Each day was the same: I’d step onto the treadmill, kick up the speed, and fly through a few miles. Next up was another self-explanatory cardio machine (the StepMill – an underrated tool but that’s a story for another day!). Last, I’d wind through one of the less traveled areas of the gym to reach the colorful set of dumbbells tucked away in a quiet cove. A few sets of curls and lateral raises and the workout was complete.
Like many women, my workouts used to be mostly cardio punctuated by the occasional weights. This worked well to get my feet wet at the gym – and of course, promoted a healthy heart and overall athleticism.
But the more I learned about exercise and physical transformation, the more it became clear I needed to start lifting if I wanted to reach my goals (I wanted to look like I worked out, not just feel like I did). And I learned that the weights needed to be a lot heavier and more frequent than I’d ever considered.
For one, research shows that lifting has a whole host of mental and physical benefits (see this article for more). It’s the key to unlocking a more athletic-looking build and it improves balance, reduces the risk of some injuries, lowers the risk of osteoporosis, and increases self-esteem, just to name a few.
Even if this is all well and good, though, actually stepping onto the weight room floor can feel nerve-wracking. It’s usually a bunch of sweaty guys who at least seem to know what they’re doing. Where do you fit in?
This post is a guide to getting more confident lifting in the gym as a woman. This is one of the most common challenges I hear from my community, so I wanted to cover it in depth. Hopefully you’ll find something hear that speaks to you.
Three main obstacles to lifting
Many of the issues women face getting off cardio equipment and onto the weight room floor boil down to the following:
Not knowing what to do during a lifting workout. This is a practical gap in knowledge that makes the distance between wanting to lift and actually doing it feel wider.
Feeling intimidated about how other people perceive you. Maybe you’re worried that everyone thinks you don’t know what you’re doing or that they’re judging your body.
Feeling timid about taking up space. It can be scary to navigate around people to reach certain equipment or carve out space to work!
Identify which obstacle most affects you – sometimes, awareness is all you need to set solutions into motion.
First, learn what to do
This might sound super obvious, but having tangible knowledge about how to fill a lifting workout will increase your confidence in itself. It’s kind of like preparing for an important meeting: when you have a game plan ready, your mind can focus on executing the plan rather than stressing out over the details.
To start out, I recommend learning a few exercises in whatever way you choose (perhaps something from YouTube or an experienced friend), implementing them for a few weeks, and evolving from there. Once you get started, you’ll gain traction and new knowledge – the important part is getting out there so the process can start.
Take the exercises you’ve learned and create a workout game plan before you walk into the gym each day. Know exactly how many repetitions and sets you’re doing. Specificity begets confidence! Keep in mind that you’ll want to be progressing each week, implementing gradual, methodical increases in the intensity of the exercises you’re doing. For example, in Week 1, you might do 4 sets of 6 reps of lateral raises, then move up to doing 4 sets of 8 reps during Week 2.
So once you know what to do, how do you grow the confidence to actually do it? Here are a few things to think about.
First, other people's opinions simply cannot hold you back from getting healthier. You deserve good health just as much as the next person, so try focusing on the importance of that above what Sally next to you might think. No one else has to live in your body, so why should they have a say in how you care for it? Go get what’s yours!
Second – and this is said with love – check your ego at the door. Our egos are the proud, protective voices that don’t want to see us shaking and quivering in our push-up position, giving the exercise our all even if we expose ourselves as beginners. Our egos don’t want to see us hanging from the pull-up bar, squeezing ourselves a quarter of an inch into the air, working on what will one day become a full-blown pull-up. Our egos want us to appear perfect and though that might fly in other areas of our lives sometimes, it will never help us improve in the gym. Lifting requires struggle. Check your ego at the door.
Third, let yourself be a beginner. We’ve all got to be beginners before we can be anything else, so why do we try to skip this step or expect ourselves to already be past it? It’s a logical fallacy. When we’re new and allow ourselves to be, we look at the world in a totally different way – one where we’re actually better at problem-solving.
Last but not least, consider every little moment of intimidation an opportunity to grow. Being intimidated at the gym isn’t a bad thing – it’s actually a gift that can be maximized for your benefit. Any time you notice yourself feeling intimidated, nurture the moment by walking yourself through one of the above mindset shifts. With time, these small moments of growth will add up to having more confidence on and off the gym floor.
Getting more comfortable taking up space
It’s easy to feel like people in the gym are operating under a whole other set of rules and you’d rather be a fly on the wall. But critical to getting more confident in the gym is learning how to assert yourself properly so you have the space and equipment you need to work out.
This all starts with having a plan (see the “what to do” section above!) because from there, you can mentally map out where you need to be in the gym and when. It’s much easier to take up space when you feel like you have a clear direction.
While there’s a lot to say about gym etiquette, it boils down to this: don’t interfere with people while they’re in the middle of something just like you wouldn’t do in other spaces. If part of your plan involves walking past someone lifting heavy dumbbells, wait for them to be done with their set before proceeding. If you need the equipment or space someone else is using but you aren’t sure when it’ll free up, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask the person how many sets they have left while they’re resting.
When it’s time to interact with someone in the gym, I recommend taking a deep breath and doing your best to exude confidence. People tend to respond to whatever cues we give them so by trying to embody confidence, you’re more likely to produce a result that actually makes you feel that way.
Putting it all into practice
If you’re feeling inspired to pick up some weights, take a moment to write a little “to do” list to help you get going. It might involve asking a fit friend to teach you some new exercises or planning out your workouts for the week.