Don’t know what to do in the gym? How to train & gain confidence (not just muscle)

This blog post is going to be on a topic which keeps coming up and, in my opinion, is a fairly important one. I’m going to be addressing the issue of what you should be doing in the gym. If you have ever walked into a gym, stared helplessly around you, shied away from all those intimidating machines and male-dominated weightlifting areas and defaulted straight to the treadmill to save yourself from the embarrassment of looking lost, then, first of all, you’re not alone, and secondly, this post is for you.

Some of us don’t know what to do with ourselves at the gym. Maybe you struggle to write a workout, don’t know how to split your workout, how heavy you should be lifting or whether you’re performing the exercises correctly. Some of us might save our favourite #fitspo (hate that hashtag) workouts on Instagram and think we’ve nailed it, but actually, that girl with the big bum, tiny waist and huge following might have no training qualifications or might be training with a very different fitness level or goal to yours.

I’ll be the first to hold up my hand and say that I have been there. When I first got into training, there were times when I felt out of place in a gym environment, paranoid that people were judging or scorning me, and too afraid to do certain exercises or use certain resistance machines in case I used them incorrectly and made a fool of myself. An ideal solution for you might be to hire a personal trainer, but this can be expensive and isn’t an option for lots of us, so in this blog post I’m going to be covering a few areas which might help you to become more comfortable and confident in a gym environment.


1.) Social media:

As always, social media is both a blessing and a curse. Whilst it can provide you with plenty of useful information and inspiration, it’s not always beneficial. Some people will post workout videos performing exercises with incorrect and sometimes even dangerous form which could cause you to get injured if you copy them. And here’s something you might not have thought of: they might be training for a different goal. Let me explain this in a bit more detail – when it comes to training, there are different set and rep ranges which we tend to use based on our individual goals. These tend to focus on strength, endurance and hypertrophy (muscle growth). I’ve noticed that most of the workout videos shared on Instagram tend to use the hypertrophy range – this might not be ideal for you if you’re not looking to put on muscle mass. For example, when I was new to fitness and using Instagram for inspiration, I was training mainly in the hypertrophy range without even knowing it. That’s OK, because I needed to gain some muscle, and this really helped me to get leaner and stronger, but I wish I had known how I was training, so that I could have incorporated some strength and endurance training too. So maybe do some research about these different training focuses before you start – fitness influencer and personal trainer Tally Rye posted a really helpful video on this subject which you can watch here (from 7:38 minutes):

2.) Goals:

This links in to the different training areas I’ve just mentioned. I recommend that before you begin, you sit down and work out what you want to achieve. I personally don’t recommend that anyone uses the goal ‘to lose weight’ – instead the goal would be to lose fat, since weight includes muscle mass and therefore gaining muscle mass might stop your weight from going down. In fact, I also recommend avoiding weighing yourself if you can help it and instead measuring your body fat percentage if you’re able to, or even just focusing on how your body changes or how your clothes fit.

Decide what it is that you want to improve – do you want to gain muscle mass, improve your cardiovascular or muscular endurance, increase your strength? Once you’ve decided this you can begin to write your workouts tailored to your goal. Even if you can’t afford regular personal training sessions, it might be worth paying a trainer for a consultation and having them write an exercise programme for you, especially if you’re really struggling to get started. Again, Tally’s video helps to explain how to design a workout – watch it above from 7:38 minutes.


3.) Write it down:

Some people prefer to turn up at the gym with no planned workout, using whatever equipment is available and making it up as they go along. That’s fine; that’s what works for them. I am not one of these people. I like having structured workouts. I write down which exercises I’m going to perform and how many reps and sets I intend to do. The whole process is a learning curve; sometimes I discover that I under- or over-estimated how many reps or sets I’m capable of doing and have to adjust it, but I still find it useful to have those guidelines there.

I just jot my workouts down in the ‘Notes’ section on my phone, or sometimes in a notebook and bring it along with me. If you’re really organised then you might want to plan out several weeks’ worth of workouts in advance.

Design your workout split (how you separate your weekly workouts based on which parts you’re training) the way that you want to. This might mean you do full-body sessions, push/pull sessions (sessions that focus on ‘pushing’ and ‘pulling’ exercises separately) or just  simply train lower body and upper body on separate days. I find this last option is what suits me best; because if I have DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness, a.k.a when you have difficulty trying to get up from your chair after leg day) in my legs from my recent lower body day, I can still go to the gym to train my upper body.

4.) Educate yourself:

This is a common theme in all of the areas that I’ve covered here and I cannot emphasise its importance enough. Do your research. There is a lot of information available for free online and whilst you should be careful about your sources, this can be really helpful. Try to read up about training systems, watch videos created by trainers to learn how to use certain machines or to perform exercises correctly that you’re not sure about.

Don’t be afraid to ask. If you don’t know how to do something, find the nearest trainer who’s not busy with a client and they should be more than happy to help you; it’s their job and they’re there for a reason. You might feel silly asking, but you’ll feel more silly about being too afraid to try something new.

Go to classes. The first time I ever used a barbell was in a body pump class. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to a piece of equipment that you’re not sure about, and with a trainer putting you through your paces you don’t have to worry about what to do next. Once you feel a bit more comfortable performing certain exercises, you might have the courage to do something similar on your own.

Make sure you can trust the people you take your inspiration from – in my opinion, some of the best personal trainers who share their workout videos on Instagram include Alice Living, Shona Vertue, Alexia Clark and Bradley Simmonds.

5.) What next?

After all this, you might still be wondering exactly what you should be doing in the gym. Unfortunately, there is no single plan I can share because training styles, like nutrition, are very individual-specific. Factors such as goals, injuries, illnesses and fitness abilities greatly influence training plans, so it’s up to you to decide on how you want to train. I would advise you to start step-by-step. Perhaps go to classes to gain confidence, talk to trainers, maybe start with bodyweight exercises until you feel comfortable enough to add weight, and be kind to yourself. Putting yourself outside of your comfort zone will help you to make the most progress, and one day you’ll look back and wish you’d done it sooner.

The most important thing is to ensure that the exercises you are performing are safe, and that you feel good or enjoy the exercise. We are all unique, we are all adapted for different things and therefore enjoy different things. You might be better suited to endurance exercise such as long-distance running than your friend is, or feel comfortable performing an exercise which his or her body dislikes. And there’s nothing wrong with that – fitness should not be about lifting heavy weights because your #fitspo (still hate that hashtag) says you should; it should be about finding something that you enjoy and can therefore stick with.

Thank you for reading my post, I really hope this helps if you’re feeling nervous or unaccustomed to a gym environment, and I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have if you leave a comment below. Good luck with your fitness journey!

Lauren x



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