Yesterday I walked into a new gym for the first time and found myself filled with an all-too-familiar sense of dread and a flood of panicked questions overwhelmed my little gym-going brain: where is the leg press? Do they have a hack squat machine? Do the people here think I look like an idiot? Does everyone know I have no idea where anything is/no idea what I’m doing? (And where are the good selfie mirrors?)
I was reminded immediately of the first time I ever stepped into the first “real” gym that I joined, and how long it took me to get comfortable. I didn’t even know that they had a hack squat machine until I had been going there for a good six months because there was an entire section dominated by scary-looking meatheads who I just knew were secretly making fun of me and laughing at me from the second I walked into the gym to the time I left, so I didn’t bother venturing over there (also I didn’t even know what a hack squat machine was for the first like five months that I went there lol). A couple of times, I wandered over to the “meathead” section, looked around, considered the pros and cons of lifting near these terrifying creatures, and quickly scurried away red-faced and painfully shy, opting to save myself the embarrassment of making it obvious that I had no idea what in the heck I was doing, where anything was located, or what anything was actually called.
I was incredibly captivated by and drawn to the idea of lifting weights, but, for a long time, I chose to placate fear, anxiety, and insecurity instead of taking the plunge and stepping outside my comfort zone.
For literally years of my life, I tried to force myself to enjoy cardio, and thought that I would never be into fitness because I hated the things girls were supposed to do to get “toned”. I got bored on the elliptical, and the treadmill was torture. I tried running outside and that was even more torturous torture. I tried over and over to start (and start over) bodyweight bikini body programs that held promises of fat loss and flat abs. I just wanted a flat tummy and skinny legs, and I tried and tried again to stick with routines that I hated, until I eventually resigned myself, for awhile, to what I assumed was a sad truth: I would never be fit or athletic, and I’d never see going to the gym as anything but a chore, and I would always be plagued and held back by a cavalcade of insecurity and fear of what other gym-goers thought about how my legs looked in shorts.
From my vantage point on the elliptical, which overlooked a foreign but enchanting landscape of cable towers and weight resistance machines, I watched girls of all different body types lifting weights and looking strong and confident. I watched, but decided that I could never do that, because I had no idea how to do that. It can wait, I decided. First, I’d just learn everything there was to learn so that nobody could possibly laugh at me.
A year or so later, I still don’t know what I’m doing 100% of the time. I still dedicate a portion of each day to learning, improving my form, getting stronger, upping my weights, trying new things I’ve never done before, looking silly, and not caring. Because here’s the thing: the gym isn’t just for the fitness gurus, the Instagram famous, the bodybuilders, and the experienced veterans who have been lifting for years. The gym belongs to you, whoever you are. The gym is your place to chase gains and goals, and to do whatever the heck you want to do, whether that’s cardio, a silly unconventional exercise you saw on Instagram, powerlifting, and anything in between. Own it.
I committed myself to doing it, and not letting anything or anyone get in my way; especially myself. Because, in the end, it wasn’t the judgment of my fellow gym goers that was getting in my way; it was my fear, my anxiety, my insecurity, my lack of trying and my absence of adventurous spirit. Truthfully, no one in the gym who matters really gives a h*ck what you’re doing or if you’ve never done it before.
Because everyone has to start somewhere. Even the intimidating-looking, impossibly fit people you see in the gym didn’t start out that way. Don’t give up just because you aren’t on their level; they weren’t always on their level either. I’m not as fit as a lot of people I see at the gym lifting heavier than me with better form than me, but I also have never been nearly as fit as I am now; I’m enjoying the journey, getting stronger every day, learning all that I can, and working tirelessly to improve. Everyone is on a different journey and at different stages of their own personal journey. When it comes to gym anxiety, the absolute worst thing that you can do is compare yourself to anyone else but yourself. Be your fiercest competitor always, and do what you want to do.
If you just joined a new gym, are visiting an unfamiliar gym out of town, or are just starting out at the gym, there are always things that you can do to ease the gym jitters, beat gym anxiety and insecurity, and build confidence. Don’t let a case of the gym jitters ruin the potential for a killer workout!
So how do you get over the fear of unfamiliar places, different equipment, and an alien landscape?
Take time to familiarize yourself with the layout/equipment. If it’s your first time in a new gym, ask for a tour, or give yourself a tour and take a little bit of time to figure out where everything is before jumping directly into your workout. Yesterday when I was visiting a gym out of town as a guest, I walked around for a good 10 or 15 minutes before starting my workout to figure out where everything that I needed was so that I wouldn’t waste time between exercises looking for a specific piece of equipment. I ended up wandering around like a lost idiot a couple of times anyway, but that’s okay too.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you don’t know where something is, how to do something, or how to adjust/use a certain piece of equipment, 9 times out of 10 it’s not a bad idea to just ask. Most people are a lot nicer and more helpful than you’d think. If everyone looks impossibly terrifying, then look for your friendly neighborhood gym employee! I work at a gym and I can promise you no gym employee is going to begrudge you for asking how to use a piece of equipment, or where something is, even if you feel silly asking.
Research, research, research. If you’re feeling timid about starting out at the gym or even just trying something new, do your research before hand, bookmark videos and links and pull them up on your phone when you’re at the gym, do your research, and learn a lot. I know a lot more exercises than I did when I started lifting about a year ago, but I still spend so much time looking up exercises and videos and trying to improve my form. My tried and true go to’s are Whitney Simmons’ YouTube channel and Bodybuilding.com’s Exercise Database. Both of these sources have more or less taught me everything I know. I have always gone to the gym alone and, as someone who is completely self-taught, I seriously cannot overstate the importance of utilizing Internet resources if you’re like me and can’t afford a personal trainer/don’t really have friends (who lift [but who am I kidding lol also just friends in general]).
Go with a plan. I always feel so much more confident and focused when I write out my workouts in my notebook or on my Notes on my iPhone before heading to the gym. Prevents a lot of mindless phone scrolling and aimless wandering in between exercises, too!
Hold your head high. You got this! Don’t let fear or anxiety or self-consciousness get the best of you. Throw yourself into your passion and chase your goals. The rest doesn’t matter. You do you. Do what you want to do, and do it with your whole heart.