I’ve got to admit it – even for me, there’s very little in life that scares me (besides zombies, of course) more than having to join a new gym. I remember my days of first starting out in my gym, and I was terrified. I was embarrassed: embarrassed to be in the gym, because it felt like I was saying “You know I’m fat, I know I’m fat, I’m trying to change it now, thanks.” to everyone that laid eyes on me.

Obviously, that seems a little excessive, but it was a rough situation for me. It was rough to essentially admit to myself that “yes, I need to be here, I need to be doing these exercises and I need to get rid of this extra weight,” but it was much rougher when it felt like I was admitting it to everyone around me. Call it pride, call it foolishness, call it both: the underlying point is that I cared much too much about the people around me and what they thought.

Luckily, I didn’t let my pride (and foolishness!) get the best of me… too much.

I’ve learned a lot over the years, and while now I’m on my third “new gym,” I’ve got a handful of tips for the gym beginner to try to remember – to keep you from embarrassing yourself, to keep you from hurting yourself, and to keep you from scaring yourself away from doing what you obviously want to do for yourself:

1) No one’s judging you. I don’t know how many times, in how many ways I can say this, but I swear: no one is judging you. I know that TV frequently highlights the jerk bodybuilder who scoffs at your little existence and points and laughs at you because you’re not as fit as they are, but trust me. Those guys don’t exist in real life. I feel like people who are genuinely fit know what it’s like to get where you are trying to go, and know it takes time. We all were beginners once. We all understand. If anything, we’re happy you’re seeking to take control. No one’s judging.

2) Be approachable. If anyone’s looking at you, they’re more than likely wondering if they’ve ever seen you around and if you’re new… in which case, they more often than not simply want to speak. You want to make friends at your gym – it’s the fastest way to make a friend who’s fitness-minded, someone who’s fit-goal-oriented, and someone who can help advise you on the ins and outs of your new gym and its policies. How else would you know that the six o’clock Zumba class can totally kick your butt if you hadn’t learned about it from your new friend?

And, like all things, there’s a caveat to this. Be approachable, but don’t be a leech. Let others come to you, don’t go bothering people that are already working out or inundating strangers with questions. Making friends just for the fitness tips is pretty hollow, and we’re not those kinds of people, right? Right? Sure, it’s one thing to ask someone about an exercise they were just finishing up. It’s another to follow them around the gym asking about their every move (literally.) If you feel that inexperienced, see the next tip.

3) Try to find a gym that offers free training sessions with your membership. Most gyms nowadays will offer two free sessions, and you’ll never know how valuable that is. Why? For two reasons: a) because you’ll want a trainer to help you create a workout routine for your body and its specific goals, and b) because you’ll want someone who can give you a brief walkthrough of all the equipment.

Now, if your gym is eight floors and has all kinds of stuff everywhere, then you need to save that kind of touring for a receptionist and use your trainer time specifically for the weight lifting equipment floor. But if you’ve got a decent-to-tiny sized gym, ask your trainer to help you get acclimated to the equipment and advise you on how much weight you should start out lifting in particular. You want to get fit, not get hurt, and your trainer should understand. Be advised, though – they will try their hardest to convince you to order paid sessions with them, and if you’re interested, then it could be a match made in heaven. If not, though? Just politely tell them “I’ll think about it” with a smile, and move on to the next topic or machine. I’m all about supporting a hustle, just not when I’m trying to save my pennies.

But onto that first point. You’ll want that trainer to help you build your weightlifting routine for a full week, and help you understand the equipment that you’ll be using in the process. Trainers have heard it all, so don’t be afraid to say “I want a fit booty, full and thick muscular thighs and a flatter tummy.” It might be a tall order, but they can at least advise you on how to get there. See if you can get your first session to be the one where your trainer helps you with learning the equipment (as this is most important), and your second session should be for this. This way, you can learn the difference between your smith machine and your regular squat machine, and which is best for your abilities.

4) There is a small list of items you should always carry with you to the gym, regardless of whether or not you intend to shower there: soap, a shaver, a full change of gym clothes, a hair brush (and/or comb), deodorant, a change of socks, hair ties, a washcloth, an Aunt Flo’ kit and a sweat towel. The vast majority of this is in the event that you have an accident or Aunt Flo’ drops by unannounced, because the last thing you want is to be sent home by that chick. I bring hair ties just in case I decide to braid my ‘fro back because I plan to do some heavy sweating. I bring soap because I don’t like gym soap (no matter how fancy it might look, it’s still gym soap.) I don’t bring lotion because, quite frankly, no one cares if you’re ashy. If you care, don’t. Sweat will do away with ashiness, anyway. (If someone, you included, is noticing ashiness, they – or you – simply aren’t working out hard enough… and that isn’t your problem.) Don’t put on fresh lotion going into the gym – that smell mixed with the inevitable funk odor of the gym is never a good one – and certainly don’t wear it on any of the equipment… especially the weights. Ever had a weight slip out of your hand because someone greased it up before you? No? Let’s keep it that way. For everyone.

And while I’m at it? Lay off with the perfume. Again, it’s mixing with gym funk and, furthermore, makes us think you put on the perfume to hide your funk. Stop playing with our emotions. The only thing you need is deodorant. Leave the smell goods at home.

5) Be an observer. I think this is outright vital. There are lots of machines that can be used multiple ways, and you’d never know it if you weren’t constantly observing your surroundings and seeing how people are using things. This is also important for those who may only get one free training session (or none, unfortunately), because observing how people use the equipment you’re all sharing can teach you just as well as a trainer could, though you’d have a lot more to figure out on your own. (Where a trainer may tell you “Go ahead and give it a try,” and then eventually “Come on, I think you can handle more than that,” you might generally give up and say “Whooo, that was hard!”) Observing how others use the equipment is how I learned some of my favorite exercises.

It’s also a big part of the inspiration aspect of joining a gym. You watch all these fit people… doing the things that helped them get fit. It’s one thing to see that fit bitch out at the mall enjoying life, but it’s another thing entirely to see that fit bitch in the gym and how much effort she’s putting into being that fit bitch. Look around. Learn. Be inspired. Dive in nose-first.

6) The uglier the face, the more we admire you. I know you’re looking around and seeing people lift heavy things and make ugly faces while they’re doing it. Stop hating – you need to be making ugly faces, too! Remember, that environment serves as inspiration: someone who’s lifting something so heavy that it’s eliciting that kind of an “ugly face,” means they’re getting it in. You need to be getting it in and challenging yourself, too. I saw a woman clench her teeth so hard while she was dead-lifting that I thought she was going to shatter every tooth in her mouth. I shook my head and said “I ain’t mad. At. All.” and kept going… while also praying for her jawline. Don’t you dare have the audacity to take up time and space on a weight machine and not make an ugly face near the end of that set. We’ll all be disappointed in you. (Well, not really. See #1.)

7) There is no such thing as a stupid question… you’ve just got to know who to ask. Some of the best learning comes from “stupid questions,” because it always leads to new information for everybody. Asking “but… how do I use the exercise ball?” turns into a new giant sign in the exercise ball area showcasing 20 different exercises for the exercise ball. Asking “am I supposed to lift the kettle bell this high over my head?” turns into a safety sheet for how to safely use the kettle bell posted right above their area. Sometimes the basics evade even the “pros,” and they forget to put these things up for the newbies among us, so please. Ask those questions that you’d deem “stupid” and help another newbie who might be too afraid to ask for themselves.

8 ) Use the locker. If there are no lockers, then leave your entire bathroom at home, and only bring the few things you need to change clothes (if you are so inclined) to the gym. Whatever. Just come to the floor with only what you need to work out. Don’t be the person fiddling with your entire bag at a machine, wasting time, unfocused on the task at hand. And for goodness sakes, as a personal tip from me… get an MP3 player that is not your phone. There’s only one thing worse than slowing down on a treadmill for what you thought might be an important phone call only to find that it definitely was not, and you wasted that time for nothing. Know what that one thing is? Being on the treadmill next to the person on the phone for a half an hour.

9) As a woman, if there’s one thing that matters the most to me, it’s safety. Be aware of your gym’s safety mechanisms: do they have alarms? Cameras? Security patrolling the premises? Do they have alarm bracelets and bands for people to wear after hours (very common in 24-hour gyms)? How do they control entry and exit? Find out what their safety and security policies are and familiarize yourself with them. You don’t want to have to worry about that, but damn if you won’t be glad that you knew ’em when you need them.

10) On behalf of every person in America currently a member of a gym, repeat after me: “I will always remember to wipe down the equipment before and after I use it.” If your gym doesn’t offer towels, paper or cloth, then bring your own. Trust me on this one. Just… just trust me.

11) The gym is not your matchmaker. I know, I know. The eye-candy is superb. It is… epic. I get it. But let me tell you something about men at the gym: whereas you might bend over backwards to get a man’s attention at the club or the bar, you will look like an out of place fool at the gym trying that. Leave the earrings, “fancy” clothing, makeup (?!), and smell goods at home. You know how you snag a man at the gym? By not looking like you’re at the gym to snag a man. Go. Work out. Enjoy it. A man who’s at the gym is impressed by hard work – often because he’s working hard, too – and is far more likely to approach you because he sees you getting it in. Don’t act desperate. Besides, you’ll only be in everyone’s way, drooling and trying to get his attention. Let that go.

12) The gym isn’t about fun, but it can be… so start out focused, and then remember that being there is supposed to be challenging. Not only for your body, but for your mind, as well. Develop new abilities, learn what those abilities do for you and how they change your every day behaviors, and come back every time excited by how you can challenge yourself again. That’s where you learn that it can be fun – creating a challenge for yourself and then rising to the occasion. It might be a painful kind of fun (!) but fun, it definitely can be. We were all newbies, once, and we’re still here… still liking it… still enjoying ourselves… and still making ugly faces. And we’re looking forward to welcoming you to our secret club Gymrat Phi Gymrat.

What did I leave out, y’all? I’m sure there’s something, especially since I digressed mentally into “G-Phi-G, that’s what I wanna be!” and can’t remember anything else. What tips do you have for the newbies? Newbies, what lessons have you learned along the way?