When you're just starting out, the gym is an intimidating place. Not only can you be self-conscious about whether or not you're "doing things right", it often seems like a set of eyes are constantly watching you. Here's how to feel more at home when you're working out.
While I'm comfortable with the gym now, I still remember being an overweight beginner when I first started going. I felt like all eyes were on me, judging my sedentary patterns over the last few years, my form, and ultimately didn't want me to be there. The transition wasn't easy, but what I can say is that it's is mostly mental. The following pointers will allow you to get into the right state of mind.
Use Good Gym Etiquette
The first step to getting into a good mental state is to make sure that you're using good gym etiquette. There are several things that you should (or shouldn't) do to make sure you're being a good gym fitizen. In particular:
- Don't curl in the squat rack. There is only a limited supply of squat racks and they should be reserved for people that are actually squatting. You can curl elsewhere.
- Don't grunt. Yes, I know that you're trying to get the attention of that attractive exerciser over there, but this probably isn't the way to do it.
- If you use a weight, put it back. Don't make someone else expend their energy picking up your stuff.
There's a great infographic of the do's and don'ts at the gym available here. Etiquette is more for your peace of mind than anything else. It's easy to walk around the gym thinking that everything you're doing is wrong.
When others glance your way, it's easy to project your self-consciousness onto what they are thinking. By studying and practising the gym etiquette above, you can rest assured that you're not doing anything wrong.
Focus On Progression, Not Specific Exercises
You'll probably be tempted to start with the most complex exercises, such as barbell squats, but these exercises require you to already be comfortable in the gym. Instead, start with what you can do comfortably without always feeling like someone is looking over your shoulder and correcting your form, even if that means starting out with machines.
I recommend starting with machines and using your own body weight, then progress to dumbbells, and then finally barbells. Instead of trying to start with the best, you can gradually increase the difficulty of your exercises and improve over time. If you're sedentary, starting with machines can help you make great progress. Here's an example of main exercises that can be substituted across machines, dumbbells, and barbells:
Regardless of the type of exercise that you're doing, you should know what your goals are before you step through the door. Are you there for a cardio workout? Focusing on upper body? It's hard enough to pick a program when you're just starting out, but it's even harder when you get to the gym and are surrounded by machines, free weights and cardio equipment. It's overwhelming.
If you decide at home what your plan is based on your goals, life will be easier. (For example the exercises to focus on for weight loss.) you'll be able to walk in with more confidence, have a more focused, and a sense of accomplishment when you finish.
Understand That Most People Are Helpful And Friendly
All gyms have arseholes, but a majority of people are actually quite nice. A huge part of feeling intimidated at the gym is the constant sense of judgement whether you're embarrassed about your workout form or the shape you're currently in. But most people in the gym are friendly, and will gladly help you if you just ask. In fact, most gyms have staff who are more than willing to show you how to safely use their equipment.
Try to reframe your negative thoughts by realising this fact. For example, if you feel like someone glancing your way is thinking:
"Look at this beginner in the free weight section...they don't belong there."
Understand that you're probably projecting and in all likelihood, that person is really thinking:
"That's great that they're trying out the free weight section. Not many beginners try it out, so kudos to them."
Again, there will be arseholes, but judging someone for getting healthy at the gym is analogous to judging a sick person who goes to the hospital to get better. If someone actually does this, then they're not even worth a second thought. (And everyone else at the gym probably thinks they're an arsehole, too.)
Silence Your Mind With Mindfulness Meditation
Training is a great excuse to clear your mind and focus on the present. One of the best ways to do this is by using mindfulness meditation. Instead, you can occupy your brain by using mindfulness meditation when you train. According to Schwarzenegger.com:
I'll give you an exercise to practice. It's only 2 minutes long but incredibly difficult.
Don't skip this.
Set a timer for 2 minutes. Wherever you're at, I want you to close your eyes, and pick one thing to focus on. It can be anything, but to give you some ideas, here's what I usually tell people.
If you're sitting down, try to focus on the weight of your hips/butt on the chair/floor. How does it feel? Can you feel the weight of your body pressing down against the surface you're sitting on?
Another idea is to pay attention to your lower belly as you breath in and out. See if you can actually feel it stretching, and contracting with each, effortless breath. Pay attention to the feeling.
This mental exercise not only helps improve your form — you'll be paying attention to how your body feels and responds to various lifts — it also keeps you concentrating on the session at hand, rather than allow your mind to wander and create thoughts that make you uncomfortable.
Lastly, realise that it's OK to be uncomfortable. You're in a new environment and making new lifestyle changes, so don't be so hard on yourself. Remember, you can't help your feelings, which are completely natural and nothing to be ashamed of. Being comfortable at the gym is a skill. The more you're OK with your own discomfort, the more you'll make it back to the gym, and the more familiar it will become.
Lifehacker's Vitals column offers health and fitness advice based on solid research and real-world experience.