Help! I’m Afraid of the Gym!

Earlier this week, I received an email from a Rebel in need of some help. As you can see below, he just signed up for a gym membership but is absolutely terrified of walking in there. In order to protect his identity and have some fun, I’ve changed his name to something more Nerd Fitness appropriate. After reading my response, I’d love to see how YOU would respond:

Hey Steve!

My name’s Chewbacca, I’m an 18 year old wookiee.

I recently stumbled across your site and I must say that it has convinced me to make a change for the better! I’m in my first year of university studying intergalactic space travel and mechanical engineering – I’m unsure of my height but I’m relatively short and about 100kgs (220 lbs) – I’m a big wookie. I’ve decided I want to get in shape – so I bought a year’s membership to my university’s gym. I’ll buy your ebook as soon as I can afford it as right now I still need one more textbook and my next allowance isn’t for another week. I’m staying at a Halls of Residence where I don’t know anybody and my weight doesn’t help me meet new people…so that was the major point at which I decided enough is enough!

Today I stepped foot into a gym for the first time in my life – MY GOD – I have no idea what to do. I’ve read most of your articles and thought I’d have a good idea of what to do. Apparently not, I just managed to row 2k on the rowing machine in 12mins – 2k was the lowest workout I could select and I swear people were laughing at how I obviously had no clue what to do. Next I used a couple of weight machines that looked simple; now I know you hate machines but there was NO way I’m going into the freeweight section with everyone else. Then I did 5mins on a crosstrainer and left. A pitiful effort, I know – I just wasn’t expecting that many people who all knew what they’re doing.

Now to the reason I’m sending you an email, I don’t want to waste the $250 I spent on my gym membership – I could have got the textbook instead…maybe I should have? Anyways, I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction of what to do, what equipment to use, how to not get laughed at?

My diet – I used to eat very badly at home, but since coming to the halls where all the food is provided my eating habits have improved a lot; I don’t have the money to go and buy junk food like I used to, and I only have one glass of juice in the morning before switching to water after that.

Here at the halls, there’s no scale or tapes for me to keep measurements of myself and I refuse to use the ones at the gym where everyone can see. So I don’t think I’ll be able to keep track of my measurements.

Please Steve, you’re my only hope.


My Response

Hey Chewy,

Thanks for the email man!

It’s time for a dose of some tough love. That’s right, you’re getting the full treatment, because I want to help you get started down the right path!

First and foremost, congrats on cleaning up your eating. Regardless of what you do in the gym, how you eat will dictate how much success you have….I’d argue it’s 80-90% of your success and failure. If you want to lose weight and feel better about yourself, dump almost all of your effort and focus into good eating habits. If you’re not sure what those habits are, start with the “beginner’s guide to healthy eating

Now, onto the main point of your email, it’s all mental, my dear friend. I GUARANTEE that everybody else in the gym is far too busy worrying about themselves to notice you. If you are terribly self conscious and imagine every eyeball is focused on you, do you think that maybe it’s possible that everybody else is thinking the same thing?

I’ve been going to a gym for 15 years now, know exactly where I’m going and what I’m doing, and I still get self conscious every once and a while!

You also assume that everybody in a gym knows what they’re doing and that they’re laughing at you for being new. Back when I started, I used to think the same thing, so don’t feel bad about that. However, after training with some great trainers, and dedicating the past five years of my life to this stuff, I’ve come to the realization that 90% of people in a commercial gym have no clue how to work out properly and safely. In other words, they kind of suck at working out. My goal is to help you NOT suck. So don’t worry about them…they’re not paying attention to you anyways.

Nobody is going to laugh if you walk into the free weights section. That is ALL IN YOUR HEAD.

(…unless you’re not wearing any pants or something. Don’t go pants-less!)

Anyways…Imagine yourself as the one rebel in a gym full of storm troopers. First and foremost, WHO CARES what other people think? 95% of people in that gym will respect you for trying (especially if you’re training in the right way!), and the other 5% are probably doing it wrong and don’t count.

Here’s what I do – put on my iPod with the most epic music I can find, and completely zone EVERYTHING else out. In my mind I am completely alone, my head is down, I’m focused only on the next exercise, and I take care of business. Honestly, I actually kind of enjoying being the only rebel in the commercial gym.

Now, as you’re learning what to do in a gym (which I’ll get to in a minute), If you are REALLY afraid of being seen, try working out at a different time of the day. Depending on your class schedule, you might be able to go REALLY early, or REALLY late or in the middle of the day when everybody is in class. Early afternoon and evening will be the most busy, so avoid those times until you get a few sessions under your belt and feel better about yourself.

I know you’re worried about not having a plan. The important thing is to do SOMETHING…so let’s give you a plan.

Next time you’re in the gym, try this for an exercise routine:

That’s it.

How much should you lift? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Pick up a dumbbell, say 10 or 15 lbs (5kg or 8kg) for both the dumbbell rows and dumbbell presses, and do the exercises.  Do a set of squats, wait 60 seconds, do the next set, wait 60 seconds, do the next set, and then move onto the dumbbell presses and repeat!

If some exercises are too easy, then simply make a note and choose heavier dumbbells the next time you go! Once you feel confident on that workout (doing it every OTHER day…not every day), follow this “build your own workout”  plan and add in one new exercise per week (replacing one of the older ones that work the same muscles).

You will make mistakes.

You will probably do an exercise wrong.

That’s okay – what’s important is that YOU GET STARTED.

Watch the videos, practice the movements in your room, write down which exercises you’re going to do, how many repetitions and sets you’re going to do, and then go do them in the gym at a time when there are less people there and do it. I know you’re scared, but if you suck it up and do something you will build confidence and pretty soon, going to the gym will feel like a second home to you! Doing stuff that scares you is the only way you’re going to level up your life.

It’s so much better to get started, make a few mistakes, and learn from how your body reacts.

Last but not least – as far as tracking yourself, get out of your head, man! Nobody is going to laugh at you for stepping on a scale….they can’t read the number, and they don’t care what it says. Actually, I don’t happen to like scales either, but tracking yourself in SOME way is important (and tracking yourself PROPERLY is even more important ). Whether it’s your scale, a tape measure (buy one online for 5 bucks and keep your measurements) or just a bi-weekly picture (it worked for Joe who didn’t step on a scale for 6 months!), it’s important to track yourself so that you can tell if it’s working and if you’re making progress.

Get started.

May the Force be with you!


How would you respond?

That’s how I would help out Chewy.

How would YOU help him?

What advice do you have for him? If he’s emailing and asking, I have to imagine there are a LOT of people who have the same question but aren’t asking.

Let’s nerd-source this answer and offer up advice to Chewy – have you been in his position? How did you get started?

Help a rebel out!


PS – Is an article like this something you enjoy? I get a LOT of emails from people asking questions…every once and a while I can pick out ones that I think are universal and would help a lot of folks and share them here on the site. Thanks for your input.

PPS – Chewy read all of your comments and wanted me to pass this along:

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrgh! Steve (my Chewbacca impersonation)

Wow, just wow

Steve, from the bottom of my heart, Thank you to you and everyone else who left a comment. You’re amazing and to honour the effort you put into it I’m going to make you and myself and everyone who left a comment a commitment – I WILL do this, I’ve taken a picture of myself and stored it deep in my hard drive and I plan to do the same every week. Once I get to where I want to be I’ll send you the photos, buy a NF T-Shirt to celebrate my success (I’ve always wanted one) but I’m not going to buy one until I can fit a medium! After I’ve sent this I’ll ring my local clinic and book in to have my body fat % measured and I plan to do this every month.

This morning I attended my first class, after that I went in to the university library to study for 20mins before my next class so I booted up the laptop and decided I’d have a look at Nerd – I was 30mins late to my class due to your article and the comments. The reason I wrote this sentence Steve is to let you know how much it means to me that someone would listen to me and make that sort of time commitment to write that article.

I’d really like them to know how much it means to me. If you wouldn’t mind could you maybe add it to the bottom of the article and just say thanks on my behalf to all of them who took the time to leave a comment. I’ve read them all and I will continue doing so as more are added.”


photo, photo

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    90 thoughts on “Help! I’m Afraid of the Gym!

    1. If you’re nervous about free weights, try doing some simple body weight exercises first. I’m scared to death of starting the free weights, so I started with the basic workout on Mark’s Daily Apple: Pushups, Pull-ups, squats, presses, and planks. Plus, you can start from anywhere and work your way up. Once you get more confident with yourself and your abilities, then it might be easier to move up to the free weights without fretting. 

      Another thing is that when I actually do go to the gym, I try not to focus on anyone else. If you focus on your workout, there is little room in your head to focus on the people around you. Everyone else is worried about themselves, anyway.

      Good Luck, Chewie!

    2. I’m been going to the gym for ten years and i still feel daunted if there’s several guys in the free weights section. It’s really cut into my schedule at times.

      And when i go with one particular friend, he’ll usually end up leaving at the end of a session full of curse words about how all the guys in the free weight section were laughing at him, staring at him when he’s on the treadmill and all sorts of stuff.

      The kicker with this though is that my mate is incredibly fit. He’s a full on marathon runner and in great shape with a muscle tone to make everyone else in the gym jealous, but still he seems to think everyone else there is jeering him for being some kind of weakling.

      It’s simply not the case. Everyone else there is too busy thinking of themselves and how they look in front of others to be too busy worrying about how you’re looking in front of them. There will be a few in there that are total jerks but unless you know them somehow they’re not going to bother you.

      One tip i can offer is not to glance around so much. Stay focused on what you’re doing. If you glance around, you’re going to catch someone’s eye, and then you’re going to think that they’re staring at you

    3. Ask a friend who is comfortable in the gym to go with you and work out together.  You can spot each other and talk during the rest between sets.  Or, you can go on your own and watch carefully what the trainers are doing with their clients…there is no charge for watching!

    4. I liked this article. I’ve been nervous about going to the gym, mostly because I worry that I’m going to have the wrong form if I try lifting. (Although I always have the fear that my form is wrong, even when doing push ups and planks.)

    5. I have a slightly different feeling when entering a gym.  I have a panic attack.  I’m not afraid of doing the wrong exercise…I’m afraid of entering the building. Merely walking through the door took me over a month…getting off the treadmill and on to the strength circuit took me 1.5 months additional time.  Pathetic use of resources, but a definite problem for me.
      My current attempt to re-start is to recruit a workout buddy.  Hopefully it’ll work, this time.  I *literally* need someone to hold my hand, just to walk through the door.

    6. Definitely follow Steve’s advice.  As long as you keep working out at the gym, you will keep learning new things, whether it’s from seeing other people do stuff or getting advice from strangers (and/or new friends).
      If your university has a requirement of core classes, you could see if any of them are about your new interest in healthy living.  (Mine had classes on overall wellness, recreation, and karate, to name a few.)

    7. Fitness for nerds?  I have to say that I like it.  I am not sure that I myself am or was a nerd ever, but I was a non-athletic individual until after high school.  I still can’t play sports (Throw me a football and you’ll see what I mean), but I run relatively well and my muscular endurance is above par.  Currently I am working to get myself back into peak physical shape.  You should check it out, and maybe later we can exchange links or something.

      Running Strong
      Mark Lorie 

    8. Eric – I just came across this post and was going to write something until I saw your response. You are 100% right – the amazing thing about fitness is no-one is born fit/jacked/pumped and with a six-pack. Everyone who has achieved any measure of fitness be it “mirror muscles” or functional speed and strength has had to earn it. And because of that, because they had to earn it, because they went through the long journey themselves, they don’t take it for granted, and they respect it, and they respect anyone else who is starting that journey.

      Chewy – look forward to seeing updates about your journey here.

      Steve – great post man, keep them coming.

    9. My 2c:

      Aim to do only 1 exercise per session. 

      It may seem counter-intuitive, but in my experience with training clients for over 10 years it actually works pretty well.

      That’s because we’re not in the gym for a quick fix, we’re in it for the long term, and when it comes to long term, you can’t beat being seriously adept at doing each and every exercise. 

      So take your time, choose 1 exercise each session, research it on youtube and even practice the movements (as closely as you can) in the privacy of your own room. Choose a set and rep scheme to play with, and treat it like a learning session, not a perfection session. You’re in the gym to learn when you first start, so choose to learn, then work hard. You’ve got the rest of your life to work hard, so take your time to make sure that hard work will pay off, by learning good technique.

      You don’t need many exercises to make up a very decent session (1 for each major bodypart) and then it’s all a matter of deciding how to structure your program, and all you need to do there is choose one of the millions on offer (like the free one I give away on my blog), AND STICK TO IT.

      I hope this helps someone:)

    10. These articles really make me proud to be a rebel.proud to be a part of this community designed to help everyone better themselves. I love when so many people correspond to help one person, even when their problem is insignificant to the person offering advice, or a helping hand. Rock on rebels!

    11. Oh man, I totally get where you’re coming from, Chewie. In my case, though, I’m the skinny kid intimidated by all these people lifting huge weights. It doesn’t help that the way my gym is laid out, you have to walk past all the bench pressers and guys doing squats with gigantic weights just to get to some of the equipment in the free weights section, which is why I almost always scurry to the machines. I keep telling myself that once I get to the point where I can lift a decent weight, I’ll get to that other side of the gym.

      On the note of mean people, I have to say when I joined the gym, I would always avoid those really bulky guys. If I saw one of them using a machine, I’d avoid using the machines near them. ESPECIALLY if they were in groups. I’ve actually been going for a year now (but I’ve been extremely sporadic, just doing some machines, and mostly cardio, since I love the group dance classes), and it shocks me, but they know my name! They say hi! They high five me when I wake up in time to get to the gym early! My message to you is simple: the old adage about judging books by covers very much applies in the gym; 95% of the people you meet inside there will support you and cheer you on. The remaining 5%? Well, they get quieter as you get more regular. 

      As a side note, Steve, that Duel of the Fates soundtrack is perfect. SO loading my iPod with that for my next gym session.

    12. Chewy-

      Just stumbled n this site- good shit.

      My theory
      -theories are great and can be helpful, but at the end of the day….you just gotta fucking do it…ya know what i mean brother?

      Get in there and sweat your ass off. Bring the intensity- ignore the haters and just fucking do it.

    13. Err, fair enough, when it comes to it, there’s no substitute for application, but that doesn’t decrease the validity of making something that feel hard, easier…

    14. Thank you for some of your insight. Would like to know where I could locate more on actual routines.

    15. Thanks for this. My problem is even more basic. Do not even know what the terms on the list mean. Warm up probably means moving around a bit before you get going but what is a “body weight squat” and what does a dumbbell press look like (presumably something round and heavy) and what do you do with them – press something? And what to wear?

    16. My first time in the gym was awkward, it was last week, I didn’t know how to use anything so I asked for help to someone who worked there but I’m still getting used to it. The only equipment I use is treadmill machine and three more for legs, and I need to take the courage to do my own work out exercises though it’s a bit embarrassing ?. Wish me luck

    17. That’s a great question from Chewy and an equally good response from Steve. Yes, the fear that people are constantly judging us is just a mental block that most first-timers at the gym face. One surefire way of overcoming this fear is by engaging a personal trainer. Your trainer will keep you so busy with the workouts that you will not have any time to let your thoughts wander in the wrong direction. A personal trainer can also marshal your efforts in the right direction and help you achieve the best results from your workouts.

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    22. this article is so relatable to my first day experience of gym when i was a 17 year old i feel like a same but when one of the staff guy tells me ” you are not here to impress someone you are here for seeing better in you” after that day i am not looking at anyone else i stay focused on my routine and workout

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