Do You Need to Work Your Way up to the Gym?

By Jonathan Goodman

I have a friend; let’s call him Derek.

Derek was an avid athlete and spent his fair time in the gym in University. The guy wasn’t ripped but had some muscle. Derek is brilliant. So much so that he landed a 6-figure job directly out of University in New York. Fast-forward 5 years and he’s making $500,000+ a year.

Derek is also overweight, constantly sick, and smokes a pack (or more) of cigarettes a day. His life is ending one minute at a time and everything he’s doing is decreasing the number of minutes he has. Derek is miserable.

My friend was killing himself. He should have everything but instead has nothing. The guy had even lost his confidence to approach women. He hadn’t been on a date in months. He can afford the best training and diet advice available. Heck, he can even afford to pay somebody to cook every one of his meals.

So, over a scotch of all things, we spoke. I recommended he work with one of the best trainers in the city. This trainer was no longer taking on clients but would accept my friend as a personal favor to me. My friend was stoked but said, “I’m not ready for the gym yet. I need to work my way up to it.”

I sat paralyzed. “What?” I thought. “You were ready four years ago.”

Derek went on to explain that he didn’t feel comfortable in the gym yet. He was afraid that he didn’t belong if he wasn’t already in good shape. To make matters worse he explained that he wanted to be in good shape before hiring a personal trainer.

I was reminded of my favorite scene from Pumping Iron. In it, Arnold and the gang are training in Gold’s Gym absolutely shredded. In the background is an out of shape guy in a white tank top doing triceps pull downs. In the original bodybuilding mecca all were welcome so what has changed?

Have we really created an elitist environment where people feel they have to work their up to the gym? Why has this happened?

This article examines the 3 problem areas I see and provides a solution for each one. Afterwards I challenge you to spread the word and be the change you wish to see in the gym.

Problem 1 - Sexualized Images Leading to Fitness Elitism

Fitness magazines always featured bodybuilders and models. It didn’t affect the general population too much because only people interested in fitness would buy these publications.

Then Facebook happened.

Sexy images of fitness models, male and female, now clog up our feeds. These images are motivational to people already lifting but can act as a barrier of entry for those who aren’t actively engaged in a program already.

Pictures like this widen the gap between the fit and the non-fit. It’s almost as if they say, “if you don’t look like this, get out of our gyms”.

I’m not telling you to stop posting these pictures. Instead I want to bring light to the effect these pictures are having on the masses and the reasons for which they are used. Nobody should feel as if they need to work their way to the gym. It should be a place of self-improvement, a sanctuary of sorts, where everybody is welcome.

Somebody who isn’t comfortable in a fitness program may not be ready to see these images yet. Perceived fitness elitism is a real problem and it stops people from starting on their journey to fitness every day.

What is important to note is the marketing power of these images. Years ago big brands would spend millions of dollars in TV or magazine ads to get a marketing message in front of you. Now all they have to do is take a picture of a sweaty model and paste their logo on top of it with a motivational phrase. Suddenly the message spreads virally. Companies understand this and are using users desires to both talk about their own activities and motivate others to advertise.

Social modeling is a powerful tool to increase one’s self-efficacy. The closer the model is to the person you want to motivate the more effective it is. [Bandura study] Sharing of testimonials from real people outlining their struggles and achievements motivates better than a picture of a model for most of the population. Try sharing pictures both of models and of normal people on your social networks.

For anybody being dissuaded by these photos my advice is to look past them. Fitness models go to shoots when they have dieted down for a competition and these pictures are often heavily photoshopped. The physique you see in the picture is probably not what the model actually looks like in real life. Work to become the best you possible, nothing else matters.

Problem 2 - People Dwell on the Outliers and Not All Personal Trainers Have Six-Pack Abs

Some trainee’s lives revolve around fitness. They eat a steady diet of unflavored chicken and broccoli and are in bed by 9pm sharp. They’re shredded. They are the outliers.

We tend to ignore the mean while focusing and comparing ourselves to the outliers when we walk into a gym. The dude with 18inch biceps grunting through a set of curls in the squat rack is hard to ignore.

Personal trainers jobs depend on being fit. Even then we indulge and have a piece of cake with dinner or drink a cold frothy beer on a summer day. We give in to temptations just like everybody else but don’t let it deter us. We have created a balance that works with our lives and our goal is to help you do the same.

If you want to be a bodybuilder then train with a bodybuilder. Most people hiring a trainer want to feel good, look good, and get laid. It’s a decision that can change your life so choose carefully. We are here to help.

Problem 3 - 6 Bottles of Jam is Better Than 24

The best program is the one that you will do.

In a famous study with jam two booths were set up. One had 24 options for free samples and the other had 6. After sampling the jam people were taking to the selection where they could buy a bottle if they choose. More people were drawn to the bigger sample size but less ended up buying. [Iyengar study]

Over-information gets an audience but the act of making a decision between too many choices is daunting. The result is often indecision and lack of action.  

Some workouts are better than others -- this is true. If you have not completed at least 10 workouts lasting a minimum of a month don’t get into analysis paralysis. My advice is to pick a program from somebody you trust and smash it. Over-information is killing your progress.

If you are new and looking to start exercising please don’t be confused at the over-abundance of information. Fitness and personal training are unregulated. Anybody can claim they have found the secret and many do. Pick between 6 bottles of jam and don’t be sucked into the display or 24. The best program is the one that you will do.

The Gym Must Not Be Elitist

The gym is a place where everybody should feel comfortable. If you’re already engaged in the gym pay attention to the affect your actions are having on others. If you think you need to work your way up to the gym please take action now. We would love to have you and look forward to seeing you embark on your journey to physical and mental fulfillment.


Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper. When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing? M. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006. (2000)


Jonathan Goodman is the author of Ignite the Fire: The Secrets to Building a Successful Personal Training Career. He started and still operates the Personal Trainer Development Center which acts as the largest free collaborative blogging website for personal trainers. Recently Jon stopped training clients in Toronto, Canada to focus on developing resources with the goal of improving the quality of personal training as an industry.

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