Gym Intimidation

By Michael Krueger

A nonexercising friend of mine just emailed me an article from titled “Gym intimidation keeps some dudes from working out.” His chosen subject line was, “See, I’m not the only one.”


Body Image

For a long time, fitness industry people have known that women often feel intimidated and uncomfortable in an open gym environment. Many women felt that men were watching them work out and they didn’t like it at all. The industry responded by creating women-only spaces within existing clubs as well as women-only clubs. They thought this would solve the problem; it didn’t, at least not entirely.

It turns out that the women were also intimidated by other women who were in better shape than they were. So now there are clubs and classes just for women of a certain size or age or fitness level. The sub-groups just keep on getting smaller and smaller.

The industry didn’t think that this was an issue for men. Once again, they were wrong.

While men don’t particularly worry about women checking them out while they exercise, they do compare themselves to the other men they see in the gym. They feel inadequate because of the fat they carry, their lack of muscle, their “small” lifts, and their ignorance of how the machines work and how to do various exercises. Some men feel they need to lose weight and get in shape before they go to a gym; otherwise, they will feel ridiculous.


The Reality

The fact of the matter is there are some gym members, both men and women, who will stare and make fun of less fit people or people who aren’t dressed in the current fashion. There are always going to be people who are slimmer, fitter, faster, and stronger than you; there will always be jerks out there as well. That’s just how life is.

Now the question is, are you going to let their opinion of you stop you from doing what you want to do? Unfortunately, the answer is often a resounding “yes.” But even if you have problems working out in a public gym, you still have some options to make yourself more comfortable.

First, you can choose your gym carefully, making the effort to match the facility to your style and personality. “Muscle Head” gyms can be very intimidating. These people are in training to be bodybuilders, power lifters, or competitors in strongman events. If you are not involved in the culture of iron, then these places can be scary. There is a lot of chalk, death metal rock, big weight plates, squat racks, big bodies with big muscles, grunting, groaning, and cursing and more than a little ego/testosterone/trash talk flying around mixed with copious amounts of sweat. If this isn’t your idea of a fun and exciting place, then don’t go there.

Mainstream clubs can be just as scary. They have shiny machines, many classes, perfectly coifed “instructors,” children’s play areas, smoothie bars (some even have bars and restaurants), sports leagues, spas, and more TVs that you can count. This environment can turn off a person who just wants to have a good selection of weights and some decent machines. Once again, if this isn’t your idea of an ideal place to work out, then move on.

There are the new “24 hour”-type clubs. These have pretty much everything you might want without all of the amenities you may feel are unnecessary. You may choose the time you want to work out, and when you work odd hours that can be a real advantage. These places attract a cross section of trainees and, depending on the time of day, you may feel somewhat out of place. Overall though, I know of few people who use them who aren’t mostly satisfied with the experience.

Then, of course, there is the gym at the fire station. From what I have seen, these gyms certainly can vary in quality from department to department and even from station to station. I’ve see some that look like a showroom for equipment manufacturers and others that make my old high school weight room look pretty posh. Of course they are convenient to use and they don’t cost you anything, so those are advantages.

Last, there is the option of setting up a gym in your home. It doesn’t cost much to outfit a bare bones workout area. An Olympic barbell set, a sturdy bench, and a rack of some sort will fill most of your needs. The biggest issue with working out at home is that there are always distractions. There are faucets to fix, kids to deal with, errands to run, lawns to mow, food to eat, and TVs to watch.

In the end, muscle doesn’t care how it gets built or where it gets built. It can be with state-of-the-art equipment or used equipment, in a fancy gym or in a garage. Effort, intensity, and consistency will get the job done; where it happens is superfluous.


The Mind Game

So, I gave you a number of ways to get past the “intimidation of the gym” experience, but that isn’t the real problem, is it? It is the stories you are telling yourself in your head that keep you from becoming fit. Sure, the gym rats and the smoothie bars are convenient scapegoats in your mind, but the real problem is what you believe about your own abilities and your fragile self-esteem.

I have seen people show up in a warm gym wearing baggy sweat pants and a two-sizes-too-large sweatshirt. They furtively look around at anyone and everyone and I can tell they are sizing them up, comparing themselves to them and trying to figure out just where and if they fit in. They might eventually walk on a treadmill for a few minutes or try out an elliptical trainer, then go get a drink of water. They’ll watch someone use a machine and then might wander over to the dumb bell rack and pick up a five pounder and curl it a few times. They are lost and confused and feeling more embarrassed and out of place by the moment. These people have lost the battle even before it has begun. Soon they are gone, never to return.

I often notice these people while I am waiting for my clients. If I have a few minutes before my next session, I will introduce myself and ask them how they are doing. They generally mumble something about being OK and move on. I’m not one to troll for clients, so I just tell them that if they have a question and I’m not working that they should just ask. They rarely do.

I’ve seen the same thing happen at gyms in fire stations. A newbie doesn’t feel comfortable, and he’s not too inclined to ask for help. He might sneak into the weight room when no one else is around and try to figure out a workout, with only limited success. I think this behavior is a cultural thing with regards to not wanting to appear weak or unknowledgeable.

Working with a trainer, even just long enough to feel comfortable with the gym environment, can be a real help, and this is where the firefighter Peer Fitness Trainer program is so valuable. When there is someone that everyone in the department goes to for instruction and program design, no one will feel lost or embarrassed. It would benefit every department to have someone who has been qualified through the Certified Peer Fitness Trainer program. Contact the International Association of Firefighters for more information on this excellent program.


Bottom Line

You know you must have a high degree of fitness to be a firefighter. You know that this means getting in some gym time as well as skills training. You know that if the fitness of even one member of the crew is lagging, it negatively affects everyone. Ultimately your fitness is up to you, but having a supportive environment to work out in where everyone feels comfortable and part of the team makes your training more pleasant as well as more effective.

When it comes to building a strong, fit, knowledgeable, and effective team, we are all in this together; let’s do all we can to make sure everyone succeeds.



Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at 


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