Coaching Corner: Lifting Confidence

By Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake

Reader Question: I have everything I need to start my new strength-training regimen. I’ve joined a gym and got my program. I’ve plugged my training days into my schedule, and I’ve even got workout clothes that I’m excited to wear. And yet, I’m still very intimidated about stepping onto the gym floor and I haven’t gone yet. Any advice?

Photo cred: Kate Gallagher

Photo cred: Kate Gallagher

You might know this feeling, too. You’re excited to embark on a new program that looks so fun and that you know is great for your body, mind, and health. But still, unfamiliarity and uncertainty are holding you back from getting started. To help get you over the hump and on track, I called upon a little help from my favorite fitness friends — and my own experience — to deliver you advice and strategies for overcoming gym-timidation.

Look For a Space That Reflects You

The number one rule of making progress towards any goal is simple, in theory: Keep showing up. But how do you show up when your nerves keep you from even opening the door? “Your community will make or break your consistency with your fitness journey and beyond,” advises Rachel Black Graves, owner of Bloomfield Fit Body Bootcamp in Connecticut.

To make getting started easier on yourself, do bit of research on the front end to find a space where you feel comfortable and welcome. Find a spot that meets your needs right from the get-go, before your first step onto the free weight floor, because if you’ve joined a gym and you’re feeling extra nervy about starting your routine in a new space, that may be your spidey-sense telling you something isn't the best fit for you.

First, ask yourself questions and use the answers to help narrow down your must-haves for your best fitness space. Do you like to workout by plugging in your earbuds and getting into your zone without interruption, or do you prefer engaging with a group? What types of workouts are you interested in doing right now (heavy strength training, kettlebell, group fitness, etc)? Set parameters to include the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms and a layout that is accessible to your current physical needs. (This might not be a physically necessary, but in alignment with your value system.)

Next, check out videos, pictures and past events of the gyms you’ve located online. (Side note: You may work out at home alone but you're interested in joining an online training group. The following recos still apply.) Read member reviews, and ask around: What are others saying about them?

Schedule a walk-through with a staff member to check out the vibe and available equipment, and don’t hesitate to ask what the gym or online organization stands for. "Don't settle,” encourages Black Graves. "Community makes all the difference in the world. Find your people.”

Take Charge of Your Mindset and Your Outlook

If you’re nervous about starting your workout regimen in a new gym it can be easy to let your thoughts run wild, on the negative side. “What if no one is friendly? Will they know I don’t know what I’m doing?” Left unchecked, those thoughts can snowball your nerves into a full on fear that keeps you away from the gym — and from getting started.

Listen, as a former overly shy kid and teen who’s nerves led to awkward moments akin to Baby-from–Dirty Dancing's "I carried a watermelon." And I’ve learned that the best way to quiet those negative voices down is to talk right back. Nicely, of course.

The practice of positive self-talk has long had its place in athletics and new gym goers can take the same approach when flipping the script on their own mindset.“ Mindset issues are prevalent in around fifty percent of the athletes I work with, regardless of what sport they are in,” says sports psychologist Heather Pearson. (So, hey gym newbies! Take some comfort that even elite athletes can share in performance anxiety.)

Positive self-talk is a straight forward approach: Talk to yourself in a positive way, the way you would talk to a colleague or friend who needs more confidence, but to yourself instead. Repeated mantras of “I am strong. I can try new things. I can take it on one exercise at a time," will help increase your confidence and overcome fear.

Another approach is to turn your focus outward. Self-titled Chief Happiness Officer and New York–based personal trainer Charles Abouzied advises his clients to employ a sense of adventure when entering a new fitness space.“

We all have fears that threaten to hold us back. But instead of letting fear keep you away from the gym, reframe your thought process where you use curiosity to overcome intimidation. Ask,“ I wonder what cool stuff they have? I can’t wait to see all the awesome lifting going on. Ooooh, they have snacks!” With this approach, consider the scenario that you are not under the gym microscope, but that the gym is under yours. What do they have to offer you? What opportunities are there for you to learn new things? Instead of feeling intimidated by veteran members, who can be your inspiration and role model?

Dip Your Toe In

I was a lucky kid: We had a pool in our backyard of the house I grew up in.

Every year, my parents opened it up on Memorial Weekend and the following week I would wear my swimsuit under my clothes to school. My grand plan was to immediately strip when I got home and jump into the water. (This made going to the bathroom at school extremely difficult. And chilly.)

The thing is, the pool temperature was always freezing, or just above it actually. My parents never turned on the pool heater — “Do you know how much that costs??” my dad would exclaim — and we would have to rely on the warm weather to heat the waters. That meant weeks of rushing to the water’s edge and dipping my toes in to check the temp. I would sit on the edge and ease my lower legs in, inching in ever so slowly as my body acclimated to the cold. My friends would holler at me to jump in already and I would yell back,“Let me get used to it!”

It’s fine to take the same approach when starting a new routine in a new space. Look at your program and pick out the moves you’re most familiar with. Practice at home, with or without weights, picturing doing the same moves at the gym. Know where the equipment you need is located (because you took a tour, remember?) and if you can, plan to go when you know the weight room isn’t packed (if you aren’t sure when this is, ask a staff member). Do the exercises you know and go home. Familiarity breeds comfort and feeling comfortable makes trying new things easier. Repeat the process the next time, nudging yourself to expand your routine as you go, until you’re doing the whole routine.

Give yourself grace to get used to this new thing you’re doing. It doesn’t have to be perfect right from the start. By choosing your best space and taking charge of your mindset and approach you can create an experience you ’ll love showing up to, over and over again. And in time? The inspiration for the new person who just joined your gym is you.

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Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake

is a USAPL-certified Club Coach, RKC2 kettlebell trainer, and mat Pilates fan, and is driven to invite as many as interested to discover how fun strong can be through a variety of entry points. When she’s not training herself or clients, you can find her with her nose in a book, or snacking and asking, “Are you going to finish that?”