Gym anxiety: Dealing with nerves on the weights floor

I don’t lift weights because:

  • ‘I don’t know how to use the machines’
  • ‘It’s too intimidating’
  • ‘I’m no good at it’
  • ‘I don’t want to put on weight’.

I hear the same reasons given time and again from women who are uneasy about weightlifting in the gym. Resistance training has a number of awesome benefits, namely; increased strength, bone health, weight loss and improved body image. It really should be a part of everyone’s fitness regime.

So, what is it that’s causing the confusion and anxiety? Let’s start by addressing the last point on the list, ‘putting on weight’.

While I have written before that lifting weights doesn’t make you bulky overnight, (in fact, it doesn’t make you bulky at all, unless you’re eating to get bigger) it’s worth reiterating once more here. Increasing muscle mass is a lot harder than popping a can of spinach, Popeye-style. It takes hours in the gym, eating the right food, and months, if not years, of dedication. Bicep curls will not give you big arms, in much the same way that running on the treadmill will not make you kilograms lighter overnight.

Increasing muscle mass is a lot harder than popping a can of spinach, Popeye-style

But putting ‘bulky’ aside, other excuses I regularly hear are slightly more complex, and generally revolve around self-confidence and ability. Let’s start with self-confidence. Experiencing the occasional bout of self-doubt and self-consciousness is unsurprising, especially if you take into account the regular demographic of the weights area; big men, sometimes training in groups and often being quite loud.

This isn’t the case everywhere, and certainly isn’t the case all the time. However, it’s hard to argue with the fact that men do make up the majority of the weight lifting population. For some women – and men – this can make the weights floor a pretty intimidating place. It might not be that these people are doing anything particularly menacing; it’s just, being in the minority can make you feel small.

I had a brief moment of uneasiness just this week – a feeling I don’t normally let into my workouts, because, well, #girlpower. I was doing some back extensions when a group of six guys suddenly appeared and started training on the lat pulldown machine next to me. I was surrounded. They were chatting and laughing and grunting their way through the sets. Not doing anything wrong, I’ll add, but I still hated it.

Some people might say, ‘if you don’t like it, get out’. Others might tell me to stop being so sensitive. The men had every right to be there and use the machines, they had every right to stand around and chat and laugh, and they (unfortunately) had every right to grunt. The uneasiness was my problem, but it’s a problem that, anecdotally, does seem to affect other gym-users as well.

Two weeks prior to this incident, I counted 16 men on the weights floor, and one woman (me). Talk about outnumbered.

Why am I telling you this? I want people to realise that uneasiness and anxiety can affect all of us. Even those who are comfortable with the machines and the general gym environment. It can affect new gym goers and those who’ve been going for years. Old, young, men and women.

So, what’s the best way to deal with gym anxiety?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this question. Mostly it comes down to practice and experience. Practice owning your own space. It might make you feel uncomfortable for a time, but it will pass. Get your head down, put some upbeat music on, concentrate fully on your workout, and know that you have the right to be there.

Get on YouTube before you head to the gym if you don’t know how to use the machines. Plan your workout so you know exactly what you’re going to be doing. There are tons of helpful videos out there showing you how to set up the machines and what muscles you will be working on. Download my free plans and, if you don’t know how to do something, Google it.

When you’re there, don’t feel rushed. Finish your set. If someone else wants to use the machine, ask if they want to “jump in with you” while you rest. Don’t let yourself be moved on.

If I had my way, training groups would be limited to two, grunts wouldn’t exceed a certain decibel, heavily dropping weights more than once would be banned (once is a mistake, twice, ‘it’s time to get lighter weights buddy’), monopolising one machine for longer than 20 minutes would be discouraged and there would be a significant reduction in treadmills (but that’s a gripe for another day).

I’ve long accepted that I’m never going to get my own way all the time – or even most of the time. But I can control how I think about the things I don’t like. Practice ignoring them. Practice putting your headphones in and properly occupying the space you are in. You pay your gym membership, so make sure you use it. All of it.

  1. Everyone started somewhere
  2. You’re doing something positive for yourself, which is awesome
  3. Most people are, actually, really friendly, and will help out if you ask
  4. No-one cares what you look like, only you. Really!!
  5. The more you go, the more comfortable you’ll feel. So start small and you’ll get there

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