What to Expect the First Time You Go to the Gym

What to Expect the First Time You Go to the Gym
Image: Getty

Your first day in the gym can be pretty intimidating. I remember spending a whole semester in one half of my university’s gym because the other room was, I don’t know, scary. And if you haven’t been to the gym in a while — or ever — you probably have questions. So let’s talk through the very, very basics.

What is a gym even like inside?

Hey, great question! There are different kinds of gyms, so there isn’t a single, universal answer. I’ll assume you’re going to what’s sometimes called a “commercial” or “globo” gym, one that caters to a wide variety of people and has a selection of cardio machines, weight-training machines, and dumbbells. It may or may not have barbells. Planet Fitness, Crunch, LA Fitness, Gold’s Gym, and 24 Hour Fitness are all in this general category. If your gym is in a community centre or a YMCA, it will probably be similar to what I describe.

Before you head in, check the gym’s website. Most will offer a free first day or week, which will let you scope the place out before you commit to a membership. I would not pay hundreds of dollars for a contract sight-unseen.

When you do this, check out the website for virtual tours and photos of facilities. Get an idea of what kind of stuff they have. Check Google Maps for photos; you may even be able to find a Street View style tour of the interior. And finally, log on to Instagram and browse through photos tagged at that gym location. You’ll get a sense of what equipment is there, how people train, and what kind of vibe to expect.

What do I bring?

You can come to a gym with nothing and still get in a good workout. The only absolute requirement, in some gyms, is that you bring a pair of shoes that aren’t filthy. (Some gyms disallow street shoes, and expect you to change into a clean pair; others don’t care.)

On the other end of the spectrum, people will often bring a complete change of clothes and a bunch of toiletries and supplies to take a shower and change afterward. You don’t have to do this. It’s ok to walk out the front door still sweaty, and shower at home. Some small gyms don’t even have showers.

What’s the middle ground? I would bring these for my first time at a new gym:

  • A water bottle
  • A small towel (for sweat), unless I know for sure that the gym provides towels
  • Headphones
  • A clean(ish) pair of shoes
  • A bag to carry everything in
  • A combination lock if you plan to lock your things up and aren’t sure whether the gym’s lockers have built-in locks

What do I do with my stuff while I’m there?

If you have a bunch of stuff, like a coat and a bag, you can put it in a locker.

It’s also totally fine to keep a few things with you as you walk around. Most people will probably have their towel, water bottle, and phone with them. You can usually bring your bag around the gym with you, and just set it down next to whatever machine or bench you’re using, as long as it’s small and not directly in anybody’s way. (Check the gym rules, though.)

What do I wear?

Anything that feels comfortable, isn’t indecent, and that you don’t mind sweating in. For your upper body, try a T-shirt or tank top. For your legs, wear shorts, sweatpants, or leggings. Again, check the gym rules to see if they have any specific requirements. Some gyms don’t want you to take your shirt off, others don’t care.

For shoes, any kind of sneakers or comfortable athletic shoes should be fine. Chucks, running shoes, that sort of thing. If you get really into this exercise business, you can get picky about shoes later. For your first day, it doesn’t really matter.

Mask policies vary, but it’s a good idea to wear a mask when you’re sharing an indoor space with other people, even when you’re exercising. Under Armour makes a mask that’s comfortable to exercise in, but you can also wear an N95 style to be extra safe, if you prefer.

So do you just, like, walk in?

There will be some kind of check-in desk. If it’s your first time, you’ll probably need to talk to somebody about a membership trial or buy a day pass. This can be a separate visit from your first actual workout. Make sure to ask what the normal check-in procedure is.

In many cases you’ll scan a key tag or show a card as you enter, and then you’re free to do whatever you want.

How do I know what they have and where it is?

Two options here: you can walk around the room and scope everything out; or you can ask for a tour. You can also combine these approaches.

Usually I’ll ask the front desk staff if they can give me a basic rundown of where everything is. In a small gym, they might point out a few areas and then let you go check them out on your own. Many gyms will offer a tour.

If you do get a guided tour, use this opportunity to ask any remaining questions you have. Don’t be embarrassed, the whole idea is that they know you’re new and they’re trying to help.

What if this whole idea makes me nervous?

Look, the first day is about expanding your comfort zone. If you can walk into the gym and not run right back out, you’ve already accomplished something, and Day Two will be so much easier.

Go at one of the less busy times if that will help your nerves. Mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and late evenings tend to be slow times. Check Google Maps to see if it can show you peak hours at your particular location.

Bring a friend, or meet a friend there if you can. Even if both of you are new and clueless, you can be new and clueless together.

Read up on what to expect. You’re already doing that, so you’re on the right track! If there’s a certain exercise or machine you want to try, look it up on YouTube.

If your gym offers classes, that can be a good way to start. The class will get you in the gym with a clear plan of where to go and what to do. You can save independent workouts for after the class or for another day.

If you’ll be on your own, try this:

  1. Walk around the whole gym. Scope everything out. Nobody will stop you or judge you. You don’t even have to pretend that you know where you’re going; if anybody asks “can I help you?” you can just reply “Oh, I’m just new here and seeing where everything is.”
  2. Sit on an exercise bike (or the machine of your choice). Ideally, pick one that faces the main gym area so you can gather more information about what equipment is out there and what people do with it.
  3. Maybe this is enough. A typical cardio workout is 20 to 30 minutes, so you can just use the bike for a half hour and then go home.
  4. Or maybe you find your confidence building as you pedal. After five or 10 minutes (a typical warmup time), hop off the bike and go check out the dumbbells or machines or whatever has piqued your interest.

Take the free session if you want, but beware the upsell

Some gyms sell personal training for an extra fee. And as an enticement to get people to sign up, they may offer a free session or a fitness test with one of their trainers. Like the tour, this is also a good time to get some questions answered.

You can do this if you like, but proceed with caution. Some gyms and trainers are great, but others will use this opportunity to make you do a lot of hard exercise so that you feel out of shape, and then you’ll feel like you need their services to get into shape. I’ve heard too many stories of people having one of these sessions and then feeling terrible about themselves afterward.

So if you decide to go ahead with a session, keep your wits about you. You do not have to be fit your first day in the gym. You also don’t have to do a really demanding workout your first day. If the trainer has you do anything you’re uncomfortable with, you don’t even have to know why you feel the way you do about it. You can just say “you know what, I don’t think I’m ready to do that right now” and ask to move on. This is also a good test of your trainer. If they try to force you to do something you’re not cool with, you probably won’t have a good time working with them.

Can you give me a routine for my first day?

Sure can! Although what makes something a routine is that you do it routinely. So I’ll give you an option for your first day’s workout, and you can even repeat it a few times, but eventually you’ll want to find yourself a program that lays out longer-term plans.

Try this, which should give you a full-body workout in a reasonable length of time. (If one machine or station is busy, just skip to the next while you wait.)

I’m recommending two sets of each exercise because that should give you a nice sampling without making you too sore the next day if this is all brand new. I’m recommending 10 reps in each set because 10 is an easy number to remember. Feel free to do more or less if you like.

  • 5-10 minutes on an exercise bike (or any cardio machine)
  • 2×10 (that means two sets of 10 reps each) dumbbell or machine shoulder press
  • 2×10 on the assisted pullup machine or lat pulldown
  • 2×10 walking lunges with dumbbells in your hands
  • 2×10 dumbbell bench press or machine chest press
  • 2×10 seated cable row or dumbbell row
  • 2×10 goblet squats with a dumbbell or kettlebell (if you’re feeling brave, give the leg press a try instead)
  • 5-10 minutes stretching anything that feels tight (look for a stretching area with mats on the floor)

If you want an even shorter workout, split it in half. Do the shoulder press, pullup or pulldown, and the lunges, and then skip right to stretching. Next time, go right to the dumbbell bench after you warm up, and continue the workout from there.

You don’t have to memorise everything ahead of time. Machines almost always have instructions posted on them telling you how to adjust them and how to use them. Also, it is totally fine to look up videos of exercises on your phone, or to keep notes in your phone or on paper about what you did. It is always ok to be this guy.

What do I need to know about gym etiquette?

If there are rules about masks, follow them, whether everybody else does or not.

If there are wipes and spray bottles around, wipe down anything you sweated on. This includes benches and the seats and handles of machines. Don’t forget to throw the wipe away afterward.

You can also put your towel down on a bench or machine as a sweat barrier.

Whatever you use, put it back when you’re done.

It’s ok to rest a minute, or even a few minutes between sets. (For example, you just did 10 reps of bench press, and now you’re sitting on the bench for a few minutes before you do your next 10 reps.) But don’t take up space any longer than you need to.

If somebody is using a thing you’d like to use, it’s ok to ask them “how many sets do you have left?” and if the answer is a lot, you can ask “Do you mind if I work in?” which means that you’ll take turns using the equipment. If somebody asks these questions of you, be honest about how many sets you have left (it’s ok to make them wait) and say yes to working in if you feel comfortable doing so.

If somebody offers you advice and you don’t know how to react, just say “ok.” If the advice is about following a gym rule, follow the rule. If it’s about how to properly use equipment, like adjusting a safety setting, take their advice. On the other hand, if it’s about the proper way to do an exercise, it’s 100% up to you whether you want to give their way a try or just go back to what you were doing.(We have a guide to responding to unsolicited advice.)

What about the second day?

It’s going to be so much easier the second day. You’ll know what’s available, where to find it, and what the routine is for checking in and finding a place for your stuff.

Come in with a plan. It can be the same as your first day, or something new you’d like to try. If you did a full-body strength workout, the next day can be just plain cardio. And if you still feel nervous, don’t worry, it will get easier every day.

Log in to comment on this story!