Strength Isn't Something to Fear

By Kathryn Bruni-Young, Guest Contributor

Walking into a conventional gym for the first, or even third time can be a puzzling experiment. There is always the group of people in the weight room glistening and grunting, a handful of people sticking to the machines, a few seniors making the rounds through different exercises, and maybe a couple newbies like you.

Conventional gyms are a lot like high school dances, where everyone gets pulled like a magnet to one part of the room, attracted to what feels most familiar. A big box gym can be the same; we can get stuck not really knowing what to do, somewhat paralyzed by the available yet daunting options.

When we aren’t armed with a plan, the gym can be an overwhelming place.  Combine that feeling of overwhelm with a sense of not fitting in, and it’s no wonder that the majority of people who aspire to make the most of their gym membership end up bored, frustrated, or at worst - injured. But with the right amount of knowledge combined with a plan that suits our individual needs, magic happens, transforming the gym into a place where strength comes to life.

I started going to the gym around age sixteen. I had been fantasizing about the elliptical machine and finally felt confident enough to go on my own. After a few months riding the elliptical, witnessing the calories fly by while watching day time TV, I began branching out into other cardio machines to change things up with the limited skillset I had. In the back of my mind something told me if I wanted to balance things out I would have to hit the weights, but it just never seemed like the right time. There was something about the weight room that freaked me out: the vibe, the grunting, and probably the lack of other young women or beginners. 

Nowadays, weight rooms are different than they were ten years ago. As strength training evolves so does the atmosphere, meaning that when we show up to the practice armed with both information and integrity, we can make these spaces more balanced and creative. The rise of movement culture has made space in big box gyms for body weight movement, high-quality strength work and weightlifting.  Gym-goers who respect the practice, their bodies and the space in which they train create a community where confidence and competence are no longer out of reach.

When I bring new students into the gym, we take our time and orient to the space. Taking five minutes to look around, get comfortable and notice the surroundings can be a great way to begin warming up. Finding the right space to begin the practice is the first step to having a good session. 

Once we find the right space it’s all about a good warm-up. A great warm up for me usually begins with some crawling around, joint preparation and isolation movements. This could be as simple as crawling on the floor and hanging from a bar. Find a few moves that can be repeated, and that feel good in the body while getting the blood flowing.

The bulk of the practice—moving out of the corner and into the middle of the room, taking up space in an environment that is likely dominated by some cartoon character types—is often what people fear the most. This portion of the session with beginners usually starts with two or three exercises using some type of weights that can be repeated as a simple circuit. Practicing the exercises, taking brief breaks in between, and noticing the smaller details of how the body adapts is a safe starting place. We don’t need to memorize ten movements, and in the beginning we don’t need to worry too much about lifting very much.

Building confidence in your three exercises is more important than lifting heavy weights. Knowing the biomechanics of a hanging or lifting movement is a great first step in understanding strength training as a whole. These two to three exercises create the meat of the practice, and can be built into a string of sets lasting between thirty to forty minutes. Taking time and being patient with only a few movements also provides a more mindful approach to physical training. 

The last stage—usually the most fun for beginners, yogis, dancers and other non-lifters—is the cool-down, which can be approached differently by everyone. For some people, mobility work can have a calming effect, while others might want to introduce a bit of cardio before the final relaxation. Having flexibility in the routine allows for creativity, allowing for some exploration at the end of the practice.

I advise treating the last five to ten minutes of the practice as a relaxation period, rounding off the session and providing an opportunity for the body and mind to sit with the effects of training. If lying down and closing the eyes seems inappropriate in a public space, sitting down for a few gentle stretches might be a calming alternative.

All of a sudden an hour has flown by and you might start to wonder why you hadn’t tried this before. Blending the format of a yoga class template with the gym environment can provide practitioners with a similarly strong yet relaxed experience. It is this feeling that will keep us coming back for more!

Finding ways to orient and occupy space in a different movement setting ultimately sets the stage for new growth. Gyms are home to some pretty powerful equipment and inspiring practitioners. Walking in with the beginner’s mindset, knowing that we don’t have to know it all, can snowball into an empowering form of physical restoration. Bring a few exercises you know and trust into a new environment, along with the curiosity to see where things might go, and the options for growth can be endless.

Join Kathryn for her Mindful Strength workshop in Toronto May 27+28 and spend two days learning how to maximize the many benefits that gym-based strength training has to offer. For more information, click here!