Jan 04, 2024

Empowerment in Motion: A Comprehensive Guide to Advocating for Yourself at the Gym

Gyms are intimidating. I own Clarity Fitness, Georgia’s first body positive, fat positive, and eating disorder informed fitness studio in downtown Decatur, Georgia. Every week people come to our studio who have never been to a gym before. They worry about sticking out in a negative way, and fear being judged or ridiculed by fitness goers or professionals in the space.

If that’s you, you are NOT alone! If you’re an avid gym goer and you’re beating yourself up because you don’t know why you too are so nervous to go to a gym, you are NOT alone either!

Unfortunately, the fitness industry is jam packed with individuals who want to make you very aware and very ashamed of not knowing as much as they [think they] do. For that reason, we have created a detailed breakdown of things we’ve personally seen work in setting happy and healthy boundaries for yourself and others in a fitness space with minimal time, energy, or thought.

Step 1: Understanding Your Fitness “Why”

Let’s clearly lock in what you want to achieve at the gym. Fill in the blank at the end of this sentence. My intention/goal at the gym is to: ________________________________________.

Some ideas are:

  • Build strength so that I can play with my [kids/pets/grandkids/friends] for longer
  • Release some stress
  • Try something out of my comfort zone
  • Explore a new style of movement

Once you’ve locked that in, you can rule out what does (and more importantly, doesn’t) matter to you. 

For example, if you’re going to a gym or studio to release stress, let’s steer away from challenges, super loud classes, and super intense workouts. Physical exertion is a form of stress on the body. Yes, there are some people who truly feel better after pushing through a tough workout which is cool too, but if you need a pass to skip the HIIT Circuit and head to a corner with a cozy playlist turned up loud enough so you can’t hear people around you, some tools to stretch, and a big bottle of water, here’s said pass!

Step 2: Come Armed with Some Basic Knowledge

At the end of the day, instructors, coaches, trainers, and gym team members exist to make your life easier. Most truly want to partner with you in exploring fitness on your terms. They’re there to help you learn how equipment works, curate programs around what will benefit the uniquely-amazing-you the most, and make sure you’re safe. 

Finding a trainer who you trust, that leaves you feeling energized and empowered after a session instead of exhausted, worried, or ashamed of yourself, and working with them virtually or in person will allow you to get the basics in a safe and effective way.

If training isn’t an option for you or the trainers accessible to you are focused on things that feel damaging to your mental or physical health, here are some basic form tips that you can carry to most workouts:

  • Basic Form Tips: As a trainer, I say “keep your back straight, core engaged, and breathe” at least 5 times per session. My clients know it’s coming so much so that I can just lovingly say “back!” and they’ll giggle and straighten up their spine. It seems so simple, but these queues go SO far for safety across almost every exercise! When in doubt, keep your back straight, core engaged, and breathe.
  • Basic Workout Programming Tips: 3 sets of 10 reps is a safe range for most strength based movements and machines. Don’t know what exercises to do? After a warm up (google “simple dynamic stretches” and find a few (5 is plenty!) that sound supportive to you), pick an upper body machine or movement, a lower body machine or movement, a back machine or movement, and a core machine or movement. Try each of these movements for 3 sets of 10 at a weight that feels challenging but doable and see how you feel! Finish off with a bit of cardio on a machine that seems the least intimidating or on a walk around your space, and a final stretch.
  • Basic Exercise Selection Tips: Squats, lunges, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses, and rows are incredible movements to focus energy on so long as they feel safe and supportive to you and your body. Start by doing the movement without any weight to see how everything feels. If it feels good, feel free to add weight SLOWLY (start with 5 pounds at a time – no big jumps in weight if you’re new!) and play with that. Form is more important than amount of weight lifted when it comes to the benefit of the movement. Take your time, ask for support from certified professionals, and always stop a movement if you notice pain. Pro tip: muscle engagement is safe – this feels like tingling. Pain feels sharp, concentrated, and sometimes sudden – listen to and honor your body and rest!

Step 3: Spot and Avoid Red Flags

I had a client who came to me after going to a personal trainer who pushed her to the point of needing knee surgery. Before going to this unnamed gym, she had no significant knee issues and enjoyed her ballroom dance lessons, long walks, and Pilates classes routinely. After getting set up with a trainer at said unnamed gym, she let him know that she was interested in strength training to support her hobbies. For whatever reason, this trainer became locked in on making my client learn how to box jump. Without boring you with the “science-ey” details, there’s nothing inherently wrong with box jumps when progressed and performed correctly, but there’s also no data to show that box jumps are essential to the success of a general fitness client improving casual ballroom dancing, walking, or Pilates skillsets. 

If a trainer tells you that you absolutely have to do a certain exercise to achieve any fitness goal, and that no other option exists to get you to your goal, find a new trainer.

Unfortunately for my client, the trainer did not listen to her requests to do something else, or alerts that this movement hurt. The result was a busted knee and a stronger fear of trainers and gyms.

To set clear boundaries with trainers, group exercise instructors, and gym sales professionals, try these tricks:

  • Research first. With the number of gyms and fitness studios out there, every one of their websites will make their company values, beliefs, and approach as clear as possible to stand out. Don’t agree with their approach? Notice a trend of being upsold lots of products or supplements to be a part of their “journey”? See a lot of nutrition programs, meal plans, or nutrition support without any statements about it being backed by a dietitian or nutritionist? These are red flags. Check out another spot!
  • Ask questions. What is this studio’s process of matching trainers with clients? Do any trainers have experience in [insert your specific goal here]? How hard are your workouts? 
  • Make it very clear what you do want, AND what you don’t want. Don’t want to talk about weight loss or nutrition with a trainer? If you feel comfortable doing so, share with them why and/or what happened in the past when weight loss was discussed in a health or fitness setting. For example, "I am in eating disorder recovery and do not want to know or discuss my weight, weight loss, or nutrition habits. Doing so can be really damaging to my recovery, and I will have to go elsewhere if this isn’t respected.” Getting this information across via text, call, or email is just as valid as saying it in person. Get it across however you can!
  • You don’t EVER have to get on the scale if you don’t want to. If a trainer says that they can’t show you your progress without a weigh in, BMI check, or body scan, run very quickly in the opposite direction! Check out our non-scale victories in the final section of this blog for more ideas on “progress” that is independent of these metrics. A tool we love for communicating this is a “Don’t Weight Me Card” which you can google and recreate or grab online! Sometimes in situations of needing to stand up for myself, words are hard and having a tool like this card can make things easier. The front reads “Please don’t weigh me unless it’s (really) medically necessary. If you really need my weight, please tell me why so I can give you my informed consent.” The back lists out 4 reasons why weight is likely not needed, and the mental health and social justice issues around focusing on weight.
  • If you feel worse leaving than when you came in, the workout is too intense. I had a trainer early on in my relationship with exercise who pushed me to the point that I had to lay on a bench in the locker room to avoid throwing up or passing out after every workout. While there is nothing wrong with an intense workout if that is what feels good for you today, I came to dread our sessions together, and absolutely felt miserable during and after the session. However, I trusted his judgement as he was the professional and I didn’t have any kind of fitness knowledge or certifications at the time. Now that I’m a 6-year-certified personal trainer with hundreds of clients under my belt, I see how damaging his approach was to my relationship to fitness, my body, and trainers in general. This is not how it has to be, and you can find a trainer or fitness class who doesn’t work this way!

Step 4: A Crash Course in Gym Etiquette

When I was 13, I went to my friend’s Catholic Sunday school after sleeping over at her house. I wasn’t an avid church goer to say the least, but it was her family’s routine, and I wanted to keep the sleepover fun going! The Sunday school teacher passed out rosaries which to me looked like necklaces with a cross on them. I was all excited for my new jewelry and brought it up to my face to put around my neck, when the teacher gently but quickly said “and remember we do not put those on like necklaces!” I quickly put the non-necklace rosary back down on the desk and realized that I was the only person who didn’t know better. 

Fortunately for me this situation was a casual, relaxed, and largely unseen experience. The teacher was kind and patient, no one really saw me, and I learned and moved on. But the experience of making a mistake can be bothersome and embarrassing, even if in hindsight you’re the only one who felt it so strongly.

Here are some unwritten gym etiquette rules to prevent “oops” moments for new gym goers.

  1. Personal Bubble: Find your space and stick to it until you’re done in that area. Some gyms are smaller or busier than others making this a more prevalent rule. For example, at Clarity Fitness we have three squat racks that are connected to one another. If someone is using a squat rack, the bench, the leg extension machine next to the squat rack, has a mat down on the floor, and brought over some dumbbells, they’re suddenly taking over way more than one squat rack worth of space, and are inadvertently preventing someone from using the squat rack or floor space next to them. This can be super frustrating for people who may have planned to use that equipment. For the most part, using one piece of equipment at a time and trying to keep all equipment within a relatively small personal bubble is good etiquette!
  2. Hygiene Tips: Wipe down your equipment after you use it whether you sweated on it or not – it’s just good manners and hygienic ☺
  3. General Etiquette: Put away your equipment after you use it. If you put weight onto a bar, move a dumbbell off the dumbbell rack, lay out a mat, pull down resistance bands, etc. put them back after you’re done! As a team member at a gym, it’s really frustrating to have to clean up after people when it’s known and expected that they clean up after themselves. As a gym goer, it’s really frustrating to plan to use a piece of equipment and not be able to find it because someone left it somewhere creative.
  4. Timing: If the facility is busy, be mindful about how long you’re on a piece of equipment. Sometimes facilities have signs up that say things like “limit cardio to 20 minutes if people are waiting”, and that’s a fair rule of thumb in general! Sometimes people may come up to you and ask how much longer you have on a certain piece of equipment or machine. That doesn’t always mean that you’ve been on it for too long, they may just be indirectly asking to let them know when you’re done so they can use the equipment next.

Step 5: Focus on the Gym Headspace Worth Celebrating! 

Hot take: I feel more comfortable in gyms with quiet music in my headphones, a podcast, or even no music at all. I don’t like feeling like I can’t hear what people are saying, worrying about someone trying to get my attention and not hearing them, and feel more anxious with hardcore music blasting in my headphones a setting where I’m around other people. In my car? Totally different story.

Find what makes you feel less self-conscious in the gym – and it may not be what you expect! I have found that the things that make me feel most comfortable in the gym aren’t the same things that fill my cup elsewhere. 

  • Do you like baggy clothes or more form fitted athleisure-wear specifically in the gym?
  • What type of music makes you feel the most calm and confident while working out?
  • Do you like working out with someone or does working out alone feel better? Maybe certain gym buddies are okay, and others aren’t? Maybe it’s different in the open gym vs a class?
  • Do you like following a program or freestyling your workouts? Do you like writing down what weight you lift, movement you do, how it felt, etc. as you go or does tracking that feel icky?

While some tools to build confidence at the gym aren’t universal, others are. Here are some widespread components of a positive fitness headspace:

  • Comparisons have no value. You cannot hate yourself into a better relationship with your body. You cannot hate yourself into a “better” (reasons why this is in quotations in another blog – see “weight stigma”) body. Focus on what you’re doing and let everyone else do what they’re doing. If I notice myself judging someone, I like to try to think of something to compliment them about in my head instead. The judgement is coming from a place of feeling insecure about my own abilities or body, so pivoting the negative thoughts to positive ones allows me to send compassion to myself and stop the vicious cycle of comparing and judging. 
  • Finding what you truly enjoy does have value. I spent so many years of my life avoiding dance classes because I thought lifting and cardio was the “right and most effective” way to workout. Guess what? Dance classes offer cardio, strength, mobility, stability, and if you like them as much as I do, they’re also just a great time! Whether it’s roller blading, walking, hiking, or aerial silks, finding what you enjoy allows you to see that movement doesn’t have to be a chore you dread. It can be a great way to make new friends, find new awesome things your body is capable of, and get some fun endorphins in the meantime!
  • Celebrate your wins! At Clarity, we have a non-scale victory wall. It’s a giant wall of mirrors with talk bubble stickers (think of the bubble that comes out of a character’s mouth when they speak in a comic book) that all contain something worth celebrating that’s independent of appearance. Some examples include “stopped a workout when I felt pain”, “slept better”, “experienced guilt-free rest time”, “improved body image”, and “explored new styles of movement I enjoy”. People sign off under the bubble when they achieve a victory, and we make a big deal about it. When you’re only focused on lifting heavier or looking different, you’re missing the real point of movement!

The Clarity team hopes that this article has helped you have real tools to advocate for yourself at a gym and improve your relationship with gyms in general. Please share it with a loved one who could benefit from some of these tidbits, too! 

Clarity Fitness’s mission is to facilitate joyful movement in a safe space so that people can see that they are enough. Be it in our four walls, online community, or planting seeds to take to your own fitness home, we hope that the fitness industry continues to shift in a way where people recognize that health, happiness, and success in the gym isn’t dependent on weight loss. 

No pain, plenty of gain ☺

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