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Gym Fear: How To Not Be Afraid of the Gym

Squat Curl Rack Gym Fear

For the longest of times, I was scared of going to the gym. I know that sounds silly to some but, having grown up as a scrawny computer geek, walking into a building full of athletic gods wasn’t my idea of a good time.

But for about as long, I wanted to lift weights. I didn’t want to remain a scrawny computer geek. I wanted to squat and bench and deadlift, and I had all the motivation in the world, but I didn’t have the mindset. Whenever I thought of going to the gym, I couldn’t help but assume:

  • I wouldn’t fit in.
  • I’d hurt myself.
  • I’d embarrass myself.

And basically, the gym wasn’t for me because I wasn’t “the sort of person” to train at the gym. I’d put myself in a box and I wouldn’t let myself out. If all of this sounds familiar though, fear not: I’ve found the solutions.

Solution #1: Consider Your Motivations

Ask yourself, “Why do I want to go to the gym?” Because not all motivations are created equal. Here, for instance, are some weak motivations:

  • An authority figure told me to.
  • Someone doesn’t like the way I look.
  • It’s the popular thing to do.

These things do motivate some people but, if you’re scared of the gym, they’re shallow reasonings that are too focused on what other people expect from you rather than what you expect from you.

In contrast, strong motivations come from within. You’re motivated to do something when there’s a compelling reason for doing it, such as:

  • I want to lift weights so I can excel at a certain sport.
  • I want to run on treadmills so I can eventually climb a mountain.
  • I want to take a yoga class to calm my mind and ease my anxiety.

You’ll also notice that these motivations are very specific. They’re not merely personal — they’re precise. You have a clear understanding of what will happen if you get yourself into a gym. There’s nothing iffy about what you want.

But to be clear, I don’t believe the right motivation is the answer to all of life’s problems. I knew why I wanted to go to the gym long before I had the courage to do so. The right motivations simply act as a good foundation. They keep you focused and let you rationalise the moments where it all seems too hard.

After a little introspection, one of three things will happen:

  • You’ll be assured of your strong motivations.
  • You’ll be compelled to fix your weak motivations.
  • You won’t be compelled to fix your weak motivations.

And while that last point sounds like a failure, it might be a sign that you shouldn’t train at the gym. Maybe you should just fix your diet and walk a lot, or maybe bodyweight exercise is a better fit. You should have a plan in place to stay healthy but the gym is only one method, and while it’s nice to conquer your fears, it’s only worth the effort if it leads you where you want to go. So being conscious of motivation doesn’t just help numb your fears. It makes you conscious of whether a fear matters to begin with.

Solution #2: Kill Ambiguity

This might be hard to swallow but you’re not actually afraid of the gym. What you’re actually afraid of is the ambiguity of the gym. You’re afraid of:

  • Not knowing what you’re doing.
  • Navigating an unfamiliar environment.
  • Having people look down at you.

But while these fears are real and need to be dealt with, they’re much easier to deal with compared to a vague fear of the gym itself. In fact, it only takes one word to describe what you need to do at this point: study. Because ambiguity’s great weakness is information.

Your mission from here on out, then, is to know as much about the gym as possible before you arrive. You should, for instance, know:

  • What you plan to do at the gym.
  • How you plan to train at the gym.
  • The best times to visit the gym.

And, really, any other information that might possibly give you an edge before you step through those front doors for the first time.

Here’s a few tips to get started:

  1. Read Strong Lifts and Starting Strength. Both provide a very clear understanding of how to lift weights and how to stay safe in the gym.
  2. Hang out in communities like /r/fitness. This is a great place to ask questions and to get a feel for gym culture.
  3. Follow pages like Awkward Gym Moments and Gym Memes on Facebook. You’ll learn what mistakes you need to avoid.

You want to immerse yourself in gym culture and understand how to use the equipment you want to use, the details of gym etiquette, and why you should never curl in the squat rack. Make it familiar before you arrive.

Also, before you head to the gym for the first time, send the gym a few emails. Ask about the quietest hours for the gym and the hidden fees during sign-up. Don’t aggravate the staff with questions Google can answer, but do use everything at your disposal to understand what you’re getting yourself into.

An awareness of your fears might not be enough to conquer them but it’s a better starting point than remaining in the dark.

Solution #3: Think Smaller

Motivational gurus encourage us to think bigger. They say ambition is our friend and, if we shoot for the moon, even if we miss, we might land amongst the stars. But while it’s a nice thought, it doesn’t apply to everything.

Ambition is good when it aligns with something you’re eager to do. In those cases, it can give you energy and lasting motivation. If you’re afraid of the gym though, you’re probably not eager to go to the gym, so being more ambitious is only going to increase how much fear you feel. It’s not the right method.

Instead, think small. Your “ambition” should be step inside the gym, train in a very small way, and leave. And that’s it.

This accomplishes three things:

  1. Your goal becomes approachable.
  2. You have a chance to experience gym culture.
  3. A lot of ambiguity evaporates into thin air.

Early on, the opposite approach would psyche me out. I’d be thinking about doing three sets of squats, three sets of the bench press, and the deadlift, and it was all too much. I was exhausted simply thinking about what I wanted to do.

Then I thought smaller and decided that, for my first time in the gym, I’d do a set of squats without any weight on the bar. This was the process:

  1. Walk into the gym.
  2. Pay for my session.
  3. Find the squat rack.
  4. Put the barbell on my back.
  5. Do a set of five reps.
  6. Give myself a mental thumbs-up.
  7. Leave.

And, if I managed that, I’d consider myself a success.

I still walked into the gym with butterflies in my stomach but I knew that the feeling wouldn’t be around for long. I’ll only be here for a couple of minutes, I thought to myself, and my fears started to fade.

Eventually, training at the gym should last more than a couple of minutes, but for now, the focus should be getting you into the gym as frequently as possible with the least amount of resistance possible. Become familiar with the gym by making it easy to become familiar, then work your way from there.

Solution #4: Act Confident

I don’t believe it’s as easy to act confident as some people suggest but I do believe it can help in tandem with the other strategies I’ve shared.

To act confident, consider what happens when we’re not confident:

  • We breathe faster.
  • We think faster — too fast.
  • We slouch.

There’s other ways we respond — and everyone is different, of course – but if we can combat these responses, we’re putting ourselves on the right track.

Breathing

To breathe confidently is to breathe slowly and through our nose. In the morning, before you visit the gym, sit quietly for a few minutes and take long, deep breaths. You can consider this meditation but there’s no need to give it a label. You’re simply giving your brain the oxygen it needs.

At the gym itself, take the time to breathe after every set of exercise. I close my eyes during this time but you can do whatever you want. You don’t need to breathe for long. Just making a conscious effort to slow your breath is enough.

Thinking

Our thoughts are perhaps the biggest problem since most of our fear stems from losing control of our mind. To deal with this:

  1. Have a precise plan. If you walk into the gym knowing exactly what you plan to do, your mind at least has a focal point to work with.
  2. Listen to music. I prefer something heavy like The White Stripes or Cage the Elephant. Whatever can block out the world around you will work fine.
  3. Do something easy. You don’t have to start off doing some complicated exercise. Just do something you know you can do.

Confidence comes from experience and the easiest way to gain experience is, again, to get yourself into the gym as frequently as possible with the least amount of resistance possible.

(We’re going to keep coming back to that same point.)

Slouching

We usually think of bad posture as coming from a lack of confidence but it also works in reverse: bad posture can cause a lack of confidence. This is something Amy Cuddy talked about in her now-famous TED talk.

With this in mind, practice “power poses” before you head to the gym:

Amy Cuddy Power Poses 500x271 Gym Fear: How To Not Be Afraid of the Gym

You might feel silly but you can do these within the privacy of your own home and, at the very least, maybe they’ll remind you to push your shoulders back as they start to droop (which is something I definitely need to work on).

Acting confident doesn’t have to involve weird psychological tricks. Treat is as a matter of physiology and you can gain a lot of ground very quickly.

Solution #5: Lose Control

I’m a control freak. I love to be the one in charge and making decisions. But not everyone likes control. A lot of people find it adds another layer of stress to their life. If that’s the case for you, control might be the source of your gym fears. And I can see why that might be the case. When you’re in control:

  • You’re wholly responsible for your mistakes.
  • You’re not being guided by someone with more experience.
  • It’s all too easy to stand out for the wrong reasons.

But, luckily, there’s a simple solution to this: seek to be controlled. You don’t have to be the one making all the decisions and, by relinquishing control, you can make your life a lot easier. Here’s how:

Train with a Friend

You might not have a friend who trains at the gym exactly how you want to train, but maybe you know someone who simply has a gym membership and doesn’t have your fears? Ask to workout with them. They might even have a guest pass to share with you if they have a membership.

Even if they’re a cardio freak and you want to lift weights, that’s fine. Run on a treadmill for an hour. The point, as always, is to get yourself into the gym. Don’t worry about executing on your long-term plans straight away.

Hire a Personal Trainer

Personal trainers are expensive and it’s hard to know for sure whether or not they know what they’re talking about, but:

  • They probably won’t get you hurt.
  • A couple of sessions will be all it takes to get used to the gym.
  • They’ll take the reigns from the get-go.

You won’t really have to do any thinking for yourself, which is perfect in this case. It’s an hour of the highly useful monkey see, monkey do.

Join a Group Class

This is my favourite option. Sign up for a low-stress group class like yoga, hide in the back, and follow along with what the teacher is doing. This involves:

  • Minimal thinking.
  • People at your ability level.
  • A gentler push against the edges of your comfort zone.

And something like yoga is actually useful. It’s a skill worth learning and experiencing outside of your quest to conquer gym fear.

Ultimately, the goal with these methods is to remove conscious thought from the process. You want to become robot-like, almost, so you’re getting exposure in the gym without an overwhelming amount of anxiety.

You do eventually have to take control – the gym should be a proactive environment – but there’s no rule that says you have to start that way.

Solution #6: Expect Setbacks

The only thing worse than something going wrong is something going wrong and catching you off-guard. The surprise makes it so much more painful.

With this in mind, expect things to go wrong and expect things to go wrong in a precise way. Define the worst-case scenario and ask yourself: “What’s the worst that could happen?”

This isn’t meant to be reverse psychology though. I’m not trying to trick you into realising that there’s nothing bad that can happen at the gym. That would be a lie. Bad and uncomfortable things can happen at the gym. The point is to be aware of these things so they can be dealt with (and prepared for).

Get out a pen and paper and write down your scariest, gym-based nightmares. Do you make a fool of yourself? Does a cliché gym douchebag say mean things to you? Do you hurt yourself? Write it all down.

When these fears are sitting right in front of you, two things happen:

  1. The most extreme ones start appearing at least a little silly.
  2. The less extreme ones become more real but easier to deal with.

If, for instance, you make a fool of yourself in front of other people, leave the gym. Or move to a different section. You’ll feel awkward for a moment but it’s not hard to plan an escape route.

If a cliché gym douchebag says mean things to you, report them to the gym. You can do it anonymously via email if you want. They won’t be around much longer after that. Gyms have a hard enough time making themselves appear friendly.

And if you’re worried about hurting yourself, spend more time studying how to train before stepping into a gym. So many injuries come from simple ignorance rather that the method of training actually being dangerous.

The last thing I want is to make the gym seem like some friction-free zone. But I do believe most friction can be avoided, and that starts by being conscious of it.

Solution #7: Be Persistent

Persistence, I feel, is the great equaliser. You can make mistakes, have fears, and repeatedly expect to fail, but if you keep work toward a precise goal that doesn’t require external validation, it’s a matter of time before you reach it. I know it sounds trite but the only true failure is to stop trying.

On the practical side of things, persistence must be aligned with priority. You need to make “overcome fear of the gym” one of the most important things in your life. This means you should always be:

  1. Learning more about the gym.
  2. Taking small steps toward the gym.
  3. Reminding yourself of your core purpose.

From there, a little inspiration can’t hurt. I’m not fond of cutesy phrasings but some quotes instil a fire in your belly, like this one from Winston Churchill:

Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

For more of this, On the Shortness of Life never fails to kick me in the butt and keep me on track, as does the wondrous tome that is Meditations.

Conclusion

Throughout this post, I’ve thrown a lot of words and ideas at you and, at this point, you might be unsure of where you should go from here. Let’s focus on the key points:

  1. Consider why you want to go to the gym in the first place.
  2. Don’t let anything about the gym remain unclear to you.
  3. Set a small goal to get yourself in the gym as a starting point.
  4. Make the most of physiological tricks to boost your confidence.
  5. Let someone take charge so you’re not overwhelmed with responsibility.
  6. Expect things to go wrong, allowing yourself to prepare for them.
  7. Don’t give in at any point. Grit your teeth and just keep going.

A blog post alone can’t conquer your fears but the strategies are sound. They worked for me and I’m sure they can work for you. Also feel free to ask questions in the comments and I’ll be glad to answer them.

2 comments… add one

  • Hiatt Bean May 3, 2014, 1:50 pm

    Hi David, I’ve been a huge fan of the blog for 2 years now back when you were 3ds blog not 3ds rumors. I have a passion for video games and I consider them a hobby. I am also a personal trainer and fitness model. This really helped me see why some of my friends and clients are afraid to go to the gym when it never made since to me because I have been doing it for so long. I can assure you that the best thing you can do is just keep going and as you said confidently. I myself have done exercises using improper form and to be honest no one usually really cares its all in the head. Thanks for the post it gave me some good insight.

    • David Turnbull May 3, 2014, 2:46 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, man, and also happy to hear the advice was useful for a personal trainer. :)

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