Welcome to the Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to the Gym!
As part of our Strength 101 series, this guide will dive deep into everything you need to know about working out properly in a gym.
By the time you finish reading, you’ll never have to wonder “what should I do in the gym?”
I bet I also make you laugh once or twice with bad jokes or perfect gifs.
We’ve helped thousands of Online Coaching Clients build confidence and start strength training in the gym, so I worked with our coaches to create today’s Ultimate Beginner Gym Guide!
Okay, time to start working out. Let’s hit the gym and explore the following:
- Scared to work out in a gym? Read this first.
- How often should I go to the gym?
- Level 1 Gym Workout: Your first day in the gym.
- Level 2 Gym Workout: Cardio Cadet.
- Level 3 Gym Workout: Bodyweight Brigade.
- Level 4 Gym Workout: Dumbbell Division.
- Level 5 Gym Workout: Barbell Battalion.
- Level 6 Gym Workout: Gym Class Hero.
- Gym Etiquette: Tips and Tricks.
- How to build the gym habit.
Regardless of your physique, if you are 400 pounds or 100 pounds, going to a regular commercial gym for the first time can be intimidating as hell.
And that’s only if you can get yourself to use 20 Seconds of Courage (A Nerd Fitness rallying cry) to walk in the door!
I know many people who say “gyms are not not for me,” or “gyms are dumb” and never even go into one, simply because gyms can be scary/not welcoming/not cool.
Now, if you CAN work up the courage to walk through the door, you’ll be faced with the following:
- People with pained looks on their faces dutifully using machines that somewhat resemble medieval torture devices.
- Others on cardio machines, treadmills, and ellipticals, and you can already picture yourself wiping out and ending up in a YouTube fail montage.
- Really strong jacked people picking up heavy free weights so effortlessly that you can’t help but instantly compare yourself to them…and get intimidated.
If you struggle with self-confidence, or you don’t love how you look, you might assume that everybody around you will be judging you the whole time and don’t want to subject yourself to this torture.
In fact, you might think that somehow you need to get in shape FIRST, and THEN you can go to the gym…
You go to the gym TO get in shape. And I will get you there.
If you are going to start using a gym, here are some truths you need to know:
- Everybody around you is just as self-conscious as you are. Yes, that super jacked dude. Or that thin (or jacked) fit woman on the elliptical. They aren’t focused on you, because they’re too busy living inside their own head wondering if everybody is thinking about them.
- Everybody starts somewhere. You don’t look good so that you can then go to the gym. You go to the gym to get stronger, more confident, and then look good.
- MOST will applaud you for trying. When I see somebody who is severely overweight at the gym, it makes me happy – they’re trying to better themselves! That’s freaking AWESOME. This is the mentality 90%+ of the people will have.
- MANY will be too self-focused to even notice you. These are the dudes lifting up their shirt in the mirror to check their abs, doing bicep curls in the squat rack, and/or making sure they take photos to post on Facebook to prove they did in fact go to the gym. #Fitspo #Instagram #OtherNonsensicalHashtags
- A RARE few will judge. Though, they’re not just judging you, I promise. They’re judging EVERYBODY around you, because they can’t help but compare themselves to others and they’re terrible people. This is no different than in real life. Screw these people, haters gonna hate, slaters gonna slate.
Sure, you can say “people are mean, the gym is scary, I just won’t show up.” But then, the terrorists win. And so do those people. So f*** that!.
Instead, this is going to be your gym mentality:
- Accept that some people suck (like anywhere in life), and most people are indifferent or focused on being self-conscious themselves. Everybody else will applaud you for trying and being there.
- Make an epic Spotify playlist that makes you feel heroic.
- Wear clothes that you feel comfortable in.
- Keep your headphones on, zone out everybody, and go about your business. Imagine you’re the only one there.
- Use 20 seconds of courage when necessary to get you to take action.
We work with all of our Online Coaching clients who are worried looking foolish in the gym. We know this is a huge challenge, so we create small levels and missions for our clients to get them comfortable in the gym.
We’ve helped people just like you go from sheepish beginner to barbell-wielding badass. Let us help you!
NOTE: if you’re somebody that’s not quite ready to get in the gym yet, or the above gave you anxiety just thinking about it, you can follow along with our Beginner Bodyweight Training program at HOME until you build up enough confidence!
Sign up in the box below and I’ll send you our workout free (along with some other goodies):
- Complete this workout at home, no equipment required
- Avoid the common mistakes everybody makes when doing bodyweight exercises
- Learn how to finally get your first pull-up
Many people think they need to hit the gym 6 days per week, dutifully alternating weight training with cardio and bootcamps to get that jacked/toned body they’re after.
That sounds exhausting and miserable to me, and I LOVE the gym!
So here’s what you need to know about gym frequency:
Go as much as you can, or as little as you want.
All of the workouts in this guide are “full-body workouts” which means they work out all of the muscles in your body.
And as we lay out in our “Strength 101: Beginner Strength Workouts” article, your muscles get broken down in the gym and then they rebuild themselves stronger over the next 48 hours.
For that reason, we recommend you hit the gym 2-3 times per week, with a day off or more in between each session.
This advice comes with a few caveats:
- If you’re a single mom or working two jobs or just busy living your life and you can only go to the gym once, great! Once a week is better than zero times a week!
- If you have specific athletic or cardiovascular goals you’re training for, then hitting the gym more frequently might get you faster results.
- If you are trying to lose weight, going to the gym more frequently probably WON’T get you faster results. It’s all diet.
“Steve, just tell me how often I should go to the gym!”
Fine! Try to work up to going to the gym 3 times per week.
I like Monday-Wednesday-Friday workout plans.
Start and end the week with good wins!
Oh, what’s that? You want to exercise on your off days too? Cool. Here’s how what you should be doing on your non-training days.
We craft our workout routines for our coaching clients around their schedules – some people hit the gym 5 days per week, while others only go once a week. We’re all unique snowflakes!
Okay! Now that we got THAT out of the way, are we ready!?
Great! Let’s level up in the gym!
The toughest part about going to a gym for the first time is just walking through the door.
If you do that, you’ve already gone farther than 74% of the population (a totally made up statistic that I’m using to prove my point), so give yourself a pat on the back.*
*Don’t have enough mobility to pat yourself on the back? We’ll help you with that too.
So on your first day in the gym, just GOING to the gym is a big step in the right direction. And I’m proud of you.
Note: You might need to also change into gym clothes if you’re coming from work. I know walking out onto the floor in gym clothes might be intimidating too (another chance to use 20 Seconds of Courage).
But now you’re wondering, “Steve you half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder, what do I DO on my first day at the gym?”
If you haven’t already done so, ask somebody at the front desk the following:
- “Hey I’m new here, could I get a tour of the gym?”
- “Excuse me, today’s my first day, can you point me in the direction of a place I can stretch?”
- “Can you help me work the treadmill?”
- Go full YOLO and try to figure these things out on your own.
If you’re able to get a personal tour, great! Ask the treadmill question when you get to them. If they can’t walk you through, just do a lap yourself and see where things are and who is doing what.
Pro tip (also works outside of the gym): pretend like you’re confident – even if you’re dying inside – walk with purpose, and nobody will question why you’re doing what you’re doing.
So, when you’re ready, walk over towards the stretching area, and do a few basic mobility/warm-up stretches while continuing to get the lay of the land and see what people are doing (don’t stare excessively, cool? cool).
Not sure what to do for warm-up movements? That’s okay!
Day 1 Beginner Warm-up Routine:
- Roll your head in half circles slowly, from shoulder to shoulder. 5 circles in each direction
- Slowly roll your shoulders forwards and backwards. 10 each way.
- Keep your legs stationary, and twist your torso, left and right. 10 twists each side.
- Quad stretch: Hold each stretch for 5 seconds. Do 3 on each side:
- Cross one arm in front your chest, then the other, as demonstrated here by lead coach Jim: Hold each stretch for 5 seconds. Do 3 on each side:
These movements have the awesome side-effect of you being able to look around the gym and get the “flow” of things, while still looking busy. Jim STILL uses this “trick” when checking out new gyms.
Really just get your body moving. We don’t have to make you a gym warrior on Day 1. Some stretches and sightseeing will be good enough.
LEVEL 1 MISSION: Take a lap around the gym and do your stretches.
If you walked out right now after doing these things, it’s still a win for Day 1 in a gym. Seriously – I don’t care what you do on Day 1 – as long as it leaves you feeling good enough to come back for a Day 2!
LEVEL 1 RECAP:
- Walking through the door makes you a winner.
- Ask for a tour if you need to know where things are!
- Change into workout clothes.
- Stand in one spot, do a few stretches, get the lay of the land.
Get on the treadmill and start it up, based on the staff’s instructions.
If you weren’t able to get instructions, many treadmills have a “quick start” button that will start things up.
Why start with just walking?
It gets you moving and out of your head! I know you’re smart – you’re reading NERD Fitness. But you also probably deal with paralysis by analysis a lot by overanalyzing everything, so we need to get OUT of our heads and get moving!!
Not only that, but walking is an AMAZING form of exercise. Walking is how Tim the NF Academy member lost 50 lbs through walking and nutritional changes. Don’t underestimate walking!
So, for your first 10-15 minutes, just walk. Set the treadmill at 3mph or 3.5 or whatever speed is comfortable but not too strenuous.
A speed that gets you moving and gives you a chance to decide what you’ll do next while you look around the gym. (Aka, it gives you a chance to get out of your head and stop thinking everyone is looking at you. They’re not)
LEVEL 2 MISSION: Do your Level 1 stretches, then spend 15 minutes walking, and then you are free to go home.
Repeat this as many days in a row that you need to until this starts to feel comfortable and you stop feeling self-conscious.
Scientists, Benedictine monks, and German scholars refer to such a thing as a “routine.”
As you get more comfortable, you can increase your walking speed or length of walking (20 minutes, 60 minutes, whatever)
If I’m gonna walk, I like to crush podcasts while doing so (My favorites: Watch out for Fireballs, Pardon My Take, and Bill Burr). Maybe you listen to Harry Potter on Audible.
Whatever floats your boat.
LEVEL 2 RECAP:
- What you do in the gym doesn’t matter – build the habit of going regularly.
- Develop confidence at the treadmill with just walking.
- Start to realize you have just as much of a right to be there as anybody else.
- Give yourself a high five for being you.
This routine of walking and stretching might only be one day in the gym for you, or it might be two months of this before you finally feel like you don’t want to jump out of your own skin while in the gym.
Going to the gym is the habit I want you to build, so this is a great start. Remember, you should be thinking in terms of “days and years,” not “weeks and months”:
We have many coaching clients who spend MONTHS just walking and working up the courage to move beyond the treadmill. That’s cool. We’re all on our own journey, at our own pace, so go at the pace that fits YOUR schedule.
After getting comfortable with the stretching/treadmill routine, you may want to hop on a weight lifting machine at this point like the leg press or chest press machine.
Is this progress? Sure!
Can you do this? Absolutely!
But, but, but… we are going to recommend you try some bodyweight exercises instead as your next step.
Controlling your body through space (not outer space) is going to be more beneficial in the long run than strapping into a machine and moving through a set path.
If you can do bodyweight exercises proficiently, then stepping into a machine is “easy.”
The reverse is not always the case.
So, if we’ve convinced you to try some bodyweight exercises, then next thing is to identify a place in the gym you can do bodyweight exercises where you’re not in the way. This oftentimes might double as the place that some people are doing stretches, where you’ve already been before!
If you don’t know, ask the front desk or find a trainer! That’s what they’re there for!
LEVEL 3 MISSION:
After your 5 minutes of warm-up (Level 1) and 10 minutes on the treadmill (Level 2), your next step is to go to a place you can do the Level 3 Gym Workout:
- 10 bodyweight squats
- 10 push-ups
- 10 bodyweight squats
- 10 push-ups
- 10 bodyweight squats
- 10 push-ups
Can’t get through it all? No worries, do what you can.
This style of alternating one exercise with another is called a circuit workout, by the way!
If you don’t know how to do those movements well, watch coaches Jim, Staci, and myself show you how!
HOW TO DO A PROPER PUSH-UP:
HOW TO DO A SQUAT:
If you just did the above mini-workout for a month, you’d be off to a great start! If you’re feeling frisky and starting to find some confidence in the gym, it’s time to branch out more!
LEVEL 3 RECAP:
- Warm up on the treadmill with a 10 minute walk
- Find a place where you can do bodyweight movements out of the way
- Complete 3 circuits of 10 push-ups and 10 bodyweight squats each at a pace that works for you
Stay at this stage as long as you need, until you can move on!
Note: If you enjoy the bodyweight brigade, or you’re not quite ready to start doing weight training yet, that’s cool too.
We have tons of 1-on-1 coaching clients who have gotten in GREAT shape without ever picking up a weight. It all comes down to constantly increasing the challenge and making progress each week.
It’s time to wander into the place that strikes fear in the heart of most gym goers:
The free weight section.
DO NOT FORGET THIS: If you are a 400 pound woman, or 85 years-old, or a 100-pound man, you have just as much of a right to be in the free weight section as anybody else.
It might take yet another 20 Seconds of Courage to wander in there, so I’m challenging you to try it.
LEVEL 4 MISSION:
After you do 10 minutes of walking on the treadmill, go to the dumbbell section, grab a single 10 lb (4.5kg) dumbbell, and find a flat bench like this:
Stand next to that bench, and make sure nobody is using it. If somebody is at a bench nearby, ask them “is anybody using this bench?” If they say no, put your towel on the bench, your 10 lb dumbbell on it, and stand next to it.
We’re going to add a 1-arm dumbbell row to our circuit above:
That’s it! Just one dumbbell exercise! Boom! You are now weight training like a boss.
Here’s your new Level 4 Gym Workout Circuit: Dumbbell Division A
- 10 bodyweight squats
- 10 push-ups
- 10 one arm dumbbell rows (10 per arm)
Do this circuit once, and then repeat two more times if you’re feeling good.
To recap, or if you skipped Steps 1-3 (I’m only slightly offended), here’s how to properly do:
A BODYWEIGHT SQUAT:
A PROPER PUSH-UP:
Congrats! You’ve used dumbbells!
Remember, everybody started somewhere, and we’re just working on getting you comfortable being in the free weight section.
Want to continue adding dumbbells movements into your workout? Let’s add them to the squats.
Use the same dumbbell to do “goblet squats.”
They’re named as such because it looks like you’re holding a goblet that you don’t want to spill.
Here’s a video of Staci and Jim demonstrating the Goblet Squat pulled from our self-paced course, The Nerd Fitness Academy:
So your Level 4 Gym Workout: Dumbbell Division B is 3 circuits of the following:
- 10 goblet squats
- 10 push-ups
- 10 dumbbell rows/side
If you go to the gym 3x a week, work your way up to the following routine:
- Light stretching and walk on the treadmill for 10 minutes
- 3 complete circuits of this beginner circuit
- Go home and eat good food and play video games
This will put you ahead of 95% gym going population. This puts you on a great path to building a healthy, antifragile, resilient body.
Add a little more weight here and there- making the minimal possible jumps each time (going from 10 lb to 12.5 lb dumbbells, for example).
Make your push-up variation a little harder over time.
You can stick with the above for MONTHS.
Ready for another upgrade?
The last dumbbell exercise to learn is the dumbbell Romanian deadlift (RDL). This is like a cousin of the bodyweight squat where we move through the hips more than the knees.
Grab a pair of dumbbells now, push your hips back and bow forward like you’re being polite. Or, you’re like one of those novelty “drinking birds.”
Bring the dumbbells down to about your knees, not to the ground, then stand back up.
You can see the exercise right here:
Every other workout, swap out the goblet squat for the dumbbell Romanian deadlift.
So our circuit is now alternating with each gym workout.
Do 3 circuits of each if you can! If the weight is too light, use heavier dumbbells the next time you train.
Level 4 Gym Workout: Dumbbell Division C:
- 10 goblet squats OR 10 dumbbell Romanian deadlifts
- 10 push-ups
- 10 dumbbell rows per arm.
LEVEL 4 RECAP:
- Remember you have just as much a right as everybody else to use the free weights.
- Take a deep breath, go into free weights section, and get a 10 lb. dumbbell.
- Learn to do a bent over row and goblet squats.
- Learn to do dumbbell Romanian deadlifts.
- High five yourself for weight training.
Training with dumbbells opens up infinite possibilities.
Okay, probably not INFINITE possibilities, but close enough.
If you are somebody that wants to learn how to train with dumbbells even more seriously, or you’re looking for ways to put that dumbbell set you have in your garage to proper use, let us help!
If you have a great program to follow, you can get in incredible shape with just a set of dumbbells.
The two final pieces of the puzzle are things I want for you so badly, I can taste it. These two exercises have changed my life, our lead coach Jim’s life, Staci’s life, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the Nerd Fitness Rebellion:
There’s something powerful about old-school strength training with exercises like the back squat and the deadlift.
Show me somebody that’s strong at both of these movements, and I’ll show you somebody that’s in better shape than most of the human population.
Even an empty barbell can be heavy, so before we jump into the deep end, you need to be able to complete our circuit with the following weights:
Level 4 Gym Workout: Dumbbell Division C:
- 10 goblet squats – 45 lbs (20Kg dumbbell), 10 RDLs with 20 lbs (9-10 Kg dumbbells)
- 10 push ups (on knees or regular)
- 10 dumbbell rows with each arm – at least a 20 lb dumbbell
Can’t do those movements at that weight, or not sure what they are? Go back to the Level 4 Gym Workout.
YOUR LEVEL 5 MISSION:
WHEN YOU ARE READY, please read the following:
And here is a quick video demonstration of the Squat, but I would REALLY read our full article!
And then I want you to find a squat rack:
THIS IS ONE TYPE OF SQUAT RACK (the barbell is NOT connected to apparatus). USE THESE:
THIS IS A SMITH MACHINE (bar is attached to apparatus). AVOID THESE:
Note: if you are training in a hotel gym, an apartment gym, or at some locations like Planet Fitness, they might NOT have a squat rack!
This is due to them not wanting to be liable for somebody using a barbell incorrectly, so it’s easier for them to just tell you “A Smith Machine is the same thing.” It is not, in fact, the same thing. You need a gym that has an ACTUAL squat rack with a free barbell.
If your gym doesn’t have a squat rack, and you want to start barbell training, I would strongly consider finding a new gym or just hanging out in the Level 4: Dumbbell Division!
If using a squat rack scares the crap out of you: wait to attempt your FIRST trip to the squat rack when the gym is nearly empty, or recruit a buddy who knows what they’re doing. If there’s a special day you can go VERY early to the gym, or VERY late, or during the workday, do it then.
Watch this video from The Nerd Fitness Academy about how to set the ‘pins’ in the squat rack to put the bar at the proper height!
YOUR NEXT LEVEL 5 MISSION:
Attempt 1 set of a 5 barbell squats with JUST the bar (first ask the staff or a trainer how much the bar weighs: most standard barbells weigh 45 lbs (20Kg) but your gym might not have standard barbells).
You can then complete our tried and true circuit – replacing goblet squats with barbell squats.
So our circuit is now 3 circuits.
Level 5 Gym Workout: Barbell Battalion A:
- 10 barbell squats or 10 dumbbell Romanian deadlifts
- 10 push-ups
- 10 dumbbell rows/side
(See Level 4 for explanations on the Dumbbell deadlifts and rows)
Congrats! You’re using barbells! If you haven’t already read Team NF’s lead female trainer Staci’s transformation story of how she went from barely being able to lift a 10 lb dumbbell to now deadlifting 425 lbs, it’s a really inspiring story!
Speaking of Staci, let’s move on to her favorite exercise (and mine!)…
YOUR NEXT LEVEL 5 MISSION:
And watch the video demonstration here:
The deadlift movements starts with the weight on the ground, and ends with it back on the ground.
If you’ve got regular, large weights (usually 45 lbs/20 kgs) on each side then the bar sits the proper height off the ground.
Some facilities have lighter plates at that same large diameter. Use them.
If you are lifting less weight (or just using the bar to start off) then DON’T do the deadlift from the ground. The bar will be too low to the ground and mess up proper technique.
Instead, do the following to start your deadlifts at proper height:
1) Use blocks to adjust the barbell starting height:
2) Use the safety bars in a squat rack to set the height of the bar correctly!
3) Do the Romanian deadlift instead! (Whew, glad we learned that!). It’s the exact same movement as the dumbbell Romanian deadlifts, you’re just using a barbell instead.
START WITH LIGHT WEIGHT – JUST the bar. As we cover in our “How much weight should I lift?”, you should ALWAYS start with just the bar.
And work on technique.
Only then should you start adding more weight, and add it slowly – you’ll be picking up heavy weight in no time, so don’t rush it.
Here’s Staci demonstrating a proper barbell Romanian deadlift from our Nerd Fitness Academy course:
Once you’ve started doing these two movements in your routine, your two alternating gym days will look like this. Simply alternate every time you go to the gym (with a day off in between sessions).
Level 5 Gym Workout: Barbell Battalion:
Day A Circuit – 3 rounds of:
- 10 barbell squats
- 10 push-ups
- 10 inverted bodyweight rows
Day B Circuit – 3 rounds of:
- 5 barbell romanian deadlifts
- 10 push-ups
- 10 dumbbell rows per arm
Not sure what a bodyweight row is? It’s an AMAZING exercise that you’ll need to master if you’re going to get your first pull-up or chin-up one day!
Read our article on bodyweight rows, and also watch our quick video demonstration here of Staci doing them:
LEVEL 5 RECAP:
- Barbell training will change your life like it has changed mine.
- Learn to squat and learn to deadlift properly.
- Focus on proper form, and slowly start to add weight to the bar.
- You are now a gym “regular” and I salute you!
Now, I know the barbell squat and barbell deadlift are two complex, potentially scary exercises. It’s important to get your form correctly now when you are just lifting the bar, so that you don’t hurt yourself once you start adding weight!
If you want a professional to check your form, tell you when to add weight to the bar, and teach you other barbell movements, check out our online coaching program!
Did I tell you that I’m proud of you yet? I really am, I promise. Your mom is proud too. So is your dad, but he just doesn’t know how to express it.
What’s next? Give me MOAR!!”
It’s like you’ve finally learned to cook, and now you’re asking for more spices.
So, here in Level 6, we’re going to turn you into a full Gym Class Hero. And it requires you to learn a super standard, incredibly challenging exercise that also happens to be amazing for you…
The pull-up or chin-up!
If you can do a pull-up or chin-up yet, you can read our full guide on how to get your first pull-up or chin-up.
We also have a full article on doing a perfect pull-up or chin-up with proper form, but I would watch this video too for some quick ways to scale the movement to fit your experience level:
YOUR LEVEL 6 GYM WORKOUT MISSION:
Alternate inverted bodyweight rows with pull-ups or an easier pull-up variation every other workout.
So our circuit will be alternating these movements on your A and B Days:
LEVEL 6 DAY A CIRCUIT – 3 rounds of:
- 10 barbell squats
- 10 push-ups
- 10 pull-ups or pull-up alternatives!
LEVEL 6 DAY B CIRCUIT – 3 rounds of:
- 10 barbell Romanian deadlifts/regular deadlifts
- 10 push-ups
- 10 inverted bodyweight rows
Spice it up further! If you’ve read up to this point, and put the work in, we hope you feel like a Gym Class Hero, and you can start to build your own workout!
SO what can you do to add some variety? Throw in or replace another exercise!
Want to do some planks? Put them in the circuit after your other movements!
Lunges to replace the squats or deadlifts one day? Sounds good!
Want to start training with gymnastic rings? Go for it!
Want to learn how to do handstands? Try practicing for 5 minutes at the start of each workout!
There are a ton of different options for what to do and where to go.
If we’ve gotten you more comfortable in the gym, we’ve done our job!
WANT MORE HANDS ON INSTRUCTION? If you’re looking to get out of the generic workout programs and follow along with a routine that fits your goals and lifestyle,consider checking out our 1-on-1 Coaching Program!
Sure, we help beginners get started with strength training. But we also help seasoned gym goers take their training more seriously, and even help some folks start competing in powerlifting competitions.
I personally hired an online coach in 2014, and I’ve been with him ever since. It’s the best money I spend every month, and the best investment I make in myself.
We’ve worked with men and women like Leslie here, a single mom that lost 100 + pounds thanks to following Coach Jim’s program.
She now works on things like gymnastic training and handstands and deadlifts and squats!
Interested in having expert guidance in your pocket? Click on the image below to a book a free call with our team!
I asked the entire 15-person staff in our Online Coaching Program – most of whom have trained clients in a gym for 5+ years – what information they would share with new gym goers:
Take your time. The above 6 level workout plan might take you 12+ months to move through, and that’s okay! I would rather you slowly wade into the water instead of terrifying yourself with the thought of cannonballing into the deep end and never even starting a gym routine.
Stick with what you know, and then bit by bit, one movement at a time, branch out and try new things.
Remember: “days and years,” not “weeks and months.”
Do what makes you happy. You might have noticed above I didn’t mention things like bicep curls, bench press, cardio classes, spin class, etc.
If those things make you happy, start adding them to the mix. However, if you are only doing those things because you think you are supposed to, don’t!
The above 6-Stage strategy combined with a healthy nutritional strategy will get you 95% of the way to where you want to go.
I promise. Nerd’s honor.
Write down everything you’re doing and track your progress. Keep a simple note on your phone, write in a notebook, use Evernote, whatever. Write down what you do so that you know what to do next time.
When you get stronger and things feel too easy, you know to move up in weight slowly (and record that too!).
Keeping track of everything is one of the easiest and most important ways to make progress. Staci, Jim, and I ALL still record every workout and never stop trying to get a teeny, tiny bit stronger with each session.
It’s better to lift a TOO LIGHT weight than try one that’s TOO HEAVY. You want to finish the workout saying “hey I could do more, this is encouraging” rather than “that was too much, I hurt myself/failed/and I’m demoralized.”
If you don’t know, ask somebody who works there. If you’re worried that you’re using a machine incorrectly, and you’re sheepish and self-conscious about it, ask somebody who works in the gym.
Usually there will be trainers that work there walking around the floor – ask them! That’s what they’re there for.
They can help you set the safety bars and pins on the squat rack if you’re not sure how. They can tell you how to adjust the seat on a machine, or how the treadmill works. That is what they are there for!
If you want to hire a trainer for a few sessions, it might be a great investment! Good trainers are hard to come by, but if you happen to like our style of doing things here at Nerd Fitness, we have our own 1-on-1 Coaching Program that will program your workouts and help you fix your diet:
If you are a member at a Planet Fitness or similar gym: Your gym might not allow you to do barbell deadlifts, might not have a squat rack, or ONLY have a Smith Machine. If this is true of your gym, this is okay!
Do the best you can with what you have. Like MacGyver.
You can still get quite strong with the dumbbell workouts and bodyweight movements in Stage 4! And you’ll be that much more prepared when you do start working with barbells if you eventually join a different gym.
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Just going to the gym takes courage.
- Trying a machine for the first time takes courage.
- Picking up a dumbbell takes courage.
- Using the squat rack takes a lot of courage.
Don’t worry about perfect, or having perfect form or the perfect routine after you finish this article, just START! It’s how we all learn: like scientists trying new experiments and subtly tweaking the variables.
These are our favorite tips and tricks with regards to the gym. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention something equally important:
We’ve created another article in this gym series called “29 Unwritten Rules to the Gym,” to make sure you don’t be an accidental ass in the gym.
This list includes some obvious things like wiping down the bench after you use it, or not monopolizing a squat rack, but then some other more subtle things that will keep you in everybody’s good graces!
If you read this far, 6000 words later, I have to imagine it means you’re really interested in getting started with strength training!
The first time going to a gym can be nerve-wracking and exciting, but it’s the 100th, 500th, 1000th trip to the gym where results get made.
And that means you need to BUILD the habit correctly for going to the gym.
It comes down to a few key things:
1) Accountability! If you’re new to going to the gym, it’s really easy to fall off the wagon once life gets busy. For that reason, I encourage you to be accountable to somebody other than yourself.
You see, motivation sucks, and will fail you when you need it most.
So, instead of using motivation, instead cultivate discipline and accountability.
Make it almost impossible for you to skip the gym:
- Recruit a friend to join you at the gym! You don’t want to let them down, right?
- Prepay for a bunch of sessions with a good personal trainer.
- Hire an online coach who checks in on you regularly!
2) Focus on hacking into the Matrix and setting up your system! Put your workout time and place into your Google Calendar so that you always know when your next workout is. Focus on creating an environment where you are more likely than not gonna DO THE THING you want to do (go to the gym). We call this “Building your Batcave.”
3) Cultivate a love of constant improvement. Imagine this: you’re no longer going to the gym just to lose weight or look good. Those things are a happy consequence of what you’re really there for:
Because you ACTUALLY like to work out!
I cannot tell you how many NF Coaching Clients I’ve seen message me and say “Holy crap Steve, I don’t know how it happened, but I actually LIKE working out now!”
Every week, you’re excited to hit the gym because:
- You’re adding more weight to your squats.
- You are attempting a new personal best for the deadlift.
- You’re trying to get your first pull-up.
- You get to see your gym friend and hear how his day went.
- You LOVE how you feel after the gym.
Getting there takes time and energy, but that’s really when life changes and sh** gets magical with regards to your health and fitness.
These are the tools we’ve created to help you turn the gym into something you look forward to:
1) Our popular 1-on-1 coaching program. No more guesswork, no wondering if you’re doing the right program, no shame or guilt. Just results that don’t suck, and a plan that doesn’t make you miserable.
We keep you accountable to make sure you actually do your workout, we answer any questions you have, and we cheer you on every step of the way:
2) Our self-paced online course, the Nerd Fitness Academy. The Academy has 20+ workouts for both bodyweight or weight training, a benchmark test to determine your starting workout, HD demonstrations of every movement, boss battles so you know when you to level up your routine, meal plans, a questing system, and supportive community.
3) Join the Rebellion! Our free community numbers in the hundreds of thousands scattered throughout the globe, and we need good people like you!
You can join by signing up in the awesome yellow box below, and I’ll send you a bunch of free guides and printable workouts, including our Strength 101 guide!
Okay, by now you should have all of the tools you need to get started in the gym, but maybe you have more questions. If you do, I have answers!
Simply leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer it soon!
I’d love to hear from you too if you found this article helpful. Which gym workout are you following?
Have you made it all the way to Level 6 yet!?
PS: Make sure you read the other 3 articles in our gym series:
- Finding the Right Gym
- 6 Things to Know Before Joining a Gym
- Gym Etiquette: Don’t Break these 29 Unwritten Rules!
PPS: Don’t forget to read our awesome Strength 101 Series either!
- Strength Training 101: Beginer Strength Training Routines
- Strength Training 101: How Much Weight Should I Be lifting?
- Strength Training 101: Finding the Right Gym
- Strength Training 101: Building Muscle Quickly
- Strength Training 101: Inverted Rows
- Strength Training 101: How to Squat Properly
- Strength Training 101: The Overhead Press
- Strength Training 101: The Deadlift