I still remember my first time. In fact I remember the months leading up to that day, and how many times I thought about taking the plunge.

The free weight room (as in the room with barbells, bars, and dumb bells (DBs); not the weight room that is free, nor the room with weights that are free) at the YMCA where I used to workout was at the end of a long hallway of cardio equipment. To the left, there were two smaller rooms – one that was a space set aside for core work, and the other had with a few machines (leg curls, leg press, and leg extensions, but also a squat rack) and to the right was a gymnasium (this was some time ago). There was also another room full of machines at the other end of cardio hall. Back in those days I spent most of my time in the big room full of machines, on the cardio equipment, and occasionally in the small area for core work. Basically I used the same sections that 99.9999999% of women used. The room with free weights in it was not as busy as the other rooms, and was entirely populated with very muscle-y men.

I’m generally a fairly confident person, but I did not feel I belonged there. How could I? I couldn’t lift the kinds of weights those guys were lifting. I also wasn’t confident in my ability to use the weights properly. I had done bench press on the machine before, but never with just a bar and a rack. And I’d done squats in the Smith machine, but what do you do when there’s no machine to hold the bar up? Is it safe? Would I get laughed out of the place if I did biceps curls with weights I could handle? Unassisted pull-ups? I wish! And those guys sure don’t look friendly. The faces they make while lifting!

And so every time I worked out, I looked curiously into that room as I walked between abs area, cardio-central and the machine room.

Over time, I started to want more out of my training. I had heard so many people talk about how much better free weights were over the years, but where to start? Eventually I hired a trainer, and was introduced to Romanian deadlifts, squats, hang cleans, and rows. All of these things used free weights. Finally, I was learning how to do this stuff! Within a couple of months, I started doing the program my trainer set up for me on my own at the Y a couple of times per week on top of seeing him once per week. I still didn’t have the confidence to venture into the free weight room, although now my curiosity about that room had become longing. I really wanted to go work out in there. It got to the point that every day I would say to myself, “today is the day I will workout in that room”, and then every day I walked over to it and did a sharp left turn just before entering and went to the crappy little rack in the other room. Maybe tomorrow.

Finally, tomorow came. I don’t know what was different this time, but this time I took a deep breathe and walked faster so that I had no choice. Before I knew it, I was in the room! Ack! Since I had looked in so many times, I had a pretty good idea of where I would go. I was going to do single leg Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) and 3 point rows. I had pre-scouted a bench to the left of the door that was next to the big DB rack. I grabbed a DB (Single leg RDLs with one weight add a nice core challenge) and did a superset of SL RDLs and rows. My heart was pounding! My guess is that my form was less than excellent as I was so focussed on trying to scan the room via the mirrors while trying to look cool as a cucumber. And you’ll never guess what the big weight-lifting dudes did next!!! Nothing. Or at least nothing to do with me. They just kept on with their workouts, as though I wasn’t even there. All this time, I had been so worried, and in fact, nobody cared.

Shortly after that, the next amazing thing happened. As I left the room and made eye contact with one of them, he smiled and nodded at me. Not in a “I’m here to hit on you and make you uncomfortable” kind of way, but in a “hello fellow weightlifter” kind of way. Yes!

Anyone else been through this process? Or still in the process of trying to work up the nerve to use the free weight room? Do share!

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa who is keen to help anyone and everyone learn to train better.

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