It’s Your First Time? Afraid? Read This! Gym Virgin’s Survival Guide!

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Going to the gym for the first time?

If you are like me, this might be an anxiety producing decision.

You do not know anyone at the gym.

You may feel out of shape.

Maybe you have been camping out in the cardio section, afraid to wander into the free weight section because you don’t know what to do there.

You may not know what to do, or how to act. Or even what to wear.

Going to the gym for the first time can feel as awkward as going to a single’s party alone when you don’t know anyone there.

It’s no wonder you have put it off.

But no more!

I am going to arm you with some simple tools and powerful tips to prepare you, humble Gym Virgin, for your first time – at the gym!

people in commercial gym

My First Time at the Gym Story

I was traveling in Spain, visiting a small village Dúrcal where there was not much to do. This tiny town had one thing that caught my eye-a local gym.

I had never been to the gym before, but I was itching for something, anything to do.

No one in this tiny town spoke English, so I got creative, fired up Google translate and printed out this simple text.

This is my first time in a gym, I have no idea what I am doing, can you please show me how to workout, and maybe write a short workout routine I can follow? I have 4 weeks left here and my goal is to build my upper body.

I felt like a complete dork walking into that gym equipped with only that small slip of paper.

But you know what?

My ambition was bigger than my fear that day.

You know what else I learned?

People at the gym are way cooler than I imagined they would be.

One weightlifter saw my struggle and took me under his wing, showing me a few exercises and how to use proper form.

I know many Garage Gym Power readers are facing this same fear right now.

That’s my motivation for writing this Gym Virgin’s Guide. I want you to be better prepared, and more confident than I was my first day in the gym.

Let’s not put this off any longer.

Are you ready?

Young athlete couple is ready for training.

Be the Man (or Woman) With a Plan!

Unless you are only at the gym to get a cardio workout in, your best bet for a productive and confidence inspiring workout is to have a specific plan.

Wandering around the gym with no plan for what you want to accomplish or how you will get there is a plan for failure.

By Failing to prepare, you are preparing to failBenjamin Franklin

Do your Homework

Decide your goals and research what is needed to work towards those goals.

Know ahead of time which machines and free weights you need, and what exercises you plan to do, before hitting the gym.

Put it in Writing!

Either go old school and print your plan, or make a note in your Smartphone about what exercises you will do including rep counts, machines and equipment needed.

Want an easier way to plan?

Smartphone apps like Strong, Progression, Fitnotes and Jefit allow you to easily create your own routine by selecting exercises from a list, or creating your own exercises, and adding them into a routine that you simply follow while at the gym.

You can also specify how many sets, reps and the weight you want to use for each exercise.

Boom! You have a plan.

I Installed the Strong app on my Smartphone and created a routine with 9 exercises, including 7 from the Strong database and two I created on my own.

ALL IN, it took me 5 minutes, and that included registering.

Most of these apps include tutorials with pictures or videos, so you know exactly which equipment to use and how to perform the move.

It could NOT be easier.

What to Do in the Gym First Time: A Simple Sample Workout Routine

Obviously, you can follow any routine you find suitable, but just to get your ideas flowing I will outline a beginners anxiety free weightlifting routine here.

This sample routine uses simple equipment.

This equipment is readily available in almost any commercial gym and usually, there is no wait to use them, or other gym members pressuring you to finish.

Bonus: The exercises in this first time gym workout can also be done in Planet Fitness, or 24 Hour Fitness Mass Market type gyms that often have few to no barbells, squat racks and the like.

You will need:

  • A Pair of Dumbbells
  • A Flat Bench

Beginner’s Anxiety Free Full Body Weightlifting Routine

One Arm Dumbbell Row

  • Equipment needed: Flat bench and One Dumbbell
  • Reps: 10
  • Sets: 3
  • Works: Back, Lats and Biceps

Notes: This is an easy arm exercise that also works the lats- the mid back muscle that contributes to a wider looking muscular back.

Dumbell Romanian Deadlift

  • Equipment needed: Two Dumbbells
  • Reps: 10
  • Sets: 3
  • Works: Glutes, Hamstrings, Spinal Erectors

Notes: This exercise was chosen because not many exercises work the hamstrings, so it has that going for it.

It also is a nice move for the spinal erectors, the same muscles responsible for good posture and a sexy looking lower back.

Dumbbell bench press

  • Equipment needed: Two Dumbbells, Flat Bench
  • Reps: 8
  • Sets: 3
  • Works: Chest, Pectoral Muscles, Shoulder and triceps

Notes: This is a good exercise to work your chest muscles. Not only are dumbbells easier to get your hands on than a barbell in a busy gym, but dumbbells have the added benefit of strengthening not only the chest but supporting muscles as well.

Dumbbell Front Squat

  • Equipment needed: Two Dumbbells, Flat Bench
  • Reps: 8
  • Sets: 3
  • Works: Glutes and Quads (thigh muscles)

Notes: The Squat done with dumbbells is a little safer than the barbell squat, because you are not in danger of the dumbbells crushing you, but a barbell with too much weight could injure you or cause an embarrassing situation.

Plus, you do not need an open squat rack to do dumbbell squats.

Seated Concentration Curl

  • Equipment needed: Flat Bench, One dumbbell
  • Reps: 10
  • Sets: 3
  • Works: Biceps- Bicep peaks

Notes: This exercise will produce results (aka gains) in the biceps quickly, which can be very encouraging for beginners.

Calf Raise

  • Equipment needed: No equipment or you can use two light dumbbells
  • Reps: 10
  • Sets: 3
  • Works: Calves

Notes: Easy calf workout that produces results fast.

Dumbbell Shrug

  • Equipment needed: Two dumbbells
  • Reps: 10
  • Sets: 3
  • Works: Traps (muscle between the shoulder and neck) – also improves posture

Notes: I love that this exercise improves posture. Good posture makes you look better and appear more confident.

If you are overweight, good posture can make you look slimmer too. Many benefits here for the beginner.

How often should I perform this routine?

I recommend 3 or at most 4 times a week with a rest and/or “Cardio Day” in between strength workouts.

I fully expect you to take this workout and change it up and make it your own.

Use this sample routine until you get comfortable with going to the gym and using the weight room, until going to the gym becomes a habit.

Habit – The 21/90 Rule

It takes 21 days to make something a habit, and 90 days to make it a lifestyle.

Tips for Going to the Gym for the First Time

girl in the gym

Do what you Love

You should do this.

Should.

It is almost a dirty word, filled with guilt, expectation and obligation.

Does “should” sound like a word you want to attach to an activity you plan to engage in 3 or 4 times a week on a regular basis.

Nope!

Listen. I highly recommend you find and do only those activities you genuinely enjoy.

If you spend a half hour on the treadmill, but hate every minute of it and dread going to the gym because of it, it is probably an activity you should drop.

There are many other things you can do at the gym.

Try as many of them as you are comfortable with, you just might surprise yourself.

Remember:

Just because you hate a specific exercise, class, or type of routine, does not mean you hate working out. That is defeatist thinking.

Try new things!

Some people like group classes, while others like to workout alone. Some people like fast paced routines, while others like to take their time.

How can you know what you like until you try?

Shower and Dress at Home

If you are new to the gym, and have social anxiety, the locker room s one of the scariest places to be.

It can be shocking for someone who has never set foot in a gym’s locker room.

You will encounter naked people in the locker room, toweling off, getting dressed….walking around.

The showers may not have doors, depending on the gym.

The locker may be crowded too.

If this seems daunting, it might be best to change into your gym clothes at home, and shower at home after your workout.

I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me

Every gym newbie on the planet feels they are being watched and judged.

It is all in your head!

Trust me, people at the gym are more concerned with themselves than you.

They are too occupied with their own routine, form, gains etc to even notice you.

Unless you do something spectacular, like drop a load of weights on your chest while bench pressing or something uncouth, like leaving the bench covered in your sweat, it is likely you will not receive undue attention.

It’s True…

People may briefly notice your presence in the gym and even make eye contact, but they will not be focused on YOUR workout, what time you showed up, how much you lift or any of that minutia.

Newbie Tip 1: Timing is Everything

If you are anxious about going, plan to go during off peak hours. Typically mid to late morning.

Or later in the evening, the crowd starts to thin out.

Newbie Tip 2: Gym Reconnaissance

If it is your first time stepping foot in a new gym, scope it out before getting started.

An easy way to do this is find an elliptical trainer or treadmill and camp out on it while you check out your surroundings and get more comfortable.

Remember!

(Almost) everyone at the gym is there to improve themselves, just like you. Even the most built and in-shape folks are there to get better.

They all started from somewhere, many of them started out of shape, and everyone there had their own “first time” gym experience.

Man and woman workout with jumping rope in crossfit gym

What to Bring to the Gym First Time?

Do not over think this!

There are truly very few things you need to bring to the gym.

Required:

  • Water Bottle – Personally, I do not care to rely on the gyms public drinking fountain for sanitary reasons and it can be inconvenient to walk across the gym for a drink. I like my cold, filtered water in my own bottle, thank you!
  • A Towel- “Don’t Forget to bring a Towel” – Towelie, Southpark. You need a towel to wipe down equipment after, and possible before, you use it. I keep a few dedicated gym towels in my gym bag ready to go. Use a clean towel each gym trip and a hand size towel is the ideal size.
  • Your workout plan. Programmed on your Smartphone or printed out (you made one, right?)

Optional but nice to have:

Music/Headphones

Music can be motivating and energizing, and helps get you pumped and ready to move. Create a workout playlist and put it on your phone or MP3 Player or whatever.

Don’t forget to bring Gym worthy headphones. I have a few recommendations here if you are looking for a good pair.

Athletes foot close-up with heel support running shoes

What to Wear to the Gym for the First Time?

Some folks do not put much thought into what they wear to the gym.

I once saw a guy on the treadmill wearing jeans and a button up shirt. I imagine he was hot and uncomfortable, and probably felt out of place.

I have three simple rules for gym wear:

Must be comfortable, not binding or made from heavy material

Must cover all skin that contacts benches, machines & equipment.

This means no string tank tops, cut offs or shorts that are too short.

This is my personal rule, so if you want to flash a little more skin, be my guest, but remember hundreds of people have used this equipment before you, so maybe a protective layer of fabric between you and them would be nice.

Note: Some commercial gyms have a dress code that prohibits muscle shirts, string style tanks, bare midriffs, sandals, flip flops, bare feet, jeans or work boots.

Must be made from moisture wicking, cooling, light material.

Again, this is a personal preference I, and thousands or other gym goers adhere to.

Gyms are hot, humid places and you want to be comfortable, right?

Shoes Matter!

Did you know….

There are several different types of shoes appropriate for the gym?

The type you choose depends on the workout you have planned!

Lifting Shoes

Lifting shoes are designed specifically for lifting heavy weight. If this is your first time at the gym, it is not likely you will need a pair of lifting shoes…yet.

If or when you decide to take lifting weight to the next level, you may want to think about getting a dedicated pair of lifting shoes.

Running Shoes

If you plan to invest a lot of time on the treadmill or gym track, you and your feet will benefit from a dedicated pair of running shoes.

If you have any foot pain or issues with your feet consider running shoes specifically made for your condition:

Cross Trainers

Cross training shoes make great gym shoes. They are usually not too cushy, they keep your feet stable and prevent ankle injury.

They are generally flat enough to wear while safely lifting weight, and the forefoot of cross training shoes are usually flexible, so you can perform a little cardio or running, and also use them to lift weights.

One Caveat: Cross Trainers are OK for short runs, under a mile or two, but are not designed for long distances.

Have foot pain?

Try these Cross Trainers:

Want to learn more?

Find out – What is the difference between cross training shoes and running shoes?

My shoe recommendation for gym virgins?

To be honest, all you really need are a good pair of Cross Trainers for women or for men. Cross Trainers will have you covered from cardio to a little running, to the weight room.

As long as you are not training for a marathon or dead lifting 350 plus pounds, high quality cross training shoes are the right choice for first time gym goers.

No Curling in the Squat Rack, and Other Unwritten Gym Rules

Fit people standing at barbells before exercise

No Curling in the Squat rack!

Why?

The curl you can do just about anywhere in the gym. Barbell squats can only be done safely in the squat rack.

Don’t wear perfume, Body Spray, Cologne, Glade Plug-ins, Car Tree Air Fresheners or any heavy scents at the gym.

Why?

Any scent on your body gets MUCH stronger as you sweat and get hot.

Those around you may not care for the odor, or worse, it can give some people migraines or allergies.

Strong scents are distracting. Leave the Perfume and AXE Body Spray for date night or the club.

Guys Beware: Thanks to female sex hormones, women’s noses are much more sensitive than yours. What may seem like a light fragrance to you can knock some women out.

Your best bet pre-gym is simply shower and a little antiperspirant.

Wipe the equipment after you use it.

This rule is super important because it prevents the spread of nasties like MRSA, Staph, Ringworm and other icky microbes.

This goes for benches and seats that you sweat on. If you want to be extra vigilant, wipe them before you use them for your own sake.

Keep in mind, you are sharing equipment and you want people to show you the same respect by not leaving sweat all over the bench, right?

It is normally not necessary to wipe down dumbbells and barbells.

Use a clean towel and clean gym clothes for each gym session.

Don’t stand directly in front of the dumbbell rack.

It might be convenient to pick up a pair of dumbbells and start working out, right where you are at.

Even seasoned gym goers are guilty of doing this.

But…

Standing in the way of the dumbbell rack and exercising is hella annoying to others who want to get at the dumbbells.

It forces them to either:

Wait for the offender to finish. (can you feel the icy stare on your back?)

or

Ask the offender to move. Awkward.

Re-rack your weights

Some people act like their mom works at the gym and will pick up after them and leave their equipment wherever.

Lame!

Don’t be that guy (or girl)!

Also, if you use weight plates, rack them in order of weight, heaviest go in the back.

Same with dumbbells, they have an order by weight on the dumbbell rack.

This shows respect to others at the gym. You don’t want to wade through several 45 lb plates to get to the 1 lb plate, and neither does anyone else.

No loud or long cell phone conversations on the gym floor

People who have long and/or loud conversations on their cell phone while in the gym look like tools.

It is distracting to others, and if the offender has parked their cell phone using caboose at a machine blabbing away, they might be making someone wait.

Rude.

It is OK to take the convo to the lobby or by the water fountain if you are discreet.

Tip: Never use a cell phone in the locker. You will make other people uncomfortable, especially if they are changing. Cell phones have cameras and most people don’t want to be an extra in your selfie shot while they are wearing their skivvies.

Do not interrupt anyone in the middle of a lift or other strenuous exercise.

They need to focus on the lift and the interruption can distract them, ruin their form, or worse.

If you want to ask them a question, wait until they are finished and have had a moment to rest.

Wrapping up

Remember, Everybody had the first day once. The gym is full of a lot of really cool, motivated people who would probably make great friends.

Don’t let intimidation or fear cause you to miss the opportunity. Use the tools we have laid out here and get going to gym for first time.

I want to hear your first day Gym successes, or horror stories or any “first time at the gym” story you care to share.

Drop me a line in the comments below, I read each one.

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