How to Work Out Properly In a Commercial Gym

At one point or another, you’re probably going to end up working out at a commercial gym on your quest to level up your life.

I know many NF readers are hardcore Crossfit fanatics (with good reason), but for a lot of us the monthly cost of that membership is incredibly prohibitive.   Home gyms often lack the necessary equipment (squat racks, barbells, heavy dumbbells, etc.) to get a full workout, so we resort to the LA Fitness, 24-Hour Fitness, or Gold’s Gym right down the street.

Let’s be honest, it’s tough to train like a rebel when you’re trapped within the confines of the Empire. You’re surrounded by crappy music, useless machines, and people who generally have no idea what they’re doing (this includes both clients and trainers).  Fortunately, I’ve devised a solid training mentality that allows me to work out without being bothered by imperial soldiers.

I’ve been exercising in various commercial gyms since I was sixteen, and they’re all pretty much the same:

  • Walls full of treadmills and elliptical machines
  • Dozens and dozens of “weight-lifting” machines
  • A room for low-impact cardio aerobic classes
  • A section in the back or upstairs for the free weights

Although it’s certainly possible to exercise like a rebel in a commercial gym, it’s practically impossible to do so undetected: I always get weird looks (thanks to my Vibram Five Fingers), I usually piss off the meatheads for using the squat rack for squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and power cleans while they impatiently wait to do their fifteen sets of bicep curls.  I usually get at least two “are you crazy?” looks when I load up a belt with weights to do my pull ups and chin ups.  I totally feel like an outsider in there, as I’m doing things differently than anybody around me.

You know what?

I LOVE IT.

I look at each day in the gym as a battle that I need to win.  I’ve already covered how to not suck at working out in a previous article, so today’s post is more of a “how to have the right mentality while working out.”

Pick a Good Target

If you’re going to get a gym membership, there are certain things that absolutely need to be there if you’re going to get a good, rebellious workout:

  • Free weights – if your gym doesn’t have any dumbbells (or only has dumbbells up to 20 pounds) because “we think machines are safer,” don’t even bother – move onto the next one.
  • Squat rack (either full or half) – I think any workout (for men or women) should have some good barbell squats in it.  This rack will also make overhead presses really simple, and can double as a place for you to do bench presses, deadlifts, and power cleans.
  • Bench press bench and adjustable benches – for doing bench presses (duh), 1-arm dumbbell rows, incline dumbbell presses, and so on.
  • A pull up bar – for pull ups, chin ups, and hanging knee tucks.
  • The rest of it – a place to stretch, cardio equipment (for interval training), exercise balls (for full range of motion crunches and knee tucks), maybe a rowing machine, and a cable machine (for triceps pull downs and such).

Other than that, make sure you actually test out the gym before giving them your money.  Read this article I wrote on how to pick the right gym for you.  Once you’re ready to start working out, it’s time to get fired up.

Bring your own music

The music played in a commercial gym is always terrible, so make sure to bring your own. I don’t have statistics to back it up, but I feel like I can lift at least 10 pounds more on any exercise when listening to my favorite songs instead of a techno remix of Ke$ha and Miley Cyrus.

Other than getting pumped up, there’s one other big advantage to bringing your own tunes: it allows you to zone out those around you. Remember, you’re training and doing exercises that 99% of the people there wouldn’t even consider, so you’ll probably get funny looks.  Rather than worrying what these people think (which I explain next), keep your headphones in, your head down, and just focus on YOU.  Block out your troubles from the work day, the stress from your home life, or the worry of tomorrow’s big presentation.

For those 45 minutes, just focus on pushing around those weights!

Here’s my definitive workout playlist, if you’re curious.

Ignore 95% of the equipment

Although I have no problem with the cardio equipment in the gym (treadmills, rowing machines, ellipticals, stair climbers, and so on), I don’t think a workout can really be complete if the whole thing is spent in that section of the gym (explained further in the comments).  As you hopefully already know, weight lifting can burn way more calories than doing just cardio (plus it will build up your muscles, WIN!).  Lift weights first, then go do some intervals to finish out your workout.

Stay away from almost all of the weight-lifting machines. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: machines rob your muscles of valuable stabilizer movements which can set you up for disaster in the real world.  You might think it’s safe to use the Smith Machine for controlled squats, but it’s actually pretty terrible for your back.  The ONLY thing I use the Smith Machine for is for inverted body weight rows.

Here’s my full stance on weights vs. machines. Now, if you’re not using machines, you’ll be using…

Dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells, oh my! The back of the gym is going to be your best friend.  I spend almost all of my time back in the dumbbell and barbell section of the gym.  If you’re a lady, don’t be afraid of this place – the guys that are juiced up and intimidating are too busy gawking at their own biceps in the mirror to notice you.

Don’t know what to do?  Here’s how you can build your own workout.

Ignore 99% of the people exercising

Ignore and block out pretty much every single person in the gym, including the trainers. I’d guess nine out of ten people in a gym have no idea what they’re doing, which means that as an informed individual you will tend to get funny looks when you train properly.  Every single day I shake my head while watching people around me doing useless exercises, using too much weight, and performing every movement improperly.  In my ten years in commercial gyms, I’ve probably seen only a dozen people do a proper squat.

Yikes.

Unfortunately, correcting these people never works – just hope that they will one day become enlightened like you and start reading Nerd Fitness :)

Additionally, be careful taking advice from anybody else, because they probably have no clue what they’re talking about.  Listen to their advice, nod politely and smile, decide if there’s any truth to their assessment, and then go back to your workout.

I hate making generalizations, but in my experiences these two are 100% true. In commercial gyms, guys are only worried about two things: bench presses and bicep curls.  Meanwhile, women tend to spend their time doing hours of cardio, thirty minutes of ab work, and 5-pound dumbbell exercises for sets of 50 without breaking a sweat.  Don’t be like these men and women: you’re reading Nerd Fitness, and you’re better than that.

As I’ve stated in my Billy Madison article, don’t worry about these people or what they think about you while you’re exercising.  They’re probably more self-conscious about themselves than you are.  Remember: headphones in, head down, zone out.  Do your thing and get out of there.

Tips and Tricks

Pick out your workout time carefully. Try to exercise during the day while everybody else is at work if your hours are flexible, or late at night before it closes.  I’m a big fan of circuit training, which is difficult to do when when every single piece of equipment is being used.  Avoid the after-work rush whenever possible, as that tends to be more frustrating than productive.

Bring a towel, your keys, backpack, and/or water bottle. While you’re taking a break to get some water between sets, somebody will always try to steal the equipment you’re using, without fail.  Either bring a water bottle so you don’t have to go to the fountain, or bring a towel, keys, whatever that you can lay on the equipment to “stake your claim.”  Don’t be a jerk about it though – don’t spend time socializing between sets, and take care of business.

Get the hell out of there! Your workout shouldn’t last longer than 45 minutes.  If you’re not dead tired by then, you weren’t pushing yourself hard enough.  I actually despise gyms, but I love lifting weights, so I do what I can to get in and out of there quickly.

Put on Your Helmet, Go To Battle

When I go to the gym, I picture myself going to war with the Empire. My music is already playing when walking from my car to the gym, my head is down, and I’m focused on my battle plans: what exercises I’m going to do, how many sets and reps for each, and how long the workout should take.

As rebels in commercial gyms, “we are the outsiders.”

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

-Steve

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  • http://www.strengthrunning.com Fitz

    Great advice Steve. Through my own experience, it's often difficult to find kettlebells in a lot of gyms. They're becoming more popular, but some gyms either don't have the space to use them or they have only one set or two, making them quite popular. I might get a few kettlebells and start my own home gym; not complete, but beats the Rhianna remixes!

  • http://www.cmgalvin.com/blog/ Charlie Galvin

    I go to a semi-commercial gym. It is a local chain, so it is a bit more like Average Joe's from Dodgeball than an LA Fitness. I also enjoy the fact that it is open 24 hours. I have been there at 1am after needing a long nap after work. Or at 5am when I've just woken up early and rolling over would have caused me to miss the gym entirely.

    I hate doing weights, but I generally go in the morning (6am) when there is enough space to move around. I find it a lot easier to do then since my brain isn't fully awake, and my body does the physical work on its own.

    One thing I really disagree with what you've said in this article is to, “keep your head down.” In fact, I think that is a complete bullshit statement. I can accept zoning out, and going into your own world, but you should go in there confident of your plan with you head up. Be defiant of the system and show you're proud of who you are and the work you're doing for yourself. “Keeping your head down,” is a very defeatist phrase.

  • http://www.stevekamb.com Steve Kamb

    Hey Fitz!

    Thanks man. Yeah, good call on the kettlebells. My gym has like 2 of them. Although you can do kettlebell swings with dumbbells, it's just not the same.

    I don't have any background in kettlebell training, but if I become proficient maybe I can put together a good kettlebell workout for the rebels.

    -Steve

  • http://www.nerdfitness.com/2010/07/15/reader-spotlight-learn-how-matt-lost-157-pounds-in-one-year/ Matt

    I have to say, I like all the machines in the gym. They keep people away from the freeweights!

    The only people I have to worry about are the ones who do 100 variations of bench press in there, but even then, there's only been a couple, and they have stopped coming to the gym (or at least must have changed their workout times).

    I drop my bag off, fill up my bottle, and turn on my MP3 player. I get back to the freeweight area (yep, it's in the back), and live in the cage for the next 45 minutes. I emerge to step over to the smith machine for inverted rows, then do some ab work.

  • http://www.stevekamb.com Steve Kamb

    Hey Charlie,

    Thanks for the comment man. I should have clarified; I don't really mean “keep your head down” like you're trying to hide yourself. I meant it more of “I'm in the zone, my eyes are closed, my head is down, bobbing to the music, and I'm just taking care of business.”

    As you can tell, I'm quite proud of my funky workouts in my vibram five fingers. I like being the black sheep in my gym :)

    -Steve

  • http://www.nerdfitness.com/2010/07/15/reader-spotlight-learn-how-matt-lost-157-pounds-in-one-year/ Matt

    I think you're reading too much into “Keeping your head down”. Steve doesn't mean it literally…hell, that would wreck your squat and deadlift form. He also doesn't mean to slink around the gym and hope no one notices you.

    He means to focus on why you are there – push yourself. Don't be concerned with the others there. If you're grunting out 200 on the bench press with good form, don't let your pride be hurt by a 100lb kid pushing 200 in a seated pec machine.

  • http://www.stevekamb.com Steve Kamb

    Hahahaha, well said Matt.

    Great point – a lot of guys will do this: bench press, decline bench, incline bench, then push ups, then barbell curls, seated curls, dumbbell curls, hammer curls. Um, I think your pecs and biceps are probably done, dude.

    Same with me – cage, then either inverted rows or pull ups, then some core work.

    -Steve

  • http://www.cmgalvin.com/blog/ Charlie Galvin

    No worries, I get your meaning. Just stating the semantics can cause a perceived slippery slope since most of us nerds are used to the other connotation of keeping our head down.

    I haven't gone to the gym in my Vibrams yet. It was on my list of things to look more into from a previous article about working out on your natural foot structure as opposed to generic tennis shoe.

    I feel like the black sheep as well. I pretty much roll out of bed and go, no reason to brush my hair. I get there around 6am and there are so many people with their hair nice and neat like they had to get dressed up to go to the gym.

  • http://www.chriskurdziel.com/ Chris Kurdziel

    I think you should have followed up “Pick a Good Target” with “Stay on target!”

    Comprende, Red Leader?

  • JFreedom

    The Empire is pretty dumb for sure, they let me infiltrate their local establishment without even checking to see that I'm part of the Rebel Army! Fools!

  • 63bus

    Maybe it's just me but I don't think I could even do all of those arm exercises unless I reduced the weight so much that I wasn't doing anything at all… or started waiting 5 minutes between sets.

  • http://www.stevekamb.com Steve Kamb

    Oh absolutely 63bus, nobody should be able to do that many chest or arm exercises. I do one or two chest exercises (usually flat bench or incline dumbbell presses), and my biceps are worked when I do weighted close-grip chin ups.

    If you can do more than 2 exercises for a body part, you're either not working hard enough or you're on the juice.

    -S

  • http://www.rosarymeds.com Brent

    “Meanwhile, women tend to spend their time doing hours of cardio, thirty minutes of ab work, and 5-pound dumbbell exercises for sets of 50 without breaking a sweat.”

    That statement reminds me of some people in my kick boxing class. Instead of doing full-body, full-force kicks and punches they look like they are tickling the punching bag. They stand around a bag and just give it little taps. By the end of a 30 minute class, half the students are practically dead while others just go skipping away without breaking a sweat.. While I admire the fact that they are trying to get into shape, I feel like there are a lot of people who waste their time at the gym.

    While those people don’t really affect my workout, it’s a shame that they probably won’t see the results they want although they go to the gym all the time and workout for hours.

  • http://willrunforbooks.wordpress.com/ Beth

    Good advice, but I disagree with the statement about pure cardio not equaling a workout. While I think that weight training is an important part of any workout regimen, I think it is pretty hard to say that a good hard or long run without weights at the end isn't a workout. Just my two cents.

  • Matt

    They guys at my gym that would do that do them with 50-100lbs on them.

  • http://www.stevekamb.com Steve Kamb

    Hey Beth!

    Good point, I should have clarified further – I think you can get a great workout on just cardio equipment, but not doing any sort of weight training is inefficient in my mind. Cardio can be good for weight loss (but not as good as weight training, as you lose muscle along with fat with just cardio).

    I guess I was more referring to the people who go to the gym, talk on their cell phones while half-assing it on an the elliptical, and then go home and consume twice as many calories as they just burned “because I worked out.”

    Thanks for the comment!

    -Steve

  • http://joelrunyon.com/two3 Joel Runyon | [BIT]

    I hate machines. Dumbbells all the way!

    I don't get the cardio machines either. If you're gong to run, why not do it outside & enjoy it?

    ps. what's with the beef with Miley & Ke$ha? You hating?

  • http://www.cmgalvin.com/blog/ Charlie Galvin

    I had to work my way up to running outside. I could do an hour on a treadmill no problem, but when I started making the transition to running outside even a half hour kicked my ass. You have to take in account both fitness level, environment and bodily history.

    I live in Florida. Right now our temperature index is regularly 100+ not to mention the humidity. I don't expect anyone to start out in this climate and feel good about doing it another day. I'm slightly crazy, so I can run at 6am when it is cool, or 6pm when it is sweltering, but it isn't for everyone.

    I found cardio machines to be a great gateway into the rest of the exercising world. When I started making use of my gym membership I would time my arrival and warm ups around television shows I enjoyed. I could easily knock out an hour on the elliptical while watching the repeat of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report at 8 o'clock. When I moved to the treadmill I also switched to going in the mornings, so I would watch MASH. Laughing is good for the body and soul.

    A lot of my friends have also suffered injuries from varying elements. My best friend has a broken back from slipping on spilled yogurt in a Wal-Mart. He's finally at the point where he is ready to run outside, but only at a quarter mile at a time.

    Just a matter of finding what suits the person.

  • http://www.shaunastacy.com/ Shauna Stacy

    I used a weight machine today because I pulled my groin sprinting (yay) and I thought 2 things:

    1) This is so wrong and
    2) Steve would be so pissed!

  • http://joelrunyon.com/two3 Joel Runyon | [BIT]

    I can’t run & watch tv at the same time. I get distracted by the tv and start to either run slower or drift to the side of the machine and it usually ends with me slipping or falling off…It’s a great way to show off my coordination skills =)

  • http://leanmeanvirilemachine.com Darrin

    Love this post! Definitely the perfect metaphor for how I feel about gyms. I usually work out at home with my “minimalist” equipment – kettlebell, jump rope, pull up bar – but when I do hit the gym I make a beeline for the power rack tucked away in the back. (And yes, I sometimes need for people to finish up their bicep curls in there…

  • Nmsugrappler

    I’ve been reading the site for a while… it’s entertaining. But it just irks me to hear you say not listen to 99% of people exercising. What’s the difference between them and you? I’m a kinesiology major working haaard for the opportunity to help people with fitness. I just don’t see any credentials or high level pt certifications that justify why your words should be headed, even if it might be good advice. Just saying, maybe you should pursue something like that if you want to be a legitimate source of information. I wouldn’t go around giving singing lessons if I read a couple of articles here and there

  • http://www.stevekamb.com Steve Kamb

    Hey NMSUgrappler,

    Have you been into a commercial gym lately? I’m assuming you realize that my 99% was an exaggeration, but even so…an overwhelming majority of people in a commercial gym have absolutely no clue what they’re doing – they move blindly from a treadmill to the weight machines, and then do 15 sets of bicep curls and call it a day. Their form for their exercises is poor, the quality of the workouts is poor, their plan for exercise is poor.

    You’re absolutely correct that I’m not a fitness expert, nor do I claim to be. I’m a dude with an economics degree with a basic personal trainer certification, and I am okay with that. This website is as much about my journey to becoming more fit and educated as it is a site to help people get in shape.

    So, are you implying that I don’t work hard to help people with fitness because I don’t have a “high level certification?” If you’ve been reading the site for the past 20 months you’ll see that I don’t just “read a couple articles here and there.”

    Honestly, I have no desire to get a kinesiology degree; I’m content to help people who have no background in fitness or have never exercised a day in their life interested, excited, and motivated to work out for the first time. Once they become advanced, I have no problem directing them towards more advanced experts such as yourself.

    Best of luck on your journey,
    -Steve

  • Just_Jillin_76

    I came across Nerd Fitness on a random google search for fitness information. I love this site! I love the idea of leveling up my life, and that’s what I get from exercise. I love working out, and with each workout, I am one step closer to leveling up.

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  • http://towo.eu/ towo

    One thing to add – there’s gyms which come with an integrated circuit. Of course you still need to evaluate if the circuit itself is any good, but it’s a nice bonus that except for lazy arses in front of you, you’ll be able to do your circuit rotation without equipment hoggers.

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  • John

    Few thoughts, first of all, I love your website man it’s amazing. The only fitness blog I’ve read that puts it in nerd terminology. Secondly, there’s quite a bit of research that says music does help you ignore pain. As far as lifting more weight I think that’s a matter of personal opinion. For me music is great if I’m doing a really tough ab workout where form is completely crucial. But if I’m loading up a barbell for heavy squats I really don’t need the distraction. While gym music might suck it’s much easier to tune out. Third, I think if you’re by the free weights the number of people that know what they’re doing goes up to around 30%. Over by the treadmills I’d say 1% is about right :) Just my two cents, keep doing what you’re doing bro it’s phenomenal stuff. 

  • Wendy

    Hi – I just came across your blog. So far, really interesting! I love the “ladies only” time our local community weight room has twice a week. I can spend my whole time there in the squat rack and on the bench press bench without having to share because the other women in the gym are on the cardio machines or in the stretching area doing their ab crunches or on the inner/outer thigh machine.

  • Lilmisspastries

    I like the weight machines I find they work for me, is that wrong?

  • Ellen

    Hey – Does anyone have advice about transitioning from machines to free weights? A couple of years ago I was lifting free weights and loving it, but then a 2 year working holiday led to much fun but NO routine – I’m settled in one place again, and have joined a gym, but was pushed pretty strongly towards the weights machines. After 2 months, I’m bored with them already and think I could be getting better results (I’ve had modest weight loss but am really pleased with actual definition – I have quads again!) but it’s been so long since I’ve done free weights I’ve lost the confidence to just dive in and see if I remember.

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  • Alex

    This was an awesome read. I’m about to start going to the gym with crossfit being the only working out I’ve ever done, this applies to me perfectly.

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  • mario

    Exellent advice, its a must follow.

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  • gymherogear

    There are valid points here, but there are also a lot of ridiculous generalizations that simply come off as condescending and elitist. I’ve worked out at my “commercial” gym (XSport Fitness) for years and have rarely come across people that look down on others for whatever workout they choose to employ as you have. Just because I do not belong to a box, nor do I enjoy Crossfit, my workouts are not “proper”