How to Get Over Your Fear of the Gym Weight Room

Take it from someone who's definitely been there.

Photograph by iStock/Aneese

I’ve spent most of my life terrified of the gym weight room. I think it comes down to a few reasons. For one thing, gym weight rooms have a lot of unspoken rules: If you put a towel on a bench, is that claiming it? If they left their water bottle by a machine, can I use it while they’re using something else? 

Then there’s the machines themselves. I’m no dummy, but the things are not always so obvious to figure out. They’re the PCs of the fitness world: clunky, big, and not particularly user-friendly.

Finally, there’s the people. It’s a lot of dudes. They have muscles. They drop stuff, and it’s loud. And big, physically imposing people intimidate me. At 5’2″, I’m intimidated by just about everybody.

So I spent a long time afraid of the weight room, and consequently, I spent a long time without proper weight training. Honestly, when I think about it now, it makes me pretty mad at myself. Weight training is so important for every body, especially as we age. I let my fear — of embarrassing myself, of what others would think, of doing it wrong — stop me from doing something good.

But I am so over that now. Here’s how I finally got over my fears and started weight training — and how you can, too.

Get a Trainer

I know what you’re thinking: Girl, personal trainers are expensive! Yes, yes they are. But here’s the thing: They actually know what they’re doing. Also, most gyms will offer you a first session for free. Ask them to meet you in the weight room, and ask them to walk you through the machines and to show you different exercises you can do. Believe me, going in with a tour guide who knows all the machines is way, way better than walking up to a machine then immediately walking away once you realize you have no idea how the heck it works (been there, done that).

Get a Buddy

If you can’t go in accompanied by a pro, the next best thing is to go in with a buddy — even better if that buddy knows what they’re doing. Everything is less scary with a support team, and besides, having a workout partner will keep you more accountable to stick to your workouts.

Get a Plan

Part of the discomfort of the weight room is there’s a lot of decision making. Unlike the treadmill — where you can flip a switch and spend the next 30 minutes mindlessly moving — in the weight room, as soon as you’re done with one set, you have to ask, Okay, what’s next? If you go into the weight room with a workout already written out, you remove that decision process from the equation. I keep a list of exercises on my phone and just go down the list. I also use the Nike Training Club app, which walks me through workouts. It doesn’t matter if you use a paid subscription program or a list that you scribbled down on a sticky note. Just come in with a plan, and focus on moving from one exercise to the next.

Get Over the Rules

Like I said, there are a lot of unspoken rules and etiquette that can make the weight room that much more intimidating. Aside from the basic safety rules (like, don’t smash any body parts in or under any weights), forget about the rules. As far as I’m concerned, there is only one rule that matters in the weight room: Treat others the way you want to be treated. To me that encompasses everything from putting things back where you found them to not hogging machines to not taking things that aren’t yours. And if someone calls you out for breaking an unspoken “rule” (which has happened to me, when I thought someone was finished with a machine when he wasn’t), roll with it — and accept that now you know for next time.

Get Over Yourself

Yeah, I know. Harsh, right? But it’s also what I had to tell myself to realize that my fears of the weight room were totally irrational. I was so focused on what other people would think of me. But you know what I realized? Everyone is too focused on themselves to be thinking about you. The people in the weight room are thinking about their next set, they’re thinking about how their muscles look in the mirror, they’re thinking about the sweat stains on their shirts — not you. Once I realized this, it freed me up to just do my thing, knowing everyone else is thinking about doing their thing.

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