Gym for Beginners – Exact Steps for Your First Day at the Gym

It can be daunting to undertake a new fitness routine, especially if you’re not sure where to start and feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. First, congratulations on taking the first step and at least being interested in taking control of your health and fitness.

It will absolutely pay off in the long run if you stick with it. Here are some things to get you started and on your way to seeing results, feeling better, and gaining confidence.

How to reduce gym anxiety

How to reduce gym anxiety

It’s absolutely normal to experience gym anxiety or nervousness about working out at the gym. You may be worried that people will look at you and judge you, or make fun of you because you don’t look a certain way or don’t know what you’re doing.

The thing is, if someone is paying that much attention to you then they’re probably in the same boat because experienced lifters are usually focused on what they are doing and couldn’t care less about what you’re up to.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. So let’s say that no matter what you just can’t get over your gym anxiety. Here are some suggestions that may help to reduce and overcome your anxiety and nervousness about working out:

Ask for a tour of the gym

It may be helpful to take a tour of the gym first and ask questions before you plan to go in and workout. Simply walk up to the front desk and ask them to show you around.

This can give you time to decide where in the gym you might feel the most comfortable working out. A lot of gyms have an aerobics room that’s usually empty when there isn’t a class.

This can be a great place to start working out without feeling like all eyes are on you.

Meeting some of the employees can also make you feel more comfortable. Being able to wave at a trainer you met, or engaging in small talk with the front desk person can make you feel more welcomed and like you belong there.

Sign up for a class

Taking a class is a great way to get started at a new gym. Often you’ll be able to meet other people and maybe even make some friends. Plus, it’s a good way to start working out without worrying about figuring out what exercises to do and how to do them while worrying about people judging you.

During your initial gym tour, you can ask about whether they offer classes if they’re free, and what the schedule is. You can also usually find this information on the website or speak to the front desk person about it.

Prepare a workout routine

Having a clear plan of the exercises you’re going to do, how to do them, and how many sets and reps can be really helpful for increasing your confidence in the gym. Not only will it help you to look more like you know what you’re doing, but going in with a clear plan of attack will help you to get in and get out quickly.

If you’re not ready for a workout plan with exercises yet, then just go in and find a piece of cardio equipment that you like.

Do 15-20 minutes of light-moderate intensity cardio where you can kind of hold a conversation but feel your heart rate increase and start sweating a bit. Then do a few stretches and leave.

The more you go in and do your thing, the more confidence you’ll build and end up desensitizing yourself as you feel more comfortable in that environment.

Hire a trainer

This is one of the best ways to deal with gym anxiety. Hiring a personal trainer is like having your own personal gym guide telling you exactly what to do, when to do it, and keeping you company along the way.

It takes out the guess-work of knowing what to do and whether or not you’re doing it correctly.

I do need to point out though that gym is just like any other business and they’re there to make money.

Thus, many trainers are simply not experienced enough to give proper advice or even train people, regardless of their certifications or qualifications. If you’re going to hire someone, their physical appearance is usually a good indication of their experience.

Find a gym buddy

Going to the gym with a friend can also help to lessen your anxiety. Things tend to be easier to get through when you have someone to get through them with. Having a gym buddy to work out with can also keep you stay accountable and increase your consistency.

Everyone has to start from somewhere and everyone was also a beginner at one time. Most people remember this and won’t give you a hard time about it. Those “buff” guys and “fit” women walking around the gym have more than likely been at it for a long time and had to put in a lot of work to get to that level.

This is your fitness journey, and if anyone is judging you for making the decision to better yourself then their opinion probably doesn’t matter anyway.

What to wear to the gym?

What to wear to the gym

There are so many options for gym attire depending on the type of activity you’ll be doing and what you’re comfortable with. However, it’s generally a safe bet to go with the basics.

T-shirt or tank-top

Cotton and moisture-wicking material are great options because they keep you cool as your body temperature increases throughout your workout. Whether you wear a t-shirt or tank top is dependant on your level of comfort and what you like to wear. Wear what you’re most comfortable in.

Gym pants or gym shorts

You can honestly wear any type of pants or shorts during your workout. However, pants and shorts that are made to exercise in and move with your body throughout a full range of motion are a much better choice. This keeps them from ripping or riding up in less than comfortable areas.

Having to incessantly adjust your clothes during your workout can be very bothersome.

Gym pants and shorts are also made from stretchy and breathable materials that will prevent you from wearing soaking wet clothes.

Some popular gym pants options include:

  • Joggers
  • Sweatpants
  • Track pants
  • Convertible hiking pants
  • Moisture-wicking cargo pants
  • Compression leggings
  • Cotton leggings
  • Spandex leggings
  • Yoga pants

Whether you wear long pants, tapered, ⅞ length or knee-length pants is a matter of personal preference.

Gym shorts also come in a variety of options including:

  • Running shorts (usually pretty short)
  • Compression shorts
  • Biking shorts
  • Basketball shorts
  • All-purpose shorts
  • Moisture-wicking shorts

Sneakers

All gyms require you to wear sneakers or some other closed-toe shoes. No flip-flops or sandals are allowed. So be sure to invest in a good pair of gym shoes.

Keep in mind that sneakers with a lot of cushioning are not necessarily the best choice.

When you lift heavy weights, you effectively increase the compression on whatever shoes you’re wearing. Having a thick sole or cushioning will make it more difficult to maintain your balance.

Female-specific attire

Women have some other pieces of workout wear to consider.

If you have long hair, or hair that falls into your face then you may want to consider wearing a headband or putting your hair into a workout friendly style to keep it out of the way.

Some hairstyles that won’t bother you during your workout:

  • Ponytail
  • Low pigtails
  • Topknot
  • Bun
  • French braid
  • Cornrows

Neglecting to wear a sports bra can damage the connective tissue in your breasts, regardless of whether you’re a B-cup or a DD-cup. Sports bras provide support and prevent you from experiencing tissue damage, sagging, stretch marks, back pain, and discomfort.

If you have larger breasts then it’s recommended that you choose a high-support sports bra with cups. A supportive sports bra will minimize breast movement and keep you from experiencing pain or other potential issues in the future. You can also find lightly supportive and moderately supportive sports bras, with and without cups and padding.

Wearing a normal bra will not be sufficient and can cause shoulder and trapezius pain because when you move certain ways, the straps will dig into your upper body.

Sports bras are designed for comfort, support, and maneuverability.

What to bring to the gym?

What to bring to the gym

Lock

Most gyms have lockers or cubbies for you to keep your things in while you workout. However, if you want to make sure that your stuff stays safe and secure it can behoove you to get your own lock and keep it in your gym bag so that you don’t have to worry about forgetting it.

Phone/music

Many of us have the capability of listening to music through our phones, however, if you have another means of listening to music then you may want to bring that with you. Studies have shown that listening to music while you workout can increase your performance and help your mood.

There are also a lot of fitness apps you can download onto your phone that allow you to track your workouts, lead you through exercise routines, and track your fitness stats like heart rate, steps, sets, reps, rest times, and effort.

Headphones

If you’ll be listening to your own music then it’s essential to wear headphones at the gym, duh!

Gloves

While gym gloves aren’t necessarily a must-have, some people appreciate the extra grip capabilities gloves can provide (though it’s debatable), and the protection from developing calluses.

Towel

Some people neglect to clean the equipment after they use it and can leave behind sweat, germs and other things you may not want to touch. Bringing your own towel can protect you from being in direct contact with a dirty, sweat covered bench or provide an extra layer of protection while lying on a public exercise mat.

You may also want to bring a small towel to dab the sweat off of your face between sets.

Hydration

Gyms usually have at least one water fountain readily available, but bringing your own water bottle can save you multiple trips across the gym between sets and exercises. As you exercise and lose fluid through sweating, it’s important to stay hydrated by sipping on water regularly.

Toiletries and shower shoes

Should you decide to shower at the gym, you may want to bring your own travel-size toiletries like soap and hair products. Also, a set of shower shoes or rubber flip-flops will lessen your chances of picking up germs from the shower floor that could lead to disease, illness, or infections.

Get to know the area and equipment

Get to know the area and equipment

One of the first things I do when I go to a new gym for the first time is walk around and get familiar with where everything is and what’s available. This can cut down on confusion during your workout, so you don’t have to spend time searching for what you’re looking for or wondering where to find something.

If you’re not comfortable just wandering around the gym then you can ask a staff member for a quick tour.

Familiarizing yourself with the equipment options such as the range of dumbbell weights and sizes, the availability of different exercise tools such as exercise and medicine balls, barbells, bands, and other pieces of equipment can help you to get the most out of your gym use.

Some gyms have beginner areas that are meant to have all the necessary equipment to help you get started.

Follow gym etiquette

30 Unspoken Gym Etiquette Rules

Gym etiquette is the unspoken set of rules at the gym that makes it a pleasant training environment for everyone. It involves showing courtesy and avoiding behavior that could be hazardous to someone else’s workout.

Most of these things are based on common sense, but it doesn’t hurt to have some clarity, especially if you’re new to this environment.

There are some main rules that apply regardless of where you’re working out:

  • Don’t hog equipment
    If someone asks to work in with you and you know that you’re going to be another 20 to 30 minutes, then share the space or equipment with them in a way that works for both of you. If you are almost finished and won’t be more than 5 minutes, then it’s generally okay to let them know you’ll be finished very soon and it’ll be all theirs afterward.
  • Clean up after yourself
    Don’t leave sweat on the equipment, and don’t leave equipment you’ve used lying around after you’re finished
  • Wear proper workout attire
    If you’re a male, then you shouldn’t be falling out of your shorts, and if you’re a woman you shouldn’t be falling out of your sports bra or top.
  • Don’t be a creep
    It’s generally uncomfortable to have someone watch you like a TV show while you’re working out, focus on your workout and not on what everyone else is doing
  • Give people their personal space
    It can be dangerous to invade someone’s space while they’re working out and cause you, the person or others to get injured so pay attention to where you’re walking and be mindful of where you choose to exercise
  • Wear headphones
    Please don’t bring speakers to the gym and blast your music for everyone to hear. People like to do their own thing in the gym and this can be extremely disruptive.
  • Don’t eat in the training area
    If you need a snack or a bite of something, don’t do it on the gym floor. Pulling a protein bar out of your bag and taking a bite in between exercises might be fine, but not a whole meal. It’s distracting and disruptive. Move to the lobby or another area designated for food.

Start slow

Start slow

It can be off-putting to start a new workout program and then suddenly feel like your body aches so badly that you don’t even want to get out of bed. This severe soreness could mean that you’re trying to do too much too soon. This is why it’s important to use progressive overload.

Progressive overload is a training principle that dictates starting with the least amount of work to elicit a training adaptation and then slowly adding to it. If you push your body past its limits too soon, then you run the risk of being super sore and it can be miserable.

The best thing that you can do is start slowly to avoid getting really sore and fatigued. Even if you feel like you can push harder and do more, it’s best to take it slowly and work your way up to doing more at a gradual pace while paying attention to how your body feels.

Working out shouldn’t make you feel worse, it should help you to feel better.

Even if you’re starting out slowly there’s a certain amount of muscle soreness that you can expect to last for the first week or two.

I won’t lie to you, you’ll probably be pretty sore and feel extra tired as your body gets over the initial shock of increasing activity. However, you shouldn’t feel like you can’t move at all.

Things that can prevent and help with soreness:

Do what you can

As a beginner, just getting into the gym or setting time aside at home to move your body is a great way to ease into a fitness routine. You don’t necessarily need to worry about following a strict workout plan for the first week or two since it’s easy to overdo it.

If you do want to go to the gym, then it may be helpful to spend the first week familiarizing yourself with the space, equipment, and trying things out.

Decrease the work-load

If you would like to follow a workout program that suggests 2-3 sets of each exercise then bring it down to 1 set for the first week, and then add another set next week.

Another option for decreasing work is to rest longer between sets and exercises. You can also reduce the number of exercises you’re doing per workout.

Using a lighter weight and modifying exercises to make them easier is also a method of lessening the work you’re doing.

Move your body

It may seem counterintuitive to move around more if you’re sore, but going for a leisurely walk and doing some light stretching can increase circulation and help your blood to carry nutrients to your sore muscles, loosen your joints and decrease your stiffness.

One exercise per body part is enough

There’s no reason to do 3 different biceps exercises, even if your goal is to have big arms.

One of the best things you can do as a beginner is the familiarize yourself with full-body workouts and target each of your large muscle groups:

  • Chest
  • Back
  • Shoulders
  • Legs
  • Abs

If you want to do one exercise for your biceps (the front of your upper arm), and one for your triceps (the back of your upper arm) then that’s fine.

It’s most beneficial to do a variety of exercises that focus on different muscle groups instead of just pounding the one muscle group you want to change.

Focusing on targeting all of your muscle will have a more pronounced effect and help you to get results sooner.

Don’t lift with your ego

Don’t lift with your ego

Ego-lifting happens when you’re more concerned about competing with or impressing the people around you. This can be dangerous and lead to injury.

When you’re lifting to impress someone else, it distracts you from paying attention to your form, listening to the signals your body may be sending you, and certainly keeps you from managing the weight you’re handling.

This is the reason ego-lifting can injure you. Rather than paying attention to proper technique and gauging the weight accordingly, when you lift to impress you’ll often lift heavier than you should and attempt movements that you may not be ready for.

When you’re working out, it’s best if you focus on your capabilities and try not to worry about what people around you are doing. If they’re focused on their workouts, then they aren’t even paying attention to how much weight you’re lifting or the exercises you’re trying to impress them with.

Likewise, if you’re solely focused on your performance and goals, then you likely won’t notice what anyone else is doing either.

One of the most significant things you can do while working out is to focus on your form and work on perfecting your technique. Proper technique will hasten your results, keep you safe and increase the benefit you’ll get from exercising.

An improper form will ultimately create imbalances, poor mechanics and recruitment patterns (movements), and inevitable injuries.

Warm-up and cardio

Warm-up and cardio

Warming up before your workout is always a good idea whether you’re lifting weights, doing cardio or aerobics or playing sports. It gives your body a chance to prepare for the increase in activity that is about to happen.

Why you should warm-up

The purpose of warming up is to:

  • Increase your body’s core temperature
  • Encourage a full range of motion and loosen your joints
  • Increase blood circulation
  • Mentally prepare for the activity

When you’re warming up, the goal is to initiate a light sweat. You don’t want to go all out and do a full-on cardio session, as this will wear you out before you’ve even gotten started and potentially decrease your performance.

Your level of conditioning will dictate the intensity of your warm-up. If you are overweight, then walking around or walking on the treadmill may be a good place to start. Warm-up activities should be pretty low-impact.

A stationary bike and elliptical machine are also less intense options.

More conditioned individuals may prefer to use the stair mill, rower or another form of cardio equipment. A dynamic warm-up where you’re moving in and out of different stretches and performing light sets of exercises is another way to warm-up before sports or lifting weights.

A warm-up should take anywhere from 5-20 minutes depending on your level of conditioning and what you’ll be doing afterward. If you’re a beginner and aren’t very conditioned then you’ll want to stick to about 5-10 minutes of light activity.

However, if you have a history of being active and are more conditioned, then you may want to warm-up for 10-15 minutes.

Basically, once you start to feel a little sweaty, and before you’re tired, that’s enough of a warm-up.

Choose a proper type of cardio

The type of cardio you choose will also be largely dependent on your level of conditioning, as will the duration. It’s a good idea to start from where you’re at, and not where you want to be.

For example, if you haven’t been doing cardio activities then 10 minutes a day may be all that you can handle at first and that’s fine.

Start there and work your way up by adding 5-10 minute each week. The American Heart Association recommends that you get about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio per week. This can be broken down into 5 30-minute sessions eventually.

However, when you’re first starting out something is better than nothing. So, if you haven’t been doing cardio at all then suddenly start doing 30 minutes of it Monday through Friday it could prove to be too taxing and stress your body excessively.

When you’re just starting out, choose a lower impact activity such as walking, riding a bike or using a stationary bike or even doing water aerobics. Especially if you’re overweight or obese, it’s important to do low-impact and low-intensity cardio activities to keep your joints safe and prevent injuries.

Aim to work your way up to 20-30 minute cardio sessions up to 5 times a week, gradually over a period of weeks and/or months.

Bodyweight exercises

Bodyweight exercises

Bodyweight exercises are great for beginners to start with. Even if you were previously an athlete or used to work out, doing bodyweight exercises gives you a chance to perfect your form and work on healthy joint mobility. Even seasoned athletes can benefit from bodyweight training.

Exercises using nothing but your body weight can actually be quite challenging.

Some of the most well known and basic bodyweight exercises are:

Each exercise can be modified to suit beginners up to advanced athletes, which is how you would apply progressive overload. There are a ton of variations for each of the main exercises I listed above.

Even if you cannot complete a full repetition of one of them, just practicing the movement and trying to get better at it will make you stronger, contribute to your health, burn a lot of calories, and increase your performance.

As a beginner, you’ll want to make sure that you’re modifying the exercises to suit your level of conditioning. For example, if you aren’t able to do a single push-up on your toes, then you can start with knee push-ups or chest elevated push-ups on a bench.

Negatives are also helpful when improving your strength and form. Let’s say that you have a hard time with pull-ups and struggle just to keep your hands on the bar. First, you’d practice holding onto the bar and hanging for a few seconds. Do this every other day until your grip strengthens.

Once you can grip the bar, then you’re ready to use an exercise band to assist you. Use the band to help you get your chin above the bar and then slowly lower your body weight while you control the movement.

Try to get 1-5 repetitions at a time, for 3 sets. Rest for as long as you need to between sets starting with about 90 seconds to 2 minutes.

After a few weeks, your strength should increase and you should be on your way to getting your first pull-up. You can also use an assisted pull-up machine if your gym has one. This would take the place of the exercise band, but you’ll still want to focus on controlling the movement and lowering your body slowly to work on increasing your strength.

Common bodyweight exercises

If you’re not sure where to begin, simply perform the bodyweight exercises I listed above. You’ll want to do them 3 times a week with at least a day of rest in between, for example, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Continue this for 3-4 weeks and then increase the intensity by increasing your repetitions, decreasing your rest-time or increasing the number of sets you’re doing.

Try to perform about 12 to 15 reps for each exercise. If you can comfortably do 15 reps, increase the intensity by either reducing rest times or adding on weights by either holding a dumbbell in your hands or using resistance bands.

Rest for 60 seconds between sets. If you find that to be too intense then extend your rest to 90-120 seconds or until you feel like you’ve regained enough energy to push yourself just as hard through your next set. To make it more challenging reduce your rest to 30 seconds between sets as you progress.

Machines and equipment

Machines and equipment

Machines can be a good place for beginners to start. They require a lot less technique and often less mobility than free-weight exercises.

Muscles respond to the stress of exercising by adapting and getting stronger, so using machines can be an effective method for getting your muscles used to working out and stimulate growth.

Beginners can benefit from using machines in multiple ways. For one, most machines have instructions for use printed in an easy to see spot, with illustrations to show which muscles are being stimulated. This can make using gym equipment a lot more hassle-free when you’re first getting used to working out.

Another advantage of using machines when you’re starting out is that they can help you get used to feeling the muscle you’re trying to target. This is called a mind-muscle connection and will help you get more out of your training. It’s probably not something you’ll be able to do at first but pay attention to it as you keep working out.

Using machines to learn the movement patterns for exercises can also help you to stay safe while lifting heavier weights. Since machines are set up in a way that places your body into the correct position, it can help in preventing injuries and enhance the stress being applied to the targeted muscles.

It’s always a good idea to vary your training so that your muscles get work from different angles, and to give your joints a chance to go through different ranges of motion in different planes. While machines have their advantages, solely relying on using machines for your workouts indefinitely can become detrimental. Machines take away from building up your stabilizing muscles which will eventually become a weak spot in your body and can potentially lead to an injury.

So once you’ve built a foundation of strength, created a good mind-muscle connection and become more familiar with the proper movements for specific exercises, it will benefit you to add free-weight and bodyweight training to your programming.

Common machine exercises

Here’s a list of a few common machines to help you get started by targeting major muscles in your body.

  • Leg press
  • Bench press
  • Seated row
  • Military press
  • Pulldowns

Dumbbells and barbells

Dumbbells and barbells

Dumbbells and barbells are common pieces of equipment used during free-weight exercises.

They offer significant training benefits such as:

  • Reducing muscle imbalances
  • Preventing injuries by encouraging stability and more muscle fiber recruitment
  • Improving your balance by challenging you to maintain your center of gravity throughout the exercise
  • Increasing your calorie burn by engaging multiple muscle groups simultaneously
  • Enhancing your exercise performance through functional movements in multiple planes of motion
  • More core activation

It’s imperative to use good form when lifting with free-weights. Since you’re not being held in place by a machine, your core has to work harder to stabilize your spine and your joints have to work harder to stabilize your muscles. This leads to more efficient movements and more strength.

Generally, when you’re doing a free-weight exercise you won’t be able to handle as much weight as you would using a machine. Machines don’t require you to stabilize yourself, nor do they allow you to work in multiple planes of motion for the most part.

Therefore, machines reduce the amount of work your stabilizing muscles have to do, which is why you can focus on lifting heavier.

Although you may not be able to lift as much weight while doing free-weight exercises, that doesn’t mean you won’t still gain legitimate amounts of strength and size.

The form just becomes that much more important when you aren’t locked into position in a machine.

Beginner free-weight exercises

Here’s a list of some common free-weight exercises to help you get started by focusing on compound movements.

  • Deadlifts
  • Barbell squats
  • Barbell rows
  • Flat bench dumbbell press
  • Dumbbell shoulder press
  • Biceps curls
  • Skullcrushers

There are many more exercises of course. Try to choose those that target major muscle groups as you’ll get much more bang for your buck especially as a beginner.

Cool down and stretch

Cool down and stretch

Just as it’s important to warm-up, it’s equally beneficial to take your body through a proper cool down. Stopping too quickly can cause you to pass out or feel sick. So, do a light, low-intensity activity such as walking for about 5 minutes before spending a few minutes doing some light stretching.

Exercising creates tension in your muscles and can lead to joint stiffness so releasing that tension and encouraging flexibility can help you to decrease soreness and get more out of your workout. Aim to hold your stretches for about 15-20 seconds to start. You should feel slight discomfort but not pain.

Rest and recovery

Rest and recovery

Proper rest and recovery often get neglected because there’s a myth that your body is changing and reaping the rewards of your workout while you’re exercising. However, the opposite is actually true.

Your body actually adapts to exercise while you’re resting. This is why recovery and rest-days are so important for losing weight, building muscle, and getting stronger.

When you don’t take the time to properly recover you may be setting yourself up for overuse injuries and create a cycle of overtraining which can prevent your body from adapting and you from seeing results.

Here are a few things that can help you reduce muscle soreness:

  • Stay hydrated
  • Do a light workout the next day or 2
  • Get 7-9 hours of quality sleep
  • Go and get a massage

Keep going

Don’t worry about where someone else is in their fitness journey. We have all been beginners at one point or another. Never compare yourself to someone else; we all have different bodies, goals, backgrounds, health histories, etc.

You are your only competition, so as long as you’re trying to do better than you did yesterday or last week, you’ll continue to progress and get better. Be patient and stay consistent, and you’ll get the results you’re working for.

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Vlad is an experienced fitness trainer and nutrition junkie with over 15 years in the industry behind his back. He has a passion to help people achieve optimal health and wellness through education.

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