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Some people have never set foot in a gym. They may never want to, and that’s OK. You don’t need a gym, special equipment or anything other than your own body to get fit. But that’s another discussion.

Today I want to help the person that has never been to a gym and has no idea what to do when they get there. Or the girl who only feels comfortable in a group fitness class or the cardio area. The gym doesn’t need to be a scary place, but it is a special world of it’s own right and if you know the rules, inhabitants and lay of the land, you can conquer it.  

Here’s a complete survival guide so you can walk in to any gym like a boss.

Quick note: If you take away only one thing (although I hope you keep reading), let it be this: I GUARANTEE that everybody else in the gym is far too busy worrying about themselves to notice you. There is no need to feel self-conscious because if you are worried about how you look, just imagine that everyone else is thinking THE SAME THING. Just because someone looks like they know what they are doing, doesn’t mean they do. And it also doesn’t mean they are laughing at you for being new. So don’t worry about them, they are not paying attention to you anyways. Now that we got that out of your head, let’s get started. 

Commercial Gyms: Debunking the mystery

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New to the gym? No need to be afraid, its more of a business scheme than a scary place. Once you realize that all commercial gyms are pretty much the same, it’s easy to maneuver around comfortably. Here’s what you will find when you walk in the doors:

CARDIO LAND

Walls full of treadmills, elliptical machines, stair climbers, rowers, and stationary bikes. This is usually the most crowded area depending on how large the gym is. Don’t be lured into its’ trap of parking yourself there for hours of low intensity cardio while multitasking (phone, reading, tv etc). If you are in a new gym, scan the floor as you walk in to try and identify all of the different areas of the gym we are about to go over. Then, find yourself a cardio machine to warm up for 5-10 minutes. This will allow you to scan the gym from the safety of a machine so you don’t feel silly walking around looking for what to do next. 

“WEIGHT-LIFTING” MACHINE FLOOR

Selectorized workout equipment (machines that mimic strength moves with varying resistance provided from cables or plates on a pulley system) take up at least 70% of the gym floor. These are the most intimidating looking machines if you have never used one. They work single muscles or muscle groups and are usually organized by body part. Sometimes even I have to read the diagram to see how you sit, how you lift etc. Good news is, you should spend very little time on these machines (tell you why in the next section) so don’t worry about figuring out where and how to use the ‘seated leg adduction’ machine. 

FREE WEIGHTS SECTION

Look for an area with the most mirrors, usually in a corner or a different floor of the gym, and usually the smallest section. Which is ironic because free weights are the most effective tools to add to your workout. Don’t be intimidated by the 100 lb. dumbbells and wannabe bodybuilders hanging out there. There are 10 and 20 lb. dumbbells for a reason and you can use them. Once you know where the area is, the key to having confidence and not getting unwelcome glances is to know what you are doing when you get there. Walk up, grab your weights and find an empty area (even if you want to walk far away) to do your workout. Re-rack and walk away, no one will even guess it was your first time. Oh, and if someone has the only pair of dumbbells at a certain weight on the ground, ask if they need them before grabbing, sometimes people need different weights during one set (drop sets) and they might still be using them. 

GROUP FITNESS ROOM

There is usually one or two closed off rooms in a gym for group exercise classes, yoga, dance class etc. If they are empty and no class is happening soon, most gyms let you work out in there if you want a more private atmosphere. Grab a mat, some dumbbells or exercise ball and do your own workout if you feel more comfortable in there. Otherwise, feel free to take classes that are fun for you to supplement your fitness routine. They shouldn’t be the only things you do, however, if you are trying to alter body composition, as most of them are moderate intensity cardio classes with little strength training (and your body will adapt quickly due to their repetitive nature. 

The Equipment: Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean you should use it

Now that you know your way around the gym, let’s talk about what you should do when you go and what equipment is worth your time. 

The Gameplan

  1. Know what you are doing before you go, write down a simple workout, find one online or if you have a routine, pick which workout you are going to do that day. 
  2. Warm up. If you have a dynamic warm up routine, great. If not, head to the cardio section and get 5-10 minutes of a warm up while you scan the gym and assess your route.
  3. Workout. You should never need more than 45 minutes in the gym so don’t compare yourself to people who like to spend two hours there, to each their own. Find an open space or a mat that you can do your workout and grab equipment if you need any. If the gym is really crowded, keep a bodyweight routine handy, so you can still kick ass without waiting for machines.
  4. Cool Down/Stretch. There is usually a stretching section with lots of mat space and foam rollers etc. Don’t skimp on cool down and stretching time. Injury or 3-day-soreness is lame, trust me on that one. 

The Equipment

Cat_Weights-713x417Our bodies were designed to move (I know, shocker) so the most effective workouts involve full body movements that don’t restrict your body from moving how you were intended to. Here’s my rank on equipment in the gym (from ‘best’ to ‘skip it’):

Bodyweight: The simplest and most effective way to start working out is by moving your own bodyweight through space. The options are limitless and you can design a beginner full body routine up to a high intensity plyometric workout all with your body, the floor and gravity. Start here if weights seem daunting.

Free weights: When you lift free weights, you body has a natural range of motion and all the tiny stabilizer muscles are engaged as you lift and lower the weight through space. These tiny muscles are the ones responsible for balance and help prevent injury. When you only train on weight machines, you are forced to move the weight through a path determined by the cable and your body does not move naturally, your stabilizer muscles are not engaged, and you are more prone to injury when you mimic these motions in real life situations. If you are going to load (add weight) any exercise move, free weights are best. One thing to note, form is extremely important with free weights to effectively work the muscle and train safely-it’s not how much you lift, but how you lift it.  

Strength training Machines: Most of these can be ignored as I just talked about, but there are some exceptions. The squat rack is a good place to do barbell squats, bench press, dead lifts, power cleans etc. The Pull-up bar is used for pull-ups, chin-ups and hanging ab exercises. Bench press and other adjustable benches assist in some free weight exercises like bench press, one-arm row or incline fly. If you have to pick a machine (say for certain moves like triceps extensions or if you are in a small hotel gym) use a cable machine, as the movements are not as restricted as other selectorized machines.

The rest of it: The other equipment you might use during your workout that is not part of the sections above (and I’m not ranking) is the stretching area, cardio equipment, stability balls, or rowing machine. 

The People (and how to deal with them)

“The Grunter”

This guy makes a lot of noise. Like, you can hear him ‘across the gym with headphones on’ kind of noise. Grunts, yells and just when you think another noise can’t shock you, you whip your head in that direction. This guy is best ignored, don’t make eye contact, try not to stare, no matter how loud he is don’t let it won’t ruin your workout. 

“The Starer”

You are going to run into this, probably the most. They watch you, for an excessive period of time and no matter where you go to workout, they seem to be nearby. Try not to make eye contact and wear headphones, usually this will discourage unwelcome contact. If it bothers you or gets a little much, politely ask if they need something and that usually does the trick. (Also, if you have your hair/makeup done or are in skimpy clothes or doing some unusual workout, people are going to stare so don’t be surprised).

“The Sweaty-er”

This person sweats. Buckets. Hopefully they have good gym etiquette (more on this below) and clean up after themselves. If they don’t, politely ask them to wipe down the machine before they walk away. If it is a regular offender, just let gym personnel know and they can address it. Just because this person is being rude by making an unsanitary mess, doesn’t mean you should be rude back. 

“The Selfie-Taker”

The selfie-taker usually spends as much time flexing and posing in the mirror as they do working out. Guys and girls are guilty of this, no discrimination here. Don’t get distracted with their flaunting and just take care of business. Oh, and if you are in their shot it is totally legit to strike a pose. #selfiephotobomb 

“The Distractor”

This person can be disguised in a few different ways but they are all distracting. It might be a girl strutting around in barely-there clothing or doing overly suggestive exercise moves. Or it might be someone singing and dancing like they are auditioning for The Voice, instead of quietly enjoying the music only they can hear. Or maybe you bump into an acquaintance who wants to chat for way too long, or the nice person at the machine next to you who makes small talk regardless of your headphones being in. The important thing to remember is everyone has different agendas in the gym and yours should be to get in, bust your ass, and get back to your life. Don’t let distractions, well, distract you. 

Gym Etiquette: Don’t be one of those people

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I didn’t write the rules but I do follow them. You will probably be working out there most days a week, so why make it an uncomfortable experience?

You probably wouldn’t act like a slob at someone’s house or even at your favorite local cafe, yet for some reason, decency and good hygiene get left at the door when some people enter a gym. Here’s what you should avoid so you aren’t one of them (you might be thinking ‘duh’ for some of them, but some are not so obvious if you are new to working out, so I included EVERYTHING):

  1. Leaving sweat on machine. That hygiene thing we just talked about? Yeah, this is the worst offense. Most gyms have disinfectant wipes nearby…use them. Also, bring a small towel with you to every workout. Wipe down machines after use, and since not everyone is as considerate as you, use it to protect yourself from other people’s mess. 
  2. Excessive resting between sets. This isn’t about limiting rest times, it’s about taking your rest in a considerate manner. For instance, sitting for 3-5 minutes on a machine in between sets while others are waiting to work in is not considerate. Getting distracted on your phone for 8 minutes while you are parked on the only flat bench is not considerate. Be observant, if you see someone waiting or they ask to work in and you have more than a few minutes left with that equipment, let them work in while you rest. 
  3. Using your phone. First, no one wants to hear your conversation. Second, if you can talk while you are working out you aren’t working out hard enough. Help everyone around you, and yourself, and leave your phone in your bag or in your locker. Some gyms have a rule of ‘no phone calls on the gym floor’, but even if they don’t, it’s an unwritten one.  
  4. Hogging a machine. This is mainly geared towards cardio machines because people can’t usually do 60 minutes of work in one squat rack. Observe time limits that gyms have near the cardio area and if someone is waiting for one, stick to the posted limits and be the nice person that jumps off. You really shouldn’t have any reason to do more than 30 minutes of cardio anyway but I digress.
  5. Leaving your weights out. If you use dumbbells during your workout, put them back on the rack when you are done. Most gyms only have one set at each interval so other members might be looking for them. Plus, racking and re-racking your weights is a little added workout, don’t be lazy. And if you leg press 5,684 pounds, kindly take the plates off the bar when you are done. Leaving one or two plates is acceptable but don’t leave excessive amount of weight loaded. 
  6. Lurking. Hovering. It’s all rude. If someone is on the machine or using equipment that you wanted, don’t hoover waiting for them to finish. First, you are wasting time-why don’t you pick another exercise and keep your heart rate up. Second, nicely asking how long they have or if you can work in does the trick and then back away after you made your point. 
  7. Don’t interrupt a class. If a class has started, don’t interrupt. Whether you are late to class or just want a piece of equipment that is in the group fitness room, it’s not polite. If you are less than 10 minutes late to a class, it’s probably ok to sneak in, but use your best judgment. Also, don’t go in late to yoga, once they close the door it’s unspoken yoga etiquette to not interrupt.
  8. The locker room is not your private bathroom. I am not going to expand on this one, you can use your imagination what some people behave like. Just remember, yes there are showers, bathrooms and mirrors (like your bathroom) but you are still in a public place so #don’tbeweird. 

To the Ladies

From one female to another, let’s get something straight: 

We are smart, confident, charming, and badass. We will not wear excessive amounts of make-up to the gym to try and look ‘pretty’. We are here to work out, and we work out hard, and we know that this will get us the right kind of attention (if that’s what we want). Our workout clothes are stylish and make us feel sexy. We don’t wear skimpy clothes just to make guys stare (and then get annoyed when they do). We push ourselves just as hard (or harder) than half the guys in the gym, so we don’t hesitate walking into the weights section. This booty won’t build itself. We aren’t there to chitchat, we get sweaty and we mean business. We will smile and be considerate but don’t mistake our kindness as an invitation to hit on us or stare, we have work to do. 

Now go work out

Hopefully you now know the gym for what it really is and feel ready to walk in like a boss. Being scared or nervous is okay; it means you are doing something outside your comfort zone. And that my friend, is the only way we grow. Pretty soon, the gym will feel like a second home. Well, a second home with a bunch of crazy characters who either make you laugh, annoy you or help you better yourself, but it’s all good. 

Before you go, let’s have a laugh! Tell me in the comments below the craziest thing you have ever seen in the gym? No naming names, it’s all in good fun. ☺

Courtney