Some things in life – swimming, public speaking, pulling a radiator out of the wall – are terrifying the first time you do them, but so fundamental to a better quality of life that they’re worth the effort. And the same goes for the gym: While those shaky first reps are easier for some people than others, everyone is a beginner at some point.
So here’s your seven-step plan for overcoming gymstimidation – from crossing the threshold for the first time to becoming a regular at the squat-rack.
1 Register at a location convenient for you
One of the most common pieces of advice for the gym shy is that no one 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 twenties, men would regularly flirt with me, stare at me and generally make me feel uncomfortable,” says writer Emilie Lavinia.
“I started taking classes that were mostly attended by women and it was a much happier and more relaxed place for me. Now I like the gym I go to because everyone is happy. ignores and is totally focused on his own workout, plus it’s clean, the music is cool, and the staff is very attentive.
Try to have a workout at the gym you plan to join – ideally, during the hours when you are most likely to attend. What looks like a balmy environment at 11 a.m. can quickly turn into a mosh pit when the post-work crowd shows up.
2 Build the gym habit
It may take a while to get into the rhythm of the gym – one of the best known studies suggests that forming a habit takes 18 to 254 days, with 66 as the (very rough) average. In the beginning, then, every time you show up is a win, even if you just walk through the doors, do a little stretch, take a shower, and leave.
If you enjoy group activities, signing up for regular classes can help. “For me, the group classes made the gym less intimidating because everyone was there for a specific activity,” says Emma Nugent, who works in public relations. “When I go to class knowing I’ll see some of the same faces, who are now really good friends, it gives you a social aspect to look forward to as opposed to something you’re afraid of.”
This is also the time to get your routine in place so you don’t rush for your lifting shoes at 6 a.m. “If you want to get there in the morning, go to bed in your workout gear,” suggests graphic designer Luana Thomas. “That way, you just have to get up and go.”
3 Get comfortable with movements (and machines)
“I had no idea most of the gym equipment when I first went there,” says Thomas. “I remember having this horrible heartbreaking feeling of not even knowing how to turn on the machines and being very embarrassed to ask. Luckily the guy who took the circuits course at my gym did everything its possible to bring equipment like the rowing machine, dumbbells, sandbags and battle ropes – which slowly introduced me to a range of kits and lingo.
It’s time to start refining your form – pick a handful of moves and take the time to learn the do’s and don’ts. “When I started, I spent a few hours a week learning more outside of the gym,” says Ravi Davda, who is now a personal trainer. “I’ve spent time reading blogs and following fitness pros on YouTube – there’s a lot of great information online.”
If all you learn to begin with is the basics of a squat, a kettlebell swing and a solid stroke on the rowerit’s still enough to make you much 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 around your goals: even something as simple as a squat can have dramatically different effects on your body depending on the weight you use, the how many times you lift it and how much you rest in between.
The simplified version is that less than five reps per set builds strength, more than 12 reps builds endurance, and anything in between works best for “hypertrophy” (building muscle). How many sets to do is more hotly contested – for muscle, the general consensus is that 10-20 per body part, per week is ideal, but for strength, less is often more.
Finally, how strict you need to 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 , the goal is to fully recover between sets. , 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,” Davda says. “It’s a lot less intimidating to walk 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 wildly in their knowledge, experience and ability to get you results. It’s best to ask them if they’ve worked with people like you before and what their results have been.
Also, preferably find someone who is able to explain the how and why of his routines – in true teaching a man to fish style, your ultimate goal should be the ability to set up a session successful on your own.
6 Plan to progress
Once you get into the habit of showing up and know the basics of the movements, you can start aiming for real, measurable improvement – this is where the fun really begins. When you start going to the gym, almost everything you do will make you fitter, stronger, or faster because you haven’t done anything up until then.
When you’re able to add a little plate to the bar or take a second off your 2,000 rows every time you train, it’s called linear progression, and it’s one of the the most fun to practice – so try to enjoy it. At some point, however, your body will pass the point where you can expect to make gains with every session – and here you will need to plan your progress by following a reputable program.
For pure strength, 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler has an excellent track record; for cardio, Couch to 5k and British rowing have fantastic options. When the numbers go up or down, it will be much easier for you to ignore the little voice telling you that you are wrong.
7 And find a workout style you like
Still not feeling the love for the gym? Remember that exercise is like movies, books or music: if you don’t like the same things as everyone else, there are dozens of different options to try. “My advice is to try out different classes and see what you like,” says Thomas. “I always try a lot of different ones, although my regulars are HIIT, box fit, yoga and circuits.”
And remember, even if you have specific goals with training, there are still plenty of options. Disabled by yoga? Gymnastics and Animal Flow have similar mobility-enhancing benefits. Don’t like strict squats? You might find the technical challenge of Olympic-style weightlifting more your speed. Even if your goal is to get a little leaner, everything from kettlebell-only workouts to CrossFit can help — so if one workout isn’t working for you, try something else.
Experiment enough and eventually you can show up at a busy gym, grab a single weight plate, and do a solid workout. Good luck!