Gymtimidation: Beat It With These 3 Expert Tips

Third-millennium feminism is obsessed with telling women to take up space. Whether we’re fighting manspreading by taking back that extra inch or two on the subway or speaking up in a meeting with our peers, we’re told never to shrink ourselves. But it seems our efforts to take up real estate aren’t always translating to our workouts. “Shy girl workouts”—a TikTok trend in which women share tips for taking up the least amount of room at the gym—has racked up over 500 million views.

In case your algorithm has left you out of this narrative so far, shy girl workout videos often recommend simplifying your exercise regimen so it fits squarely in one part of the workout facility—be it the treadmill, the dumbbell area, or a single weight machine. Many of these TikToks are targeting gym newbies who understandably feel overwhelmed by the vast offerings of their local Planet Fitness or Crunch. And while the intention of sharing free exercise routines may come from a kind place, experts say that the implication that you need to place boundaries on your movement can be harmful.

Why we may feel the need to shy-ify our gym workouts

As you’ve probably noticed by now, human beings love to play the comparison game—and that doesn’t stop at the gym. “Comparisons are central components of how we think about our identities, which are far more based on our status in the different groups in which we live, play, and work than many of us realize,” says Elisabeth Morray, PsyD, a psychologist and VP of clinical operations at Alma, an app for finding therapists.

This tendency to measure ourselves against others is known as “social referencing,” and at the gym, that referencing most often concerns our physical appearance. “Comparing ourselves to others—particularly in terms of outward appearances—can lead to frustration, self-criticism, decreased motivation, and anxiety,” says Dr. Morray. “Those kinds of unwanted thoughts and emotions are ones that most of us try to avoid as we move through our lives more broadly, and at the gym, this can turn into avoiding moving our bodies in the ways that work for us, or at worst, avoiding the gym altogether.” Or, you know, being super shy around the leg press machine.

These feelings can lead to major “gymtimidation.” According to a recent My Protein study, 90 percent of respondents reported that they worry about how other people perceive them at the gym (even though 75 percent said they rarely or never judge others’ workouts!).

Women may experience a double dose of gymtimidation, given that, for years, strength training and weight machines were predominately reserved for men. “It is common for women to feel uncomfortable with machines they rarely use, which can lead to anxiety and fear around working out at the gym,” says Marissa West, CPT, founder of West Kept Secret Fitness Studio in Charlotte, North Carolina. Not to mention, many women and LGBTQ+ folks face harassment and unwelcome attention at their local fitness spots.

In short, there’s a lot of history, baggage, and nuance behind the shy girl workout TikTok trend, but that doesn’t mean we can’t outgrow the tiny slice of gym we’ve been relegating ourselves to. Here’s to bold woman workouts.

3 ways to overcome gymtimidation

1. Set personal gym goals

“Compare you to you, and only you,” says Dr. Morray. “Ask yourself what you want to accomplish and what it will take to get there.” Maybe your goal is to do a push-up, knock 20 seconds off your mile time, or just to feel stronger. Then, when you find yourself feeling reticent in the weight room, remind yourself of why you’re there.

Hint: It’s not to seek approval from the gym bros. “Notice when your mind gets pulled into comparison and self-criticism,” says Dr. Morray. “Practicing looking ‘at’ rather than ‘through’ your thoughts may allow you to have more freedom in the choices you make, including choosing to act in a way that is more in line with your goals than with your mind and its habits of comparing your skills and body to those of others, or engaging in destructive self-criticism.”

2. Ask for help

Let’s be honest: Most of the ”how tos” on weight machines are no clearer than Ikea instructions. That’s why it’s so important to ask for help. “Not feeling confident that you ‘know what you’re doing’ can increase anxiety at the gym. Many gyms have trainers on staff who can give you tips on proper form and adapt these to meet the unique structure and needs of your body,” says Dr. Morray.

If a personal trainer isn’t in your budget, that’s totally fine. Look up videos online from reputable trainers before your workout, and don’t be afraid to watch them again at the gym. And at many fitness centers, trainers wander the floor between clients and are happy to answer one-off questions from any member.

3. Make a gym buddy

If going to the gym by yourself isn’t appealing yet, West recommends finding a gym buddy. “Connect with your friends about what you are experiencing. You might be surprised to hear they are experiencing something similar and, at a minimum, receive support,” she says. Maybe that friend turns into a workout companion. But if not, try taking one of the fitness classes your gym offers and chatting with someone new before or after. That way, you walk away with a bud and someone who will navigate the gym (the entire gym) by your side.

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