Ladies Guide to the Weight Room Pt. 2: Screwing yer courage

Image courtesy of Oxygen Magazine

I still remember the first time I walked into a weight room.  The guy I was dating at the time asked me if I wanted to join him, and because he was male-model gorgeous and I would have happily jumped off a cliff and into a crater full of boiling-hot lava if he had asked me to, I agreed.

I stepped into the weight room, which was at the University of Oklahoma, and immediately alarms started going off in my head, screaming, “BOY ZONE BOY ZONE! YOU DON’T BELONG HERE! GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!”  Everywhere I looked, I saw dudes performing complicated maneuvers with heavy weights…and a single, solitary girl, who was doing reverse crunches on the captain’s chair.  It was like I had wandered into a men’s locker room or a meeting of Skull and Bones or some secret society where the criteria for admission was having a peen.  And I obviously did not qualify.

I flung a couple of weights around a few times, acutely aware of the fact that I was one of two girls in a sea of boys, and when it became too much for me, I bailed and headed for the comfort of the cardio machines, where all of the other girls were, and where I suspected I actually belonged.

So, so sad, isn’t it?  But it’s true – the weight room can be a very intimidating place for a lady to venture, especially if she is going in there for the first time.  There are all these heavy weights and machines that require specialized knowledge to use correctly, and the areas are almost always filled with huge dudes who grunt and make constipated faces and leave sweat on everything.  It can feel a bit like sneaking into the gorilla exhibit at the zoo.

But like so much in life, braving the really scary shit will ultimately lead you to the best rewards. In this case, overcoming the intimidation of the weight room will lead to becoming a stronger, more awesome you.  And we all want that, right?  RIGHT.

Here are some tips I’ve picked up to help even the most trembly-kneed novice find herself a home among the benches and racks:

1.  Wear headphones.

Sometimes you will run into a guy who thinks of the weight room as his own personal dating service.  Sometimes those guys will also be total asses.  For instance, the guy who once told me he didn’t know why girls lifted weights, because he didn’t find muscles attractive.  He said this while I was lifting weights.  (He must have been trying to neg me.) I’ve heard anecdotes about guys who offer unsolicited lifting advice to ladies, and a bunch of other boorish behavior.

The most important thing that you should know about these guys is that they are LOSERS, and you should give approximately zero fucks about what they say.  The other thing to know is that the guys who usually do this are usually the guys who spend more of their time flapping their gums than working on their guns.  Anyone who is serious about weight-lifting is going to be focused on him or herself.  The people who are trying to talk to everyone else in the gym?  Not serious, and thus, not to be taken seriously.

Even so, those guys are annoying, and so the best way to repel them is to wear headphones.  Only the most clueless dolt will try to talk to you even though you are wearing headphones, and you can use them as an excuse to ignore him.

Which brings me to…

2. Fill your mp3 player with jams that make you want to kick some ass.

My gym playlist contains songs by Eminem, Bikini Kill, Prodigy, Pink, Lady Gaga, Ferry Corsten, the Rolling Stones, Katy Perry, Peaches and a bunch more.  The main thing these songs all have in common is that when I hear them, I feel irresistable urges to do the following:

  • Dance like a maniac on speed
  • Run through the streets while punching the air like Rocky
  • Rip my shirt to shreds like the Incredible Hulk.

Basically, anything that makes me feel like someone just jammed a power line in my spine goes on this playlist.

Researchers have actually consistently found that listening to high-energy music during physical activity actually gives the listener more energy and the ability to endure for longer periods of time.  I know, file this under “No shit, Sherlock,” but I just wanted you to know that I’m not just making this up.  Science agrees with me!

3.  Do your research.

If you are confronted with something you don’t understand, odds are good that you will be intimidated by it, right?  And the weight room is filled with things most non-weightlifters do not understand (especially the cable machines, which I love, but damn, it took me a while to get comfortable with them).  But this is the thing – no one who lifts weights was born knowing how to do this stuff.  We all had to learn, and I’m willing to bet that most of us taught ourselves.  (And based on the shitty form I regularly see in the weight room, I’d say a lot of us self-taught individuals didn’t really do much research.  More about that later in the series.)

You have a few options.  Most gyms have certified staff who can help you use machines.  Sometimes they might charge you for the service, but if you go to a gym like mine, which is more of a “wellness center” and less of a traditional gym, you’ll be getting advice from people who are trained kinesiologists, which, if you can afford it, is a good investment.

But maybe you are embarrassed to ask for help and to admit you don’t know something.  Hey, that kind of describes me (or at least how I used to be), so I ain’t gonna judge!  That is where the wonderful world of the internet comes in handy.  Not only are there blogs and websites available for reference, but YouTube is filled with instructional videos.  My favorite websites are Stumptuous (which, if you haven’t bookmarked yet, YOU SHOULD) and the sites for Muscle and Fitness Hers and Oxygen.  And if you don’t like everything you do to be digital, you can buy both of those magazines at any grocery store.  I’ve found they are definitely worth the investment (but be prepared to ignore dozens of ads for fat-burners and supplements, ick).

These resources are not only great for actual exercises, but they’ll often give you routines you can follow to target specific body parts, tips on proper form, nutrition info and recipes.

4. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

Let me tell you a story about something that happened to a friend of mine a while ago.  Okay, it was really me and it was yesterday.  Anyway, I’ve been trying to work toward being able to complete a pull-up, and as one of my exercises, I stood on a step, jumped up and tried to pull myself up a bit using a pull-up bar.  I managed to get myself about an eighth of the way, straining and groaning the whole time, before I dropped to the ground in a panting lump.

I did it about five times, watching myself in the mirror in the process and realizing I looked about as awesome as my cats do when they chase a laser pointer.   But I dealt with it because I know that learning to do a pull-up is a process, and that the process of getting to a goal is usually even more important than achieving the goal itself. And sure enough, I woke up this morning to that delicious ache in my back and shoulders, the one that lets me know I worked hard and am getting stronger.

My point is, don’t be afraid to look silly and less than perfect.  I know we ladies face all this pressure to be graceful and elegant and sweat-free and impeccably made-up at all times, but you’ve got to find it in yourself to say “fuck you” to that pressure, and to embrace yourself as a human being, which means loving your awkwardness and your goofiness and your fails as much as you love anything else about yourself.  Perfection is such a myth, anyway, and we only drive ourselves crazy if we focus on that to the exclusion of all else.  Instead, recognize that you are working hard and respect yourself for it.  What you are doing is awesome, even if it doesn’t feel – or look – that way sometimes.

5.  Know that you have a right to be in the weight room.

Did you pay your gym fees?  Are you a guest of someone who pays gym fees? Then you have a right to be there.  It’s as simple as that.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Have some suggestions of your own?  Leave them in the comments!  Let’s talk about what we can do to make the weight room less intimidating for everyone.

6 responses to “Ladies Guide to the Weight Room Pt. 2: Screwing yer courage

  1. Thanks, Caitlin. This struck a chord with me:

    “…you’ve got to find it in yourself to say “fuck you” to that pressure, and to embrace yourself as a human being, which means loving your awkwardness and your goofiness and your fails as much as you love anything else about yourself.”

    I needed to read this today because I’ve been too hard on myself lately and this is a helpful reminder that perfection is a myth.

    • Hey Brandi! I’m glad it resonated with you! It really is true, that perfection is a myth, and the standard by which we judge perfection is really quite arbitrary. Like, when we talk about bodies, it’s worth asking why we say one body is perfect and another body is imperfect, even though both bodies might be perfectly healthy and strong and functional.

      Focusing on perfection only makes us feel inadequate and like failures. Not worth it, I say.

  2. Pingback: Ladies Guide to the Weight Room Pt. 3: Starting out « Fit and Feminist·

  3. Thanks for this. I go to one of those “entry level” all women’s gyms so basically everyone in the gym is a noob..including me. It makes the anxiety associated with looking like a fool less present but it is still there. It takes time to de-program yourself from that sort of embarrassment.

    • It totally does, but the funny thing is that once you do get over that kind of newbie anxiety, you’ll wonder why you were ever concerned in the first place. I now feel so comfortable in the gym that I have to deliberately remind myself that not everyone feels that way. You’ll get there someday soon, too!

      • True, I feel very comfortable in the weights room, right at home! The last time I set foot on a treadmill was sometime in the mid eighties, LOL

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