Some things in life – swimming, public speaking, taking a radiator off the wall – are terrifying the first time you do them, but so fundamental to a better quality of existence that they’re well worth the effort. And so it is with the gym: though those first shaky reps come easier for some people than others, everyone is a beginner at some point.
Here, then, is your seven-step plan to overcoming gymtimidation – from crossing the threshold for the first time to becoming a squat-rack regular.
1 Sign up somewhere that suits you
One of the most common pieces of advice for the gymtimidated is that nobody else cares what you’re doing – but while that’s true in many places, not all gyms are created equal. “The first time I went to a gym in my 20s, men would routinely hit on me, watch me and generally make me feel uncomfortable,” says the writer Emilie Lavinia.
“I started going to classes that were mainly attended by women and that was a much happier and more relaxed place for me. Now, I like the gym I go to because everyone ignores each other and is totally focused on their own training. Also, it’s clean, the music is chilled and the staff are very attentive.”
Try to have a practice session at the gym you’re thinking about signing up for – ideally, during the times you’re most likely to attend. What feels like a mellow environment at 11am can quickly become a mosh pit when the post-work crowd show up.
2 Build the gym habit
It can take a while to get into the gym groove – one of the best-known studies suggests that habit formation takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days, with 66 as the (very rough) average. In the early days, then, every time you show up is a win, even if all you do is walk through the doors, do a bit of stretching, have a shower and leave.
If you enjoy group activities, signing up for regular classes can help. “For me, group classes made the gym less intimidating because everyone was there for a specific activity,” says Emma Nugent, who works in PR. “When I go to class knowing I’ll see some of the same faces, who are now some of my very good friends, it gives you a social aspect to look forward to as opposed to something to be afraid of.”
This is also the time to set up your routine so you’re not scrambling for your lifting shoes at 6am. “If you want to go first thing in the morning, go to bed with your gym kit on,” suggests graphic designer Luana Thomas. “That way, you just need to get up and go.”
3 Get comfy with the moves (and machines)
“I was clueless about most of the equipment in the gym when I first went,” says Thomas. “I remember having that horrible gut-wrenching feeling of not even knowing how to turn the machines on, and feeling super-embarrassed to ask. Thankfully, the guy who did my gym’s circuits class went out of his way to bring in equipment like the rowing machine, barbells, sandbags and battle ropes – so that slowly introduced me to a range of kit, and the lingo.”
This is the time to start fine-tuning your form – pick a handful of movements and take some time to learn the dos and don’ts of them. “When I started out, I dedicated a few hours a week to just expanding my knowledge outside the gym,” says Ravi Davda, who is now a personal trainer. “I spent time reading blogs and following fitness professionals on YouTube – there’s a lot of great information online.”
If all you learn to start with is the basics of a squat, a kettlebell swing and a solid stroke on the rowing machine, it’s still enough to make you a lot more sure of yourself.
4 Learn the basics of sets, reps and rest
One of the most important things to learn is how to structure a workout for your goals: even a move as simple as a squat can produce radically different effects on your body depending on the weight you use, how many times you lift it and how much you rest in between goes.
The simplified version is that fewer than five repetitions per set build strength, more than 12 build endurance, and anything in between works best for “hypertrophy” (building muscles). How many sets to do is more hotly contested – for muscle, the general consensus is that 10 to 20 per body part, per week is ideal, but for strength less is often more.
Finally, how strict you should be with your rests really depends on your goal – if you’re aiming for fat loss it’s a good idea to keep rests shorter than 60 seconds, but if you want pure strength then full recovery between sets is the goal, even if it takes five minutes.
5 Consider a trainer
“I’m probably biased on this one, but if you can afford it, get a personal trainer,” says Davda. “It’s a lot less intimidating when you’re walking around with someone who knows what they’re doing.”
The qualifications required for personal trainers in the UK only cover the absolute fundamentals of exercise, so PTs can vary hugely in their knowledge, experience and ability to get you results. Your best bet is to ask them if they have worked with people like you before, and what their results were like.
Also, preferably find one who is able to explain the how and the why of their routines – in true teach-a-man-to-fish style, your ultimate goal should be the ability to put together a successful session on your own.
6 Plan for progress
Once you’re in the habit of showing up and know the basics of the movements, you can start aiming for actual, measurable improvement – which is where the fun really starts. When you start going to the gym, almost anything you do will make you fitter, stronger or faster, because you haven’t been doing anything up to that point.
When you’re able to add a tiny plate to the bar or shave a second off your 2k-row time every time you train, that’s called linear progression, and it’s one of the most fun times to train – so do try to enjoy it. At some point, though, your body will move past the point where you can expect to make gains in every session – and here you’ll need to plan for progression by getting on a reputable programme.
For pure strength, Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 has a great track record; for cardio, Couch to 5k and British Rowing have some fantastic options. When the numbers are going up or down, you’ll find it a lot easier to shut out the little voice telling you you’re doing it wrong.
7 And find a style of training you like
Still not feeling the gym-love? Remember that exercise is just like films, books or music: if you’re not into the same stuff as everyone else, there are dozens of different options to try out. “My advice is to try different classes and see what you like,” says Thomas. “I’m still trying lots of different ones, though my regulars are HIIT, box fit, yoga and circuits.”
And remember, even if you have specific goals with training, there are still lots of options. Turned off by yoga? Gymnastics and Animal Flow have similar mobility-building benefits. Don’t like strict squatting? You might find the technical challenge of Olympic-style weightlifting more your speed. Even if your aim is to get a little leaner, anything from kettlebell-only workouts to CrossFit can help – so if one workout isn’t to your tastes, try something else.
Experiment enough, and you will eventually be able to show up to a busy gym, grab a single weight plate, and get a solid workout done. Good luck!