Q: Hi Erika,

I really want to get my weight down so I can be healthy. In the span of the last 14 years I have gained a total of 60 pounds which are now causing me knee issues and I have sleep apnea. My job pays for me and my spouse’s membership to LA Fitness. My problem is that I am overwhelmed when I go to the gym. There is so much equipment and I don’t know where to start. I have runner’s knee so I have to be mindful of what I do. Any suggestions on where to start?

PS –  I’ve already got my water bottle and workout clothes ready and my 20 year daughter wants me to workout with her so I have support too.

Thank you in advance for any advice that you can provide. 

Yes! Lots!

You know, I started out in a gym, confused as all hell by all the weird equipment and the awkward drawings on the sides that were supposed to help me understand what was what. It all made my head hurt—was I supposed to do all of them in one go? Was I supposed to only pick a few? How do I know which ones to pick? How do I avoid kicking my own ass on accident? (I mean, it’s one thing to kick my own ass in terms of getting a good work out, but…)

Here are a few tips that I think are super-important for any gym newbie:

1) The elliptical trainer is your friend. Running is a high-impact activity that, for those of us who aren’t used to it, can exhaust you quickly and result in you only getting 10 minutes of run time in when you thought you were ready for at least 45.

It’s okay—it happens to the best of us. (And by “it,” I mean “physics.”)

The elliptical can help you reduce the way the high impact of running zaps your energy. You can go as fast or as slow as you want, crank up the resistance and slow it down, or go full speed demon if you want. You can turn on your TV and power your way through an episode of your favorite TV show, or open a good book and grind away. But, if your knees are giving you cues that running might not be for you right now, try the elliptical.

(Pro tip: turn on your favorite song you like on repeat, and crank up the resistance so you can paddle to the beat and break a good sweat!)

2) Don’t get caught up in the “free weights” vs “machines” arguments. Should you sit down at the bicep curl machine, or should you just grab a pair of dumbbells and get to work?

For some people, this is an actual argument. Don’t give in to it.

Machines serve a purpose—they help people who need to target specific muscle groups while relieving the stress placed on other groups. That serves lots of purposes—people with joint injuries (like knees!) can’t always use their full range of motion with weights in a stable fashion, so using a machine like a seated leg press or leg extension might help strengthen the muscles that support that joint, thereby making the joint more secure.

It shouldn’t feel like free weights are more advanced, but they are. You have to be more stable. You have to have balance. You have to be able to create momentum on your own. And, you’re less safe—if you let go of the weight, it doesn’t just reset. You might crush your toes.

Think about where you are, and be honest with yourself. If you know you’re a legit newbie, don’t sweat it! Stick with the machines. When you’re ready to branch off, you’ll feel it in your bones (and joints.)

3) Take a pen and a notepad with you onto the gym floor. I know that people are going to roll their eyes at this suggestion, but we gon’ be alright.

Write down the names of a few machines. Then, when you go home, look for different videos to help you understand the best way to use them, tips to keep in mind when you train, and how that machine might help (or hurt) any of your particular trouble spots.

Do I have a few favorites? Absolutely. I love the shoulder and chest press, the seated leg press, the leg extension, the dual pulley row and the overhead lateral pull. The smith machine (though many people hate it) was great for my early recovery work from my back injury, and I’m convinced that using it consistently helped me get back to free weights so quickly.

If you’re looking for how to structure your workout, check out this post. (Don’t be afraid to check out my training plan for guidance!)

As much as it might be easier for me to just give you a list of exercises you should do, the real answer is you should at least try to do them all, provided you don’t have an injury that would be aggravated by a particular machine. They all help to strengthen your muscles, they all help improve your range of motion, and they’ll all provide an added benefit. Don’t be afraid to explore and find what makes you feel strong, secure, stable, proud, and happy.

In the meantime, also check out websites like Stumptuous and GirlsGoneStrong and books like Thinner, Leaner, Stronger (if you use my link to buy that, Amazon will give me a few pennnies to thank me for referring you!) to help you get more comfortable with the gym environment and feel more like a boss when you walk in the room. Before long, you’ll be killing the game, and your body—and those muscles!—will be thanking you for it!