How to Banish the Fear of Lifting Weights

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 surgeriesendurance performance and satiety, and so much more. There’s even a case study on an individual who overdosed on placebo pills.

Recommended readingThe 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 squatdeadlift, 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.

Frequent Exposure

The usefulness of frequent exposure is one reason why a handful of exercises are used in the Lift Like a Girl workout programs. The more often you’re exposed to a movement/exercise, the more you get to practice it, the more confident you become at performing it.

Whether you use mostly barbell exercises like the squat, deadlift, and press or dumbbell exercises, select one or two exercises for each major movement pattern (squat movement, hip hinge movement, upper- and lower-body pushing and pulling exercises) and master them.

Use Weight You Can Dominate

If you choose to use free weights or even machines, you don’t have to use “heavy” weights in the first workout. Even using light weights, or an empty barbell, to learn the exercises is a great place to start and build confidence.

As your confidence grows, add weight to the barbell or grab a heavier dumbbell. Progress from there and improve your performance steadily by performing more reps with the same weight, increase the weight, perform an extra set, or even try new exercises.

Don’t Force Feed Exercises

There are no exercises that must be performed to improve health outcomes or build a better-looking body. If an exercise “just doesn’t work” for you, you don’t have to do it. Sometimes initial discomfort occurs from being in a new position or performing a new movement pattern. Other times you may be better off performing a different variation. Let’s look at a couple examples to bring this to life.

Trainee A said her shoulders felt sore after performing barbell back squats. It happened after the first several workouts, but by the third week of lifting weights, the shoulder soreness was gone. What happened? The soreness was likely from the novelty of the required position of the shoulders to perform barbell squats. She adjusted to it, the position was no longer unique, and the soreness dissipated.

Trainee B said conventional deadlifts just didn’t feel “right”; despite using a light load should could easily lift, she couldn’t lock her back into a neutral position. Even after a few workouts, the movement still didn’t feel great and the inability to attain the desired back position didn’t improve. She switched to sumo deadlifts and was able to lock her back into a neutral position, was able to perform the movement with greater ease and said it felt more natural.

In the case of Trainee A, just because something is uncomfortable initially doesn’t mean it always will be. Sometimes it’s simply the case of a position/movement being a new stimulus and the initial discomfort will dissipate.

In the case of Trainee B, just because something is uncomfortable doesn’t mean you must keep doing it. Sometimes your body won’t like a certain exercise, so you may need to modify it or switch to another variation (this doesn’t mean it’ll be the case indefinitely). Bodies come in different shapes, sizes, and with different leverages and limb lengths. Exercises should be chosen to fit the individual at any given time, not the other way around.

If an exercise causes pain or discomfort, and especially if it progresses as you add more weight, don’t hesitate to lower the weight or switch to a different exercise.

What If I Encounter a Jerk?

This is a probability. I’ve had run-ins with individuals offering unsolicited advice and comments on my exercise choices, among other things. I’ve had people try to take my equipment immediately after I completed a set. One woman had the audacity to tap me on the shoulder repeatedly while I was performing an exercise. Sadly, even gym employees make egregious mistakes. A coaching member shared an experience of an employee teasing her about using fractional plates (she pulled him aside and called him out — thankfully she was strong enough to do that so, hopefully, he won’t treat another person with such grievous condescension). It happens.

How do you prepare for it and handle it?

Expect the best, prepare for the worst. Best-case scenario, everyone leaves you alone to do your thing while they do theirs. Worst-case scenario, someone makes it their life’s mission to comment on what you’re doing. (To be sure, not everyone is trying to be a jerk — some are genuinely trying to be welcoming and helpful.)

You can’t control what anyone else does or says at the gym. Just like you can’t stop people from posing in the mirror and offending the nasal passages of unsuspecting gym-goers with silent farts of doom, you can’t prevent someone from offering unwanted advice, but you can tell them, “I’m good doing this on my own and don’t need your help,” and they’ll leave you alone from then on.

If you’re interested in lifting weights or doing anything else at your local gym, don’t allow intimidation to stop you. Everyone has been a beginner at working out and lifting weights.

Know why you’re there. Own your space. Don’t let anything or anyone deter you. Once you take that first step, it’ll get much easier with each additional visit. Soon enough, you won’t even hesitate to show up and do your thing.

From Nia Shanks

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