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How To Overcome Gym Intimidation

I remember the first time I walked into the weight section of a gym, oh man. The grunting, the sweating, the undeniable testosterone and ogling. Even after two years of working my way into the weight section, the ogling never stopped. I’d come home complaining to my parents about how uncomfortable I felt, and my dad said, “I mean look at what you’re wearing,” when I had on black leggings and a long sleeve compression shirt. The issue isn’t what we wear or how we compose ourselves as women in male dominated settings, it’s how we’re approached, how we’re being treated, and what is missing in the picture.

I speak to so many girls who refuse to step into gyms because of the men who have somehow claimed the space. They feel that because they don’t lift as much or they don’t know exactly the right form that they don’t belong, that they don’t have the right to be there. And as a general rule, yes, there are more men in weight sections in gyms because there’s always somewhat of an expectation that men should be muscular.

To fall in line with that, typically women are considered intentionally smaller than men. Biologically speaking, women are smaller than men, yes. Biologically speaking on another note, women do not produce the kind of testosterone men do and so will most likely never be larger than the average man. So what’s the harm in lifting a weight or two. Are men intimidated or do they feel threatened by our presence? Do they feel that weights are their domain because we’re physically less able to lift heavy things? What’s really the value in lifting something heavy anyway?

If anything, the fact that women are smaller should be more reason for us to be lifting weights, but we’ve got more work to do.

I had to teach myself that the gym was as much my space as it was that of a man. That I didn’t have to apologize for using a squat rack just because I wasn’t loading 45 pound plates onto it. That I didn’t have to try to take up as little space as possible because my workout wasn’t as important as theirs. For all the purposes a man might have to go to the gym, a woman has the same – maybe even more so. If a man wants to grow his shoulders and biceps, why shouldn’t a woman be able to? If a man wants to be able to lift heavier things in daily life, why shouldn’t a woman be able to want the same?

If you’re entirely new to weight lifting and form issues are where you’re hesitant, scroll through some Instagram fitness accounts for inspiration. I’d recommend trying to find credible sources, and as a rule never over-extend your back in any movement. Scroll through some YouTube videos for form tips, cues and even advice on how to position a bar on your back or hips. Some of my favorites (Instagram and YouTube) include: Jeff Nippard, Stephanie Buttermore, Whitney Simmons, and Hanna Oberg (for a longer list check the end of this article).

If you’re just starting out at the gym, first of all props for getting there at all. If you’re afraid to approach the weight section for whatever reason, don’t run to the cardio machines to avoid the grunting and unnecessary amount of arm day bros. Find yourself a corner or a space in or near the weight section to do some movements. Grab a few dumbbells or a bar and try to go through your workout in that space, that way you won’t feel like you need to move out of the way for the people dominating the area.

A few thoughts:

What if people stare at me for doing a weird exercise?

Keep in mind you might not look great in the gym, but the results will make it so worth it. If you know the exercise works for you, there’s nothing that should keep you from doing it.

Won’t I get bulky lifting weights?

It depends entirely on your approach to weight lifting. If you eat in a huge surplus and train really really heavy, then you might gain some bulk. But at the same time, women don’t produce the amount of testosterone men do and so it’s physically impossible to gain ‘manly’ features by lifting. Unless of course you’re taking a bunch of steroids (which is NOT recommended).

I’m afraid to fail.

I always have been and still am (three years into lifting weights) afraid to stumble or drop something, or fall over with a bar on my back. There definitely have been times where I’ve dropped plates on my toes, tripped over bars or embarrassed myself. But that’s also part of learning something new, you can’t let being afraid of a mistake stop you from being healthier, fitter, more confident. The more you practice, the more mistakes you make the easier it will be to just laugh at yourself and keep going.

Am I doing this right?

If something feels really off in whatever exercise you’re doing, say your knees are in pain, your back is straining, put the weight down and take a second. You might need to lower the weight, there’s no shame in that. You could ask someone for help with your form, or you could Google what the correct form is for whatever exercise you’re doing, it might be a quick fix like having the bar higher on your back or tightening your core.

Why won’t this guy stop staring?

I’ll be brutally honest, the staring will never stop. Some people don’t get the cue, they don’t understand how uncomfortable it can make someone to be stared at nonstop. A few things I’ve done in the past have been: stare back, just stare right back until they get uneasy and they’ll stop. Or you could ask them ‘can I help you’ if they’re being particularly rude. At times, you may just want to pick up your things and move a little further away from the person; it’s unfortunate but your time in the gym shouldn’t be taken away by ogling.

As much as the gym is an outlet and an escape from stress for me, it took awhile for me to really find my comfort. I’ve been lifting for three years now and I still occasionally feel uncomfortable in the weight section; it truly is an intimidating setting. Keep in mind that it is just as much your space as it is that of a man. Be patient with it all, get used to the energy and the etiquette in certain spaces. Always put your equipment back and try not to barge into other people’s spaces, don’t stand right next to someone and start doing lunges, it makes things awkward. If you know another person that also goes to the gym and wants to lift weights, try going together; it’s much less intimidating if you have a friend there with you.

All in all, be patient, be persistent, don’t let one bad experience scare you away from the gym, and try to find what you love. If lifting weights isn’t for you, don’t do it. Simple as that. If you prefer cardio then let that be your niche. But don’t let the reason you aren’t trying something new be that you think it’s only men. Women have and always have had the right to the gym. Take it.  

Social Media Recommendations:

  • @kayleeullom

  • @katiesonier

  • @_brooklynfit

  • @beth_fitnessuk

  • @trainwithjaclyn

  • @bretcontreras1

  • @collegecleaneating

  • @bodyfitbalance

  • @lucydavis_fit

  • @hollyemilyjackson

  • @fitness_iq

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Girl of the world, from the Netherlands. Writing because mumbling doesn't do anyone any good.
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