They say that your memory recall is improved when the event is traumatic. I would agree. Case in point: the first time I stepped into a gym. No kidding. I recall very vividly my anxiety and fear just parking the car. For some, the mere thought of walking into a new place with an already-established culture, unfamiliar surroundings and sales people is overwhelming enough to make you run away quickly!
During my first visit I packed up what I considered appropriate athletic wear. I had my Sparx running shoes (three months wear), no socks, my “World’s Greatest Soccer Player” Snoopy t-shirt, and my favourite pair of cut-off jean shorts. Workout attire perfection! When I arrived, I struggled with pushing through the big swing door. Not a good start. What happened next can only be compared to “flash bangs” during tactical training. It was like a wave that hit me in the chest. A pause. All my senses were instantly assaulted. In one minute (which felt like seconds), I was confronted by someone who in hindsight may have been Richard Simmons; I heard “Welcome to the Jungle” playing, and I saw thirty men and one woman doing stairs in rhythm wearing brightly-coloured unitards with thongs. And I was somehow five dollars poorer on my way to the change room.
Step One was over. I took a deep breath.
On to step two. The change room was unfamiliar terrain, and in here there’s another new culture. Two men were present. One was an older gentleman who clearly forgot he was naked as he walked around cheerily. The other was younger and took up a full bench which left me with a bench in a corner, which was fine by me. I threw on my workout gear in ten seconds flat. I finished tying up my laces and got up to leave when I heard, “Hello Terry Boyd!” It was Naked Guy. Naked Guy started walking towards me with his hand outstretched to shake my hand. It was my history teacher in the buff. I’m not sure how the conversation went; there are some things you just block out. I rushed out as quickly as I could with “see you in class” ringing in my ears. My look of shock gave way to the face of someone ready to cry.
Step three. I’d been successful getting through the front door, I’d survived the change room, and now - the weight room. The best approach is to pay attention and ask questions, which contradicts everything this 16-year-old high school kid knew. And I knew everything! OK, I kind of stood out in my Snoopy t-shirt, but I was determined. I scoured the area for the safest, easiest thing to do. I saw a bike. I think I leapt for joy! I can ride a bike. Happy day! I climbed on the seat, which was too high. Too late now. I’d have to make do.
For pride’s sake I kept going. I was sure everyone in the room was watching. I had to slide up and down the seat to reach the pedals. I looked like a ten-year-old on an over-sized ten-speed. After three minutes of excruciating wear and tear on the inside of my thighs, I climbed off. This bike had betrayed me. A friendly man came over and asked if I was finished. I said yes. He added helpfully that I could adjust the height of the seat. Did I mention I was 16? Step four, please.
The weights were a different story. I was confused when I looked at the equipment. There was a lot, and I was somewhat blinded by the parachute pants. I went to the water fountain to bide my time and survey the scene. I drank a lot. Slowly. Some of these guys were big, some were small, and I was surprised that they were all people I recognized, or who seemed just average-looking. One looked like the Ultimate Warrior: headband, long hair, killer mullet. He wore a very rad pair of purple and green felt parachute pants and a white muscle shirt that said “Where’s the beef?” I felt a pang of jealousy. Adding to his presence was a bright yellow Sportsman cassette tape Walkman strapped to his waist, and a pair of headphones.
My instincts told me to avoid this man at all costs.
I saw a guy I recognized named Steve. Funny though…when I saw him at the grocery store he looked kind of average, but as soon as he did a set, he seemed to get huge. Years later, this malady was known as “Imaginary Lat Syndrome” (ILS). I decided to go all-in! I sat down at a machine, reached above my head and pulled the bar (the lat machine). It was so easy. I did 50 reps, no problem, pulled it right down to my lap. On this day 20-pound lat pull-downs were no match for me and my Snoopy t-shirt. I got up and noticed I too had ILS! I walked around like I owned the place.
Even though I had yet to buy any parachute pants, I felt like I belonged. I went back for my second try, or as we weightlifters call it, the second set. Now we all know how helpful peripheral vision is when we’re doing things like driving or playing sports - but it’s also key in recognizing danger. The Ultimate Warrior was walking toward me. I hadn’t crossed into his turf, I hadn’t even made eye contact. I froze. He stood beside me and took off his headphones. I heard “Careless Whisper” by Wham on his Sportsman. It caught me by surprise. He asked if he could give me some advice. I nodded an emphatic “yes.” He said, “you’re sitting on it backwards. Add some weight, pull to your chin, and don’t overdo it the first time.” Another nod from me. “
Any questions, just ask,” he offered. He put his phones back on (“Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” was playing) and went back to the big weights.
I was “shappy”(shocked and happy). I did two more decidedly harder sets. I didn’t have to shower or change so I went to the change room and grabbed my stuff which was rolled up in a brown-paper Dominion Store bag and tucked away in Locker 3 (favourite number, easy to remember). I waqlked out thinking I may just come back.
It was the Ultimate Warrior who probably changed my mind about returning.
People who’ve had a first trip to the gym have overcome their fears and returned. For some, it’s a seamless process. For others, it really is traumatic. I have seen people unable to walk in the front door due to a fear they’d be judged and other insecurities. A kind word from a member - a nod, or a wave, or a hello - can help someone feel they belong. People tell me one of their biggest concerns is that everyone is watching them.
Well, a lot of folks are thinking the same thing. Most can relate. They all had a first day.
There is no doubt that gyms can be intimidating. If you’re starting out, ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask someone if you’re unsure how the lockers work, who the trainers are, how to sign up for classes, etc.. Wear comfortable clothing and shoes. Don’t overdo it your first time training. There’s a lot of information online. Access it, and ask people at the gym. If you see someone with headphones on, chances are they’re committed to that training session.
You’re a newbie - own it, claim it as yours. “I’m new here, I have a quick question.” People get that - they used to be there, too.
You can have a wonderful gym experience. Just walk through the front door!