How To Fight Self-Consciousness in The Gym (and Win)

With gyms on the very brink of reopening (25th July), and fitness fanatics everywhere waiting desperately to burst through the doors to claim a squat rack, I want to provide those who might be lingering towards the back of the (socially distanced) queue with a few immediately applicable tips on how to overcome the crippling self consciousness that many of us experience in a gym environment. 

I say many of ‘us’ because I, of course, have found myself in plenty of weight rooms feeling so suddenly exposed that I’ve had to improvise a mime about looking for someone that takes me out of that section of the gym and onto the safe saddle of a static bike. If my main motivation for becoming a personal trainer was to help people who don’t feel included in gym culture, then another was simply to make sure I know enough myself to not feel too un-E-Z* when I’m working out. What I also aim to do is introduce you to a few things you might not already know, to arm you with knowledge that might boost your confidence in the gym environment. 

The truth is that everyone, on some level, feels (or has felt) vulnerable in a gym. Everybody has walked into one for the first time. And even those who have been going for years are still on a journey with their own training. 

I regularly ask people what intimidates them about gyms and the responses are always very similar and mostly mention feeling judged by all the ‘macho’ ‘meathead’ ‘men’ who infest every gym across the land. This may well be a potentially valid reason to not feel particularly comfortable if you fit any other description, but you could say it’s one that comes with a somewhat hypocritical amount of judgment. I’ve walked into the testoster-zone of a lot of gyms a lot of times and met many a ‘Macho Meathead Man’ who is bloody lovely, for example.

As someone with years of irregular income and sporadic work commitments, a gym membership hasn’t often been an option for me. As a result, I have had a glimpse into gyms, health clubs, and leisure centres far and wide on a pay-as-you-go** basis. I’ve also worked in various gyms which have each supplied me with the armour of uniform and the weapon of purpose on the gym floor (mopping treadmills, racking abandoned weight plates, greeting members – to name but three endless daily tasks that have helped me acclimatise to the gym environment). I’m sharing what I can from my experience to empower you with a realistic insight into gym culture so you can go straight into that space and claim it as yours, because it is. 

If you feel judged in the gym (and you don’t like it) make sure you’re not doing it too.

Learning more about people who are actually in the gym will mean you can identify them separately rather than group them all together. Understanding what it is they are doing will help you recognise types of training. Familiarity will undoubtedly make you feel more comfortable.

A tip for anyone who avoids gyms because they are intimidating: Go In To One. People tend to find the idea of a gym much worse than the reality. If some of your reasons for feeling excluded might be based on a judgement you yourself are making, the best way to find out is to go in. Go with someone you know, ask someone there to show you around, make a banging playlist, contact me and I’ll come with you. Do whatever it is that can get you to spend some time in there feeling less self-conscious and it will be a big lunge towards you feeling secure in all of your future visits. 

A tip for those who are already relatively comfortable going into a gym, or at least do on a regular basis: Get Closer. Literally get closer to some of the supposedly terrifying and judgemental fitness obsessed beasts that live under the free weights. There are plenty of simple things you can say to someone in a gym that will make you sound like you know what you’re doing and more importantly realise you are just as welcome in there as everyone else. Through one simple interaction you might find someone to at least nod to every time you go in. Remember you already have something in common with everyone in there – you’re in the same gym at the same time. Below are a couple of things I either hear, or say myself every time I go to the gym that always (still) make me feel immediately less self-conscious:

“Are you using this?” 

A simple yes or no question that is surprisingly powerful in the humanisation of a pre-judged worker-outer. If they are on their own, they might be grateful for the acknowledgment. If they are not using ‘it’ (machine, weight, mat, foam roller etc.) you will have immediate positive affirmation that you can use it, thus further validating your place in the gym. If they are using it, they’ll tell you when you can. Win Win. 

“How many more sets*** have you got?”

A golden nugget of classic gym lingo that anyone who knows what they are doing will be able to answer. Whether someone responds with “I’ve just finished, it’s all yours,” or “Loads, I’ll be here for ages” you’ve just collaborated in organising the utilisation of the gym equipment that you are both equally entitled to. 

“Would you mind…” 

Asking someone for help is another way to dispel an intimidating impression of someone in a gym, especially if your request involves strength. Exercisers bloody love an excuse to lift or carry something for someone, they do it repetitively on their own at a mirror so being thanked for it will probably give them a real boost.

// I dare you to use one of the above on your next visit //

Now you have some Gym Lingo, it’s time for a game of Gym Bingo. Here are a few common characters or sights, explained:

People just sitting on equipment on their phones.

It took me a while to learn that this apparent territory-marking-phone-scrolling-seemingly-inactive person is actually just sitting out a scientifically researched rest period in-between sets to maximise hypertrophy or strength gainz. Proper strength training requires a 2-5 minute rest in between sets, and in order to not lose their place, some people will linger for the duration of those sets. This might look like the perfect opportunity to look around the gym at other people but I can almost guarantee you it is simply a mindless (possibly even self-conscious) passing of time between sets. If it happens to involve a glance in your direction it’s just as likely going to be mad respect for training in the gym as anything negative.

Groups of Men (and other daunting gaggles of weight lifters/body builders).

The “groups of men” that a lot of the people I asked recently listed as a gym turn off are self-conscious. That’s why they are in a group. Each group will include at least one member who feels particularly self conscious about being compared to their mates, quite possibly by you.
A jam-packed free weights area isn’t a big group of mates training together, but a bunch of individuals (and let’s not assume they are all cis/straight) who are training near each other because that’s where the heavy weights are. They might be spotting**** each other which is quite the responsibility; it involves vulnerability on the lifter’s part, and encouragement on the spotter’s, which may appear testosterone-fuelled from the outside but is basically the equivalent of helping to polish each other’s conkers (not a euphemism).

Undercover Personal Trainers

Some of the people in the gym who look in shape, are lifting heavy, know a lot of people, and look around at everyone actually just work there. If they are training they won’t have their uniform on. Being seen on the gym floor with flawless form and muscles bulging through a tank top can be the perfect advert for a Personal Trainer, but it is also quite exposing for that very reason – they are a walking squatting advert for what they do. They won’t want whatever they are doing during their own training session to put YOU off being a potential client. Gym staff (on or off duty) will notice you partly because it’s their job to be nice to members and partly because they are in the building all the time so notice who else is. If you are new, are not there very often, or go at different times, they will note that they haven’t seen you before. Most likely, the only interest they will have in what you’re doing will be about whether you’re exercising safely and/or whether they can convince you to spend money on them. If they seem to be watching you do an exercise, they might just be noticing how your body performs it. Every person moves differently and it’s our job to observe anatomical movement. There are a number of reasons a PT might be glancing in your direction in a gym: you might be giving them ideas for an exercise to give a client, to teach in a class, to write about in an article, or they might actually really want to train you. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re someone I’d look at in a gym and know immediately that I would like to work with based on your taste in reading materials alone. As much as many of the ‘general population’ will tend to gravitate towards the Personal Trainer who they can/would like to see themselves in, Personal Trainers can see in gym members the people they know they’d get on with, get good results from or want to help.

People who feel self-conscious

It’s easy to assume the gym is full of people that drip confidence from every pore in their perfectly sculpted bodies, and whilst there may well be a couple of us (that’s a joke #savelivecomedy), there are more self-conscious exercisers in the gym than you’d think. Look in the quieter corners, hidden among the cardio machines, darting in and out of classes, sticking to what they know and sometimes watching Netflix on their phones not lifting their heads until they leave. Rather than focus on the people who intimidate you, try to notice those who might actually need to see you more visibly to feel comfortable themselves.

Remember that every body in the gym is in progress.

Whoever you look at, however ‘fit/strong/attractive/popular’ they might look to you, they are (quite literally) in the process of developing something about their body. Whether it’s aesthetic, practical, remedial, preventative, or hormone related, the bodies in a gym are not there in a completed state of perfection just to simply look around at other bodies.

Although there are classic training methods for how to get stronger or make your muscles look bigger (yes they are two different things that involve different training) there are endless attempts to reinvent that wheel. New training methods, theories and diets can come and go as quickly as Snapchat circa 2017. People who take training seriously have possibly spent years experimenting in gyms trying to find the best way to train for their body and goals. There are so many variables to changing your body composition (stress levels, nutrition, emotional health, gut health, sleep, medication, lifestyle, to name a few) and it happens gradually over a significant period of time. Training is a thing the hard core gym goers that some of you so fear are very invested in so they won’t be caring about much else while they are doing it.

A golden tidbit for you

Every resistance machine, dumbbell exercise, barbell exercise, resistance band exercise, TRX workout, Kettlebell class… basically everything in a gym is all based on the same few movements that an able body has evolved to do. The person who you see lying on a bench pushing a heavy AF barbell towards the ceiling, the person sitting against a back rest pushing two handles forward, the person lying on a mat with 2 dumbbells in the air and the person doing a press up are all doing the same thing (a press). They are all working the same muscles (pectorals) and performing the same movement (flexion/extension of the elbow, abduction/adduction of the shoulder). They are doing different versions in different parts of the gym based on their strength, fitness, desired aesthetic, or reasons for training. The people doing it in the gym are the ones who need to be in the gym to do it because they need heavier weights or more equipment not because they want to show off.
I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to an experienced gym goer who doesn’t talk about any previous training days with an element of shame – wasted years of following bad advice (eating a whole bag of cheap frozen sausages a day to bulk) prioritising everything else over form/technique (and having the injuries to prove it), letting an obsession with body fat percentage sacrifice mental health… the list is long. People who have worked hard in the gym to get to where they are, have only got there by making mistakes along the way and learning as they go. 

If you feel excluded from Dat Gym Lyf more specifically because of who you are and how you identify, some more tips:

Go with someone who makes you feel safe. Research the gym and who works there (get your Instagram stalk on). See if there’s anyone that seems vaguely approachable to you that you might be able to speak to explicitly about your situation. It might involve some educating on your part unfortunately, but I have found a lot of (and especially) personal trainers – who’s actual job it is to deal personally and individually with all sorts of people, are more than willing to learn how they can help you because they might get some business out of it. When training to become a PT we are encouraged to know all the ways we can help those who might not feel comfortable about exercising in front of other people. It’s not uncommon for anyone to feel vulnerable in such an exposing environment, which is one of the reasons personal trainers have jobs. So if queerness is something that makes you feel even more vulnerable than a vulnerable cis/straight person might, then know that in effort to uphold the brand standards of a gym, or/and to deliver the customer service they should pride themselves on, they are probably at worst willing to take the education and at best will walk you around the gym, show you private spaces to workout, suggest where you can leave belongings without going into a changing room, and offer some free advice about the best workouts to do for your body, your gender, and your desired aesthetic*****.

Finally: Plan your session

You can be someone who looks like they know what they are doing by simply making sure you know what you are going to do. Be careful not to fall too deeply into an internet black hole of contradicting advice and unnecessarily experimental variations of simple exercises, but deciding what you’re going to do and where you’ll do it will mean you ooz confidence on the outside which will inevitably seep it’s way in.

So when the doors reopen and your monthly membership fee starts leaving your bank account again, make the most of it! Walk around the gym with a new lens and your head held high – if not for yourself for everyone who needs to see you there. 

Notes

* EZ bars are the weight bars that have bends in them. Commonly used for bicep curls. The angled grip can reduce pressure on the wrist and elbow (and shoulder). 

** I used to use the website/app Payasugym (now called Hussle) to get day passes to gyms. You tell it your location and it shows you all the gyms in the area that participate. Really easy to use and much cheaper than buying a day pass directly from the gym.

*** ‘Reps’ is the amount of times you REPeat a specific exercise. ‘Sets’ are the amount of cycles of those reps that you do. EG 1 press up is a rep. 10 press ups is a set.  You might do 3 sets of 10 reps with a one minute rest in-between each set

**** ‘Spotting’ is the act of supporting someone in a weight training exercise to lift more than they might be able to safely on their own. Muscles need to be pushed to failure to be able to rebuild bigger and stronger. Failure is a vulnerable place that is much easier to get to with someone else’s help, especially with a potentially dangerous amount of weight. 

***** This may seem like a fairytale PT but please trust me when I say there is always AT LEAST ONE exceptionally nice one. It’s genuinely part of the job. They might be harder to spot because if they’ve worked there a long time they will be exceptionally busy with clients and therefore won’t have any need or desire to hang around the gym when they are not training someone. I recommend looking beyond their PT profile to see if they have a public social media presence that you might be able to connect with them through. 

********* I can’t use footnotes on WordPress

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