It's the least wonderful time of the year to get a peaceful workout. Throngs of eager exercisers will fill the nation's gyms this week to work on their resolutions. Whether you're one of the newbies or just a regular trying to get your scheduled sweat on, here's how to deal with, or ditch, the crowds.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Find Out (and Avoid) Popular Times
Every gym has a predictable pattern of busy and slow times. Monday evenings are usually popular, for example, with people losing their after-work workout mojo as the week drags on.
The exact pattern will depend on your gym's hours, location, and clientele, but thankfully Google has it all figured out for us. Take a look at the popular times for your gym in Google Maps, and schedule your workout accordingly.
If Google doesn't have data for your gym, you can check out similar gyms nearby — or do the old fashioned thing and ask staff when the slow times tend to be. If your gym offers classes, ask which ones are less popular, and consider trying one of those for a change.
Shuffling your schedule can even be good for you. Planning your workouts is a great way to be sure to fit them into your life, and now is the perfect time to create a new schedule, or re-evaluate the one you already have. Who knows, you may switch to lunch break sessions to avoid crowds and then find that you enjoy the new time.
Claim Your Equipment, But Be Nice and Share
Making it to the gym is just step one. Then you have to actually get your hands on those weights — or your feet on that treadmill.
If there are signup sheets for the cardio machines, make a beeline for them as soon as you arrive so you can claim your time slot and then use the wait time as productively as possible: change your shoes if you haven't yet, or start warming up in another part of the gym.
If there aren't official signups, you'll have to use a little more strategy to snag the equipment you want. Find a place where you can keep an eye on the hard-to-get station while still getting in another part of your workout. For example, if the squat cage is popular, drag a mat up next to it and do your push-ups and planks(or plank alternatives) while you're waiting.
The second the cage is free, you can jump up and claim it. The same strategy works for cardio machines. You can do intervals on that exercise bike with the wobbly handlebars while you wait for a treadmill. Cardio is cardio, and if you're crunched for time it pays to be flexible.
Since you're working so hard to claim your equipment, think carefully about which equipment that is. If you pick something that's only good for one exercise, you'll be back on the prowl a few minutes later. With a few rounds of this, your quick workout becomes a frustrating time sink.
My preferred approach might be controversial, but here it is. If you have a station that's good for multiple exercises, you can get through a good chunk of your workout in a short time. For example, a cable machine can be used for a ton of different exercises, so that's a good one to snag. You can even bring over a set of dumbbells so you have even more options without leaving that spot.
Some people might look at this as hogging equipment, but I'd argue it's just efficient — which ultimately gets you out of people's way sooner.
Time management is essential to not being a jerk about this. Even if you could do a 45-minute workout in the same spot, you shouldn't. Instead, keep this part of your workout fast and furious: while one set of muscles is resting, you can do a different exercise that works another body part. This is called a superset, and can really make time fly.
When others are clearly waiting, though, it's polite to communicate and share. If you and another gym rat have your eye on the same equipment, you can both use it. Just say the magic words: "Mind if I work in?"
Here's how this works. On most weight lifting machines, you'll do a set of exercises, then rest for a minute or so before doing your next set. While you're resting, your newfound friend can be working, and vice versa.
This works for any station where you can switch back and forth quickly. A pull up bar: yes. A barbell loaded with 136kg for you that has to change to 100 for him: not so much.
Work Out at Home
If this all sounds exhausting, you have other options. Nobody says your workout has to happen at the gym! This is a great time for a temporary change of scenery.
If you have a home gym, you're off to a great start. Or if you've always been meaning to put one together, now's the time. There are also tons of options for workouts that use your body and not much else. To name just a few:
- The Seven Minute Workout only requires a chair.
- 5BX, the old school fighter pilots' workout, needs no equipment at all.
- These 52 exercises are also equipment-free.
- This towel workout only requires, well, a towel.
- Or you can get fit using a door.
- Yoga routines can build serious strength, and are another excellent option.
- You can even fit a great workout into a few minutes at the office.
These aren't just sorry second-best workouts: it's possible to still gain strength outside of the gym. High-intensity intervals, challenging moves, and quality movements are key to creating a kickass workout.
Take It Outside
Time to expand your horizons even more: you don't need to be in a gym or a house. There are lots of great outdoor opportunities for staying fit. They may veer away from your usual training plan, but the crowds will only really be bad for a few weeks — might as well enjoy a change of pace.
If the weather is cold where you are, try classic winter sports like ice skating and skiing. Even if you're nowhere near a ski slope, it may be possible to find cross country skis to rent, which you can use on the same trails that you ran or biked or hiked on in sunnier weather.
No matter how crowded the gym is, it's possible to get your sweat on in a million different ways. And who knows, you might like one of these alternative options enough to make it your new favourite workout.