Overcoming Gym Intimidation

Author - Stephen Griffith C.S.C.S.


The gym can be a scary and unsettling place. Full of strange medieval looking equipment and big intimidating weights being thrown around by even bigger intimidating people.   It's no wonder people feel uncomfortable.

My friend and colleague Dave Herbert has been writing a series for the website based on his experience joining a gym and lifting weights for the first time. He writes from his first day of joining the gym:

“I was nervous. This wasn’t my area. I was intimidated. I didn’t belong there. Was I going to be shunned? Made fun of because I’m weak? "

This is how I felt when I first joined the gym and It's how my clients felt their first time joining a gym.

I still remember the first summer I joined the gym. I was a meek 5'11 128 lb adolescent.  Undernourished and self-conscious - I can still recall the anxiety of feeling lost and surrounded by a troop of silver back gorillas lifting and throwing weights all over the place.

Intimidation of the gym also called  'gymtimidation' is a major obstacle for people looking to get healthier for the first time. Intimidation and fear make it hard to go to the gym, let alone complete the workout as intended.  I used to only go during certain times when no one else was around and find the most secluded places in the gym to do my exercise. This strict environment made it hard for me to go to the gym when my schedule changed because I didn't want to go during busy hours and made it hard for me to get a good workout because I would rather not do an exercise than deal with the self judgement of exercising next to someone else. 

That summer was tough, and I had trouble being consistent.  Fast forward several years and I'm as comfortable in the gym as a cat on a cable box. I now use the lessons 've learned over the years to help others feel comfortable and confident in their workouts.

In this article I would like to share a few of those lessons so you can overcome gym-intimidation. 

Find the right gym

You won’t go to a gym you don't feel comfortable with. That’s why it’s important to find a gym that fits your needs and personality. Fortunately, there are more gym options than ever no matter what you're looking for.

There are lots of options for gyms each with unique offerings and culture. There are power-lifting gyms, functional training studios, YMCA's, college gyms, and full-service wellness centers.

Just consider Mark Fisher Fitness here in New York City.  They're a  theatrical gym appealing to those who don't fit the typical mold. They put fun front and center - they call their members ninjas and refer to their gym as the ENCHANTED NINJA CLUBHOUSE OF GLORY AND DREAMS. 

Power-lifting gyms are where gritty people go to lift heavy stuff. They drop weights, make noise,  and blast loud music. 

Equinox is a luxury chain gym. Their equipment is nice, the prices are high, and they offer several amenities. If you want to fraternize in plush conditions, this may be a good fit.

Planet Fitness is a gym that caters to the everyday person who may not have a lot of discretionary income. You won't find all the bells and whistles as other gyms, but for 10 dollars they remove the excuse of not having enough money.  

Any gym you join should have a courteous staff and feel welcoming to you - it’s just good business. If the place is dirty, the staff is unpleasant, and the members are rude then you should continue looking.

Visit Multiple gyms, read reviews, figure out what most important to you, and find the gym you feel most comfortable with. Going to a gym that is inline with your personality and goals will go a long way to helping you feel comfortable. 

Know rules and etiquette

Not knowing the rules is an easy way to find yourself in an uncomfortable situation. Make observations or ask a staff member what the rules and etiquette of the gym are. All gyms have different rules. For example, some gyms allow weight dropping while in others it's frowned upon.

When in doubt follow the three principles of gym etiquette below

Be aware of your surroundings - This means don’t get in the way, don’t take up too much space and be aware of whose exercising where.

Be considerate - make space for others, work with others, be considerate if someone would like to work in with you.

Treat the equipment like it’s your own - don’t throw things around, put it back when you're done, treat the equipment well.

Learn how to do the exercises

The key to being comfortable in the gym comes from being comfortable and confident in your ability to perform exercises and use equipment. For someone who can't read a quiet library can be an intimidating place. For someone who doesn't know how to exercise the gym will remain a scary place.

Learning what I was doing, why I was doing it, and that I was doing it correctly was the turning point for my ability to feel comfortable in the gym.

If you're just starting out, then I suggest you stick to simple exercises, look up cues online, and practice them. Start with your body weight and build from there.

A great place to start if you're new to exercising is to start with our Zero to One Program. If your a complete beginner then I suggest taking some exercises from my cheat sheet of 7 easy to learn, hard to mess up exercises. They'll help you build a solid foundation of strength and mobility you can build on.

Zero to One -  A Beginners Program for Success

The Cheat Sheet: 7 Easy to Learn, Pain -Free Exercises To Get You Started

One of the best investments you can make in your health is to hire a good personal trainer. A good trainer will assess you and identify your needs. From there they can teach you what exercises you should do and how to do them. While the workouts are temporary, the knowledge and confidence you'll gain last forever.

How to Pick The Right Trainer

 How To Choose The Best Exercises

Have a plan

Meandering around the gym wondering what you should do next is a sure way to waste time, not see results, and feel uncomfortable.

Having a plan provides direction and purpose to your time in the gym. It gives justification to your actions and allows you to focus on the workout instead of others.

A good training plan should be geared toward your skill and fitness level. It should challenge enough to make a difference in your body but not so much that your form will suffer.

Understanding The Training Process

Principles of Training -The keys to a successful training program

Bring a Friend, Make a Friend, and Talk to people

I make it a priority to introduce my clients to other staff members and gym goers.  Why? Because any place where you're surrounded by strangers can be daunting.

I encourage you to talk to members, staff, and make your gym feel like a community. The easiest way to start a conversation is to ask someone for advice. People are always happy to help.  Just try to avoid asking if that person is in the middle of an intense set or if they have their headphones in.

If that's intimidating then I suggest introducing yourself to one of the trainers on staff and sharing your situation with them. Most of us trainers have gotten into this industry to help people just like you, IF were free then we will be happy to give you a few minutes of our time to explain something.  If your concerned about being sold to or 'wasting' a persons time then I suggest you just be upfront with the fact that you cant afford training. More than likely the trainer will share some time with you any way and will appreciate your frankness and consideration. I've helped many people without any expectation of compensation in my career. 

Don't just make a friend, but bring a friend. A friend will not only encourage you to come to the gym more often but will make the gym feel more like home. If you can, make that friend a workout partner. Having a workout partner will not only push you harder but also reduce the anxiety of being feeling alone in a scary new environment.

Don't  Worry About What Others Think

When you first join a gym, it can feel like everyone is judging you. You need not worry. There are 3 types of people in the gym - those new like you, the fit people, and the jerks. 

Here's a secret about all the "non fit" people - They're all to busy worrying about how everyone else is judging THEM to be concerned with judging you. Most will not even notice your existence. 

Those few people with the 6 packs and big muscles that are the most intimidating may be the people who are least likely to judge you. Each one of them started in the same place you are today - insecure and new. It took them years of trail and errors to get to where they are. They know what it's like to be in your shoes. It makes me happy when I see someone new in the gym. I know what it was like to be a beginner. I know the amount of courage it takes to show up. When I see you I think how great it is that you took that leap, not about how "weak" you are. I've had many conversations and this is an almost unanimous opinion. 

The gym is full of stories where one of those 'big fit dudes' walked over to a new person and took them under their proverbial wing. Despite it's appearance the gym can be one of the most inclusive places in our life. All gym goers share a the common goal of self improvement. IT unites us. Don't be intimidated by the fit people, they understand your situation and I guarantee they'd be happy to offer assistance if you asked. 

Unfortunately there's always a few jerks. This is true on the high way, at work, and it regretfully remains true in the gym. It might as well be a law of nature - jerks exist.  If you encounter a jerk, ignore them. These are the only people who will judge you and they will judge you because of their own insecurity. You shouldn't be intimidated by these people because their opinions don't matter and their acceptance of you means nothing.  Disregard them. If there is anyone who doesn't 'belong' in a gym its these people not you.

One of the reasons we get intimidated is because we assume the jerks are the majority. I'm here to assure you that you don't need to worry. The majority of gym goers are people just like you - people looking to improve themselves and who would be happy to help their fellow comrades. 

Everyone's journey starts somewhere and you should give yourself a pat on the back because you're taking that first step. Focus on yourself, be consistent, and continue to practice and learn. Overtime I promise things will get easier, you will feel comfortable, and your confidence will grow.When you have doubts always remember that "You Belong". If anyone calls you out tell them Steve told you so. 

*This does not apply to jerks* 

**If your a jerk I recommend you take your negative and judgmental energy and go home until you develop a better attitude. In the mean time you can refer to my article for building a home gym - Low Budget, Short on Space - Must Have Equipment for Your Home Gym**

Have any stories of how you overcame gym-intimidation? Share them below. 

Stephen Griffith