Updated: Jul 23, 2019
Gyms are intimidating. I get it. It took me until I was 22 before I ever set foot in a gym, not because I didn’t have the motivation, but because I was scared.
Gyms are full of strangers doing weird motions and using weird machines. When you’ve never been to a gym before and don’t know how the whole thing works, it’s a lot to handle, especially for people who feel anxious in social situations.
Having managed to defeat my gym anxiety after letting it hold me back for years, here’s my step by step guide for how I got over my gym anxiety and started working out regularly.
Step 1: Research the gyms in your area online to figure out where you want to go.
This step is fairly simple. You can’t go to a gym without deciding which one to go to. Gyms vary quite a lot in what they offer, how much they cost, when they’re open, and plenty of other things. Find a gym that suits your needs.
I know Planet Fitness often gets made fun of by people who are really into fitness and lifting, and sure, if your aim is to focus on powerlifting/the big three (squat, bench, and deadlift) then Planet Fitness isn’t the place for you. But if you’re not concerned with putting on a ton of muscle as quickly as possible and just want an affordable place to do some moderate workouts and familiarize yourself with how gyms work, Planet Fitness is great. (This isn’t sponsored by PF, that’s just the gym that I’ve been going to for almost a year, and I like it a lot.)
Or maybe you’d rather join a gym that focuses on offering a wide range of classes taught by well-trained professionals, or you want a gym that’s close to your home or office, or you need a gym that’s open really late at night—consider what it is that you’re looking for in a gym. Weigh the pros and cons of the gyms near where you live, and choose one that suits your lifestyle.
Step 2: Acquire a membership.
Once you know where you’d like to go, get a membership. I did this online, but for some gyms, this may require that you show up in person. Just go to the person at the front desk, tell them that you’d like to be a member, and they’ll guide you through the process of joining.
Step 3: Research workouts online.
Depending on whether or not you can join your gym online, you may want to do this step before signing up.
A large part of why I was so anxious about going to a gym was because I had no idea how to do any workouts. I’d seen people using machines and lifting weights before, but it all seemed so confusing, weird, and unintuitive to me.
Watching videos of how to use different machines and do specific lifts gave me some confidence, even if I didn’t end up doing those things long-term. I knew that if I got lost and confused in the gym, I could default back to those two or three exercises that I knew how to do.
Just be careful not to get so caught up in research that you never move on to step 4! Fitness is notorious for being one of those things that people research and research and research but never actually get around to doing.
Don’t forget about the basics, either! Most gyms have open floor space and mats for stretching or ab workouts, and it took me way too long to embrace that space in the gym. If I were to do it all over again now, I’d start there, doing sit-ups and stretching just to get myself used to being in the gym. Don’t overcomplicate it!
Step 4: Go to the gym.
Yes, we’ve finally made it to the part where you have to go to the gym, but don’t worry, we’ll take it slowly. When you get there, take a deep breath, remind yourself that everything is going to be okay, and just walk inside the doors to the front desk.
If you signed up online, tell them that you need to pick up your key tag. If you need to register for a membership, tell the person at the desk that you’d like to sign up for a membership, and they’ll help you through the process.
If this is all that you can handle on your first trip to the gym, that’s fine! You don’t have to work out on your first trip to the gym! I didn’t do a real workout until my fourth time at the gym. It’s perfectly acceptable to sign up for your membership without working out at that moment. No one is going to care if you get your key tag, turn right back around, and leave. I promise.
Step 5: Get a tour.
This can happen on your first trip when you pick up your key tag, or at another time. Take things at your own pace.
Many gyms offer orientations, and they should all offer tours. At my Planet Fitness, I was able to sign up for orientation online, so I picked up my key tag just before orientation, and then got a tour of the gym from the trainer.
If your gym doesn’t offer an official orientation, just ask the person at the front desk to show you around, or walk around on your own. You’re totally free to just walk through the gym on your own to see what’s there. Even experienced gym-goers need to walk through a new gym to figure out where everything is. Once you’re a member, that space is yours too and you have just as much right to walk around it as anyone else.
If walking around the gym makes you feel odd, know that people do it all the time. No one knows if you’re just warming up your legs, trying to figure out where your gym buddy went, or headed to do your next exercise. Walk around and familiarize yourself with everything.
The only thing to keep in mind as you walk around is not to get too close to anyone who’s lifting. You don’t want to cause injuries to them or you.
Now that you’ve gotten yourself to the gym, the next few steps are interchangeable as you feel ready. Take on whatever you feel comfortable with.
Step 6: Get on a treadmill.
Even if cardio isn’t your focus, walking on a treadmill can help you gain confidence and feel more comfortable existing inside the gym. It gives you an easy activity to do where you can observe the gym to get a feel for how it works. Once you’re on the treadmill, you don’t have to worry about who’s lifting where, which machines are open, or how to do a certain exercise. All you have to do is walk, and just existing inside the gym will help you build gym-confidence.
Step 7: Work with a trainer.
Not all gyms have trainers, but if yours does, doing a session or two with a trainer can help you get onto your feet more quickly. I was able to meet with the trainer at my gym a couple of times for free, and he showed me how to use the machines and set up a basic workout routine for me so that I didn’t have to worry about what I was doing. Though I’ve since created a new routine for myself that I like better, that initial start with the trainer helped to get me on the right path.
If your gym doesn’t have a trainer, see if a friend will go with you to show you the ropes or offer moral support. I can’t go to the gym with you, but I’ll answer any questions that you have about working out! I also post a lot of down-to-earth you-can-do-it fitness content on my Instagram, if you feel that may help you.
Step 8: Slowly branch out as you feel comfortable.
It took me several months to move from machines to weightlifting, largely because I’m a small and inexperienced woman, and the weightlifting section of my gym is filled with guys who are a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than I am. It’s pretty intimidating.
I worked up the courage one day and went over there when it was quiet, and it turns out I love weightlifting, and that those guys are actually really friendly and supportive, and now several of them are my gym friends.
In my case, and I'm sure I'm not alone, that little twinge of gym anxiety will always live in the back of my mind, but going to the gym regularly keeps it quiet. If I take too many days off, I start to feel anxious again, and I just have to remember to start slowly. In those moments, I focus on showing up, and doing something simple that I’m comfortable with.
Take slow but consistent steps to face your fears, and one day, you’ll see the results you want.
Helpful hints and things to remember:
No one is paying attention to you, and no one cares what you do.
Everyone else at the gym is absorbed in their own workout. No one cares what you’re doing, wearing, or lifting. The chances that anyone says anything rude to you are very, very, very, very, VERY slim, and if they do, you can report them and have them removed from the gym. The gym owners don’t want people like that there any more than you do.
Go during the quiet times.
If it fits your schedule, gyms are much less stress-inducing if you go when it’s less busy. At my gym, Mondays are the busiest, with fewer and fewer people showing up as the week goes on. Saturday afternoons are quiet, and it’s usually pretty empty before 7 a.m. and after 9 p.m any day of the week, but it’s packed between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.
You can likely check how busy your gym is at any given time by Googling it and checking the “popular times” graph.
Take a friend.
I know that I would’ve felt a lot better about going to a gym if I’d had a friend to show me how the whole thing works. Unfortunately, I didn’t, so I had to go on my own. After I’d figured it out, I dragged my boyfriend to the gym with me. He was reluctant to go but decided almost immediately that he liked it and got his own gym membership.
Though we now work out at different times, working out with a friend can help you with both getting over gym anxiety and finding the motivation to work out consistently.
Not only can some good music pump you up for a workout or a motivating podcast get you out the door to head to the gym, but headphones put you in your own little world at the gym. They block out the gym noise (which you probably don’t want to hear anyway), and even if you aren’t playing anything through them, they serve as a sign to others that you’re focused and don’t want to talk.
If it makes you feel more hidden, you can always wear a hat or put the hood up on a hoodie while working out as well. Plenty of people do it to show that this is their time and they don’t want to be bothered (or they’re cold, or just like hats).
Go in with a plan.
Most importantly, having a plan will bring results more quickly. You’ll see progress sooner if you have a set workout plan and stick to it consistently. But aside from that, having a plan means you know what you have to do while you’re at the gym so that it’s less scary. You’ve got a game plan and can tackle the gym like a pro, rather than feeling lost because you’re not sure where to start. There are plenty of well-designed workout plans for every ability and fitness goal, so find one that suits your needs and bring it with you to the gym.
That said, know that it’s okay to deviate from the plan. If the machine that you need next is taken, go on to the next thing and come back to it. If your shoulder is feeling a little funky, don’t push it, even if it’s shoulder day. Listen to your body and know that skipping an occasional lift here and there won't make a difference in the long run.
Gyms can be intimidating and it’s perfectly valid to feel nervous about going to one, especially if you’re new to working out and don’t know what you’re doing. Take it one step at a time. I broke this down into a step-by-step guide for a reason. You don’t have to do everything at once.
It took me four trips to the gym before I finally did a real workout. Work up to it. Do what you can, take it a little bit at a time, and don’t feel like you have to do a perfect workout on your first trip to the gym. It’s going to be okay. The worst thing that could happen is that you look a little awkward, but the chances that anyone even notices are very close to zero. You’ve got this. Pushing through that anxiety is so worth it.