Since I work out in the gym of the college that I work at, I’m just starting to see the January Joiners (resolutioners, if you will) this week. The students just got back to campus, which means that our gym now has the influx of New Year fitness buffs that many of you have already been seeing for the past couple of weeks.
As I was looking around during my lift yesterday, I saw a handful of people who came in, looked around with a puzzled (and terrified) look on their faces, and then proceeded to just stand there with that same look for at least 10 minutes before doing anything.
I get it. The gym can be a very scary place if you’re not used to going, especially if it’s a new gym that you’ve never been to before. But my gym is about as un-intimidating as gyms can be; it’s fairly small, it’s almost all students, and the weight room is very separate from the main fitness floor. But still, people stand there amidst a sea of treadmills, ellipticals, and Life Fitness machines, without the faintest clue where to begin.
As someone who has gone through this gym-paralysis before, back when I was in college, there are five main pieces of advice I can give to these people to help make the experience a little bit more terrifying, and a little more enjoyable.
1. Just try something. If it’s your first day in a gym in months, years, or ever, start out small and do more as you become more comfortable. Maybe that means today you just walk on the treadmill or ride a stationary bike for 20 minutes. That’s ok, that’s something. Doing something easy is better than just standing there, and it will help make you feel a little bit more comfortable in this foreign space, I promise.
2. Don’t be afraid to walk around and look at things. In other words, don’t just stand there. If you’re not familiar with your gym, how are you going to know what your options are if you don’t walk around and look at things? It’s easy to walk in and hop on the first piece of cardio equipment that you see, but it’s also easy to take 5-10 minutes to walk around to get yourself oriented. No one’s going to look at you strange for doing this either. Trust me, most people at the gym are far more interested in what they are doing than what you are doing.
3. Take it slow. As with big changes in diet, big changes in your fitness routine (like working out for the first time… ever), should be made with baby steps. If you throw yourself into a super intense circuit training on your very first day there, not only do you run the risk of hurting yourself (or someone else, God forbid), but you also run a huge risk of burning out way too soon. Start easy, and go from there. Like I mentioned above, pick something that you know you can do — riding a stationary bike — and then build on it. Maybe do some planks and some body weight squats and lunges. It’s better than nothing, and it’s a good way to get your body moving after not doing so for some time.
4. Talk to an experienced professional. I kind of think this goes without saying, but if you walk into the gym and truly have no idea what to do with yourself, your best bet is probably to spend at least one session with a personal trainer. At the very least, they will be able to show you the different equipment that the gym offers, and help you with your form on some basic exercises. Use this time well, and don’t be afraid to ask “stupid” questions. It is their job to help you on your fitness journey, and trust me, you are not the first person they’ve seen who has no idea what they’re doing.
5. Focus on what you can do, instead of what you can’t do. A lot of people stay away from the gym because they’re petrified of all of the scary looking equipment, both in and out of the weight room. Sure, you may not be able to squat like the guy in the power rack, but I’m sure that with some proper cues, you’ll be doing body weight squats like a pro in no time. This goes back to tip number 3 of taking it slow. Who cares if you have to start with body weight squats, stationary bike, and wall push ups? Everyone has a starting point, and the only way you’re going to get better is to recognize yours, and work your hardest to improve.
Jumping in over your head and getting frustrated because you can’t do a push up will not help you improve. Learning how to increase your strength gradually, working towards someday doing that first push up is what it’s all about. Focusing on the negative only reinforces the belief that you aren’t good enough, which is probably what kept you out of the gym in the first place. Instead, focus on what’s getting better — maybe your body weight squat suddenly feels too easy and you can add in some dumbbell weight — now that’s progress!
Just remember, your experience is yours and yours alone. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should be doing or how fast you should be doing it. Sure, let a personal trainer push you a little bit, but don’t let anyone tell you that you have to be doing this weight lifting program or that running program. The important thing, when starting a new fitness regimen, is just sticking with it. Consistency is key, and hopefully after a little while you’ll actually start to enjoy yourself.
Readers: What is your biggest piece of advice for gym newbies? What scared you the most when you first started going to the gym?