If you made a resolution to hit the gym this year, you might find your resolve wavering right about now. Maybe you’re scared of the gym (it can be an intimidating place!). Maybe you’re super busy and haven’t found time to get there yet. But toss those excuses out the window because today I’m going to give you a foolproof game plan for getting started at the gym!
What follows are not generic, vague suggestions. These are super practical steps you can take to get through your first few visits and start to see the gym as a second home. I’m rooting for you and can’t wait to hear all about your success! Let’s hit it!
Which gym should I join?
Depending on what’s nearby, you might be limited in your options! But if you have a variety to choose from, you’ll want to consider a few things, including cost, amenities, operating hours, and type (e.g. a traditional gym versus a Crossfit box).
A more expensive gym might offer luxuries like child care, a pool, or a full lineup of classes to take. But maybe you don’t need those things. Take your budget and needs into account and see what your local gyms are offering.
Quick Tip: You’ll probably go more often if your gym is close to your house, work, or another place you frequent (like your child’s school, if you drop them off)!
What amenities do you really want to have? If you plan to hit the gym on your way to work each day, you might need a place that has shower facilities. If you have to bring the kiddos, child care is a must. Want the option to do Zumba, yoga, or spin class? Make sure they offer it! Some gyms have massage chairs, tanning booths, steam rooms, and saunas, if those things float your boat. They may also have a smoothie or snack bar.
Traditional gyms are usually pretty similar from chain to chain—they’ll likely have cardio machines, weight machines, and free weights. They might have an area designated for stretching or doing ab work. Many have a classroom or several where they lead classes in aerobics, yoga, barre, cycling, etc. Just about every gym will have separate men’s and women’s locker rooms with changing areas, restrooms, and showers.
Other gyms are designed so that you show up at a certain time for a guided workout. Crossfit gyms operate this way, as does Orangetheory and F45. Some of them will give you the option to bypass the guided class and show up at a different time to do the workout of the day on your own. If that’s something that interests you, give those gyms a look!
How do I join a gym?
Once you’ve made your choice, head on in and let someone know that you are interested in joining. You’ll likely be treated very well since they want your business! They’ll probably give you a tour of the facilities, but feel free to ask for it if they don’t offer.
Many places will offer a deal to get started, but be sure you know what you’re signing. Ask all the questions you have before you sign up. Do they require an auto-draft from your checking account? Will they allow you to break your contract if you move?
Most gyms require at least a year’s contract. If they try to upsell you on personal training or any other benefits that you’re not interested in, don’t be afraid to say no! Tell them you just want to give it a try and maybe you’ll consider add-ons later.
Quick Tip: Start your research online. Not all gyms will post their pricing on their websites, but if you do a little research (read reviews!) you might be able to get a good idea. You might even find a deal or coupon online!
If they have a class schedule, get a copy of it or find out how to access it via their website or an app. Find out if you need to preregister or just show up.
Ask what you need to do when you come for your first workout. Most places will give you a keycard that you scan at the front desk when you arrive, and then you’re free to work out however you like!
What to bring to the gym
If you’re heading to and from your own house, you hardly need to bring anything. Just dress in comfortable workout clothes and bring a lock so you can lock up your personal items in a locker. Might as well plan on showering in comfort at home, if you can!
If you’re headed to work from the gym, then you’ll probably just need to bring along a change of clothes. Gyms that have showers usually offer a towel service and often have shower gel/shampoo dispensers in the showers. Some even have a station with hair dryers. But if not, you might want to pack your own towel and/or toiletries.
How to feel comfortable at the gym
Now you’re all signed up and ready to go to the gym for the first time. Whoo-hoo! This is where you’ll need to exercise (get it?) some courage and just go. Dress comfortably and walk through the doors like you’ve done it a million times.
Related: The Shy Girl’s Guide to the Gym
If you want, feel free to approach the front counter and let them know it’s your first time. If you didn’t get a tour when you signed up, you can definitely ask for one now!
Quick Tip: If you’re extra anxious on your first visit, think of these three steps. First, just get from your car to the front desk. Then, get from the front desk to the locker room. Finally, get from the locker room to a treadmill.
Even if all you do on your first visit to the gym is walk (or maybe even run!) on the treadmill—that’s a successful visit. Call it a win because you’re already way ahead of most people!
In my opinion, the order of least scary to scariest sections of the gym are:
- Cardio machines
- Strength machines
- Free weights
And depending on the individual, classes might rank as the least scary, most scary, or somewhere in-between! If you think you’d be most comfortable joining a class, start with that! If not, get comfortable with other areas first.
Total gym hack, right here! On your first visit, hop onto a treadmill, hit the “quick start” button, and start walking. You might want to up the speed to 2 or 2.5 (quick start gets you going pretty slowly). A lot of people warm up on the treadmill or even just use them exclusively. You’ll be in good company, and this is the perfect way to scout out the gym while looking busy!
If your next stop is the weight machines, you can take a minute to formulate a plan of which ones to hit first, second, and third, and you can see if they are available.
A great way to improve your strength and overall physique is to hit the strength machines. Most gyms have a lot of them, and they can be a little intimidating to approach, but you’ve made it this far and you’ve got the courage to push yourself a little further!
The good news is that you only have to learn each machine once. After you’ve done it, that knowledge is yours to keep and you’ll feel confident returning to that machine every time! The other good news is that just about every machine will have instructions (written or picture or both) printed right on it!
When you use a machine, you want to do three things:
- Make any adjustments to the seat or moving parts (I’m short, so I often have the move the seat up or down!). Depending on the style, you might need to unscrew something or pull something.
- Choose your weight—on some machines this is a pin system where you insert the pin at the amount of weight you want to use, but some machines require you to actually add weight plates. Psst—you can always use one of those machines, like a leg press, without adding extra weights!
- Do the exercise!
- And, as a fourth step, remember to wipe down the machine when you’re done, if you sweat!
Start with the machines that look simple. Learn how to use a few upper body and a few lower body machines. You can branch out more later!
Quick Tip: Find a machine marked “Shoulder Press” or “Chest Press.” These usually have an upright seat with hand grips that you’ll either push upward or forward. After you sit, give your arms a quick stretch while you sneak a glance at the instructions on the machine and then go for it!
There’s no shame in taking a moment to look at the instructions for a machine, but I totally get it. You don’t want to look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Maybe you could snap a quick photo of the machine you want to learn so you can Google it at home later and give it a try next time!
Once you get comfortable on the strength machines, you’ll probably want to make that the focus of your gym visits. A quick cardio warmup is great, but you can walk anywhere, so don’t pay your gym money every month just to go walk on the treadmill!
This is just my opinion, but you can get plenty of value out of your gym even if you never pick up a free weight or enter that section of the gym. Yes, this is often where the most fit, most confident gym-goers spend their time, and if that’s too much pressure for you, don’t stress about it.
But if you’ve conquered the strength machines and you’re ready for the next level, then go for it!
I usually hit the free weights when I’m working my way through an upper or lower body workout and one of my usual strength machines is taken. So if I was going to work my triceps, but someone is using that machine, I might go grab a dumbbell and do a tricep extension or kickbacks with it. If the calf machine is busy, I might hold a barbell and do standing calf raises. It’s all dependent on knowing what kinds of moves you can perform with the different free weights and what muscle groups they’ll work.
If you have the budget for it, I recommend working with a personal trainer, even for a short time. This is a great way to get accustomed to lots of different equipment and exercises. You can let them know that your goal is to get more comfortable in the gym and know how to use all the available equipment. They might be willing to write out the workouts they design for you, so you can replicate them later, or just take it upon yourself to jot down what you did at the end of each workout.
Is quantity or quality more important at the gym?
Ah, trick question, you might be saying. Both are important! But actually, at the beginning, I think quantity is more important. The more often you go to the gym, the more comfortable you’ll be showing up. And if you focus on a different muscle group each time, you won’t need many rest days in between workouts.
Even if you don’t feel like it at all, just go there and commit to walking on the treadmill for ten minutes. When that ten minutes is up, you are totally free to grab your things and head straight home. But since you’re already there, maybe you’ll decide to put in a little more time.
That being said, of course quality is important! As you experiment with different workouts, you’ll learn how much to push yourself and how much rest time you need between visits.
The most important thing is consistency. One 30-minute workout won’t make a difference on its own. Many 30-minute workouts done on a regular basis can net huge results!
You can do this! I believe in you!
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