February 8, 2019 at 12:00 am #8449
The gym is a place for every individual. No one is better than anyone else, and no one deserves to be there more than the person beside them. Lifting weights is an activity for everyone.
But it may not always feel that way.
Gym intimidation is a common issue. Many experience it the first time they go to the gym, visit a new gym, or finally venture over to the weight-lifting area. If you’re fighting a fear of lifting weights, or simply want to increase your confidence in owning your space at the gym, you’re not alone. And you can banish it all together.
Why are many people fearful of lifting weights? They’re afraid to get hurt.
Fear of Getting Hurt
Intimidation to lift weights (or lift heavy weights, particularly) is usually due to a fear of getting hurt, and most people fall into one of two categories:
1. They’ve experienced pain previously from lifting weights and are afraid to get hurt again.
2. They know people who got hurt from lifting or have heard statements like “You’ll get hurt!” or “You’re too old to lift weights!” or “Use perfect form otherwise your back will explode!” When someone hears such statements repeatedly, it’s no wonder they think it’s easy to get hurt from lifting weights; it’s been branded a “dangerous” activity.
Banish the notion that lifting weights is inherently dangerous, because it’s not. This doesn’t mean you’ll never experience discomfort from strength training and that it’s impossible to get hurt. If you haven’t lifted weights before, or in a long time, there may be discomfort from the new demand placed on your body. Train intelligently and the chance of getting hurt is low (discussed below).
Know that initial discomfort is not uncommon; know that it’s okay; know that it’s temporary.
To banish the fear of lifting weights, change the vocabulary around it. Specifically, don’t allow words like “dangerous” or even “perfect form” to be part of the conversation.
Let’s bring this to life …
The Power of Suggestion
Imagine you participated in an experimental drug test. As the researcher hands you the first dose of top-secret pills, you’re informed of the side effects. “Fatigue and stomach cramps are two popular, very common side effects from this new drug.”
You swallow the pills, collect the next couple week’s doses and leave. That evening you read the pamphlet given by the researchers about the top-secret pills that emphasized the fatigue and stomach cramp side effects that may occur.
Knowing how common the side effects are, you’re just waiting for their arrival. You start paying attention to your energy levels and how your stomach feels. The next day, it happens! You suddenly feel fatigued; you don’t have enough energy for your normal workout. Shortly after eating breakfast, your stomach feels upset. You’re experiencing the side effects, just like they said you might.
A couple weeks later you meet with the researchers and immediately tell them you’ve succumbed to the side effects. Since starting the experiment you’ve been battling fatigue that makes it hard to work out and you’re fighting annoying stomach cramps. You’re considering calling it quits with the experiment.
The researcher responds, “You’ve been taking harmless sugar pills — they contain zero medication,” and you’re dumbfounded. But I experienced real side effects, you ponder.
What you experienced was the real power of the nocebo effect: you expected to experience negative side effects, and that expectation manifested into reality despite taking an inert substance. Thank you, brain, for your awe-inspiring and weird power.
Expectation can lead to reality despite the absence of a “real” intervention in both a positive (placebo effect) and negative (nocebo effect) manner.
This has been demonstrated with sham surgeries, endurance performance and satiety, and so much more. There’s even a case study on an individual who overdosed on placebo pills.
Recommended reading: The Nocebo Effect: Are You (Unknowingly) Thinking Your Way to Failure?
What you’ve been told may happen, what you think may happen, affects your experience.
Now imagine you start lifting weights for the first time. All you’ve heard is how careful you must be; that you must use perfect form for every single rep, else you risk injury; if perfect form isn’t used, you’ll likely experience pain. Especially be mindful of your back; if your technique isn’t flawless it may great wrecked.
When that is the perception about lifting weights — that it’s easy to get injured, that your technique must be “perfect,” or else — any discomfort will be labeled as catastrophic. “Oh my gosh there was a slight twinge in my left buttcheek at the bottom of that squat so I must be doing this wrong and better stop before I cripple myself!”
When you have the I-could-easily-get-hurt mindset you’ll be relentlessly searching for things that don’t feel “good” and constantly awaiting pain and discomfort. This means the slightest twinge will be labeled as “bad!” and injurious.
When the expectation is that it’s easy to get hurt with the slightest “wrong” movement, you’ll be on the hunt for any tiny indication of something not feeling right.
What About “Perfect” Exercise Form?
“Perfect form is crucial to staying injury free.” Countless trainers say this when discussing strength training technique. It seems innocent enough, but there’s a potential problem with such statements: they bind strength training and fear together.
Fear of getting injured if “perfect” form isn’t used leads to the expectation that getting hurt is easy and, worse, that the human body is fragile and susceptible to injury if the slightest deviation in “perfect” technique occurs. This is wrong, and silly.
A more accurate statement is “proper form is important to strength train efficiently.” While certain cues should be applied to perform exercises efficiently (e.g., having the barbell over the midfoot when setting up for a deadlift) it’s ludicrous to think every single person’s technique with a given exercise will be identical; there’s no one definitive “perfect” form.
For example, the 5’10” individual with proportionally long legs and short torso will have a squat that looks different than the 5’2” individual with short legs and long torso, even when applying the same cues for squatting. (The taller individual will appear to lean forward more than the shorter individual who will appear more upright.)
The important difference is the “perfect form” and “efficient form” mindset each statement creates. The former induces a I better do this perfectly or I’ll get hurt! mindset and the latter a I should do this efficiently so I can be stronger! mindset.
The former is fearful and defeating; it creates a sense of fragility and fear of movement. The latter is empowering and uplifting; it creates a sense of robustness and resilience.
Good lifting technique is about efficiency, strength, and longevity.
But I’ve Been Hurt Before!
Why did you, or someone you know, get hurt from strength training (and it wasn’t the nocebo effect)?
The likely answer: from doing too much too soon.
A self-professed couch potato who goes from little physical activity to performing several demanding strength training workouts per week may experience pain or even get injured. The problem wasn’t strength training — it was the dosage and frequency. Too much, too soon. It overwhelmed the body’s current ability.
This can happen with overzealous trainees, especially when something like the new year rolls around and they “go all in” and jump in at full speed. For example, an overweight, sedentary person may start running every day, but soon after get diagnosed with a stress fracture. Not only are they baffled, but they’re discouraged and frustrated because they tried to improve their health only to get hurt. “What’s the point in trying again!” they think with anger.
Another example is someone who hasn’t lifted weights before and does a program that’s too advanced. They end up brutally sore to the point they contemplate calling for assistance to get them off the toilet, or they develop nagging, lingering pain.
If this sounds like an experience you’ve had, now you know why. Now you know better.
You don’t have to do “all the things!” from the beginning. This isn’t a race. In fact, you’ll never get the opportunity to finish if you put yourself out of commission early on from not gradually increasing the training stress. Doing a lot from the beginning may sound like a good way to get ahead quickly, but it’s not.
Health and fitness must be a lifetime pursuit. Let’s treat it that way.
Every activity involves some measure of risk, and lifting weights isn’t an exception. While it can’t be eliminated, it can be greatly reduced.
In the pursuit to banish the fear of lifting weights, don’t do too much too soon. Start with a beginner program that doesn’t involve too many exercises or a high-volume training load (the number of sets and reps performed). Let’s get more specific and discuss how to best approach lifting weights so you not only get excellent results, but become more confident in the gym.
How to be Confident in the Gym
Start Where You’re Most Comfortable
You’ll have to step out of your comfort zone, but that’s a great thing; that’s when you grow. That doesn’t mean you must do the most intimidating thing right away. Just take the first step beyond your comfort zone, and progress from there.
If you don’t have a desire to squat, deadlift, and bench press with a barbell, you certainly don’t have to. While those are some of my favorite exercises due to their scalability and efficiency, they’re not mandatory for improving health or building a better-looking body.
Start with exercises and equipment you’re most comfortable using.
Many trainees find dumbbell exercises less intimidating than barbells. If that interests you, check out the Lift Like a Girl Dumbbell Workout Program to get started.
Some may want to begin working out at home with bodyweight exercises.
Others may prefer to use the plate-loaded machines at the gym.
What you use isn’t important — taking the first step is. Choose whatever methods and equipment that will make that happen. Just get started; you can change direction later as you discover what you enjoy doing most.
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