I walked into a gym’s free weight area for the very first time about six years ago. The room was buzzing with dudes grunting over the clatter of metal on metal. There were no women deadlifting or spotting each other’s bench presses, like I regularly see in my gym now. It took all of 30 seconds before the low-grade panic set in: I’m not supposed to be in here. I pivoted on my heel and retreated to the fleet of ellipticals from whence I’d come.
In retrospect, I highly doubt any of those guys even noticed me at all, but for the duration of my quick experiment, I felt like every single pair of eyes was on me, wondering what I was doing there, if I’d gotten lost. That’s the joy of social anxiety, which for me reaches thrilling new heights in the spaces where I feel conspicuously out of place.
My short-lived foray into the weights area was in 2012, after I’d stumbled upon an inspiring stranger on Tumblr who eschewed the low-calorie, high-cardio model of fitness that had been ceaselessly drilled into my and every other woman’s head at the time. But in a tale as old as time (or at least my life), my curiosity was piqued, but my nerves got the best of me. Back to the treadmill I went—for another four or five years.
Turns out, these jitters are surprisingly common—and most seasoned gym vets likely felt them when they first started, too.
Rachel Denis is a competitive powerlifter living in Brooklyn who holds multiple New York state records in the sport, but when she first started lifting weights three years ago, she says she felt out of her element. “I remember feeling like everybody else definitely knew what they were doing, and I was just kind of wandering around wondering what I should do and if I looked silly,” she tells me. And when April Henry, another competitive powerlifter and former personal trainer living in New York, first joined a gym several years ago, she says the thing she felt most intimidated by was the equipment. “I wasn't so nervous about people looking at me, or people judging me, but I was very nervous about not knowing how to use the machines.”
While those initial new-kid nerves can ebb with experience, many still struggle with gym anxiety long after the newbie phase.
“Gym anxiety is so common,” says Lis Saunders, a powerlifting coach based in Atlanta who says that the number-one concern she hears from clients is whether they’ll look like they don’t know what they’re doing or will be judged by others. Saunders herself still deals with gym anxiety, despite working in the industry for years. “I've always battled social anxiety, so even though I have lots of lifting and coaching experience now, I still feel anxious every time I go to the gym.”
Nowadays, many weight rooms—like the one I work out in—are likely to host a much more diverse array of gym-goers than 10 or 20 years ago, which is comforting. And for the most part, I’ve reached a point where I can squeeze in a gym session without fleeing to the safety of the cardio machines. Yet, I still find my nervous little brain occasionally corkscrewing down the “I shouldn’t be here, and everyone else knows it” path.
Here are a few tactics that I, and others who’ve struggled similarly, find helpful to keep those nerves at bay:
1. Have a plan before you go.
Wandering around a gym aimlessly without a plan in mind only heightens the sensation of feeling like I don’t belong (or suspecting everyone else is looking at me like I’m lost). When I come equipped with a list of exactly what I want to accomplish, down to the number of reps for each set, that feeling subsides and I’m able to actually focus on getting it done.
Henry agrees: She believes research is the number one thing everyone should do before even setting foot inside a gym. “Having and executing a well-researched plan helps build a sense of accomplishment and will help you stay on track and focused on only you,” she says. Try this beginner lifting workout, and browse SELF's Workout Finder for many more ideas. You can find loads of pre-designed programs for all skill levels around the internet, and you can even get ideas from Instagram. Try not to overthink it—just pick one you’ll stick with.
2. Spend some time learning the basics on your own.
When doing something, anything, in public, one of my brain’s favorite songs to loop is “Am I Doing This Right?” (Often followed by my other smash hit single, “No, and Everyone Is Judging You.”) This can be assuaged by the confidence in knowing that you are, in fact, doing it right. I was fortunate to train with a small powerlifting group at a neighborhood gym for two years, under the watchful eye of a seasoned powerlifting coach; now that I’m back at a commercial chain gym, that foundation has made a huge difference for me.
If you’re brand-new to weightlifting, Denis says the internet is a goldmine of helpful videos breaking down correct form. “Educating yourself before you go in will go a long way in increasing your confidence,” she says. See also: form checks on the women’s fitness subreddit, r/XXFitness, another online treasure trove of advice, knowledge, and support. You can also find videos online to answer pretty much any of your equipment-related questions, like how to load and deload a bar, how to properly pick up a kettlebell, or where to find collars for the barbells. Familiarizing yourself with these basics will help you feel more prepared—and less overwhelmed—when you first walk into the weight room.
And if working with a trainer is an option for you, a one-time session may be all the technical instruction you need to feel confident (and not to mention, lower your risk of injury).
3. Find a gym that feels welcoming, and be open to switching if the atmosphere doesn’t feel right.
The truth is that different gyms have different vibes, and if the one you belong to makes you feel out of place no matter what you do, then maybe it’s time to cut ties and find a new spot.
Most gyms offer a trial week, or will just give you a quick tour if you’re interested. Either can be a chance to get a sense of the atmosphere. Take the opportunity to scope out the vibe and culture as much as you can and decide whether it’s for you: Are people monopolizing the equipment, or politely working in with each others’ sets? Is there a diverse array of bodies and skill levels, or is it just swarming with peacocking bros? Do people re-rack their own plates, or do they leave them for the next person to deal with? In my experiences it's rare to find a gym with absolutely zero incidents of creeps making it weird by staring or taking up more than their fair share of space, but some places truly are better than others. If you visit a gym or do a trial workout and get an "all eyes on me" vibe that is definitely not just your imagination, it might not be an environment that you're going to want to spend time in regularly.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask a gym employee for help figuring out machines (or for a quick tour).
Every gym is a little different, and learning the ropes of what goes where can feel awkward. I recently spent at least five minutes trying to adjust a leg press machine for my 5’0” frame right after a very tall man had used it. (Reader, my toes could barely reach the plate.) After what felt like an eternity of self-conscious tinkering, I caved and politely asked the front desk for help, which they provided in a snap (and it was—gasp—no big deal). If you’re joining a new gym or braving a specific area for the first time, it can feel like trying to figure out how to work the copy machine on the first day of a new job. Getting the lay of the land from a staffer can help you feel a tiny bit more in control. Knowledge is power; getting lost between the lat pulldown and the leg press is decidedly not.
Henry recalls this as her biggest source of anxiety starting out, but one which was easily quelled: “Learning how to use the squat rack, learning what the different bars weigh, learning how to set up the safeties…I was a little nervous about all of that. But I put on my big girl pants and I just asked someone.”
5. Get comfortable saying “no thanks.”
Men! In my experience, many of them love to give advice, especially the unsolicited kind. And especially in the gym. Saunders has several clients who train with her, in addition to doing their own solo sessions in commercial gyms. They tell her that when working out alone, they’re frequently approached by guys looking to share some unsolicited commentary and advice on everything from technique to how much weight they should be lifting. In this scenario, unless someone is genuinely and appropriately concerned for your physical safety, a polite but firm rebuff can make all the difference. “My response would be, ‘Thank you, but I am following a specific training program and I do not need your help,’” suggests Saunders. And if someone is persistent or otherwise making you uncomfortable, don’t hesitate to loop in the staff.
6. Wireless headphones are game-changing.
Perhaps this is a no-brainer, but a $ 25 pair of Bluetooth headphones from Amazon made such an enormous difference for me. Headphones have always been a gym bag essential when I’m logging minutes on the elliptical, but I never liked the interference of cords or arm bands while racking my weights or getting set up in a squat rack. Being able to walk around a gym untethered, all while blasting my own personal soundtrack, helps me feel more confident, keeps me focused on the task at hand, and prevents me from spiraling too far into my own head.
7. Keep your eyes on the prize by keeping in mind why you’re at the gym in the first place.
Having a goal in mind, whether it’s, “I want to bench-press my dad,” or, “I want to crush a watermelon with my thighs,” gives your brain something to focus on when self-doubt begins to creep in. Even focusing on the immediate positives—as in, the relief you’ll feel after finishing your workout—can help prevent that prickle of anxiety from ruining a workout. “Training helps me feel strong and gives me confidence,” says Saunders. “I try to remember how good I’ll feel afterward, and usually that pushes me through.”
8. Remember that, in all likelihood, most people are paying less attention to you than you think they are.
Easier said than done, I know. But when I loudly drop a plate or spectacularly fail a set, I try to remind myself that no one came to the gym to gawk at me: They’re in their own heads, doing their own workout, hopefully trying just as hard as I am to avoid eye contact. My new mantra comes courtesy of Henry: “Those other people are not paying your gym membership. And they're not going to get the work done for you. So come in with your plan, remember your goal at all times, make sure you got your headphones, and just get it done.”