It Took Me 1 Year, but I'm Finally Comfortable Hitting the Gym Alone — Here's How

POPSUGAR Photography | Benjamin Stone
POPSUGAR Photography | Benjamin Stone

We all have those horrifying recurring dreams that intermittently bubble up from time to time, leaving us panicked and drenched in sweat at 2 a.m. For some, it's about forgetting to wear pants to work or being eternally chased by a stranger in a dark alley. But my repeated nightmare takes place in a gym, as dozens of buff meatheads laugh and point at me struggling to lift 20 pounds.

I was born, and still remain to this day, pretty darn scrawny; I'll just rip the bandage and get that one out of the way right off the bat. With such a genetically slender figure comes a wealth of insecurities that often aren't discussed. As I witnessed my friends and classmates naturally gain muscle and fill out while going through puberty, I kept my bony elbows, flat chest, and stick-esque arms.

My parents encouraged me to put on weight by chugging nightly protein shakes and hitting the gym, both of which I didn't mind doing. In fact, I looked forward to gym sessions with my mom; they were a way for us to bond while working on our fitness together, and I felt comfortable having her by my side as my Spongebob-like arms hoisted as much as they could manage, a similar comfort I found in my college friends during those four years of my life.

Image Source: Nickelodeon

But that all changed when I moved to New York at the age of 22. I was living on my own in a new city with no close friends in my vicinity. I quickly joined a gym as a means of managing stress (oh, and balancing out my overconsumption of bagels), but I completely underestimated just how daunting it would be to actually work out by myself. For some, it's no big deal, but when you're self-conscious about your physical appearance and surrounded by ultrajacked guys and gals with biceps as big as their heads, it's pretty much cause to run in the opposite direction and never turn back.

For the first eight or so months of my gym membership, I pretty much stuck to cardio and abs, running on the treadmill or hitting the elliptical machine and then sneaking to a corner of the stretching area to squeeze in some ab exercises before dashing out the door. I didn't dare attempt any weight machines out of fear that people would judge me for my lack of muscle. People would definitely notice and side-eye me every time I awkwardly moved that little weight stack pin into the hole for 15 pounds instead of the 60 pounds the previous person lifted — right?

Everyone is there to concentrate on taking care of their own bodies, not to gawk at my inability to lift heavy weights.

In reality, these concerns were all in my head and completely unfounded. There wasn't really a distinct "aha!" moment that made me throw those gym-related insecurities in the garbage. It really was just a matter of looking around the gym to realize one key fact: everyone is there to concentrate on taking care of their own bodies, not to gawk at my inability to lift heavy weights. Whereas I formerly brainwashed myself into believing every dude was secretly judging me for being at the gym in the first place, a quick peer around the room revealed that they were all actually just gazing at their biceps and pecs in the mirror, not staring at my twiggy legs.

Since making that realization, I've come up with a few ways to stick to my guns and keep up the courage to hit the weight machines every time I go to the gym. They may seem obvious, but they make a world of difference if you've ever been in the same boat.

Make a bumpin' playlist — and blare that sh*t as loud as you can

No workout is complete until I've got my favorite tunes blaring in my ears. Does Beyoncé make you feel confident AF? We've got a playlist for that. Or maybe the early 2000s get you in the perfect mindset to focus on yourself and not your surroundings. Yep, we've got a soundtrack for that, too. I suggest putting your earbuds in while changing in the dressing room so you have plenty of time to get in the zone. And keep that playlist streaming throughout your entire workout because it serves as the perfect distraction, especially when you know the lyrics by heart.

Have your workout planned ahead of time

I hate to bring DJ Khaled into the picture here, but planning your workouts is a major key to success when it comes to feeling comfortable in the gym. I usually scope out the machines while I'm on the treadmills, which are in the back of my gym and therefore have a view of the rest of the room. I make a mental checklist of each machine I plan to use and stick to it so that I'm not stuck awkwardly meandering about. This makes me feel like I have my sh*t together and, most importantly, like I belong there.

If worse comes to worst, just don't make eye contact with anyone

An easy way to swerve around any anxious feelings about people staring at you is to just not even look at other gym-goers in the first place. Instead, focus on yourself by looking at your own body while lifting weights. You know how the old saying goes: "Out of sight, out of mind!"