315 pounds crashed into the floor, surrounded by a haze of chalk dust and grunting. That’s how the gym introduced itself on my first day.
Twenty minutes later I came inches away from decapitating myself with a barbell. Even though I was only trapped under the bar for a few seconds, it felt like every eye had suddenly turned towards me. The redness of my cheeks had nothing to do with exercise.
So it wasn’t a great first day.
Later I’d learn that many, even most, people are just as intimidated when they start working out. I’d learn that there are real, psychological reasons for gym fear (and ways to overcome them). As counterintuitive as it sounds, not feeling fit enough to go to the gym is a real problem.
But on that first day, 315 pounds seemed like a mountain, chalk dust seemed like an impenetrable fog, and grunts reminded me that this was a language and culture I didn’t understand.
For a long time I was too embarrassed to go to the gym. Gym fear kept me away. I wondered: why do I keep feeling anxious?
It was only after training and talking to other people that I saw the psychology behind gym anxiety. I saw that I was far from the only person afraid of being judged. And, as I learned to overcome my gym anxiety and work out more consistently, I started to read more about why we face these problems in the first place.
By studying the psychology research, I discovered the root causes of gym anxiety and discomfort. Like turning on the lights, I could suddenly see factors that I hadn’t realized were affecting me—but made me feel like I was getting judged.
And once I could see those factors, I could work to solve them.
This is how to overcome gym anxiety.
Gym Anxiety Has 4 Main Causes
There are four psychological reasons for gym anxiety: not being sure what to do, comparing yourself to other people in the gym, feeling like people are judging you, and feeling like you don’t belong.
Fortunately, if you want to know how to feel less anxious there’s research on all four causes of gym anxiety.
The First Cause of Gym Fear: Feeling Uncertain
Not being sure what to do is a physical problem and a psychological one. It’s physical, because if you don’t know what to do you’re not likely to choose a super effective workout. But it’s psychological because uncertainty is stressful.
People don’t like uncertainty , and there’s a link between feeling anxious and being uncertain .
If you don’t know what to do in the gym, you’re uncertain because, well, you don’t know what to do!
You might not be sure of how to interact with other people in the gym, where to find the equipment you need, or how to use the equipment once you find it. All of those can lead to gym anxiety.
But you also don’t know if what do decide to do is going to get results. With so many flashy, FAT BUSTING, MUSCLE BUILDING programs out there, it’s hard to be sure that you’re doing it right. The idea of looking like an idiot and wasting your time is stressful.
The solution to this cause of gym anxiety is simple, even if it isn’t always easy: get more certain.
Do your research before you set foot in the gym. Having a set program to follow makes it much easier to stay out of your own head.
Even better, check in on some success stories for your chosen program. If you know it can be effective, you can beat back one huge cause of uncertainty and fear of the gym.
What are few ways you could get more certain to reduce gym anxiety?
- Google the program you’re looking at to see what people think in the online reviews
- Look for success stories for your particular program, especially ones with before and after pictures
- Ask friends how they feel about their own programs. You can even try to go to the gym with a friend, which is a great way to stop feeling like you’re getting judged.
- Watch YouTube videos for each of the exercises you plan to do on your first day at the gym.
- Make your first few gym sessions about learning. Focus on using Training Days to master exercises until you feel comfortable with them.
Is all the fitness advice online worth following? Of course not. But if you’re working on how to feel less anxious at the gym, every inch of extra knowledge can help you feel more confident.
If you’re willing to put a little money into it, getting a personal trainer is another option (and one recommended by a few habit and fitness experts).
On my first day, I nearly killed myself benching because bench is the only exercise I vaguely knew about. A reputable trainer solves that problem, telling you exactly what to do and saving you the stress of avoiding shitty programs.
The Second Cause of Gym Fear: Social Comparisons
During my first few trips to the gym, I wasn’t looking at the guy trying to shed a few pounds on the elliptical. I was looking at the guy deadlifting more weight than I could count. And the guy doing bodybuilding poses in the mirror.
I was definitely looking at the dude doing handstand pushups. His shirt fell down a little, revealing abs you could grind meat on.
None of that made me feel great about myself. None of it helped my gym anxiety.
Social comparisons are a huge part of how people interact with each other; they help you figure out where you stand relative to everyone else .
At the same time, making those comparisons can be a pretty negative experience. If you’re constantly coming up short relative to other people, that’s likely to weigh on you and make you uncomfortable .
There are a few ways to deal with this cause of gym anxiety.
First, research shows that upwards comparisons don’t have to be negative . If you make an upward comparison and come up short, you could frame it as showing you have room to grow instead of highlighting your flaws.
The other approach is to avoid comparisons altogether.
A huge amount research shows that you assign more importance to things you pay more attention to . So when you consciously make a comparison, you’re upgrading its place in your brain from a studio apartment to a penthouse suite.
Many psychologists use mindfulness to decrease anxiety, and the most important thing that makes mindfulness effective is its ability to redirect attention . The kind of “standard” approach to mindfulness is a breathing exercise, where you focus on your breath to eliminate distractions .
You probably aren’t going to start meditating in the gym, and you don’t need to. You can focus on your breathing during/between each set, as well as specifically focusing on the muscles activating during each exercise.
Actually, mindfulness in lifting and exercise is already a thing. It’s called cueing, and is an important part of coaching and personal training.
When teaching a new exercise, a good personal trainer will give you a couple of cues to think about. These are things like:
- Squat down instead of back
- Look at the writing on your shirt while you deadlift
- Push through your heels
- Push your hips back instead of bending over
- Twist the bar in your hands while you bench
Cues are a simple way to make sure you’re using the right muscles. Instead of saying “brace your abdominals to protect your lumbar spine and make sure you engage the glutes and hamstrings,” a trainer can just say “push your hips back.”
For any given exercise, have 2-3 cues to think about (e.g. squat down instead of back, push through the heels, keep elbows in etc.) to keep you focused on yourself. If you aren’t sure what cues to use, focus on the feeling in your muscles.
Focusing your attention on these specifics will reduce social comparison and help gym anxiety.
The Third Cause of Gym Fear: Feeling Like You’re Getting Judged at the Gym
When I dropped that barbell on my face, I could almost hear the thoughts of everyone around me. I could feel them judging my 65 pound bench press and scrawny body.
Or at least, I thought I could.
In reality, people probably turned in my direction because of the loud noise, then went back to their workouts. People at the gym are there to work out, not judge other people at the gym.
Of course, people said that to me all the time while I was struggling. But it didn’t really help me overcome fear of being judged. Knowing it and believing it are two different things.
And of course, there are exceptions to everything. When you hear “no one is judging you at the gym,” it’s easy to think “well, I’m sure someone at some point somewhere has judged someone else in a gym.”
You’d be right. I’m not saying it absolutely never happens. People judge other people for all kinds of things.
But you can learn how to deal with people judging you—if they even are.
For the most part, people go to the gym to work out. If you feel like you’re getting judged at the gym, there are two things to keep in mind.
- The vast, vast majority of people aren’t sparing you a second of thought
- If someone is judging you, that reflects more poorly on them than it does on you
Feeling judged at the gym is caused by a cognitive distortion: mindreading.
Cognitive distortions are thoughts that don’t reflect reality, and they are an important part of cognitive-behavioral therapy . They can be negative or positive, but negative distortions are often a cause of depression and anxiety.
In mindreading, you (and I) assume that we can know what other people are thinking. You jump to conclusions, thinking that other people are judging you, when in reality you have no way of knowing that unless they literally walk up to you and say “I’m judging you.”
Because mindreading is focused on other people, the mindfulness technique I described earlier can also help.
To the second point: most people at the gym are strangers. I know I rarely speak to people in the gym. If they are judging you, can that really affect your workout? Their judgment can’t physically affect you—it can only mentally affect you. And that can be overcome.
Besides, you probably wouldn’t want to be friends with the kind of person who judges other people at the gym.
All kinds of cognitive distortions can come into play here (this checklist is helpful), and they are all treated similarly. A core method of treatment in cognitive-behavioral therapy revolves around challenging your distortions.
For the record, CBT is just about the most effective non-drug treatment out there for depression and anxiety [10, 11].
Identify distorted thinking and write it down on a piece of paper. Then argue with your distortion. Logic the hell out of it, until you can show that it’s really kind of silly.
Putting these thoughts outside your head is important. Things in your brain are amorphous and hard to pin down; once you’ve thoughts are in the light of day you can see them for what they really are.
The Fourth Cause of Gym Fear: Feeling Like You Don’t Belong
“I don’t feel fit enough to go to the gym” seems like a ridiculous thing to say. Don’t gyms exist specifically so that people can get fit?
But when I’ve heard people say it, and when I said it, what it really meant was “I don’t feel like I belong in the gym.”
Early on in a gym-going experience, stepping into the gym is like teleporting to Narnia. Nothing is familiar, and everyone seems like a lifelong member of club you didn’t know existed.
Tons of research studies the effects of “in-groups.” When you walk into the gym with no experience, you’re on the outside looking in; you barely feel like a “gym goer,” so you start to feel gym anxiety.
You could take steps to signal that you are part of the in-group; some research shows that people on the edges of a group find showing their group membership important .
Things like wearing the right gym clothes or avoiding some kinds of exercises might signal that you’re part of the group and help you attract less attention.
That’s a little wishy-washy though, and the real answer here is much simpler: time.
Over time, you’ll start to feel more comfortable in the gym. You’ll feel like a member of the group because you are a member of the group.
The research supports this, too. The mere exposure effect says that you start liking something more just by seeing it more . Research on anxiety suggests that you get more comfortable with things as they become familiar .
So the more you go to the gym, the better you’ll feel about it and the less gym anxiety you’ll have.
Want to get this article in one page?
I put together a cheat sheet that covers the 4 causes of gym anxiety — and 14 ways to solve them.
Overcoming Gym Anxiety: How Do You Stop Feeling Anxious?
The good news is that overcoming gym anxiety is cyclical. Any boost in confidence you feel gives you another boost of confidence. Understanding that there are four key causes of gym anxiety can help.
To recap, the main causes of gym fear are:
- Being uncertain – not being sure what to do, how to do it, or what results you’ll get is stressful
- Social comparison – comparing yourself to super fit people can make you feel worse about yourself
- Feeling judged – if you think people are watching and judging, you’re likely to get anxious
- Feeling like you don’t belong – no one likes being left out of the group. Feeling like you don’t belong makes you less likely to come back.
How do you stop feeling anxious at the gym?
- Rigorously study your chosen routine before setting foot in the gym. Better yet, get a good trainer to help you out and tell you exactly what to do.
- Focus on what you are doing instead of other people. Do this by paying attention to specific cues during each exercise.
- Reassure yourself, with pen and paper, that you aren’t being judged (and that other people can’t affect you if you are). Out-logic your cognitive distortions.
- Show up. The more you show up and learn about fitness, the more comfortable you’ll be in the gym.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. It didn’t for me. But by understanding the root of what causes fear of the gym, you can turn exercise into an experience you relish instead of one you dread.
If you want to learn more, to overcome gym anxiety and create a consistent gym-going habit, check out these articles:
- Don’t Just Do It – A 5 Step Technique to Consistently Go to the Gym
- What to Do on Your First Day At The Gym
- How to Learn New Exercises at the Gym Using Training Days
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