Between the technical equipment, clanging of weights, and muscled-up members, the average big box gym can be an intimidating place. And, that leaves many curious lifters on the outside looking in—afraid to enter the wilds of the weight room and resigned to occupying the cardio machines with which they’re already familiar. It’s a common story, because, while we all know that strength training is an important component to overall health and fitness, that first step is a doozy. Weight room anxiety is real, but like with most of life’s hang-ups, it’s something that can be addressed and defeated.
Why Gym Anxiety Happens
In an ironic twist, exercise is one of the best ways to deal with stress and anxiety. But, when the gym is causing that stress, things get tricky. It might be helpful to know that 40 million American adults suffer from some form of anxiety, whether chronic or acute. So, if you experience feelings of panic or dread at the thought of lifting weights, you’re not alone.
Much of that anxiety comes from uncertainty. It’s been shown that past experiences and knowledge about our current state helps our brain predict future outcomes. Basically, the more you know now, the better you’ll do later. That leads to feelings of certainty and self-assurance. On the other hand, if you’re unprepared or don’t have knowledge of the situation, you’re more likely to experience anxiety, as you’re unable to predict what will happen. That applies to everything from first dates and job interviews to attempting your first barbell squat.
Throw in a room full of onlookers—who seemingly all know what they’re doing—and that just exacerbates the situation. Now, not only are you uncertain and nervous, but you’ve got an audience. So, it’s no wonder that you feel some trepidation at entering the weight room. Fortunately, there are ways to get over your anxiety and get the workout you want.
“Whenever I’ve got a new client who seems a bit nervous, I like to remind them that no one is there to watch them work out,” says Matthew Martin, CPT. “People go to the gym for themselves. They’ve got a finite amount of time to get in their own workouts, so they’re concentrating on that—not the new guy who’s learning how to lift.”
How to Get Past It
We asked Martin for some tips that can help you get past your own weight room anxiety. The weight room is for everyone, and we all deserve to enjoy the benefits of strength training.
Remember, everyone starts somewhere.
It’s easy to feel like you’re all alone, and that everyone is an expert except you. Sure, that guy bench pressing 300 pounds might be a seasoned veteran, but even he had to start somewhere. Remember that no matter where someone is on their weightlifting journey, they were once the newcomer.
“No one is born knowing how to properly deadlift, and no one should be curling 50 pounds on their first time out,” says Martin. “Everyone starts somewhere. Today might be your first day, but stick with it, and you’ll be the experienced one before too long.”
Ask for help.
If you want to ask that friendly-looking gym-goer for a spot or a quick tutorial, go for it. But, you might feel more comfortable asking a trainer or another gym employee. They’d be happy to show you how to use certain machines or give pointers on your technique.
“When I’m training a client, I’m obviously engaged with that one person, but otherwise, I love assisting whoever needs it,” says Martin. “I don’t want to see anyone get hurt, but I also don’t want anyone to feel left out because they’re nervous to try something. I imagine most trainers feel the same way.”
Enlist a trainer.
If you’d like to take things a step further, try working out with that trainer. Many gyms offer a free introductory session when you sign up, so go ahead and take advantage of it. If you like the experience and want to sign up for more, great. If not, you’ll at least have an elementary baseline on using equipment and lifting with proper form.
An in-person trainer can help guide you through the weight room floor. You’ll learn where certain machines and weights are located so you’re not left to wander around or miss out on strength training opportunities. The next best thing is an audio trainer. Once you get to know your weight room, an audio trainer can tell you how to use it. You can use the Aaptiv app for trainer-led workouts of all levels. You’ll move seamlessly through your workout and no one in the room will even know that you have a fitness expert leading the way.
Practice at home.
The internet is a treasure trove of fitness content. From YouTube videos to the audio-based workouts and articles on Aaptiv, there’s no shortage of exercise-related resources. Just type in whatever it is you want to do—like perform a perfect biceps curl or master the Smith machine—and you’ll find a handy guide to making it happen. Then, you’re able to practice certain moves or lifts at home, which will translate to better confidence when you go to the gym.
Make a plan.
“When left to their own devices, so many people just kind of wander aimlessly around the gym or sit on a bench and shuffle through their playlist,” says Martin. “I see it all the time. If you don’t have a plan, you probably won’t get in a very good workout.” He advises thinking about what you’d like to accomplish ahead of time by picking a couple muscle groups to target and then deciding which exercises you want to do. That way, when you arrive at the gym, you’ve got a game plan to execute, which makes your workout more efficient and boosts confidence by eliminating the need to make on-the-spot decisions.
Bring a friend.
Bring a workout buddy to the gym with you, and you’ll enjoy good company and a built-in spotter. If your friend is a proficient lifter, they can help you get started. If not, then you’re both on this journey together. Either way, sharing the experience with a trusted friend can remove some of the pressure you might feel from going it alone.
“Working out with a friend or spouse or whoever else is a great way to feel more comfortable at the gym,” says Martin. “It’s also a great way to stick with it and keep coming back since you can hold each other accountable.”