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Beginner’s Guide to the Gym

by Erica Schuckies
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Beginner’s Guide to the Gym

It’s a brand new year, and you’ve vowed to join a gym — and actually attend regularly. But if you’ve never been a member (or it’s been a very long time), the gym can be a scary, confusing and intimidating place.

Fear not, goal-setters. There is a gym for everyone, no matter your goal or need. Figuring out how to navigate this big, confusing place is easier than you think.

If joining a gym, studio or fitness group for the first time is on your list of to-dos this year, here’s what to know before even walking through the door.

PICKING THE RIGHT GYM

The first thing to think about when you’re considering a gym membership is what you’re looking for in the experience. If you want low-impact activities, consider a cycling studio or gym with a pool. If you crave structure, look for a boutique gym (barre, CrossFit, yoga, etc.) where all you have to do is show up to class, ready to work. If you’re looking for variety, a big box gym is a good option, usually boasting free weights, cardio and weight machines, group classes, cross-training areas and personal trainers (for an additional fee) all on-site.

If you’re joining near the beginning of the year, you’ll likely get lucky with some special pricing promotions or packages on memberships. Many gyms have an initiation fee on top of the monthly rate, but in my experience, this can be waived if you ask nicely. More gyms are offering no-contract memberships these days, but be aware you could be signing up for multi-month contracts, so always ask about cancellation fees. (Then again, the hope is you’re in this for the long haul, right?)

Before you sign any paperwork, ask if the gym offers a trial period during which you can try out the space, get a feel for the clientele and find out if you’re comfortable there. If you like a gym or studio, you’re much more likely to attend — and much more likely to reach your goals!


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GROUP CLASSES

Boutique studios have a class schedule that is posted (usually) once a week, and if it’s a popular location or time, classes will fill up. Many studios require you to reserve a spot beforehand, either online, via phone or in person. This is especially true for Pilates or spin classes, for example, that can take only the amount of people for which they have equipment.

If you’re not ready to commit to one type of class (Yoga on Monday! HIIT on Wednesday! Spin on Saturday!), consider a ClassPass membership that lets you attend various boutique classes in your area. The app and website let you browse classes near you and reserve a spot in the class without even leaving the ClassPass platform.

Many big box gyms have free group classes like yoga, kickboxing, spin, Zumba and more, but be sure to check with the front desk to ensure they’re part of your membership. As previously stated, you’ll want to sign up for the popular classes and times (right before and after work hours, for example) to reserve a spot.

PICKING A WEIGHT TRAINING ROUTINE

If gaining strength is part of your goal, it can be pretty confusing to create a program from scratch; there are so many options, after all. The easiest way to get started is with what most gyms call their circuit area, where there will be a number of machines set up and labeled with a number or color. As you move through the circuit, each machine works a different part of your body until you reach the end of the circuit and have completed a full-body workout. Ask the front desk if your gym has this kind of circuit available. Completing the full circuit 2–3 days per week is a great way to get started. Start with 2–3 sets of 8–10 reps, and try to increase the weight a little each week. Once you start to increase the weight, you might have to drop the number of reps.  

Weight machines are generally good for beginners because they promote good form and help you nail the mechanics of the movement before you hit the free weights. However, not all machines are going to exactly fit your body and your movement patterns, so if something doesn’t feel or fit right, don’t push it.

Once you’re comfortable with the movements, don’t be afraid to approach the rack of dumbbells or barbells for some of the most basic, but tried-and-true, exercises. These can include bicep curls, tricep extensions, overhead press, weighted squats, chest press, weighted lunges and bent-over rows.


WATCH > ASK A TRAINER: ON GETTING STARTED


However, if you really just don’t know where to start, it’s probably best to enlist the help of an expert. Even the best intentions of a friend or family member can’t match the certifications and knowledge of a personal trainer — regardless of how long that friend or family member has been going to the gym or “doing it this way.” What works for one person might not work for another, and trainers have the knowledge to help each person reach their desired outcome.  

PERSONAL TRAINERS

Personal trainers can do wonders for your confidence, motivation and knowledge of health and fitness. Not only can they show you around the gym and recommend the best approach to meet your goals, they will also ensure you’re executing with proper form to avoid injury. Even if you’re fully committed to showing up at the gym every day, an injury can quickly put a damper on your plans for success. Tell your trainer if you’re coming in with a bad [insert body part here] or have had certain injuries in the past. In many cases, they can work around your trouble spots and even design a plan to strengthen your weak areas so you’re less prone to re-injury.

Many gyms offer a free first session with a personal trainer, but don’t just accept the first available trainer on the schedule. Share your goals and limitations with the gym manager or salesperson, and ask to be paired with a trainer who closely matches that criteria. Keep in mind this free session is mainly to get you “hooked” on the experience so you’ll purchase more personal training in the future, so don’t be surprised when they try to sell you training sessions or packages.

LOCKER ROOMS

Most gyms or clubs provide locker rooms with showers, toilets and, of course, lockers. Some include locks for the individual lockers, but others do not. It’s a good idea to always bring a spare combination lock, just in case. If you forget a crucial item, like a towel, hair dryer or lock, the front desk may have these items for purchase (towel) or loan (hair dryer).  

Oh, and you’ll definitely want to bring (and wear!) a pair of shower shoes. You don’t want whatever is on the gym floor on your feet. Trust.

BEST TIMES AND DAYS TO GO

Trying to avoid a crowded gym? Most gyms and clubs see peak attendance after work hours on weekdays, usually from 4–8 p.m. On the weekends, 10 a.m. seems to be the sweet spot for most people — it’s not too early, but you can still get a workout in before the majority of the day.

Pre-work hours (5–8 a.m.) and lunchtime during the week can also be popular, but it depends on the gym. The best way to find your favorite time and day to hit the gym is by trying a little bit of everything. You might find you get along better with the early birds or the pool is less crowded late in the evening, for example. Experiment until you find whatever makes you keep coming back … keep doing that.

ETIQUETTE

There’s a lot to cover in this section, so I’m just going to make a list of the big ones. Follow these if you don’t want to be that guy or girl:

  • Re-rack your weights — in order. Don’t put a 10-pound dumbbell in the 80-pound spot. Once a single weight is out of place, it starts a vicious cycle.
  • Don’t hog equipment. Limit cardio machine usage to 30 minutes during busy times. Let other people work in on a weight machine.
  • Stay off your phone as much as possible. This is not the time to call your best friend to catch up, check your email or scroll through Instagram.
  • Wipe off equipment handles after you use them, and wipe up your sweat puddles on mats and equipment. No one wants to sit or lay in a damp spot.
  • Practice good hygiene. You would think this would be simple enough, but you’d be surprised how often people take off their shoes and socks on mats (don’t), sneeze and then immediately grab a weight (sanitize first), come to the gym sick as a dog (stay home) and wear the same smelly gym clothes without washing them (laundry, people!). No wonder gyms are some of the germiest public places.
  • Use weight collars, spotters, proper form and appropriate weight. Wear closed-toe shoes and clean, non-ragged clothing. Being safe is always good etiquette.
  • Don’t give unsolicited health or fitness advice. Unless you are a trainer — and even if you are a trainer — that guy probably doesn’t want to hear your thoughts on why the treadmill is bad for him.
  • Don’t spit in the water fountain. Ew.
  • Don’t interrupt another person’s training session to ask a personal trainer a question, even if he or she is a friend of yours. They’re paying for every minute of that trainer’s time and, well, you’re not.
  • Don’t assume you can ask a trainer endless questions for free. These people make a living by putting their expertise into practice, and you shouldn’t expect help without paying for it.
  • The majority of people in the locker room do not want to see you in all your naked glory. Please put on a towel before walking around in the nude.
  • Dry off as much as possible after getting out of the shower. People don’t want to walk through your puddles on the way to their locker.

IS A GYM EVEN RIGHT FOR YOU?

All this being said, check in with yourself on your needs, desires, preferences and goals. If a traditional gym or fitness studio isn’t your style or just doesn’t work for your budget or schedule, that’s OK, too.

There are plenty of ways to practice fitness outside of a gym or studio, and endless opportunities to sweat wherever you are. While a gym membership can provide killer motivation (that cute guy or girl in spin class, good money going to waste, your first marathon next year), health and fitness is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Find out what makes you want to keep coming back every day — that’s the moment when everything else falls into place.

Written by Erica Schuckies, a runner, gym rat and outdoor buff based in Austin, Texas. She is a lifelong athlete, having participated in a number of sports from her youth years well into her adult life. You can follow Erica on Twitter or Instagram.

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