment.
One great example of a boutique gym is Me Fitness Studios in Portland, Oregon, where I trained for a couple of months back in 2013. It wasn’t the cheapest option available, but the members were typically older and quieter than what I’ve seen at other gyms.
If you can’t afford the ongoing cost of one of these gyms, that’s fair enough. Chain gyms are certainly more practical in terms of cost and accessibility. But even if you pay the premium price for just a month or two, it’s a great way to get used to training at a gym before entering into a more hectic environment.
9. Write down everything you’re afraid of
If you go to the gym, what might go wrong? What are the scariest possible things that might happen? Does a meathead say something mean to you? Do you make a fool of yourself? Do you drop a heavy weight on your foot?
Write down your fears on a piece of paper. You’ll notice that, once your fears are listed in front of you, you’ll notice that they’re either completely absurd or, if they’re not absurd, then they have straight-forward solutions (such as, “If you don’t want to drop a heavy weight on your foot, don’t pick up a heavy weight”).
Writing down your fears is not enough to eliminate them entirely, but having them explicitly stated does make them more approachable.