Home Exercise 101 Gym-ology 101: How To Survive Being A Newbie In The Gym

Gym-ology 101: How To Survive Being A Newbie In The Gym

by Erika Nicole Kendall

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?

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sade September 29, 2011 - 3:02 PM

I’ve been reading your blog for weeks and this is my first comment. I LOVE your blog. I’ve lost 28 pounds since June and blog posts like this help a lot. I am intimidated when trying new machines at the gym in fear that people will look at me funny lol. Nonetheless, I have to get over it and ‘put in work’ . Especially since I need to lose a total of 200 lbs.

katherine November 19, 2011 - 11:11 PM

Hey Sade,

I really wanted to reply to you because I am you…Well you know what I mean. I have a lot of weight to lose. I’m on the last year of my 3 year membership and I just recently started using it. I wanted to tell you what I’ve learned. People are really not paying much attention to me. Putting on my MP3 player has really helped; I feel like its the soundtrack to my life and it helps drown out the doubts in my head. I used to only do the elliptical because I felt like I went so slow on treadmill, but now I’m walking miles on the treadmill and doing squats(at the gym) I’m doing kettlebell swings and clean and jerking the 45lb weight bar. I didn’t even know what that was. I still very heavy 270 lbs but I was 304 lbs. More importantly I’m using that gym to take back control of my health.

Jennifer September 29, 2011 - 5:03 PM

Thanks Erika this blog is “on time” for me as I’m on my way to meet with a personal trainer for the first time. I won’t be afraid to tell him what I want!

Rachel September 30, 2011 - 2:00 PM

I’ve managed to get past the ‘people are judging me’ beginner phase and it is very liberating to say that. When I just started out at the gym I go to now, I would sit in my car in the parking lot for sometimes 15-20 minutes just working up the nerve to go inside. Now I stroll straight in, say hello to the staff at reception and keep it moving. I don’t think I’m very approachable though 🙁 I chalk this up to my general social awkwardness… I look to see people using machines I’ve never tried to see how they work but don’t want to get caught looking in case it makes people feel uncomfortable. I also find it difficult to exchange a kind smile with people at the gym while I’m sweating and breathing so hard. It’s funny that you point out the importanc of the ‘screw face’ as I like to call it…because I have a very hard time with people seeing me struggle..even if no one in the gym is really paying attention to me at all. I will continue to work on this…but thanks VERY much for this article. Gives me a few things to think about before hitting the gym tonight

finomenal1 October 4, 2011 - 11:48 PM

Another timely post! I recently joined a gym right near my house and have been feeling that beginner’s uneasiness you mentioned. I haven;t been going as often as i planned because i feel so out of place and out of shape. But I know, its not about people watching me – it’s about my health and getting the most out of a challenging yet fulfilling experience. Thanks again Erika!

Jameka May 26, 2012 - 9:28 AM

First, I’d like to say that the comments have touched me. I’m so glad to read about ladies getting out there and trying to improve their health. Baby steps, except you have to take the first one! Secondly, this was a great, well-written blog post. Love it! “G-Phi-G, That’s what I wanna Be!”

Claire May 26, 2012 - 10:14 AM

Love, love, love this blog! I joined a gym about a month ago and still feel anxious about going. This was the much-needed kick in the butt to give me courage. Love your advice. I feel like I’m standing taller already. You rock!!!

T May 26, 2012 - 6:17 PM

I am still in my beginners phase at my gym! I’ve been a member now for about a month. I am the girl who listens to music on her phone but I wouldnt answer it, I’m focused during my workouts!! I have that same, ‘I know I’m fat’ frame of mind right now and all I can do is pray for the day to come when I no longer feel fat anymore; I do try to use those thoughts to change my habits and push myself during my workouts though.

Michelle June 14, 2012 - 9:26 AM

This post was right on time. I work out in the gym in my apartment complex. The gym is sort of off the lobby and you have to walk through it to get to the pool.. SO, since May, there have been tons of folks walking through. I hadn’t given this a thought prior to pool season. When I fixate on the folks walking through or think for a second that they are making fun of me, I see my heart rate start to drop. It has dropped by as much as 10 in a matter of seconds. I shake it off. I realize that I’m not there for them. I am there b/c I want to be fit and in shape…It’s hard but we can work through this!!!

Loretta November 28, 2012 - 3:15 AM

I will be starting a new larger gym after being a member of a small privately own. Even though, this extra weight has cause me to have some self confident issue. I am not afraid to return to a much larger gym. One reason I am so focus on losing this weight and some block out my surroundings. After the first few days of figure the equipment and where is everything it will be a lot easier. I think it is important to get the free training session and remember it is not a pick up joint or the social hour. I am there on a mission and I must focus on my goal. 🙂

Rooo June 30, 2013 - 7:20 PM

People actually do look, and they can be mean and snarky. The thing is to train yourself not to care.

If you’re on the machines — elliptical, recumbent — earphones do help in the not-caring. If you’re in class, if you can focus on just the instructor (here’s hoping s/he is not the mean & snarky one, but that’s a different rant) and your workout, and soon it will not matter to you if the teensy 19-year-old blonde girl is giving you the “What are YOU doing here?” look, because you will be able to whip her butt at the workout while she falls off the machines gasping and your biggest task will be to refrain from laughing *right* in her face — a lil’ smirk is okay, though, I think — as you leave her in your dust.

“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.”


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