A Beginner’s Guide to the Gym – All You Need to Know

November 14, 2012

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When I first starting training I found the gym an intimidating and confusing place. Today, I honestly believe that training in gym using free weights and full body exercises such as the squat, press and deadlift has had a hugely beneficial impact on my life.

Training is one of my greatest passions and I’ve written this post in the hope of passing on some of that to you.

There are lots of things wrong with gyms today:

  • They’re packed full of useless machines that you don’t need!
  • Most of people there just do whichever exercise enters their head next!
  • The music is rubbish!

If you don’t have your wits about you’ll be heading for the comfort of the treadmill before you know it, dazed and confused.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

How to Get Started

Working out at home is great and I recommend it to anybody who’s just getting started. Home workouts are free, convenient and there’s no reason you cannot have a great workout using basic equipment and your own bodyweight.

Sooner or later though, whether you’re out of town or you’re just trying to mix things up – you’re going to want to try the gym – and your first time in the gym can be a pretty nerve-wrecking experience.

The first question to ask yourself is:

Why are you going to the gym?

  • Do you want to lose weight?
  • Do you want bigger muscles?
  • Do you want to look good naked?

Whatever the reason, you NEED a purpose.

For starters, it puts you way ahead of all the people who ‘go to the gym’ to sit on the bikes sending text messages before getting in the jacuzzi and heading home.

It’s great that you want to change your life for better. Making this decision is the hardest part. It’ll see you through the difficult times when you can’t decide whether to sit on the couch or drag yourself out for exercise.

Gym Equipment

Gyms are full of all sorts of fancy looking machines. The good news is you can ignore 99% of it. Treadmills, cycling machines, rowing machines and the like are OK but you really need to start mixing up your workouts by including free weight exercises.

Free Weights – This is a must. A decent gym will have a good set of dumbbells ranging up to 40kg each. If there are no dumbbells to be seen (or they only go up to 10kg, find another gym).

Squat Rack – Another must. Squatting is one of the most important movements. A squat rack will also allow for overhead presses, deadlifts and power cleans. Do not do curls in the squat rack.

A Pull up bar – Pull ups are vital. Find a bar and get accustomed with it.

Gym Fears – You have to start somewhere

Don’t worry. Everyone has gym fears when they’re just starting out. You don’t want to show yourself up. You’re afraid you’ll look like a clumsy weakling. You’re afraid of what everyone else will think…

That’s OK.

One thing you’ll quickly realise is that everyone else in the gym will either respect the fact you’re working hard to improve yourself or be too concerned with looking at themselves doing bicep curls in the mirror.

As I said, getting started is the hardest part. Stick with it and within a month you’ll be strutting around like you own the place.

All That You Need

A Plan of Attack

  • Take your time:
    When you enter the gym have a walk around and take it all in. If you’re feeling conscious, pretend you’re warming up by including a few stretches. Find some space and a mat. Make yourself at home. You don’t need to spend longer than about 45 minutes in the gym, including a warm up and stretches to cool down afterwards.
  • Warm Up:
    Always remember to warm up. Jumping Jacks are great as are push ups, the plank and bodyweight squats. Try and prepare for the workout you’re about to do.
  • Workout:
    If you want to lift weights, you’ll need a program to lift to. There are lots of guides out there for you to pick and follow such as one book I can highly recommend Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. If you’re not ready for weights, concentrate on bodyweight exercises. Simplicity is the key. You can increase intensity over time.
  • A note on treadmills:
    I hate treadmills. I find them unnatural, uncomfortable and impractical for any sort of useful workout. If you want to run long distances obviously feel free but I find it so much more enjoyable to do it outside. At a push treadmills are useful for interval training but even then quick changes between speeds are awkward at best. If you have no other option then it’s better than nothing but seriously, a run along the local canal is more beneficial. At least you’re outside.

Equipment

There aren’t too many things you’ll need before you’re ready to hit the gym.

  • Clothing:
    A loose fitting t-shirt, loose-fitting shorts, socks and comfortable trainers. You’ll also need a towel – for showering and for mopping up any sweat you’ll leave on the machines.
  • Notepad & Pen:
    This is my favourite bit of kit. I love tracking my workouts. You can note down your routine and any notes for future workouts as well as the number of sets completed, weight lifted or running times. Seriously, do this. The motivation you’ll feel months down the line when you look back at your progress will blow your mind.

Mindset

  • Fear:
    Leave your fear in your locker. Don’t hold yourself back. You’re stepping up and taking control of your life. This is a great thing!
  • Focus:
    If you go to the gym without a plan, you’re setting yourself up for a frustrating waste of time. You can go with all the best intentions but if you’re not careful you’ll find yourself sticking to the machines and the boring treadmill.

Creating Your Plan

I recommend following the workouts outlined in the following mammoth book – The Men’s Health Gym Bible

This program includes enough workouts to get you through your first three years training!

It stood out to me because it keeps things simple and avoids a lot of the crap that is out there that only makes things more complicated.

Wrap-up

I know I made it seem that there are lots of people in gyms who don’t know what they’re doing – and that’s partly true. But it’s also good to know that you will find people who have spent their lives in gyms who are full of useful advice. Be open to it and take onboard all that you can, especially when it comes to form. Good form (performing exercises correctly) is important. It’s better to perform a set perfectly holding light weights than it is to perform a set at a higher weight badly. You’ll only do yourself damage.

To finish up, a quick note on gym etiquette. There’s a lot written about gym etiquette but the basics come down to this – respect other people’s personal space, only occupy work stations if you’re using it, work out quietly when possible, wipe up your sweat patches with a towel when you’re done and always put your weights back on the rack when you’ve finished. That’s all there is to it.

If you have any questions, please get in touch and I’ll do my best to answer them. You can contact me either through the comments below or by emailing me.

Have a great workout!

This site is intended to provide health & fitness advice for web developers, designers, programmers, software developers and any other regular computer users. You can subscribe to Fitness Hack updates using RSS or email. You can also follow my own mission to lose fat, get strong and run fast on Twitter.

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Photo by The Killer Biscuit.

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