Let us know if this sounds familiar: After a brief hiatus from regular exercise, you decide to get back into the swing of things by joining (or re-joining) your local gym. But somewhere between lacing up your new cross-trainers and walking through the doors, all that determination evaporates—and suddenly you doubt yourself, your ability, and your motivation.
Usually, these nagging doubts sound something like: “There’s no way I can keep doing this,” or “I feel like a total idiot,” or “I definitely don’t belong here.” And by the time spring rolls around, you’re back on the couch, with your holiday calories safely nestled around your waist in the form of easy-to-grip love handles.
And here’s the thing: It’s not that you’re unmotivated. Most guys we talk to desperately want to get themselves in the gym to better their health and fitness, and bolster their self-confidence. They know consistently eating right and working out are the pillars of looking and feeling better—yet, for some reason, they just can’t quite cross the threshold.
We talked to a panel of top trainers, each from a range of training scenarios, for their advice on coaching gym rookies through that initial awkwardness. They are:
- Adam Friedman, C.S.C.S., a trainer at the original Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, CA
- Andrew Kalley, C.P.T. (N.A.S.M.), a USA triathlon level II coach and personal trainer
- Andrew Schuth, C.P.T. (N.A.S.M.), trainer at Crunch Fitness and Burn60 in southern CA
Here are seven common insecurities or doubts—real problems that we’ve heard from real dudes—and our trainers’ advice on overcoming them:
1. “I don’t really belong in here. I’m just not a gym rat. ”
It’s always normal to feel like you don’t quite fit in, especially at gyms with strong cultures or established social circles. And that’s okay.
“A lot of people are just like you,” Schuth says. “Don’t be scared by the fact you’re walking into a scenario and feeling unsure or uncertain. The person next to you might be feeling the same thing. Maybe you can talk to them, get through it, and at the end of the day, have a great workout.”
Sometimes all you need to complement your change of scene is a change of clothes, Kalley says. “If you buy new gear—an outfit, a T-shirt, a pair of sneakers—then looking good will make you feel a little better as well. If you’re dressed in beat-up, ratty gear, it may just make you feel more out-of-shape yourself.”
And if you’re joining a specific gym with its own tribal threads—looking at you, CrossFit—adopting the local style can go a long way in helping you feel like you belong.
“I think the biggest thing people need to realize is that fitness should be a community,” Schuth says. “We emphasize community at Burn60, because once you can build some friendships into your workout experience, going to the gym or going for a run isn’t just about the calorie burn—it’s about connecting with people.”
2. “Man, I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Everyone knows that learning a perfect three-point shot takes years of practice, yet lots of guys feel like they should be lifting experts after a weekend at the gym. This is absurd.
So, yes: There will be a learning curve. (And admitting that is often half the battle.) One simple solution? Join a workout class, rather than the typical open lifting setup.
“Find an environment that makes you feel comfortable within the gym,” Schuth says.
Ultimately, whether you’re in a big-box gym or boutique studio, you’ll feel a lot more confident if you can create a plan. (There’s a reason some guys wield their workout logs like shields.) “There are plenty of great tips and workouts online,” Schuth says. “You don’t have to do machines, either. Grab a set of dumbbells and follow those routines.”
And remember: Hiring a trainer or bringing an experienced friend can make that learning curve a lot simpler to navigate. Which leads us to…
3. “Hiring a trainer will let everyone know I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“There couldn’t be anything further from the truth,” says Friedman. “Every successful person at the top of their profession—entrepreneur, athlete, whoever—has a coach. LeBron James has a coach.”
And even if you’re a veteran gym rat who’s been lifting for a while, consider this: You can always get better. If your bench and squat are good now, think of how much better you’ll be with some pro tips from an experienced coach.
Alternatively, “if you’re still reluctant to hire a trainer, go with a buddy who has some experience, and let that be your education in the interim,” Friedman says. “It can get you used to the idea that working with a trainer is a next good step.”
4. “I look so stupid right now—and everyone else in this gym knows it.”
All those wall mirrors at the gym make some people feel like they’re on stage. Compound that with a little bit of uncertainty in an unfamiliar environment, and you’ve got a recipe for purely imagined awkwardness.
Some simple advice to get past the stage fright? “Focus on yourself,” Friedman says. “The funny thing is, many people at the gym are so self-absorbed, they don’t even care about anyone else. I tell people, ‘Don’t even worry about other people—they’re too busy looking at themselves in the mirror.’ It’s completely true.”
5. “Everybody else is way more jacked than I am. I’m not even lifting heavy.”
We’ve all seen it before: You walk into the gym and suddenly you’re in a room full of Ronnie Colemans and Frank Zanes. What’s an average Joe to do?
“It’s really tough to compare your physique to other people in the gym—so don’t,” says Friedman. “Nobody showed up here for the first time looking like a monster. It’s a test of patience. You have to look at yourself and know you’re capable of achieving those results, too. But you have to keep things in perspective. Those objectives will be achieved with time and hard work.”
And while a healthy life is a long-term commitment, starting with a more immediate focus can ease you into the habit, rather than plunging into the deep end. “People like to think short-term, get going, then grow from that smaller start,” Kalley says.
6. “I feel like I’m not looking really good, even though I’m making progress.”
While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look better—“getting lean” or “losing weight” is often why people go to the gym in the first place—it’s often a mistake to initially base your success around physique, simply because results typically take a long time to appear. Instead, it’s more valuable to set goals around actions, which will contribute to that lean lifestyle.
When Friedman started working with a 34-year-old client who was badly out of shape, he started by setting goals that involved a daily to-do list, rather than weights, sets, or reps. His reasoning: “If you’re starting at zero, just showing up to the gym three times a week might be a great starting goal. From there, you want to start adding habits that will help you get toward your goal.”
Find yourself in a similar place? Make a checklist and focus on achieving those goals before worrying about your waistline. “It could be, ‘Get to the gym a certain number of days each week,’ ‘Eat a certain number of meals each day,’ ‘Do cardio a set number of times,’” he says.
7. “I’m not even sure why I’m here.”
Say it with us: Going to the gym shouldn’t feel like a chore. Every year, though, people more or less drag themselves to the gym until they inevitably quit a few weeks later.
So what keeps people coming back? Accountability. “Everyone will have something to hold them accountable,” Kalley says. “Maybe it’s performance-related: Someone training for a marathon is accountable to show up on that date and complete the 26.2 miles. Maybe it’s health-related: Another of my clients had heart surgery, and he’s dialed in because he feels accountable to his children. ‘I want to live longer.’ That’s his reason.”
Accountability can also be social, whether in the form of a fellow dedicated lifting partner, a few friends at the gym, or a social media account where you share your progress.
“It’s really about finding where the roadblocks are, and creating solutions to get around those roadblocks,” Friedman says. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution—find ways to be accountable to something, even if it’s not to yourself.”