How to Navigate a Traditional Gym

Weights at a gym

So you just joined a gym and maybe feel a little intimidated by the whole new environment.  First of all, congratulations on taking the first step towards fitness.

In the gym are hundreds of machines and contraptions, all designed to whip you into shape. You've seen a calendar of so many fitness classes, it would take you months to try all of them.

 

Where Do You Start?

You may feel confused and conspicuous the first few times you walk in the gym to actually workout . You probably don't remember how any of these machines work and, worse, you have no idea where to start.  So best place to begin is:

 

Get Your New Member Orientation

After you join a gym, you may be offered a new member orientation. You might be tempted to skip it, but DON’T ...you can learn super valuable information, even if you're a veteran exerciser.

During this appointment, a personal trainer or expert will give you a tour of the club and give you the basics of how things work. Other things that may be included:  a full health assessment; body fat analysis; instructions on how to use basic strength training machines; help in choosing exercises, reps and sets; how to use different cardio machines; and general workout guidance

Too often, new members skip the orientation either because they already know what they're doing or because they want to avoid a sales pitch for personal training.   But, even if you already exercise, an orientation will show you where things are located, how to adjust the machines and it will also give you a familiar face at the gym. It's nice to have someone you can go to for help if you need it.

 

The Cardio Section

Most gyms are divided into different areas with cardio on one side and strength training on the other. The cardio section may look like an endless sea of giant treadmills, ellipticals and bikes with tv’s scattered throughout.

Here's something to you feel better: Most machines will have instructions printed on the console that tell you how to get started. To help you even more, the following is a breakdown of the most common cardio machines and which ones are great for beginners.

The Treadmill

This is one of the most popular machines in the gym because it mimics walking and running.  Many newbies like to start with the treadmill because it's easy to use and it's familiar. You can walk or run and you can adjust speed and incline to vary intensity.

The Stationary Bike

This is another great option for beginners and probably one of the simpler activities available. Most gyms will offer a recumbent version, which has more back support, and an upright version, which may be more intense.

The Elliptical Trainer

This is another popular machine because it offers a no-impact workout. It works almost like a bike, only you pedal while standing up. Some trainers will have ramps that go up and down while others have arm handles. You can also add intensity by adjusting the resistance and incline.

The Stair Stepper or Stair Mill

These machine is tougher than the others, requiring more conditioning for the legs and heart, so it may be best to start with short durations. With this machine, you stand on the pedals and mimic walking up stairs.  Tip: Don’t be tempted to lean on your arms, that defeats the purpose of this workout!

Try choosing a cardio machine that you feel most comfortable with to start and allow time to learn how to use it properly. Then over time you can mix things up and do more variety.  

 

The Abs and other ‘Toys’ Section

Most clubs will have a free area for you to stretch, work abs and other non-traditional movement. It will usually look like large open space or mat with colorful ‘toys’ such as: exercise balls, BOSU balls, resistance bands, inflatable disks, balance boards and foam rollers.

This is a great area to use pre/post workout to foam roll, stretch and keep your muscles supple and flexible.

 

Strength Training Machines

The strength training area may be the most confusing in the entire gym, full of odd looking contraptions with handles, straps and cables.

But, the good thing is that most gyms organize their strength training equipment to help you navigate a little easier. For example, you might find machines categorized by muscle group; Chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, abs and lower body.

You'll probably notice that there are a variety of machines for each muscle group — a regular chest press machine, an incline chest press, a pec deck. All work the chest, but how would you pick which one to use?

Or should you use all of them? Your best bet is to choose one exercise or machine per muscle group. When you go through your orientation, the trainer will most likely show you the machines you can start with for a basic workout. But, an example of a beginner workout on machines might be:

  • Chest Press (chest)

  • Lat Pulldown (back)

  • Shoulder Press (shoulders)

  • Biceps Curl (biceps)

  • Triceps Press (triceps)

  • Leg Press (quads, glutes and hamstrings)

  • Leg Extension (quads)

  • Leg Curl (hamstrings)

  • Back Extension (lower back)

  • Ab Curl (abs)

Machines beneficial because they provide support while you learn how to perform the exercises with good form. They also don't require as much stabilization or coordination as free weights. Once you get stronger and more confident,then you can add free weights to work on other areas of the body.

 

The Free Weight Section

If the strength training machines weren’t confusing enough, how about giant racks of dumbbells, barbells, plates?  The free weight section will usually be close to the machines and you may find a variety of equipment including: dumbbells, barbells, flat and incline benches, weight racks, and bench press stations.

If you're not familiar with dumbbell or free weight exercises, you might want to hire a trainer to get individualized help. You'll also find detailed free weight exercises in exercises for individual muscle groups.

 

Group Fitness Classes

Another section that may scare a new member is the group fitness area.  Most clubs will have a studio with multiple classes offered. Some gyms may have separate areas for yoga or cycling specific classes. Common classes offered at large gyms are yoga, pilates, spinning, kickboxing, strength training, dance classes, and barre classes. If your club has a pool, they might offer water aerobics as well.  Read through the classes your gym offers, you may find something you've always wanted to try...and now is your chance!

If you're shy, these tips might help:

  • Watch the class from a distance to get a feel for it.

  • Get a friend to try the class with you.

  • Talk to the instructor. Get to class early and introduce yourself to the instructor. He or she will know exactly how to make you feel more comfortable.

  • Get there early and spend a few minutes on a cardio machine to calm your nerves.

  • Make friends with someone in the class. Approach someone who looks friendly and ask if he has taken the class before. If he has, admit you're new and ask for details. Many times, that person will take you under his wing and walk you through the basics.

  • Remind yourself you can always leave if you don't like the class or it's a disaster.

  • Don't be afraid to try something new. Just make sure you read the class descriptions and choose workouts that fit your fitness level and goals.

 

You may feel nervous in the beginning, but with time you’ll feel more at home and comfortable navigating your gym.  As with anything else, consistency is important. So get into a routine of going to the gym often because the more you go, the more comfortable you’ll feel!

Once you’ve been going to the gym for a bit, you’ll notice there are some unspoken ‘rules’ or etiquette.  Be sure to read our post about proper gym etiquette.