Beating “Gymtimidation”: Tips for Overcoming Gym Anxiety

Matt Underhill, English Department Faculty, Boys Varsity Hockey Coach, Varsity Softball Head Coach.
In my years working with high school athletes, I have observed some incredibly skilled, gritty, and hardworking students who are driven to play their sports at the college level and beyond. However, because they have not yet learned the benefits of purposeful strength and conditioning, many of these athletes are not maximizing their potential. Because so many high school students either do not know the benefits of the gym or suffer from gym anxiety (aka “gymtimidation”), strength training is one area where high school athletes can gain a decisive advantage over their competition.

Imagine you are a female cross-country runner in your sophomore year of high school. You are fit and are happy with your current times on the course but your coach tells you that adding strength training to your weekly workouts is a great way to increase your uphill speed. So, one day after practice you head over to the gym to check it out and you see twenty varsity hockey players squatting, bench pressing, power cleaning, sweating, and grunting. All of a sudden, gymtimidation takes over. I don’t belong here, you think to yourself. What do you do - jump into the fray and start throwing the weight around? Do you find a machine way off in the corner and do the arm curls it suggests? Do you leave the gym and promise you’ll come back tomorrow?
Although gym anxiety affects athletes of all genders, there are a number of female student-athletes here at Kimball Union who are educated and experienced in the gym and are more accomplished at workout technique than many of those varsity boys. But if you are just starting out or suffer from gym anxiety, here are four tips to help you beat it.
1. Make a plan
The best way to beat gym anxiety is to know exactly what you are going to do before arriving. Work with one of the certified training professionals or experienced coaches at Kimball Union to design workouts that are tailored to your goals. Develop a workout schedule and write down the exercises, sets, repetitions, order, and rest periods that you want to include. Having a plan will keep you focused on your goals rather than on what is going on around you.
2. Go with a partner
Training with a partner is a great way to calm your anxiety about the gym. When you train with a another person, not only do you get the social benefit of belonging and feeling less isolated, but training together can motivate you to push through tough exercises. A good training partner also holds you accountable and gives you the opportunity to watch their form while resting between sets. It is much easier to ignore the cacophony of grunts and slamming dumbbells if you are spotting and encouraging a friend.
3. Focus on moving well before moving weight
Any strength and conditioning coach will preach the necessity of moving through a full range of motion and executing exercises with proper form before attempting weights that may inhibit your technique. It is common to see someone loading up too much weight on a bar and executing a partial repetition, or cheating through the exercise by swinging or bouncing the weight. This not only prevents the athlete from maximizing the benefits of the movement, but is also a great way to get injured. Move well without weights, master the safe, effective techniques of each exercise, and then gradually add weight to make gains. Remember, ten sets of one excellent pull-up are better than one set of ten mediocre ones.
4. Make friends with the squat rack
Were you planning to start your workout in the dumbbell area only to find it filled with sweaty, high-fiving, headphone-wearing, 200-pound seniors? Head to the squat rack. Isolation and single-joint exercises have their place in any program. You could train to be a world-class athlete without ever leaving the squat rack (or, as most gyms have now, a power rack). In addition to a bench and, ideally, a pull-up bar, most squat/power racks come equipped with a barbell and all the plates you need. If you focus on basic, compound, multi-joint movements (e.g. squats, cleans, lunges, overhead presses, pull-ups, deadlifts, bench presses, etc.) you can work every muscle group without leaving the rack. Make multi-joint, compound movements the basis of your training and you will have a home base for every workout. Further, using a rack is also a de facto claim on that territory for as long as you are working there. You won’t have to worry about weaving in and out of dumbbells or whether or not that guy will clean up when he's done.


Kimball Union Academy

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Founded in 1813, Kimball Union Academy is one of the oldest private boarding high schools in New Hampshire and the country. KUA blends the best of the New England boarding tradition with an innovative, modern educational program for a diverse group of day and boarding students from across the country and around the world. Located in Meriden, New Hampshire in the heart of the Upper Valley, Kimball Union is minutes from Dartmouth College and has direct access to Boston and New York.