How To Hit The Gym Without Fear

For the novice, gyms can be a little scary. They're full of machines, and people watching you, and it can feel like every second you're doing something wrong. And even if you're an experienced gym rat, a new facility or routine can present some social challenges. Luckily, we're here to help.

Below, a few tips to help newbies and old-timers alike have a great gym experience.

Go on tour.

I talked to Ragen Chastain, gym aficionado and blogger at Dances With Fat, who offers this advice for anyone considering a new gym:

Go and get a tour before you join, and really pay attention to how people are, what different shapes and sizes of people there might be, and how people are interacting with each other. Go with a gym where you feel comfortable with the vibe there.

She adds,

Go around and find a gym where you're comfortable immediately when you walk in. Don't try to make yourself something else for the gym, or feel like when you start going to the gym you'll become a different person who'll fit in. Find a place where it feels like you fit in right away.

Take a class.

Says Chastain, "Once you choose a gym, a lot of gyms will do an introductory program [...], and I highly recommend taking that." She points out that a lot of gym anxiety stems from things like not knowing how to use the machines, and a quick introduction to all of them will make you feel more at ease. Our own MorningGloria adds that if the gym doesn't have a specific introductory program, you can ask someone at the front desk to show you around. Another option:

If you want a more-than-basic education, sign up for a session with a personal trainer who operates out of the gym. They'll help you familiarize yourself with the environment and come up with a routine for you to follow so that you know what you're doing.

Chastain endorses this approach too, but adds, "make sure you're clear with the trainer what your goals are. If you're a Health at Every Size person and you're goal isn't weight loss, be clear about that — whatever it is you're trying to do."

Bring a friend

Says Chastain,

I'd look at possibly joining with a friend or some friends. People tend to do healthy habits more when they do them with a group of friends anyway, and it can help with the scare factor if you're at least there with some people who you know and who are supporting you. You could also try to join a friend's gym, where they already know what's going on.

MoGlo adds,

A male friend and I used to go to the gym together and we'd have treadmill races and then we'd go through the weight machines together and spot each other. My boyfriend isn't as much of a gym rat, but we'll go together and do our own thing for an hour and then reconvene and get a smoothie. Gym time doesn't have to be SERIOUS BUSINESS FEEL THE BURN time. It can be fun, and relaxing, and it doesn't have to be intimidating.

When it comes to machines, be considerate.

Says MoGlo: "Pay attention to your gym's rules for cardio machine occupancy time limits. Some gyms don't care if you're on the elliptical for an hour, others will limit your elliptical time to 30 minutes. Even if you don't like the guidelines, respect them. It's rude to break the rules of the house." And when using weight machines: "Sit and relax for a bit between sets, but don't camp out. [...] The bench press is not a chair."

Chastain offers some more specifics:

When you switch back and forth [on weight machines] it's called setting in or repping in. If someone is lifting weights and they're resting between sets, it's polite to let somebody else come in and work while you're resting. [...] But if you're looking at somebody and they're using a racked weight machine, and they've been lifting 550 pounds and you're planning to lift twenty, then it's not polite to ask to rep in because they're going to have to move 530 pounds and put it back on. So you want to rep in with somebody who's doing something similar to you, or who's on a machine that's easily adjusted.

Once you know which machine you want to use, she says, "wait til they're on their rest set and say, 'can I set in?' or 'can I rep in?' and they'll probably say yes." Oh, and do everyone a favor and wipe your sweat off the machines after you use them: "you should bring a towel and water, but if you're going to forget something, forget the water, because the towel is for other people."

Same goes for pools.

I'm no expert on weight machines, but I have patronized public pools in three different states, and I can tell you a couple of things about how to get along with your fellow swimmers. First, choose the correct lane. Many pools label their lanes "slow, "medium," and "fast," but if the lanes are unlabeled, those at the edges of the pool are usually slower than those toward the center. If you haven't done much swimming before or think you are a slow swimmer, the slow lanes are best. Slow swimmers in faster lanes can mess up other people's strokes and make it hard for them to get a good workout. Similarly, if you know you're speedy, it's not a good idea to pick the slow lane just because it has fewer people in it — you may end up getting backed up behind slower swimmers, smacking them in the feet with your hand as you try to swim fast, and generally being frustrated.

Second, pool etiquette usually dictates that if only two people share a lane, they split it in half. If three or more people need to share (and this is usually the case of public pools), they circle. This means everybody is swimming up one side of the lane and then down the other, one after another. This is why it's helpful if everyone's going at around the same speed, but inevitably, there will be small differences. There are a number of ways to deal with this that are a little difficult to describe without a pool at hand, but one way that's not so great is to try to surge past the person in front of you by going into the other side of the lane. That's kind of like passing another car on a two-lane road — it's possible, but it can cause a lot of problems. It can also annoy everyone involved. And when annoyed, your fellow swimmers will start to talk shit about you — I've seen it. The best course of action at all times is to remember that the pool is shared space, and if that means you can't go quite as fast as you want to, that's how it has to be.

A word on changing.

Locker rooms are a little strange, in that they're a semi-public place in which it's okay to be naked. I'm always worried that I'll violate some kind of unspoken nudity rule, so I usually do most of my changing in stalls of some kind — some locker rooms have cool combined shower/changing rooms which are ideal for this purpose. Says MoGlo,

I'm really shy about being naked, so for a long time I'd go after work and change as quickly as I could in a bathroom stall. I don't care much anymore, but, generally speaking, try to keep the nudity contained as a courtesy to other patrons. Get naked if you need to, but don't stroll around naked, unless you're in a sauna or steam room or another nakedtime type place.

I'd add that, depending on the locker room, there will probably be at least one person who does kind of stroll around naked, and there's not much you can do about that. You can, however, limit your own nudity to whatever makes you most comfortable — if there are no changing stalls and you want to change in a bathroom stall, that's your prerogative. Nobody should feel like they have to be naked in front of strangers in order to work out.

It's okay to talk to people, but be respectful.

Says MoGlo,

Don't hit on people who are trying to exercise. If you want to flirt with someone, wait until they go to the water fountain or are walking between areas of the gym, or flirt with them in a group class. There are few things more annoying than being in the middle of a treadmill run and having a stranger tap you on the shoulder to say something that would be better saved for a bar. General rule: if someone has their headphones on, that's a sign that they don't want to interact.

I'd add that people generally don't take kindly to unsolicited advice while they're working out. If someone tries to tell you what to do at the gym, and you're not interested, Chastain suggests, "if you are somebody who feels like you want to do a teachable moment, you can stop and do a teachable moment about whatever your program is and why you're not doing what that person would advise you to do." However, if you'd rather just get on with your workout, say something like "I'm on a program, and I'm really trying to concentrate, so if you don't mind, I need to be able to focus."

Be confident, but relax.

No matter what your level of fitness, you have as much right to be in a gym or pool as anyone. Says MoGlo,

Don't be afraid to take up space and use the machines; you're paying the same per-month membership fee as they are and you have every right to lift a lighter weight if you'd like. Don't let people stare you out of the weight room. You belong there, too.

At the same time, know that most people probably won't even notice what you're doing. MoGlo explains,

[A]t the end of the day, remember that most people at the gym aren't there to look at people; they're there to work on themselves. It's not a beauty contest and even if you do something mortifying like trip over your own feet and shoot backwards off of a treadmill, chances are you won't ever see those people again, and if you do, they won't remember you.

And while it's important to be considerate of others when you're at the gym, you're not really there to impress them. You're there to work out, and hopefully to have some fun.

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