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 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.


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.




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  • Tony McGurk

    I used to go to one gym that had only a smith machine for squats. I hate smith machines so would use the leg press. I now use a gym that has a proper squat rack & olympic bars, yet so far in the past 3 weeks of going there I haven’t seen a single person squat. The squat rack only gets used for benching. Everyone else I’ve seen working legs either uses the hammer strength leg press, seated leg press or leg curl & leg extension machines. Same goes for deadlifts. Never seen a single deadlift done there either. Benching & bicep curls seem to be the order of the day for most. I squat & dealifty & get strange looks from people. Weird eh???

  • David

    Ya the kettleball & dumbells are good to workout with sp if you have space in ur Gym .I really loved ur beginners body weight workout ……
    a must read for everyone for those who have no idea what to do in Gym.

  • Abby D.

    Hey Steve,

    What workout can you suggest for a female who wants to get rid of her big belly. Not an alcoholic, though. My work schedule is just irregular that I sometimes come home, have dinner, then sleep. Any thoughts? Thanks!

  • Caspan

    I know this is an old article, I was wondering as a newbie to Gyms at all, 35 years old and in good health but a bit skinny. I wanted to put some muscles on my upper body like arms, shoulders, abs. There are a lot of machine that target these areas. Should I stay away from these machines or are they great for beginning them move to free weights. Any help would be great Steve. I know it’s a 4 year article so for bringing it back up but I want to go to the gym for results not look like one of those idiots that go and get no results

  • Pingback: Strength Training 101: Where do I start? | Nerd Fitness()

  • Obitim

    Hi Caspan,

    Hopefully you’ve got the help you;re after?

    If not though, then I’ve read a lot about the 5×5 strong lifts program which is popular or I use a cut down version:


    Steve’s dynamic warm up (you can find it on NF)

    Squat 4 sets of 5 reps

    Pull up 4 sets of as many reps as you can

    Bench Press 4 sets of 5 reps

    Dips – 1 set of as many as you can

    Day of rest or active recovery, HIIT or running

    Day 2:

    Dynamic warm up

    Deadlift 4 sets of 3 reps

    Chin up 4 sets of as any reps as possible

    Overhead Press 4 sets of 5 reps

    Hanging knee raise 4 sets of 10 reps

    Day of active recovery – this plan has helped me lose weight, but the biggest thing it has done is enable me ot get stronger and add inches to my chest, arms and shoulders

  • DJ

    I have a question. I am currently starting out small (the beginner bodyweight workout) as I am not quite ready for the weights. I do want to plan ahead for the future though, and I am wondering, is it impossible to do these sorts of exercises without a gym or special weights? If not, how can I try to avoid buying a gym membership? (I’m very financially burdened at this time) I want to start lifting eventually, and was wondering if there is any other way than to succumb to buying those gym memberships.

  • Elle.xo

    I’ve read 2 of your articles and promptly decided I love you.

  • Seema Dhingra

    Loved the article Steve. Joined a gym a couple of months back and am going nowhere. Googled about how to use a gym efficiently and came upon this article . I am sure my gymming will be more fruitful now.

  • Shaunna

    I did CF for a month and just joined 24 hr. Fitness . What exercises do you recommend me do there ?! I want to lose weight and build ! 🙂

  • BabyGxx

    I’ve never been to a gym in my life, I want to start going but don’t have a clue where to start or even how to! Any advice would be appreciated!