What To Know Before Weightlifting For The First Time If You’re Nervous To Try

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Every time I walk into a new gym, or even my own gym at an unusual time of day, I find myself swallowing nerves. My borderline personality disorder (BPD) mandates that I either make myself the center of attention or disappear completely, and a regular weightlifting session hovers somewhere painfully in the middle of those extremes. But the nerves from occupying that middle ground are nothing compared to the nerves during your very first weightlifting sessions.

As a personal trainer, many of my clients — especially women of color — have expressed frustration to me with the setup of most gyms. Free weight areas are often surrounded by mirrors and grunting dudebros, occupying small strips of space that you really have to assert yourself to carve out a space in. Those acts of assertion can be terrifying, and can deter many people whose bodies aren’t already the white abled ideal of muscled masculinity.

But that free weight area in your gym can be within your reach. Because if you’re even contemplating weightlifting for the first time (or the first time in a long time), you’re already super brave. And that bravery means that you’ve got this. Here are seven things to know before your first weightlifting session.

1. Do Some Recon

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Yes, I know your goal is to start weightlifting. And you will. But whether today is the day you want to start or if you’re trying to lay the groundwork of getting comfortable to start sometime soon, it might help to find yourself on a cardio machine that overlooks the strength floor. Why? Because that way, you can watch for what free weights are free, what spaces are empty, and you can visualize your next moves. I know I always feel much better when I can stride somewhere with the facade of confidence and sometimes, doing recon of the strength floor by hanging out and “warming up” on a cardio machine can do that.

2. Do Some Homework

I promise, even the most dudely-looking dudebros — who look like they’ve been grunting under a barbell since birth — do their research. (And if they don’t, they really, really should.) What I mean by that is this: reading up on technique and getting some ideas for your workout does not make you less than, and it doesn’t mark you, irrevocably and forever, as a hopeless newbie. Focus on articles that will teach you form, including how to grip a barbell. Find articles that explain why you should adopt a certain squat form, for example. Try to visualize what the articles are teaching you to do, and if you want to, try to simulate the motions at home without weights as you’re reading about them. This will give you a bit more confidence when you’re walking out onto the strength floor.

3. Channel Your Inner Boldness

When in your life have you been at your most brash? For me, it was as a little kid, fearlessly striding onto pickup basketball courts in Queens, New York. I didn’t care how many boys there were, how old they were or how much bigger than me. All I cared about was that I wanted a game. And to this day, I try to honor that bold little child that I was: when I want to cower away because the free weight floor is full of men and I don’t want to “impose” by putting my body into their space, I remind myself of the me that I want to be. And of the fact that I’m not imposing any more than they are. That I have the right to be there and carve out space for myself. Easier said than done, of course, especially in a world rife with dangers for non-men folk. But psychologically, trying to get into that brain space helps me.

4. Set Intentions

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Coming in with a plan can serve the dual purpose of boosting your confidence and giving your workout more direction. I’m not saying you need to get an entire workout plan and follow it to a tee. Sometimes, that’s not even possible: not all gym has all pieces of equipment, and not all equipment is available at all times.

But that’s exactly why setting an intention is so important: without it, you might be tempted to do the classic “welp, that bench isn’t available, so I might as well not start weightlifting today!” I’ve been there! But whether you come in with a plan you made yourself based on what you learned or with the intention to follow a plan someone else made, just know that setting an intention already puts you far ahead of the game. It really does make you one of the cool kids on the block, even if you’re a newbie and nervous as all get out.

5. Breathe

Breathing is two-fold here. If you’re nervous, breathe into it. Even if your breathing gets a little quick with nerves, don’t worry: you’re at the gym! No one will notice, and everyone is in the same proverbial boat as you are. But whether your breathing is quick (to get yourself pumped up) or deep and slow (to calm your nerves), just make sure you’re doing it! That includes during your workout. Particularly when you’re trying out new movements with unfamiliar weights in your hands, the instinct to hold your breath is natural. But this is one instinct you probably don’t want to listen to: breathing is a must! As a general rule, you want to exhale when the lift is difficult, and inhale in solid gulps surrounding those exhales. Focusing on that cycle can require a lot of mental concentration, and that’s the most important flex you’ll make!

6. Everyone Is There For Themselves…

It’s easy to say that not everyone is looking at you. Or that no one is looking at you. And I want to say that, I really do. But I’d be lying. Just like you're observing the other people in the weight room to see if your form looks like yours, people are doing the same thing back. But I’ll be honest: people are looking at you because you’re a more interesting, distracting thing to look at while someone is catching their breath than the floor or a 45-pound plate. People are looking at you because their eyes are idling while they visualize their next set, or because people who are serious about the gym often like to learn by observation. And you might have something cool to show them, just by doing your own workout!

Even if you feel like you’re out there looking like you have no idea what you’re doing, people will notice that you’re out there. And chances are, they’ll nod to themselves and be proud that another human is joining the ranks of lifting-hood. And that’ll be it: a nod to themselves. Because even though people often will physically glance at you, most of the time people are in the gym for themselves. So you might indeed get glances, but most of the time, these glances are not to critique you or make you feel unwelcome. Because everyone in that gym has been where you are, and most people in the gym are only there to work on themselves: just like you.

7. ...And If They’re Not, They’re Not Your Responsibility

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But there are, of course, people whose glances will not be benign. Especially when I lifted heavy with waist-length hair, low-cut tanks, and last night’s eyeliner still vaguely on my face, I had to hone the skill of saying simply, “I’m in the middle of my set and need to focus” or “Nope, I’m good” responses to “Can I give you some advice?” or "Hey baby." It was, and continues to be, hard and scary. And sometimes, I’m roped in to uncomfortable situations and conversations I want to run away from.

Which is where my phone comes in. If you have to, take advantage of the fact that almost everyone brings their phone to the gym. Set up a rest timer on it so you can say, “Hey, my timer’s going, gotta do the next set.” Or, just send off a quick “Call me please some dudebro is talking me up at the gym” text to a friend. I’ve done it when I didn’t have the mental stamina to stand up for myself. It helps. And, remember always that you owe nothing to anyone who makes you uncomfortable. You are allowed to tell people to back off. You are allowed to own your time at the gym: that’s what you’re there for, and you deserve it.

So if you’re nervous about heading out onto the strength floor, know that you’re not alone. I guarantee you’re not the only one who’s unsure of exactly what they’re doing and whose heart is hammering before you even pick up a weight. Remember why you’re there and what you want out of your session. Remember that you deserve to be there and you deserve to take up space. You’ve got this. You really do.