Many people who embark on exercise as adults find going to the gym intimidating. Being among others who are possibly way farther along in their fitness journeys and around equipment that isn’t obvious to use can make a newbie self-conscious. Knowing that people have trouble feeling comfortable in that new environment, I have jotted some notes that I think will help prospective exerciser feel empowered at the gym.
First, I have a confession: I don’t like working out that much. I even dislike walking long distances, like at a festival.
I work out because I want to look good, and second because I like being strong, but certainly not because I like the way it physically or emotionally feels to be doing it.
I am sharing this because many people are under the impression they are eventually supposed to love the feeling of working out, so they quit if they don’t achieve that. I’m suggesting these people focus on the long term outcome as opposed to the physical feelings during the process. Much like how cleaning the house isn’t exciting, but getting it all done feels great.
That said, let’s move on to baseline information about the gym. By the way, I have a degree in Health Management and previously worked as a personal trainer, so I am qualified to deliver this advice.
Cardio/Aerobics- exercise primarily performed for the benefit of the heart and lungs. Most effective exercise for fat loss.
Resistance- exercise that focuses on strengthening the muscles
Flexibility- movements that are purposed to elongate the muscles and increase range of motion
Repetition- a single movement
Set- a round of repetitions
Parts of a Workout
Warm-up– a few minutes of cardio working up to workout speed, or a shortened or lightened set of exercises. Many do not warm up when lifting weights, but I do a warm up set for each exercise unless I have just done a similar exercise.
Workout– The part where most of the work is done.
Cool Down– a few minutes, usually longer than warm up, spent getting heart rate back down. Ideal time to stretch.
I am of the school of thought that stretching prior to the workout when the muscles are not yet warm and pliable is a waste of time. It is best to stretch at the end of the workout when the muscles can be lengthened.
Frequency (based on recommendations from health.gov)
Cardio– 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity like brisk walking or tennis, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous intensity like jogging or swimming laps. For beginners, frequent short sessions is more effective than long sessions in terms of staying with a program.
Resistance– 2-3 non-consecutive days. That is, not training the same muscle groups two days in a row
Intensity Workload should consistently change as your body gets stronger.
This is apparently what people need to know:
Cardio– should NOT be able to carry on a conversation without effort. Should only be able to speak in short sentences. If the exercise isn’t taxing you, it isn’t helping you.
Resistance– weights will vary from person to person. At the end of a set, you should not feel able to do more than 1 or 2 additional reps. Ideally, the weight is heavy enough that the last rep of the set is all you could do, but that isn’t usually practical when lifting on your own or when trying to maintain good form.
Flexibility– Should feel tension but not pain.
Cardio– at least 10 minutes. Walking or running, one typically burns 100 calories per mile regardless of how long it takes.
Resistance– theoretically, one set per muscle group is enough to produce muscle strengthening, but typically 2-3 sets produces good results in a time effective manner.
Flexibility– 2-4 sets, 10-30 seconds, but ain’t nobody doing that.
You should be able to finish a workout in 45 minutes to an hour. I love a long workout, but when I am just trying to get in shape, my workout does not need to exceed an hour unless I am adding a long cardio session.
Most people are familiar with how to do cardio. A large amount of people only do cardio. A large amount of people find cardio helplessly boring. I am in the latter group. There a few strategies I use to add intrigue to my workout.
To keep myself engaged, I push myself by adding intervals where I kick up the speed. Let’s say I am running at 5.0 mph, I would do a :30 interval of 5.5 and then one minute back at 5.0. The next interval may be 5.7 for :30, and so forth. I eventually end up extending the intervals
I often break up my typical 20 minutes into two ten-minute bouts during my workout.
If I am planning to do more than 30 minutes of cardio, I almost always split it between two or three machines- ten minutes on the treadmill, ten minutes on the Stairmaster, ten minutes on the rower (Check YouTube for instructions on using the rower. It’s tricky but effective.)
When the work just needs to be done, sometimes I cue up a good, lengthy podcast and just go in!
Why Lift Weights?
The point of lifting weights is to strengthen the framework of your body, which reduces injury and increases ability. When we are young we don’t think about the health of our muscles, but elderly people who can’t stand up straight or carry a jug milk certainly do.
I lift weights because building muscle makes me look good, and I like being strong.
Weight training yields results quicker than cardio, and for several, working on lifting more weight or developing muscles adds another incentive to physical fitness.
Lifting weights will also reduce injury in general, assuming you aren’t hurting yourself lifting weights. It is important to vary your exercises to prevent overuse injuries. Your muscles do need rest.
Resistance training impacts bone density because stress on bones causes them to rebuild stronger.
Building muscle increases basal metabolism. This means those with higher levels of muscle mass burn more calories at rest.
There are several reasons people choose not to lift weights, lack of knowledge, lack of understanding, but I’m here to tell you if you aren’t lifting because you don’t want to become overly muscular, that isn’t going to happen. From personal experience I can tell you that women with excessive muscle mass have to do quite a lot to get there. Lifting weights two or three times a week will NOT yield those results.
How to Lift Weights
It’s important to select the appropriate weight for your exercises. No one is looking at you to be a hero, but people will quietly judge you if it looks like you aren’t actually doing work. You should be able to make it through the movement with correct form and it should be challenging. Some people are embarrassed to stop after a few repetitions and change weights. No one cares. Don’t waste your time by using too much weight to do the exercise correctly, or too little weight to produce results.
It is also important that the movement is completed using muscle strength and not momentum. There shouldn’t be any rocking or bouncing. Whatever muscle is being targeted is the muscle that should be doing the work. Take your time going through the movement so your muscle fibers actually have time to activate.
After you have completed a set, rest for 1-3 minutes, or you can “superset” and do another exercise that uses different muscles during the rest period.
Lastly, for goodness sakes, please look at the machine for instructions. If you can’t figure it out, ask someone. If you are at a traditional gym, there should be trainers that work there that are willing to help. If you are at a gym like the ones on a military post, your best bet will be asking someone around you. Most of the time people are happy to help because that makes them feel you see them as advanced.
Creating a Workout
Since the point of a fitness program is to routinely train your muscles, it is important to be intentional about which exercises you select. As a very general rule, for balance you can aim to exercise two opposing muscles together. That is a set of arm curls coupled with a set of triceps extension. Another rule of thumb is to select exercises involving pushing in opposition to exercises involving pulling. When I was a personal trainer, if I had a client that came twice a week, one day would be all push movements and the other day would be all pull. Core muscle exercises would be done both days.
How many reps and sets? There are reasons for different rep schemes. In general you want to do 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps if the goal is conditioning, 8-12 reps for strength building, 4-8 (or less) for maximized muscle building. I usually go through a cycle like this: week 1- 10-12 reps, week 2- 8-10 reps, week 3- 6-8 and week 4- 4-6. Then I start over with higher weights than the last round.
Some exercises will take more reps because using heavier weights might not be feasible. For instance, it would be hard to hold onto 60-lb dumbbells to do a set of squats with 8-10 challenging repetitions. Also, smaller muscle groups may require higher repetitions for similar reasons; it can be harder to complete the exercise correctly with heavier weights.
The range of repetitions exists in case there isn’t a perfect weight to use. If I am consistently achieving the higher number of repetitions, I may push myself by increasing the weight and do a couple reps less.
3-5 minute walk on treadmill
Lat Pull Down 3×8-10 (3 sets of 8-10 repetitions)
Seated Row 3×8-10
Leg Curl 3×8-12
10 minutes of cardio
Arm Curl 3×8-10
Good Mornings 3×8-12
Dumbbell Fly 3×10-12
Single Leg Deadlift 3×8-10 each leg
10 minutes of cardio
Cool-down and stretch
3-5 minute walk to jog on treadmill
20 minutes of cardio
Dumbbell Bench Press 3×8-10
Dumbbell Squat 3×15
Incline Bench Press 3×8-10
Leg Extension 3×8-10
Shoulder Press 3×8-10
Lunges 3×8-10 each leg
Tricep Extension 3×8-10
Goblet Squat 3×10-12
Newsflash- devices that increase sweat output during a workout do not actually impact fat loss. Sweat is a loss of water and may be a by-product of hard, calorie-burning work. Increasing sweat without increasing work doesn’t do anything but release water. Fat is made up of calories. Water is not so releasing water is not going to have an effect on fat. However, if the goal is to reduce size for a very short term or temporary goal like fitting into a bridesmaid’s dress at the end of the week, reducing water retention is useful.
I think experienced gym goers with huge heads are usually the ones violating gym etiquette because they are self-centered, but I will outline a few things here anyway.
Don’t Steal Equipment
Make sure no one is using whatever it is you want to use by looking out for someone using it before you start using it. If you aren’t sure, ask someone in its vicinity if they are using it. I usually try to watch the machine for a couple minutes before taking it over. This is usually before I finish my preceding exercise.
Don’t Hog Equipment
There usually aren’t several of each machine in a gym, so don’t tie up the only leg extension machine by sitting on it texting for 20 minutes or chatting with your friend. Conversely, if someone is idling on a machine, it is okay to ask if you can “work in” or ask how many sets they have left to let them know you are waiting for it.
Wipe Down Equipment
Don’t leave things sweaty. I don’t usually wipe equipment down before I use it because I’m not a maniac; there are going to be germs at the gym, but it’s rude to leave your bodily fluids on something. And wiping down a machine is a signal you are done using it.
Rack Your Weights
My biggest pet peeve is guys leaving heavy weights on machines or equipment. My other biggest pet peeve is weights being re-racked with disregard to where the equipment actually belongs. Put weights back in their marked spots or logical spots.
Use Your Headphones
This day and age, everyone knows blasting your personal music on public airways is trashy. Yet people still do it. Don’t do it.
Lock Up Personal Items
I hate when people bring luggage into the gym. I also roll my eyes at women dragging their purses or keys around in the gym. Bring or check out a lock, or lock your things in your car.
If you are just starting out, it’s okay to just go through the motions to avoid being overly sore or injuring yourself. You don’t have anyone to impress but yourself. Do a little bit less than you think you can for 2 or 3 workouts and always pay attention to pain.
Everyone gets sore. Even when I was an athlete in college, from time to time I would get so sore I would hardly be able to pick up my car keys. In general, once a beginner gets past that initial excessive soreness, they shouldn’t experience that unless they introduce a new level of intensity or new exercises.
It is extremely important that you perform exercises correctly. You can ask someone but you can also google correct form. Squats and lunges are two very important exercises to perform correctly because of how easy it is to injure knees and back. Exrx.net is an exhaustive library of exercises. You can pick a muscle and find a list of exercises, or you can select and exercise and view written and video instructions on how to correctly perform it.
And lastly, be patient! Exercise is science. Weight loss is science. If you put in the work, you should see results. If you don’t see results, there is a kink in the system, and it is either nutrition or exercise. Don’t believe the lies that it’s a magical process. There are 3,500 calories in one pound of fat. Do the math!
Comment below if you have any questions!