It’s 6pm. You just arrived at the gym after driving over straight from work. Upon walking into the gym, you realize that half the town seems to have had the same idea – it’s packed. Looking around it’s clear that a lot of the people here are regulars, as evidenced by all the toned bodies and friendly chatter you see going on between the aforementioned toned gym members.
What would you do? March over and claim some space for yourself on the weight floor? Hop on a treadmill and enjoy some good people-watching? Try to hide in the back of a crowded spin class? Fight back waves of nausea as you make your way to the weight floor, quickly realize you do not fit in with all these lean and athletic looking people, then turn and run straight back out to your car to cry for 20 minutes in the parking lot before you drive home?
If you picked answer D, then let’s start a club. Because that’s exactly what I did in 2011, and again in slightly varied iterations plenty of times since then. Some people are surprised when I share that, because I look physically fit and come across as a confident person, and I worked in various gyms and as a personal trainer for years.
Truth is that as confident as I feel in the gym now, I haven’t always felt that way, and various seasons of life have sometimes made me feel more intimidated in the gym. Most folks have felt intimidated at the gym at some point, especially when they are starting to work out for the first time ever or the first time after a long hiatus. Between the crowds, the unfamiliar setting, uncertainty about what you’re doing, and our own individual insecurities, it’s a recipe for self-consciousness and anxious feelings.
The good news is that while it may feel that way at first, it doesn’t have to stay that way! Here are some of the strategies that I’ve used to go from being the girl who would run out of the gym crying and skip her workout because she was so anxious and uncomfortable, to being the girl who hangs out too long at the gym and acts like she owns the place. Trust me, if these could help me overcome feeling intimidated at the gym – give them a shot and watch how much your experience at the gym changes!
Of course, before anything else, you need to acknowledge gym intimidation for what it is. It is 100% ok to feel uncomfortable and self-conscious at the gym, but if you tell yourself that those feelings are something else (“I’m just tired,” or “I don’t have time to finish my workout today,” etc.) then you’ll never get to the root of the problem. Once you notice those feelings and name them, you can start tackling the root causes and feel better that much sooner!
How to Beat Gym Intimidation
- If possible, go when the gym is less crowded. Peak times at most gyms tend to be from around 8am to 11am, and then 4pm to 7pm. If you can go before 7am or after 7pm, you’ll likely miss most of the “rush hour.” Not only does this take off the pressure of being around so many people, but you will have a lot more access to equipment without having to wait.
- On the other hand, if you like the feeling of being able to “disappear” in a crowd to avoid the spotlight, try taking a group exercise class and getting there early enough to secure a spot in the back of the room. Spin classes are nice because they’re usually dark and you already know how to pedal a bike. Hell, it’s not like anyone else will know what your bike setting is on, so if you need to dial back the intensity, you’re the only one who will be the wiser. Other classes like Bodypump and the like are great too, but they are A) fully lit, and B) require you to set up equipment or know certain exercises ahead of time. If you want to challenge yourself, go for it! But if you’re looking for the easiest entry into the group fitness world, I suggest spin or cycle classes. Whatever class you attend, it can be helpful to introduce yourself to the instructor before class and let her/him know you’re new so they can help you get set up and explain/demonstrate exercises more than they might otherwise.
- Go to the gym with a friend. This seems self-explanatory and simple, but it works – there’s safety in numbers, yall! Having a buddy with you can help you feel more confident and more comfortable trying new exercises. If your friend understands that you are feeling intimidated at the gym, hopefully he/she can also be your own personal cheerleader, too!
- Put together a killer playlist and keep an extra set of headphones in your gym bag or car. Music can have an enormous impact on mood. Anyone who has watched a movie knows how much a good soundtrack can heighten the emotions in each scene, and we all know the right song can make it impossible not to get up and dance. So put together a playlist of all your favorite songs, the ones you really get lost in, and listen to it at the gym so you can immerse yourself in the music rather than the gym atmosphere or your anxiety. Keep an extra set of headphones around because there are few things more frustrating that arriving at the gym ready to work out with a fantastic playlist, only to realize you left your headphones at home.
- How we present ourselves has a big impact on our mood, so invest in gym wear that you like to give yourself an extra boost of confidence in the gym. For me right now, it’s all about well-fitting tanks tops and all the ball caps/headbands I can get my hands on (you’re your hair is too short for a ponytail, the gym hairdo situation takes some creativity. I know the short haired ladies out there know what I’m talking about!) This doesn’t have to be Lululemon or other similarly-expensive workout clothing, just something that makes you feel good when you wear it, whether it’s from Macy’s or Target or your favorite secondhand store. (Ladies – while you’re at it, get a few good sports bras that will truly keep your coconuts where they’re supposed to be. You’ll be shocked at how much more comfortable high impact workouts are!) If you feel better with some mascara or lip gloss or whatever, throw that on too. You may decide later that you don’t care, or it may become a signature part of your gym look. The point is to give yourself a little boost by wearing what makes you feel confident.
- Befriend the front desk staff. First of all, because it’s just human decency to be polite to people (and I promise you it will make their day if you go out of your way to show your appreciation for them!). And second, because being friends with the staff at the gym will make it feel more familiar, and having friendly faces will make the place that much less intimidating. And as far as the long game goes, down the road when you need someone to pull strings for you at the gym, you’ll be glad the employees are your friends. (And trust me, I’m saying this as someone who spent years working in different gyms – I went out of my way to help members all the time, but the ones who had consistently made an effort to be friends/friendly? Those hoodrats got the red carpet.)
- Use your complimentary personal training session. Most gyms offer each member a free session with a personal trainer, and that’s something you should definitely take advantage of if part of your gym-anxiety comes from feeling unsure of what to do or how to use the various machines in the gym. If you really want to maximize your free session, ask the front desk staff or the fitness manager which trainer they think would be the best fit for you (let them know if you have preferences about gender, training style, specialties, etc.) and schedule your complimentary session with that person. If you really click with that trainer and/or find yourself learning a lot from them in that one free session, consider investing in a small training package. You can usually spread out the training sessions to happen once a week or once every other week, and your trainer can help you create a program tailored specificially to your ability level and fitness goals.
- Plan out your workouts. Nothing will add to the feeling of being intimidated in the gym like wandering around aimlessly, unsure of what to do. This is easily solved by planning out your workouts ahead of time. If you’re more advanced or have more time, it’s worth it to find/create a long-term training program that will cover the next 3-4 months of workouts, but for those who are new to working out or transitioning back into it, just planning out the next week of workouts can make a world of difference. If you aren’t going to spend 20 minutes each week planning out what you’ll be doing on the days you’re at the gym, at least figure it out the night before, so that when you go to the gym you know what you’re supposed to be doing. If you need workout ideas, there are plenty here at MFGA and on my instagram. Pinterest has countless workouts, but the quality is dubious, so use those workouts at your own risk!
- Go with the “good enough” option. Sometimes the unexpected will happen. Sometimes you’ll get to the gym and it will be unexpectedly packed, or the equipment you planned to use is out of order, or you have other life stressors happening that are making that gym anxiety ten times worse. Sure, you could ignore the crowds, find alternative exercises to do, and push through the heightened anxiety – and if that’s what you want to do, you go, Glen Coco! But if the ideal plan you had is thrown off, remember that there’s always the “good enough” workout – you don’t have to do what you had planned, but you don’t have to leave, either. Even if your plans are thrown off, you can still get in a good enough workout. Maybe that means jumping in on a spin class last minute, maybe it means doing a bodyweight workout, maybe it means jumping on the stairmaster for half an hour instead of lifting weights. Whatever your “good enough” workout is, it’s good enough because it means you met unexpected challenges head on and faced the anxiety without backing down and leaving. You’re there, you’re working up some kind of sweat, and that’s definitely good enough.
- Act like you enjoy being at the gym. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but one of the best way to change your feelings is to act the way you want to feel. It’s not a fun truth to realize, because acting confident when you feel the opposite is incredibly difficult…but it’s also incredibly This is one of those things that is best learned by doing, so I challenge all of yall to go into an situation that makes you anxious – whether it’s a gym or a party or an interview or something else – and act as if you are as confident as you wish to be. And then do it again, and again. By the third time, if not sooner, you’re going to start seeing magic happen.
No matter which suggestions are applicable for you and which strategies you choose to implement, remember that the magic will only happen if you continue going to the gym and giving those strategies a chance to work. It might not be instantaneous, but my money is on you feeling a lot more confident after a couple of weeks of consistently going to the gym and practicing the solutions shared here. As with so many things in fitness, consistency matters more than almost anything else – no matter what approach you use to beat gym intimidation, you have to continually being going to the gym, allowing yourself to step into an uncomfortable situation, and combating those feelings of anxiety (however that might look for you). And when you do that, week after week?
I’d love to know if you’ve ever struggled with feeling intimidated at the gym. How did you overcome it? Am I missing any good suggestions here?