After you've mustered up the willpower to finally check out the gym for the first time, plenty of questions remain: What should you wear? What workout should you do? How does this machine even work? Here's a primer on how to make your first gym experience awesome.
Most first-time exercisers tell me they're intimidated by the gym because they have no idea what to do and don't want to look or act like a fool. It's normal to feel insecure or embarrassed about being clueless, but remember two hard truths: everyone starts somewhere, and no one is actually paying attention to you that closely.
Walking into a gym for the first time can be an embarrassing experience. You might be self-conscious that you're too out of shape while everyone else seems fit, or that you're wearing the wrong clothes, or you might simply feel out of place. But it's important to get through the paranoia and start exercising.
Before the Gym
To ease first-time jitters, it helps to look like you fit in and make the unknown known. That means a couple of things.
Dress for Success
You typically need to bring a couple of things with you: a towel (to wipe your sweat and lay on top of seats and benches), a water bottle, a combination lock if you use the lockers and workout clothes to change into.
A loose-fitting, dry fit shirt or tank top, tights or shorts and comfortable shoes should do. You don't have to care about what to wear to the gym, as long as it's comfortable for you, but one study in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that what you wear can influence your confidence levels and how you act.
I've definitely found myself more focused and motivated to crush my workout if I seem like a badass in my head.
Have a Plan
Amanda Thebe, a personal trainer and owner of Fit n' Chips, said that one of the biggest mistakes she sees is people aimlessly wandering around, testing one piece of equipment after another, without a plan. "Every time you go to the gym, you should have a plan," said Thebe. (We'll give you an idea of what workout to do later in this story.)
Think of the reason that's driving you toward the gym. Perhaps it's the desire to get more muscle. If so, you probably want to focus on the weights and machines. (Never mind the how yet.) This way you can avoid being distracted and overwhelmed by all the options when you finally get to the gym.
Once You're At the Gym
Your main goal isn't to become workout champ of the world. It's to create a positive first experience so that you keep up this healthy habit.
Learn the Lay of the Land
Every gym is set up differently, but there are certain mainstays. I've been to dozens of gyms around the world, and without fail, every one has a space for cardio machines — the treadmills, ellipticals and whatnot. Then there's generally a room with mirror along the wall for group exercise classes; the weightlifting area, where it's further separated according to free weights versus machines; and an area for warm-ups or cool-downs with yoga mats, medicine balls and foam rollers.
If you want to get stronger, some kind of resistance training is the way to go. So when you walk into the gym, should you start loading plates onto a barbell or should you just walk up to the first easy-to-use machine you spot? Let's compare both approaches.
Don't be afraid to talk to the gym staff and let them know you're new. "The gym staff are there to help you and give you advice. They want you to be safe so take advantage of that," said Thebe. The gym staff should have given you a tour before you signed up for a membership or trial, but if not it doesn't hurt to ask.
Know Your Gym Etiquette
Gym culture has unspoken rules about good form and proper etiquette. We've written about gym etiquette, but I'd like to emphasise a couple of points:
- You Are Responsible for Equipment You Use: If you use something, put it back. That means re-racking the weights (yes, all of them), returning the dumbbells, and bringing medicine balls and other loose equipment back to their original places so others can easily find and use them, too.
- Wipe Down Your Equipment: Most gyms provide sanitation wipes that are used to wipe down equipment after you're done. No one should ever have to touch your gross butt or back sweat.
- Wash Your Hands: Do yourself and others a favour. You never know when someone might have something contagious.
When the gym gets busy, these simple etiquette rules keep things civil and running smoothly.
Jerks are everywhere, but people being jerks in the gym can be especially grating. All you want to do is lift heavy stuff in peace, but there they are, with their sweaty butt imprints on a bench, loud conversations on the phone, and equipment strewn all over the floor. Oops — does that sound like you? Here's how to make the gym a better place for all.
Don't Expect Awesomeness
Don't try to be a hero and make yourself so sore that you aren't able to work out for days or a whole week after. Being too sore can hurt your motivation and might even turn you off of exercising, says Boyce.
A Sample Workout
Everyone will have different suggestions on what sort of workout you should do. But today? Keep it simple. Boyce recommended this workout to get you started:
- Goblet squats (or bodyweight squats): 12 reps
- Push-ups: 12 reps
- Inverted rows (on a Smith machine) or seated cable row: As many reps as you can
Do each exercise for the prescribed number of repetitions, or the full cycle of an exercise, until you complete all three exercises. That's one round. Repeat for five rounds and rest for 90 seconds between each round.
These exercises are some of the most basic movements to build foundational strength and prime you for other exercises in the gym. Your body isn't used to working out or moving efficiently yet. You'll seem like a lumbering giant and feel awkward, and that's OK.
If you'd like to learn proper form, personal trainers may sometimes offer free initial consultations to help you map out your goals. But beware the tactics many gyms might use to rope you into a personal training package.
Whether you should hire a personal trainer or not is based on your budget. A personal trainer is a great way to ease you into the basics and keep you accountable, but not all are awesome.
After the Gym
Congratulations, you did it! You might feel sore after a day or two, which is normal. It's possible to still work out when you're sore, even if it is uncomfortable. But the most important thing is that you keep going. No one gets more comfortable with exercising overnight or by going to the gym only occasionally.