Gym anxiety: Dealing with nerves on the weights floor

I don’t lift weights because:

‘I don’t know what to do’
‘It’s too intimidating’
‘I’m no good at it’
‘I don’t want to get bulky.’

I hear the same reasons given time and again from women who are uneasy about weightlifting in the gym, but resistance training has a number of great 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, ‘getting bulky’.

While I have written before that lifting weights doesn’t make you muscly 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. 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; running on the treadmill will not make you an Olympic 1,500m runner.

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

But putting ‘bulky’ aside, other reasons 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, often training in groups and often being quite loud.

This isn’t the case everywhere (and the balance is definitely improving in many of the gyms I use). However, it’s hard to argue with the fact that men do make up a large portion of the weight lifting population. For some people, this can make the weights floor a pretty intimidating place, especially if you’re unsure what you ‘should’ be doing.

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.

If you don’t know how to use the machines (or would like a refresher), get on YouTube before you head to the gym. 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.  If you feel really lost though, sign up to a PT session or ask one of the trainers on the gym floor; most will be more than happy to show you the ropes and give you some tips towards your goals.

Once you’re sorted with your routine, don’t feel rushed. Finish your sets. If someone else wants to use the machine, ask if they want to “jump in” while you rest. Don’t let yourself be moved on. Take the rest that you planned to take and if you want to change the weights, do! Remember, you were there first.

Finally, it’s important to remember 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, everyone has moments of self-consciousness. You may think that everyone is staring at you but, realistically, they’re probably far more concerned about what they look like to care about you.  So, lift those weights. Get strong. Own your space.

You never know who you might be inspiring.

  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.

This post was originally published in May 2018, but has since been updated.

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