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 fear of the gym (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. It was only after training and talking to other people that I saw the psychology behind 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.
There’s research on all four.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mindfulness is increasingly being used by psychologists 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 just called cueing, and is an important part of coaching and personal training.
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, just focus on the feeling in your muscles.
Redirecting your attention will reduce social comparison and help gym anxiety.
Stop Feeling 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. Knowing it and believing it are two different things.
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.
Other cognitive distortions can come into play too (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.
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.
Overcoming Gym Anxiety
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, they 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.
To fix them:
- 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:
- 5 Experts on Overcoming Gym Anxiety: How to Overcome Embarrassment at the Gym
- 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
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