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Getting Started With Strength Training — True Stories From Former First-Timers

For someone new to strength training or thinking about starting, it can feel at once inspiring and intimidating. If that sounds familiar, just remember…

Everyone has been a beginner at some point.

For me, everything started on a summer day in 2009. As I sat in the parking lot of the gym looking over the print-out of my first strength training program, I was so nervous. I had done some resistance training before, but most of it was on the machines, or done in a private, women-only gym. This strength program required that I use the squat rack in the free weight area. Up until now, I had gone out of my way to avoid that section of the gym because it was always crowded, and the majority of the people in there were men. I felt intimidated and scared that I would look silly because I had no idea what I was doing.

Before heading in, I sent a quick text to a friend who was a trainer there. I told him I had to use the squat rack and shared my nervousness. He reassured me and said that if I needed anything to let him know and he’d help me. That gave me the boost I needed. I gathered up my courage and headed into the gym. I put my earphones in, marched into the free weight area, and did my workout. Once I was finished, I realized just how much I had let my imagination get the best of me. It turns out, nobody was paying attention to me or to what I was doing. At all. They were far too immersed in their own workouts.

Sane, Sustainable, & Efficient!

The Modern Woman's Guide to Strength Training will help you achieve maximum results, whether you’re new to strength training, or a veteran in the weight room.

Stories from the Girls Gone Strong Community

While my first-timer experience may not be exactly like someone else’s, the initial nervousness is very common. If you are new to strength training and feeling a bit nervous, please know this: you are not alone. It’s normal to feel a bit apprehensive before trying something new like strength training, but the reward is huge if you stick with it!

We asked women in the Girls Gone Strong community to share a bit about their experiences when they first started lifting, from why and how they started and what was going through their minds, to what helped them to keep showing up then and now. It is my hope, and theirs, that their stories will help you take that first step and try strength training, or that next step and keep doing it! Thank you so much, Carolyn, Claire, Lacey, and Justine!

Getting Over The Newbie Jitters

Women may hesitate to start lifting for a variety of reasons. Some feel intimidated and unsure of what they are doing, or overwhelmed by the gym environment or equipment. Others are self-conscious, imagining that they aren’t “fit enough” to lift weights, or that someone will laugh at them. Some women are wary toward lifting because they’ve been told that it’s for men, or that it will make them “too muscular.” If you are struggling with any of these feelings or thoughts, you aren’t alone — and you can work through all of these things to reap the benefits of strength training.

More and more women are taking up strength training. Getting over those initial nerves can be as easy as hitting the gym with a friend who enjoys lifting or hearing about someone who had a great experience lifting weights. Encouragement from a friend or sound advice from a doctor sometimes does the trick, too. No matter what moves you to walk through those doors for the very first time, it’s wonderful to see so many women becoming interested in harnessing and developing their strength.

How did you get started with strength training?

Carolyn: I was introduced to an amazing trainer in 2014. My sister had worked with him for months. I had been struggling with my weight for years. It took a good six to eight months before I finally agreed to meet him, and once I got started there was no stopping me. I started mostly with HIIT circuits and body weight exercises. As I started to lose fat, it was exciting to see muscle (for the first time in my life, at the age of 43!). Once I started to see muscle, I wanted to start lifting. I was shocked at how much my trainer had me lifting. Lifting heavy was a new concept to me, but I trusted him and embraced it.

Claire: I got into strength training after completing a half marathon. I thought, “Well, that was my running goal. What’s next?” I needed to switch things up after running 10+ miles every day for months. My mind needed a break, too. After graduating college and starting a full-time job, I needed an exercise routine that was not as time-consuming as long distance running. The added motivation of thinking I could look like a bikini competitor helped, plus I knew that lifting was incredibly important for healthy bones, especially for women.

Lacey: I’ve always been very active and was strength training without even realizing I was doing it, but I started intentionally strength training in college, when I was on the rugby team. I needed equipment. Bodyweight movements weren’t enough anymore; they weren’t providing the results I was looking for. I decided I wanted to see what barbells could do for me and the gym was the only place for that. I stuck to five basic barbell lifts for a long time — deadlift, back squat, bench press, row, and overhead press (the StrongLifts 5×5 program). This not only produced strength gains, but gave me a good foundation as I moved on to other programs and learned new techniques.

Justine: My husband started strength training a few years before I did, and he convinced me to try a “strength camp” that he really enjoyed. It incorporated both metabolic conditioning and weightlifting on different days. I had never lifted weights before, and it was very intimidating. I started in commercial gyms a long time ago, but only used the treadmill and elliptical machine.

What motivated you to start?

Carolyn: I had been doing mostly HIIT workouts and had really reigned in my diet with the help of my trainer. I think when I started to see muscle definition in my shoulders and biceps I just wanted more!

Claire: I was passionate about my health and knew that there were areas in which I was lacking while running long distance. I had also seen many bikini competitors show their progress on Instagram, and I was fascinated by their dedication and their journeys.

Lacey: I had plenty of speed as a rugby player, but needed more power. Although I had a solid foundation as a “fit person,” I wanted to build more muscle to benefit me on the rugby pitch.

Justine: The reason I started going to gyms in general was for weight loss. It feels like I have spent a large part of my early life trying to lose weight through diet and exercise, constantly trying to figure out whether a food was “good” or “bad,” or whether my exercise that day would help me negate any “bad” foods I ate. It was exhausting. I have since realized that exercise should not be used as a punishment, and now I just go to the gym for my overall well-being.

What was that first time in the gym like?

Carolyn: I felt totally intimidated. I didn’t want to be that girl in the weight room who didn’t know what she was doing. I had a written program. I’ll never forget the first time. I went on a Sunday afternoon to run through the whole program before getting started that week. My trainer lived two hours away though, so I sent him a few questions via text with pictures. He was great, and answered every question. I felt a little more confident when I got started the next day.

Claire: My first time in a gym was intimidating. I wanted to gain muscle. I wanted to lift weights but I didn’t know how. Off to the treadmills I went, so I could plot my five-pound bicep curl and eight-pound bent-over-row workouts.

Lacey: The weight room at the university rec center was a decidedly non-female space. Add to that the fact that I was just starting out and didn’t quite know what I was doing, and it ended up being fairly intimidating. But I chose to fake it ’til I made it. I pretended I was confident enough to be in there and make progress until that confidence actually came into being. Plus, I took one of my good male friends with me occasionally, which helped smooth the transition from intimidated newbie to self-assured lifter.

Justine: I was so intimidated! Even after my husband suggested it, I kept putting off the start date. What if I couldn’t do it? Would people look at me (and judge me for not being able to keep up?) But I did decide to take that first step one morning, and I remember walking into class being scared to death. I learned something that day, and in subsequent days — coaches don’t expect you to lift 100 pounds the first time you walk through the door. They want you to succeed, so a good strength coach takes the time to show you the exercises and help you succeed at your level, wherever you’re starting. One of the most important things I try to remember is that everyone was a beginner once.

What was going through your mind during those early days?

Carolyn: “This time it’s going to be different.” It felt different. I never worked with a trainer before, so that was new. He helped me with nutrition and workouts. I truly felt like I had a partner in this. It was life-changing. I saw quick results which was motivating and once I saw muscles… well I was hooked. He helped me fall in love with fitness, and muscles, and especially lifting heavy, something I never imagined I could do.

Claire: “I can get stronger. I will get stronger. I am getting stronger.”

Lacey: I had a clear goal: be a better rugby player. Some days, working out felt great. Some days it sucked. Having a set intention was useful when I felt unmotivated or not skilled enough to be lifting weights. Then, as I got more comfortable with the movements and recognized the positive impacts in every area of my life, I just kept thinking, “Why isn’t everybody doing this?! I need to get more people — especially women — into the weight room!”

Justine: During the early days, I just didn’t know if I was going to be able to keep up. I watched people deadlift and thought, “there’s no way I’m going to be able to do that.” Then I did, and it was amazing. Once I saw that I could do something like that, the goals just kept coming. I can now deadlift 200 pounds using a trap bar, and use 35-pound dumbbells in my bent-over rows. But as proud as I am of that, I didn’t start there. I started with 135-pound trap bars and 15- and 20-pound dumbbells. Seeing how far I’ve come helps motivate me to see how far I will go.

Stick With It!

Taking those first steps and completing those first workouts can be an empowering and eye-opening experience. Once you start, making the commitment and staying consistent will help you get the most out your strength training journey. Consistency is often one of the biggest challenges when you’re starting out. Hitting a few speed bumps as a new lifter is part of the process. You’ll be learning to navigate muscle soreness, scheduling, and changes to social habits. You’re not going to get it all “right” or “perfect” from the very beginning, but with some experimentation, you will figure out what works best for you and what helps you to keep showing up.

What helped you stick with it initially?

Carolyn: My trainer was incredibly motivating and supportive, and kept me going. I just wanted more… more muscle definition and strength. I started my day at 4:30 every day, and very quickly it became my favorite part of the day. It just became my routine and my me time.

Claire: I was introduced to kettlebell training by an incredible instructor. He coaches community of strong women who train with kettlebells and are competitive powerlifters. My combined respect for him as a coach, as well as the team he created, got me hooked for life.

Lacey: There were clear physical changes. I built muscle and that translated to power on the rugby pitch. It felt good to be progressing as a player. But apart from that, strength training was good for my mental and emotional health. My confidence in the weight room translated into every area of my life. I felt healthy, energetic, and ready to tackle the world.

Justine: I started seeing some results, but not in the traditional way. My biceps were more noticeable, my legs were stronger. Even when exercises got very challenging, all I had to do was look around and see that all the men and women in my group were working just as hard. Even if I perceived them as being more fit than me, they were pushing themselves, so this was hard for them too! It is one of the things I tell new people who join our group, because I know how self-conscious people can be when they first start.

What kind of support did you have?

Carolyn: I had tremendous support from my trainer and my sister, who originally introduced me to him. He and I mostly worked remotely, so I got lots of support from him via text messages. He was always there to answer my questions, give me feedback on my nutrition, and set up a session when I needed or wanted to change things up. He really cared about my goals and made me feel like my goals became his goals.

Claire: I was silly enough in my early days to not ask for help at all. The aforementioned instructor introduced himself to me as I was completing my marathon ab workout one day. I was interested because he made me feel capable from the very beginning, a feeling that up until then, I had typically shed upon entering the gym.

Lacey: I did a lot of Internet rummaging to find a good program for a newbie lifter. I asked a couple of my male friends how they trained and got some pointers. But I went at it mostly solo.

Justine: I received unwavering support and encouragement from my husband (I still do). The strength coaches in my gym are fantastic as well. They are constantly encouraging us not to sell ourselves short, which I am still working on. If I need to modify a movement, they are there to help me. They all have Facebook and Instagram accounts as well, and just reading their posts throughout the week often keep me motivated. I don’t feel like I’ve ever had to ask for support, they’ve just always given it to me.

Interests, Goals, and Priorities Change — And That’s OK

What initially sparks your interest in strength training may evolve into something very different. You may discover that you really love powerlifting, or kettlebell training, or developing bigger muscles (or all three!). There is a really good chance that lifting weights may send you down a different path than the one on which you originally started. For example, getting a taste of your strength might help you tap into a newfound curiosity for other physical activities and challenges that will take you outside of the gym — like mountain biking or circus arts — because as you look at your body with awe for all it can do, you think, “I’ve always wanted to try this other thing… I wonder…” Sometimes life circumstances require adjusting your lifting routines, and where getting “shredded” or hitting new PRs in a powerlifting meet were once your top goals, the new priority now is being “everyday fit and strong.” It’s normal for your goals to evolve or to change completely.

What has helped you to continue strength training?

Carolyn: Sadly, my trainer passed away last year. I know I will never give this up- to honor him and what he taught me. Being physically strong has made me mentally stronger too- what a great added bonus. I am so much more confident in everything I do. My trainer once told me to never settle- and so I keep setting new goals for myself. I am constantly pushing and challenging myself and that will keep me going.

Claire: My entire mindset has changed. Since taking control of my health and nutrition, I have wanted to be the smallest girl (being 5’1″ and reaching a low of 104#). Since I started strength training, all I could focus on was being the strongest girl. The strongest girl, in my opinion, isn’t just in reference to the weight on the bar but more the intention and care of movement as well as the strength of the world. I find that the strongest women may not have the best powerlifting totals, but actually have the closest knit community around them.

Lacey: Strength training has benefited my body, mind, and soul. Not only does it help me survive and thrive in my physically demanding job, but it also provides stress relief and a confidence boost. And when I can help other people start strength training and watch as their lives change, it just gives me one more reason to keep learning and sharing.

Justine: My mindset is different when I get a workout in, as opposed to when I can’t. It just helps everything “work” better. I had spent most of my time on elliptical machines and treadmills, and thought strength training might be something different to change things up. I honestly didn’t realize how much it would help me change my entire way of thinking. And the community I have gained through strength training has helped me keep at it. I’ve gained a support group of cheerleaders and friends. Even if they don’t say anything, I know there is an implied accountability to which we all hold each other, and some mornings that’s what gets me to the gym. Through strength training, I have realized food itself isn’t good or evil and that exercise isn’t a punishment. I’ve learned to love myself, do my best for me and leave the rest. I look forward to continuing to push myself and see what else I can accomplish. That is what keeps me coming back every day.

Five Success Tips For The Beginner Lifter

As the stories shared here illustrate, what leads you to your first strength training session may not be what prompts someone else to take their first step, but what doesn’t differ much are the kinds of things that help you keep doing it consistently. Here are a few tips that may help you get you started — and keep going:

  1. Have a plan. Going to the gym knowing exactly what you need to do feels a lot better than wandering around and trying to figure things out. If you want a great place to start, complete with videos and a year’s worth of smart, effective workouts, check out our flagship training program here.
  2. Make an appointment with yourself. When you are working to cement your new habit of strength training, it’s helpful to set implementation intentions. This means that you’re planning out exact dates and times for your training session and putting them in your calendar.
  3. Make it convenient. As the saying goes, “Convenience is king.” Adjust your bedtime routine to include packing your gym bag or laying out your workout clothes for the next day, including socks and shoes. Make it as easy as possible to get dressed and go. Plus, seeing your workout gear in the morning will serve as a fantastic reminder that strength training is important to you.
  4. Get some sleep. Speaking of what you’re doing before you go to bed the night before… go to bed! Seriously. Getting adequate rest will help you recover from training and have plenty of energy the next day.
  5. Find the support you need. A common challenge to staying consistent is the feedback or lack of support that you may get from family or friends who may not understand why you are working on developing new, healthier habits. If a lack of support is leaving you feeling isolated, it can be tempting to ditch your new routine. A positive support system is incredibly helpful as you begin your strength journey. Consider sharing your strength goals with a trusted friend who you know will be excited for you or who will be your training partner. Join an online community where you can meet other women who love to lift and celebrate each other’s strengths!

Sane, Sustainable, & Efficient!

The Modern Woman's Guide to Strength Training will help you achieve maximum results, whether you’re new to strength training, or a veteran in the weight room.

About The Author: Jen Comas

Jen Comas is a Girls Gone Strong Co-Founder and Strongest You Coach, as well as a NASM Personal Trainer and USAW Level One Weightlifting coach. She has competed in figure and trained as a powerlifter, teaches and practices yoga, and is obsessed with motorcycles, dirtbiking, and downhill mountain biking. Learn about Jen on her website and follow her adventures on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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