I remember the first time I ever set foot in a gym.
I was 16, a day removed from getting cut from the basketball team, and I planned on getting “big and strong.” The problem, was…I didn’t know what I was doing! I sheepishly wandered from machine to machine, doing a set of this, 10 reps of that…and then I tried to do the ONE exercise I thought I knew: the bench press!
After loading up more weight on the bar than my total weight, my spaghetti arms shakily removed the weight from the safety rack, and I proceeded to drop it directly on my chest. Panicking, I slowly rolled my body to the left, and watched as the weights spiraled off the end of the bar.
The weight hit the ground and sounded like a gunshot. My entire body (now lopsided due to only having weight on ONE side of the bar) drastically shifted to the right. Those weights spun off and hit the ground too. Another gunshot.
I quickly raised the bar to the safety rack, and hoped nobody noticed…until I saw about 40 pairs of eyes staring at me.
That was day 1.
Fortunately, since then, I’ve made every mistake known to man when it comes to training in a gym over the past fourteen years. Today I’m going to review all of the fundamentals of gym etiquette to give you the confidence to get out of
my dreams your head and into my car the gym!
Let’s take a field trip to the gym.
It’s all in your head
The most important lesson I had to learn while training in a gym: nobody actually cares about you.
Sure, I had a room full of people looking at me when I almost broke the gym floor, but two minutes later they went back to doing their own thing.
Here’s the truth: everybody else is also self-conscious of how they look in the gym. They’re wayyyy too concerned with how they look in a mirror to notice you.
- That dude who is super jacked? He’s looking in the mirror wondering why he’s not as big as that other guy.
- That woman on the treadmill? She wishes she was confident enough to go to the free weights section!
- That guy running sprints? He’s praying the girl next to him won’t notice the sweat pool forming in the back of his shirt.
- And that guy? He’s self conscious too.
And if you’re afraid that people are judging you because you’re out of shape – the majority of people I’ve talked to actually have told me they love seeing someone out of weight trying their hardest – because they know how hard it is to get started.
If you’re not convinced by the idea that most people aren’t paying attention, you should know that you aren’t exactly a lvl 1 entering a lvl 50 zone.
I’d say that in my 14 years in a gym, 90% of the gym-going population doesn’t know how to exercise properly.
Now, you just need to give yourself a little confidence that says you belong in the free weights section.
Don’t Fear the Free Weights
Regardless of whether you’re a male or female, young or old, overweight or skinny…you have just as much of a right to use the free weights section as anybody else.
Whether you’re squatting 45 lbs and someone else is squatting 450 lbs, it doesn’t matter – you pay the same as they do, and your workout is just as important as theirs.
So, here’s what I want you to do to complete your first free weights session in a gym:
- Pick ONE free-weight exercise you’re going to master. Maybe it’s the squat or overhead press. Read the articles, watch the videos, practice the form in your house.
- Turn yourself into a superhero version of you, one that loves free weights.
- Or, activate Beastmode, and take 20 seconds of courage to wander into the free weights.
- Focus on that ONE exercise and block out everything else. Like Happy Gilmore in his happy place.
- Don’t look around you. Don’t focus on everyone else. Focus 100% on you.
And that’s it! Then you can go back to the machines, the elliptical, the stretching station, or yoga class. But I want you to push your limits and step outside of that comfort zone.
Don’t be that guy/girl!
I think the biggest reason we’re afraid of gyms is that we don’t want to make mistakes, and we don’t want to appear foolish.
Like any other activity, there are some unwritten rules. If you’ve done these before, DON’T WORRY – remember 90% of people have probably done them too.
The more you know…
1) The squat rack and power rack are for squatting, overhead presses, and other compound barbell exercises, not bicep curls. A few weeks ago, I observed a gentleman who proceeded to occupy the squat rack so that he could do bicep curls…with dumbbells. Yes, he stopped others from squatting, or even using the barbell, so that he could stand inside the cage to watch himself in the mirror doing dumbbell curls.
There’s actually a “curl rack” made for you to curl in.
Don’t be that guy or girl! In many gyms squat racks are limited…those safeties are valuable! Please don’t use the squat rack for bicep curls.
2) Wipe down the bench/equipment after use. Hopefully 90% of your exercises are done standing, but if you DO use a piece of equipment, or are stretching on a mat afterwards, don’t forget to wipe it down after use!
If your gym allows chalk (and I hope it does) and it gets all over the place – clean it up.
3) Don’t be afraid to ask for a spot! If you are doing something like a bench press, don’t be too scared to ask somebody to spot you. Here’s how it will go down:
- You: Hey, can you give me a quick spot?
- Them: Sure!
- You: I’m gonna try and get 8 reps
- Them: Okay!
- You: 7, 8…
- Them: You got one more!
- You: 9!
- Them: ALL YOU!
- You: Thanks!
It’s that simple. Don’t be afraid! We’re all in the gym trying to get better too, so just ask. Chances are, you’ll likely make a new gym friend.
If someone asks you to spot them, here’s a great article on how to spot people.
4) Don’t completely tie up 2 pieces of equipment at once, and don’t be afraid to “work in.” Don’t be the person that does a circuit of squats, pull ups, and bench presses all at the same time in a gym during the busiest time of the day. Only occupy ONE piece of equipment at a time whenever possible, and if you are doing a “superset,” bring your dumbbells or whatever else you need over to you. If the gym isn’t packed and you want to give your circuit or supersets a try, go for it. Just make sure that you let anybody “work in” who wants to (trading off using the equipment in between sets).
Conversely, if you see a piece of equipment somebody else is using, it’s okay to ask them: How many sets do you have left? Could I “work in?”
- If they say less than 2, smile and say “oh okay cool, I’ll jump in when you’re done.”
- If they say more than 2, ask if you can work in with them.
5) Re-rack your weights and put any equipment back where it belongs! There’s nothing worse than finding a piece of empty equipment loaded up with a bunch of weird weight on it. If you don’t have time to re-rack your weight and put all the equipment back where it belongs, you don’t have time for that exercise!
6) Not sure how to do something? ASK! Ask a trainer in the gym if you’re not sure how a piece of equipment works or are unsure of how to do a lift. OR, if you’ve been in your gym for a while, and you see somebody who knows how to lift properly, ask them!
Personally, I’d be flattered if somebody came up and asked about how to do a deadlift or squat. The way I see it, that’s one more for the good guys, one less for the zombies
7) Be courteous of other members – Don’t sit on your phone and hog equipment or interrupt others mid-set. Keep your own things tidy, preferably in the locker room. Don’t critique others unless they ask for help (you wouldn’t want others to tell you how to exercise).
specific gym tips for women
This section was written by NF Team Member Staci.
Lifting weights in public for the first time is intimidating for everyone – but for a lot of women, it’s downright terrifying. There’s been this stigma that we don’t belong in the weight room for years, so not only is it weird for many of us to be there, but guys are still getting used to seeing women not afraid to lift weights.
And the truth is – a lot of guys get just as nervous being around a girl who is lifting as we are nervous lifting around them.
I’ve spent a lot of time in gyms of all shapes and sizes, and trust me – I’ve seen everything from someone explaining the difference between pounds and kilo numbers on the plates (because I shouldn’t attempt to lift that many pounds), to “you know, if you keep lifting heavy, you’re going to get bulky.”
And then there’s always the classic, “Hey baby, you foam roll often?”
One of the biggest questions I get asked from girls starting out is “how do you deal with getting hit on by guys at the gym?”
Sure, it can be annoying, but I remind myself: “I didn’t stop eating because a guy hit on me at the grocery store, and I’m certainly not going to stop lifting because someone might possibly hit on me at the gym.”
So guess what? My advice for girls in the gym is the exact same as for guys in the gym – the most important thing you can do is go in with confidence, be polite, and do your own thing.
If someone treats you like you’re an idiot, or if they start telling you you’re doing things wrong, I always reiterate a very simple and polite line: “I appreciate your input, but I’ve got to finish my workout now, I’m on a tight schedule.”
It doesn’t matter what they said or if they’re wrong. Just move on.
And don’t underestimate the power of headphones. It’s not rude to quickly finish a conversation by saying goodbye and putting on your headphones to “go finish your workout!”
The point is this: Handle yourself the same way as you would handle yourself elsewhere. You deserve to be there.
You got this
Feeling a bit of anxiety in a new gym atmosphere is completely normal. Making a few mistakes is completely normal too. Here are a few stories from NF Team Members, now avid gym goers.
When I first wanted to try squats, I was really nervous to do it in public – so I watched a ton of videos online, got a PVC so I could practice at home, and did all the research I could. When I got to the gym, I noticed the rack looked a little different in the videos, but it had all the main points, so I figured out how to use it and went with it. I went home and was super excited to tell all of my Nerd Fitness rebels on the message boards about my amazing freeweight squatting experience, but turns out, the machine I used was actually a free motion smith machine – not a squat rack at all. Fail
When I first started working out in the free weights section, I ONLY did dumbbell exercises. I was petrified of the very idea of a barbell…proper form, getting injured, asking for a spot – it all felt like too much. Finally I asked one of the staff members and he took me through some movements. Another guy who I saw around the gym often was watching, and commented that he realized he had been doing the movement wrong this whole time. All of a sudden my fear was shattered.
The first time I worked out in a gym by myself, it was actually pretty great. I signed up for a gym that was open 24 hours – at the time I still worked odd schedules that would regularly change. I ended up working out anywhere between 10pm-2am regularly, so it was usually pretty empty, and I didn’t have to worry about anyone bugging me or trying to “correct” my form. A funny moment that sticks is when a guy offered me the bar pad that he was using on the Smith Machine and I turned it down. He said I made him feel weak!
Hopefully you can learn from our experiences and mistakes and hit the gym feeling like a pro.
What was your first time at the gym like? Do you have a great newbie story? Please leave a comment, we’d love to hear!