The ‘Gymtimidated’ Guide to a First-Time Workout

I’ve always thought of the gym as a place only for fit and attractive people with a deep knowledge of how to work out. I would imagine the typical bros high-fiving one another’s sweat-covered hands after a serious lifting sesh in the weight room, or groups of fit and attractive women in their expensive sportswear, sipping fancy detox drinks that probably have avocados in them. Terrifying stuff.

I’m a self-diagnosed sufferer of gym anxiety. However, I’m not alone: 75% of women are reported to have concerns over what others will think of them at the gym, while 20% of gym-going men worry about using the equipment in the weight room. I even thought a ‘deadlift’ was some kind of wrestling move.

Making matters worse, my local gym is the University of Stirling’s fitness suite, where athletes train for the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and other International competitions. I couldn’t be more out of place if I tried. Unfortunately, my gym-addicted brother persuaded me to give him a tour of my university’s sports facilities. Too embarrassed to admit my ignorance, I agreed to take him.

The University of Stirling’s Fitness Suite. Shows a variety of cardiovascular machines in the main gym area. Captured by Lewis Johnson-Matchett.

Walking into the Lions’ Den

To begin the tour, I quickly got my brother and I completely lost. Thankfully, with the help of the receptionist, we were pointed in the right direction. After a quick change in the onsite changing rooms, we found ourselves in the main gym area as pictured above. My brother was highly impressed by the cleanliness and quality of the equipment, in comparison to the many other gyms he had visited in his time.  To our relief, there was a great number and variety of cardiovascular machines available, meaning we were not left waiting around to start our workouts.

Meanwhile, I was sweating at the thought of being in a gym at peak time. Thankfully, my brother’s confidence and encouragement did a lot to put my mind at ease. I would urge my fellow novices to go to the gym with a friend, or to take advantage of a session with a personal trainer, who’ll teach you how to use the equipment safely and effectively. Remember, a fifth of men who go to the gym regularly don’t know what they are doing in the weight room either, so there is no shame in asking a staff member for help.

Keeping it Simple

Before starting my workout, my brother advised me to take it easy, which was music to my ears. In his words, a first-time workout is about learning ‘motor patterns’ for good form and technique: gym speak for learning how to actually use the equipment safely and effectively. Overexerting yourself can result in delayed onset muscle soreness, or the dreaded ‘DOMS‘ as experienced gym-goers call it. Even medical experts encourage low volume and low intensity (short and easy) exercise the first time you try something new, or add extra exercises to your routine.

After doing some cardio, we moved downstairs to the strength and conditioning room to try out the Olympic grade equipment.

My brother getting into position to do a barbell squat. Photo taken by Lewis Johnson-Matchett.

Facing My Fears

The weight room: the root of my anxiety. As a scrawny guy, watching other people lift three or four times my body weight initially made me feel out of my depth. But it was at this point that I realised: nobody was paying me any attention. Everyone else was too focused on their own workouts, and that suited me just fine. After spotting for my brother, I did some bench presses, starting with just the bar as my brother recommended. Even that was enough for me. It taught me a valuable lesson: we all have to start from somewhere, it doesn’t matter how small or light that start is.

For me, this workout was about training up my confidence, as if it were a muscle of its own. Each incremental increase in weight was an extra boost of confidence, which motivated me to keep going. After all, this wasn’t the most strenuous experience. Once we were done in the weight room, we took a much needed shower in the changing rooms, before leaving for a well deserved rest.

My brother doing a deadlift. Combine with a squat exercise and a bench press, for a full body workout (read up on Push Pull Legs for more). Photo taken by Lewis Johnson-Matchett.

Feeling Ready?

Even after facing my fear, I still feel a slight hesitation. However, the experience has given me a lot of motivation to work on my confidence, and to hopefully get to the point where my ‘gymtimidation’ is a thing of the past.

One final thing to remember is that the gym is a shared space. Perhaps the only way you’ll create enemies is by leaving the machines and equipment covered in your sweat, not putting back weights and equipment after you’ve used them, turning up in bare feet after not showering for a week, or slamming weights and screaming as you work out. A lot of this falls into common sense territory, but it can be easy to forget to bring a towel to your first workout to dry off the machines, as I had to learn the hard way.

Good luck, and try not to repeat my mistakes!


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