A Beginner’s Guide to the Gym: Everything You Need to Know

“Palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy” -Eminem.

Although Eminem was talking about being nervous before walking into a rap battle, that phrase perfectly described scrawny, terrified, 16-year old Steve the first time I walked into a gym.

20 minutes later I found myself seriously thinking, “Uh oh! Crap. Am I going to die?”

I knew “going to the gym” and “working out” were things that were going to make my life better. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to DO in the gym. I walked in with no plan and left an hour later with a bruised ego and bruised rib cage.

Maybe this is your first Nerd Fitness article. Perhaps you’re thinking about going to the gym but are afraid, you only use the treadmill in your gym, or you’ve been reading Nerd Fitness for years and finally decided, “I’m going to start going to the gym because I know ‘strength training’ and ‘lifting weights’ is good for me.”

Then, you hear that tiny voice in your head:

  • “You need to get in shape first before you go to the gym so you don’t look foolish.”
  • “Stick to the cardio section. Maybe the machines. Don’t go near the free weights though, that’s for bros and meatheads and bodybuilders.”
  • “As long as you don’t try anything new, you can’t mess up. Stick to what you know.”

And that’s what I’m going to cover in today’s article: how to not suck at going to the gym for the first time.

This will apply if you just joined a gym this morning, or you’ve been a member at a gym for the past two years but are ready to venture outside of the newbie zone (what you know) and into uncharted territory (the free weights section or something else).

I know how intimidating a gym can be, and how overwhelming it can be to start with strength training. It’s why we created a free guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know, that covers ALL the questions you might have!

If you are looking for more specific instruction and want to walk into the gym with confidence, sign up in the box below and we’ll send you the guide free.

My First Day in the Gym: A Horror Story

boy_facepalm

I had just been cut from the high school basketball team.

As a high school kid with acne, braces, a sweet flat top haircut, and not a tremendous amount of self-esteem, this was naturally the end of the world. Although I had been cut because I was bad at basketball, I made a plan to “work out” and get big and strong at the gym and make the team the following year.

A few days later, I joined Sportsite, the only gym in Sandwich, MA (yes, that’s actually the name of my hometown). I had no idea what I was doing, or even how to work out. When I walked in the door, my eyes bugged out of my head, and my heart started racing.

There were so many machines everywhere! And people running on various forms of cardio equipment! And really strong jacked dudes picking up heavy things.

Here I was, 5’11”, probably 110-120 pounds, and clueless. Like a sheep without a shepherd, I wandered around the gym for 20 minutes, assuming that everybody there was staring at me.

Of course, they weren’t. They would be soon, though, thanks to my idiocy.

Because I didn’t know how to use any of the equipment, and I was scared of face-planting on a treadmill, I did the ONE thing I knew I was supposed to do: bench press!

I walked over to a bench and proceeded to put 45 pound plates (the big ones) on either side of the bar. Mind you, I’ve never worked out, and now the weight I attempted to lift was heavier than my bodyweight.

I laid down on the bench – no spotter, of course – and proceeded to use my spaghetti arms to lift the weight off the safety supports. Unsurprisingly, the weight immediately plummeted like a sack of hammers onto my rib cage, and I was trapped under the bar. I was now in a full on panic mode. I slowly leaned the bar to the left, and watched as the weight on the bar slowly spiraled off the end. The 45 pound plate fell off the bar to ground, throwing the bar off balance and quickly shifted all the weight to the other side of the bar, where that weight fell off too.

Because the free weight section of Sportsite was on the 2nd floor, these weights hitting the floor sounded like two gunshots had just gone off.

Remember how I said I was worried everybody was looking at me before? Now everybody WAS looking at me. I sheepishly put the bar back on the supports, sat up, and pretended like nothing happened – internally I was crying and looking around for a hole to crawl in.

Jim’s Story:

Do you know Jim Bathurst, head trainer at Team Nerd Fitness? One-handed handstand master, super strong, badass Jim? The guy who can now do things like THIS?

He had a first-day horror story just like me! Here’s Jim:

Way back in high school, when I started lifting weights, I came into the weight room to lift and decided I would bench. The bench was over in the corner – bar up on it with a pair of 45 lb plates on either side. “No problem! Warm up weight!” I thought. What I didn’t see was that someone had left a single 25 lb plate on the outside of one of those 45 lbs plates.

Now, it doesn’t take a math degree to know that 45 lbs on one side and 70 lbs on the other side is a bit uneven. Simultaneous surprise and horror as I unracked the bar and proceeded to dump 70 lbs to one side, and then 45 lbs to the other side, my arms locked out in a combination of terror and self-preservation. Yes, all eyes on me at that point. I wish I could’ve teleported out of there. What did I do? I simply left the gym and never worked out or bench pressed ever again.

J/k – I got stronger, entered powerlifting competitions, and benched 300 lbs:

Lift long enough and every single one of us has probably been embarrassed in the gym in some way (I’ve got plenty of stories).

Both Jim and I have come a LONG way, and we want you to feel comfortable in a gym like we do these days: Confident, excited about training, and at home in a place that used to terrify you.

Here’s a “Don’t Suck” Plan that will walk you from “wandering sheep” to “confident gym goer” in 4 stages.

First, Get Your Head Right!

lego master
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.

IF YOU DON’T HAVE A GYM MEMBERSHIP, but are looking to start going, here’s how to find the right gym!

Now, if you CAN work up the courage to get in the door, you’ll be faced with the following:

  • People dutifully using machines that somewhat resemble medieval torture devices, with pained looks on their faces.
  • 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 people picking up heavy weights and instantly comparing yourself.

If you struggle with self-confidence, or you don’t love how you look in the mirror yet, you might assume that everybody around you will be judging you the whole time and don’t want to subject yourself to this torture – that you need to somehow get in shape FIRST before going to the gym!

Wrong!

If you are going to start using a gym, it’s time to mentally get your head in the right place! Here are some truths you need to know:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. This is the mentality 90%+ of the people will have.
  4. 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
  5. 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. 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. And nobody likes those people any way.

Instead, do the following:

  • 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 playlist that makes you feel heroic. Wear clothes that you feel great in.
  • Keep your headphones on, zone out everybody, and go about your business. You do you. Imagine you’re the only one there.
  • 20 seconds of courage, when necessary, to get you to take action.

Stage 1: Get the lay of the land, maybe get on the treadmill

treadmill

As stated above, 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.

So on your first day in the gym, just GOING to the gym is a big step in the right direction.

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 20SoC!).

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?” OR
  • “Excuse me, today’s my first day, can you point me in the direction of a place I can stretch?” AND
  • “Can you help me work the treadmill?”

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.

When you’re ready, walk over towards the treadmills or stretching area, and do a few basic stretches while continuing to get the lay of the land and see what people are doing (don’t stare excessively). Not sure what to do for stretches? That’s okay!

Start here:

  • Roll your head in half circles slowly, from shoulder to shoulder.
  • Slowly roll your shoulders forwards and backwards.
  • Keep your legs stationary, and twist your torso, left and right.
  • Quad stretch:

  • Cross one arm in front your chest, then the other, as demonstrated here by Jim:

These stretches have the awesome side-effect of 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. If you walked out right now, it’s still a win for Day 1 in a gym.

If you’re up for MORE, consider the next step:

Get on the treadmill and start it up, based on the staff’s instructions. If you weren’t able to get instructions, many have a “quick start” button that will start things up. Too much? Scares you already? Okay, just stick with the stretching and get out of there. When you’re ready, come back and try the treadmill.

Yes, that’s right, I’m telling you to do “cardio” on a machine! (maybe the first time ever on Nerd Fitness!):

Why? 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 and can overanalyze everything!

So, for your first 10-15 minutes, just walk. Set it at 3mph or 3.5 or whatever speed is comfortable but not too strenuous. Something that gets you moving, gives you a chance to decide what you’ll do next while you look around the gym. (Gives you a chance to get out of your head and stop thinking everyone is looking at you.)

If this is ALL you do, spend 15 minutes walking, and then go home, it’s still a victory. 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 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: Tim Ferriss Show, Pardon My Take, and Bill Burr). Maybe you do books on tape. Whatever floats your boat.

TO RECAP STAGE ONE:

  • 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.
  • Try the treadmill if you’re up for it.

This routine might only be a day 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.

Stage 2: Join the Bodyweight Brigade!

lego workout

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 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.

If you don’t know, ask the front desk or a trainer! That’s what they’re there for!

So after your 10 minutes on the treadmill, your next step is to go to a place you can do the following:

  • 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. If you don’t know how to do those movements well, watch Jim, Staci, and myself show you from the NF YouTube Channel – pick the variation that is right for you!

HOW TO DO A PUSH-UP:

HOW TO DO A SQUAT:

If you did just the above for another month, you’re off to a great start! If you’re feeling frisky and starting to find some comfortability in the gym, it’s time to branch out more!

TO RECAP STAGE 2:

  • 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 bodyweight training is your jam, we have multiple chapters in our free guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know, that will help you get better and more confident with each movement.

Grab our massive guide free when you sign up in the box below:

Stage 3: Join the Dumbbell Division

weight room

It’s time to wander into the place that strikes fear in the heart of most gym goers: the free weight section. Gulp.

DO NOT FORGET THIS: If you are a 400 pound woman, or 65 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.

After you do your 10 minutes of walking on the treadmill, go to the dumbbell section, grab a single 10 pound 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 one arm dumbbell row to our circuit above. You can see skinny-me demo it here:

That’s it! Just one dumbbell exercise! Here’s your new circuit:

  • 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.

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 in dumbbells? Let’s add them to the squats. If you’re feeling strong, you can 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 premium course, The Nerd Fitness Academy:

 

So your routine is now 3 circuits of the following:

  • 10 goblet squats
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 dumbbell rows/side

If you go to the gym 3x a week, and work your way up to the following routine:

  • Light stretch and walk on treadmill for 10 minutes
  • Work up to 3 complete circuits of this beginner circuit
  • Go home and eat good food and play video games like a boss.

This will put you ahead of 95% of the planet and gym going population as far as 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. 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. Bring the dumbbells 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 day. Do 3 circuits of each if you can! If the weight is too light, use heavier dumbbells the next time you train.

  • 10 goblet squats OR 10 dumbbell Romanian deadlifts
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 dumbbell rows per arm.

Stage 4: Enlist in the Barbell Battalion

barbell

Okay, you’re feeling good in the dumbbell section now. You’ve worked on these exercises and feel a lot stronger. For weeks, or months!

The two final pieces of the puzzle are things I want for you so badly, because I’ve seen how much they have changed my life, Jim’s life, Staci’s life, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people here at Nerd Fitness:

Picking up a barbell, and learning how to squat and deadlift.

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.

But wait!

Even an empty barbell can be heavy, if you’re not ready, so before we jump into this deep end, I want you to be able to strongly complete our circuit with the following weights:

  • 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

WHEN YOU ARE READY, I want you to read the following:

Strength Training 101: The Squat

And then I want you to find a squat rack (NOT a smith machine):

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.

If using a squat rack scares the crap out of you, I would 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.

I want you to attempt a back squat 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:

  • 10 barbell squats or 10 dumbbell romanian deadlifts
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 dumbbell rows/side

Congrats! You’re using barbells!

Next step? More reading:

Strength Training 101: The Deadlift

The deadlift movements starts with the weight on the ground, and ends with it 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. Do the Romanian deadlift instead! (Whew, glad we learned that!). Just use a barbell instead!

START WITH LIGHT WEIGHT – 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 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):

DAY A CIRCUIT – 3 rounds of:

  • 10 barbell squats
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 dumbbell rows per arm

DAY B CIRCUIT – 3 rounds of:

  • 10 barbell Romanian deadlifts/regular deadlifts
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 dumbbell rows per arm

I realize all of that stuff above might be information overwhelm. If you want all of this info in a comprehensive guide so you can hit the gym confidently with a plan to follow to level up your strength training, download Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know when you sign up in the box below:

Stage 5: Where to go from here?

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.

So now you’re thinking: “Steve, I did a squat. It was terrifying but I did it. I tried deadlifts too and those are kind of fun. What’s next? Give me MOAR!!”

It’s like you’ve finally learned to cook, and now you’re asking for more spices.

What’s a super standard exercise that you see being done in gyms all over? And is amazing for you?

The pull-up!

Not sure how to do one properly? Or you can’t yet? Don’t worry, we have you covered for good technique:

Alternate one arm dumbbell rows with pull-ups or an easier pull-up variation.

So our circuit will be alternating these movements on your A and B Days:

DAY A CIRCUIT – 3 rounds of:

  • 10 barbell squats
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 pull-ups or pull-up alternatives!

DAY B CIRCUIT – 3 rounds of:

  • 10 barbell romanian deadlifts/regular deadlifts
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 dumbbell rows per arm

Spice it up further! If you’ve read up to this point, and put the work in, we hope you feel like a gym regular! At this point, throw in or replace another exercise!

Want to do some planks? Put them in the circuit!

Lunges to replace the squats or deadlifts one day? Sounds good!

Want to start training with gymnastic rings? Go for it!

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! We cover how to crush pull-ups (including how to scale up to them if you can’t do them yet!) in our free Strength Training 101 guide – can you tell I’m really proud of it? Ha!

Grab the guide when you sign up for the Rebellion in the box below:

Tips, Tricks, and Knowledge Bombs

lego tricep

Take your time! The above plan might take you 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 going to the gym to start. So stick with what you know, and then bit by bit, one movement at a time, branch out and try new things.

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 5-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. 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 our workouts each time, and focus on getting 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! Here’s how to find a good trainer!

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. You can still get quite strong with the dumbbell workouts and bodyweight movements in Stage 3! And you’ll be that much more prepared when you do start working with barbells.

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.

Share your first gym day horror story!

lego dumbell

My first day in the gym involved me almost killing myself by way of a barbell on the bench press. And then I came back the next day and tried again. Jim nearly flipped himself off the bench (why is it always the bench?!).

Oh, and by the way – that first day? It was the most important day of my life. It started me down a path of bettering myself, learning how to train, and now running Nerd Fitness for 8 years! I’m so happy I made those mistakes.

Do you have a horror story you can look back on now and laugh? I would love for you to share it below to make your fellow future-first-time-gym-going-Rebels feel better!

We all live inside our own heads and can talk ourselves into our out of anything. If you have never been to a gym before, and you’re afraid to go, read the stories below.

I bet whatever you have in your head for “the worst that could happen” is not nearly as bad as some of these stories! And who cares how bad things were? They survived and are stronger for it.

If there are any questions we can answer, or if you have any other tips to share with people who are afraid to go to the gym and wander into the free weights section, share below!

Leave your gym “First-Day” horror story below.

Want to make sure you’re not being “that guy” or “that girl” in the gym too? Here are 29 mistakes you can avoid with a tiny bit of prep.

Thanks for sharing, and see you in the gym!

-Steve

PS: If you read this far, 5000 words later, I have to imagine it means you’re really interested in joining a gym and getting started with strength training! Let us help. Download our guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know, so you have a single go-to source for all the information you need before your next workout!

Grab it free when you sign up for the Rebellion in the box below:

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  • starsapart

    First day horror stories, you say? Okay then. Overweight and out of shape, I walked into a zumba class. No one else showed up so it was just me and the teacher. Scary enough yet? We got going, and a combination of anxiety and being woefully out of shape had me graying out and collapsing mid-class. Oops. So here I am on the floor trying to catch my breath and get my head to stop spinning, and the instructor is fluttering around me trying to help, but all I can think is, “I bet she’s thinking ugh, why did this stupid fat girl show up, I could have had this hour of my life back.” HUMILIATING.

  • Jac E

    Oh, too many stories to tell, none of them horrific, but many of them quite embarrassing. I have broken my ankle coming off a bad bench jump, cried while attempting walking planks with kettle bells, failed a box jump, completed a horrific set of reverse flies because I was too embarrassed to make a second trip to the dumbbell rack to get a lighter weight, etc. My very first WOD at a crossfit gym turned out to be a 5k row, and I had never sat on a rower before. Quite a few minutes after everyone else had finished, I was still there, coach by my side, encouraging me to just finish. Got through it, and definitely had to talk myself into going back again the next day. Gyms and weight lifting of any kind is certainly a good way to learn to be humble and persistent!

  • Tony Langdon

    I can’t really recall too many horror stories. I was 17 or 18 when I first went to the gym, but it was a small local gym with only machines (the only one in town, so no choice). I think the owners were in it more for a buck than anything else.

    I didn’t go back to the gym until I was 40 – mostly a combination of cost and having focus elsewhere, and this time, I consulted with the staff and was put on to a program with a lot of free weights. I’ve been a fan of free weights since.

    I did have one time where I got trapped under a loaded barbell after doing my final set of a heavier weight without a spotter, but I was able to extract myself in a controlled manner (note to self – always either use a spotter or leave a little in reserve – final set should always use a spotter).

    Gym for me is now a seasonal thing, I do it during my off season (autumn to late winter/early spring) for working on basic strength. My summer training is already quite intense with a lot of sprint work and other demanding activities. Unfortunately, my training schedule and lifestyle don’t permit gym after training, so seasonal is the best I can do.

  • Patrick

    Wow, this article couldn’t have come at a better time! I’m actually gonna step in a gym for the first time tomorrow afternoon! I signed up for a beginner crossfit class, and I’m TERRIFIED! I don’t know what to expect, and I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to complete anything the instructor asks me to do. But this article -and reading the comments- helped me see that even if somehow things go horribly wrong, it’s okay. It’s just an experience I can learn from. Actually I signed up for this crossfit class because of the mission on Rising Heroes about trying a new physical activity, and I wanted to try crossfit for a long time but I just didn’t have the courage.

    It’s my first time commenting too, although I’ve been following this blog for years. Thank you Steve and Jim and everyone for your hard work and encouragements! You’re really making a difference in my life!

  • StinkyBrett

    I entered the busy cardio room with my headphones on as I tried to select a podcast to listen to. With my face in my phone, I used my peripheral vision to spot one of the few open treadmills among the multiple rows. Still staring at my phone, I step onto the empty treadmill, and my left foot is immediately thrown off the back of the treadmill with sufficient force to take the rest of my lower body with it. Only by the grace of God and any other involved deities, I somehow managed to catch myself with my elbows on the side rails of the machine. I simultaneously dropped my phone which was launched off the speeding belt and smoked an elliptical machine directly behind me (which of course was being used by someone). My mind was so flooding with adrenaline that I did not do the logical thing and stand on the sides of the treadmill, so I eventually got my dragging legs up to running speed to match the treadmill. Once upright I saw that the speed was set to 9mph. I lowered it to 4, stopped the machine, picked up my phone, avoided eye-contact with everyone and went home.

  • Leanne

    First day at a new gym and first day with a personal trainer (one of those promotional things for signing up). She had me doing pikes using a medicine ball where you’re in a plank position with your legs up on the medicine ball and you, well, pike. They’re super hard and take balance so I was very nervous about the whole thing. I had also eaten something crazy for lunch which made me pretty gassy. I thought I could hold it all in but when you pike up your butt cheeks have a hard time holding that in so, sure enough, I farted. I farted loudly in the trainers face. I was so shocked and embarrassed that I fell off the medicine ball and landed right on my face. The medicine ball went flying into the free weights section and hit a guy. I looked up, my face with total rug-burn down the side, and realize that the guy I hit was a guy I had just gone on horrible blind date with two nights before. When I say horrible, this is an understatement. He was so horrible that I actually left in the middle of the date and still don’t feel bad about it. Of course this horrible blind date guy was the guy who brought my medicine ball back to me and my fresh self-created ozone area. I took my ball of shame and suggested to my trainer that we try something else. She agreed immediately.

  • TheAndreaK

    This isn’t a really great horror story but it’s a very typically ME story. I hadn’t been working out with my trainer for very long when he decides to have me do back extensions. I get on the platform and I start bending over the bar thing and then my fear of heights kicked in and I freaked out. He was all “What is happening?” So I explained “I’m afraid of heights.” He asks “Why didn’t you tell me this when we were doing the introductory interview?” and I said “I didn’t think it would matter in a gym.” And he said “Fair point.”

    I now do them like a pro.

    Also, I got on a stairmill once and it TOOK OFF and I had to run and it wouldn’t stop and nobody was paying attention and I was freaking out and yelling “HELP!! HELP!!!” when, finally, the dude beside me said “Just stop walking, ride it to the ground.” Yeah….I was super embarrassed and I still, to this day, will not use one on my own.

  • Ky

    I don’t have any first day story, but plenty of embarrassing things have happened to me in the gym. I’ve gotten stuck under the bar on bench press and had to slide the weights off twice, and done it once and been saved by somebody. I got stuck under the bar in squat once and had to throw it off, and as I fell over and laid on the ground in a daze, five separate people rushed over and were like, ‘Are you okay?!’ (two weeks later I entered my first powerlifting competition and SMASHED IT). I wore grey yoga pants to the gym for months without realizing that I was getting a buttcrack sweat stain every workout that was blatantly obvious, got a tattoo on my butt and realized that opaque black yoga pants are no longer opaque once you have a butt tattoo, benched for twenty minutes with a giant hole in the crotch of my pants, and once decided I was going to overcome my social anxiety to compliment a girl on her bench press form, only to nearly hit myself in the face with a barbell and then drop a weight on my foot right in front of her (I still talked to her, and she was nice and we are now friends).

    I’ve seen the same things happen to countless people in my years of going to the gym. It happens. Sure, it’s embarrassing the first few times, but after a while it’s just something to laugh about. You have wardrobe malfunctions. You try a weight that’s too hard and fail. You let somebody work in with you, only to notice that you’ve left a giant sweaty butt stain on the bench. But the real lesson I’ve learned in my time is that people that go to the gym are nice people. They see you in the gym, whatever your level, and you’re motivating them just as much as they’re motivating you. And if someone is being a jerk, trust me, ALL of us in there are irritated about it. We’ve got your back, so come be a part of our gym family.

  • Alicia

    No my first day ever, but the first day back from vacation. I had just gotten back and was still a little jetlagged but I wanted to get back to my routine. Ran on the treadmill for a few minutes then BOOM…on the floor. Totally fell off the back of the treadmill. I hopped back on and slowed it way down and just walked for a bit. So embarrassing!

  • Peter Schott

    Worst for me was trying a Spin class without really understanding what that meant. I just about died. However, that was also after I’d been going for a while so I wasn’t completely new, just ignorant of what equipment was used in a Spin class and way underestimating my endurance.

    For my part, I appreciate the machines because if you’re really overweight, you can do a “less than bodyweight” exercise until you build up some muscle to do the bodyweight/free weight exercises. They aren’t the best, but can enforce decent form and allow lower weights than bodyweight when getting started. That said, I tried to do free weights when possible.

    I completely agree on the “nobody’s watching you” part. They’re in their own routines and more than willing to help out if you need a spotter or some explanation of how to do a particular exercise or why people do that exercise. Just don’t interrupt them while they’re _doing_ their exercises. 🙂

    Funniest moments are usually when at a gym and there are a couple people pushing themselves and making sure the whole gym knows it. I don’t knock them for being in shape – they’re way stronger than I am, but if you’re screaming so much as you lift that everyone hears you, maybe something’s off (or you’re just trying to get attention).

    Picked up on “fatgirlfedup” on Instagram. She has an inspiring story, though not NF related. Lost 200+ pounds in a year and still going strong. She showed up at the gym and couldn’t even do 30 minutes of continuous cardio so took breaks until she did the full 30 minutes. The progress since then is worth looking up.

    Now I need to get back to the gym. Had a pretty bad upper head cold that’s been laying me out so been concerned about overdoing anything, but sadly tot he point of not doing anything. When I went to the local weight room @ our community center, I got quite a few encouraging smiles from people who are apparently regulars. They were glad to see that I was trying to do something to get in shape.

    Oh, and wipe down any equipment you use when you’re done. That’s very much appreciated and some gyms provide wipes if you don’t bring a towel.

  • Peter Schott

    I did something like that one time. I think I sped up instead of slowed down and went flying off the back instead. I’m pretty sure that was an amusing site if anyone was watching. I know I was amused, though slightly embarrassed. Sometimes you just have to laugh. 🙂

  • Peter Schott

    You’ll find that the people are going to be more encouraging than not. It’s okay to not know what’s going on or not be able to complete things. Just do your best and keep at it. You’ll likely get up to speed pretty soon and you’ll get even more encouragement as you progress.

  • Patrick

    Thank you so much for your encouraging comment, Peter! I feel more confident about tomorrow! 🙂

  • Patrick

    LOL thank you so much for sharing that story, Leanne! I can’t stop laughing! I could see something like that happen in a tv drama or something! 😀 Thanks again for sharing, you made my day!

  • JimJim

    Amazing timing – my first day in the gym was yesterday … it did not go well. I signed up for a local gym and was told they would offer a free tour of the gym and some basic movement testing for my first day. I was fairly convinced following this mini-workout I would look like Captain America (it did not turn out this way).

    First, I sat for about 45 minutes and was interviewed about my health habits. The end result was I am a monster in all aspects of my lifestyle. Three cups of coffee a day … that’s way too much. You eat non-organic food … you are rotting inside. You eat egg yolks … yikes (that last one is a literal quote). Much shame was had.

    Then I was paired up with a trainer for the mini-workout. He was an intense fellow. He gave me the high school coach speech about if I was committed he could make me ‘shredded’ in 12 months time. But I needed to commit today if I was serious. My spidey senses were blaring loudly that this was leading to a sales pitch.

    He threw a barbell on me and had me start doing lifts. I was too embarrassed to ask if warming up would be a good idea (probably would have been in retrospect). Squat, deadlifts, power cleans … I had literally never lifted weight before and he said I should do ‘about 20’ of each. Then he checked his phone while I flailed wildly under the bar.

    Mid-way through one of the lifts I could feel the room closing in, I heard blood rushing in my ears, I mumbled, “I need to sit down”. He start to give his high school coach response, “Nobody sits in my gym … “, but looked at me and immediately grabbed the bar. Apparently I had gone white and looked like death. I am not entirely convinced that is one of the cornerstones of a healthy weightlifting routine.

    Then I stumbled back to the interview desk where I sat down and gathered my thoughts and focused on the basic ability to breath. The next 30 minute were a full-court press about hiring the trainer for $500 a month. I got the commitment speech again and at one point they were literally trying to push a pen into my hand to sign the agreement. I said I wasn’t going to commit to anything while I was dripping in sweat and exhausted. The salesperson and trainer were both very disappointed in me.

    Finally, they (in true used car salesman fashion) tried to do some quick scribbled math to show how I could easily offset that $500 monthly with some lifestyle tweaks. At this point I was mad, exhausted, and wanted to leave … I did what any true nerd would do in the situation – I pointed out all the math errors in their calculations. It got very awkward very quickly as I again and again pointed out issues and miscalculations. It was a small victory, but I needed it.

    They eventually gave up on the math angle and told me they would call me tomorrow to make sure I stayed committed and made a decision for my sake (funnily enough I had given them a decision about five times … I’m can’t pay $500 a month for a trainer). As of this evening they haven’t called, but I spent the day hobbling around like a crippled T-Rex.

    In all, it was embarrassing, frustrating, and made me want to go hide. In my adult life I have never felt so much like an unpopular 13 year old on the first day of school.

    I was ready to give up and run to my old friend Krispy Kreme – but seeing all the other stories, it feels great to know I am not alone. We all get embarrassed, we all feel out of place, we all have to deal with difficult people. Put it behind you, keep your head up, and keep trying.

  • hey Patrick! Glad to hear this one resonated with you brother. I love it man – i think you’ll find Crossfit, regardless of whether or not you love the workout itself, will be home to a great community of people that want you to win and will cheer you on too.

    I’m not a crossfit-workout guy, but damn they have great communities at every gym I’ve been too. And don’t forget, we got your back online man! let us know how it goes 🙂

  • disqus_9LUhwwzHXw

    Years ago I met with a personal trainer / life coach at a yoga study, who pressured me into walking into a yoga class (my first ever) that very day which had already started about 5 mins prior. There wasn’t any more space, but the teacher welcomed me in, and put me up at the front of the class – so far up that I couldn’t even see the teacher unless I turned around & faced the rest of the class. Except that, she wouldn’t let me turn around (I’m guessing because she didn’t want others following my form?). If the door hadn’t been on the opposite side of the room, I would have walked out. Although I do still do yoga, to this day I am still careful to avoid that teacher.

  • Major Buzzkill

    Steve, can I do stage 3 routine 5 days a week, during the weekdays?

  • Jess Marie

    I may not have crushed myself with a barbell, but my first day at the gym was equally as discouraging.

    I remember I had been eating healthy for a few weeks and I really wanted to start integrating the gym into my routine. I was so anxious about going even though I knew exactly what exercises I would do when I got there. I spent the entire 15 minute walk over trying to think positive thoughts and I was actually feeling pretty good when I arrived. I swiped my card and was walking to the locker rooms when the WORST possible thing (for me) happened – I saw someone I knew.

    I booked it to the locker rooms in full panic mode, waited about 5 minutes, then snuck out of the gym and walked the 15 minutes back home without even doing anything. I guess I at least got 30 minutes of walking in!

    I was really disappointed in myself and it took a lot for me to try again, but I found a way to work around my fear by going when I knew the gym wouldn’t be so busy. Now it has been about a year of consistently working out and I’m so happy I found the courage to go back!

  • Allen Irvan

    My first day at the gym was for a college fitness class I took simply because I needed a credit hour. I was super skinny and pretty flexible, but had no real strength and had never had any sort of fitness training. I followed my typical MO and went to China Super Buffet for lunch, loading up on my favorite back then, fried rice. After that, I went for my first round in the fitness class. It wasn’t a class so much but, basically an open gym where everyone loosely followed a sort of circuit training: do a weight machine for a set amount of time and then do a bike for 1 minute, then jump to the next weight machine. They had music on speakers set to alert everyone when it was time to change. My 2nd 1 minute bike ride was barf city and all that rice came back. I was SOOO embarrassed. That was also my last time in the gym until over a decade later when my wife and I decided to get a gym membership to help us train for a backpacking trip. I still haven’t ever gone back to the weight area of a gym. However, with major successes the past few months with our diet and fitness at home, we are joining a gym and looking forward to it!

  • Joe Auerbach

    My first day at hte gym: I was about 25 and decided to “get in shape”. I got a gym membership and they gave me a free session with a trainer. What I did not know till later is that my trainer used to be a tackle for the Cleveland Browns. He was roughly the size of a Skyrim Mammoth. And that means that he could push me to the screaming limits of whatever weight I could push or pull or drag (all on machines, of course) because he could easily take the weight from me without even putting down his book. On day 1 of my gym work, not having done any exercise in something like give years, he pushed me so hard that I could barely move. Well …. I thought my misery was over, but no.

    Because the next morning I was so sore that I literally wouldn’t touch my head. I had made a bet with my boss that I’d go to the gym every day for a month, and I sure as hell did, but on day 2 I went, walked a bit, took a shower (I managed to just barely wash my hair by the end with great difficulty) and left. I have never been so sore in my life and I’ve done power lifting since then.

  • Christine Curtis

    I had a similar stair incident! It was broken so the steps didn’t support you when you climbed up to start it. So I went to jump up, the steps came flying down, and I ended up on my bottom. There should be a ‘test’ function on it before hopping on!

  • Helen Jones

    I had been doing chest presses on the girly side of the gym for months and I had got up to a 25kg chest press which I thought was respectable. I decided it was time to face the manly, grunting side of the gym and headed over there, loaded the bar up with 25kg worth of weight and got ready to chest press without a spot. I didn’t realise that the bars on the freeweight side of the gym are 20kg, whereas the ones I had been using were probably about 2kg. Epic fail. The bar hit my chest and I had to roll it down my body in order to get the thing off. All the while whimpering in case the bar caught on my belly button piercing… This guy came running up after I’d freed myself and asked if I was OK. “Oh yeah, sure, totally meant to do that!” I thought I’d give the presses a rest so instead I trundled over to the boxes and started doing some box jumps. Didn’t quite jump high enough, caught my foot on the outside edge and somersaulted over the box. Ended up rolling on my back in the middle of the mats area. I just got up and carried on jumping like nothing had happened. I figured it was less embarrassing than leaving!

  • Suedre

    The fart heard round the weight room. That is all.

  • Ben Stark

    I agree completely that most people are so just really into what they are doing. I know when I am working out, I really just focused on my workout.

  • Patrick

    Thank you for your reply, Steve! I just got back from my crossfit workout, and it was AMAZING! I really enjoyed it and I had fun! I can’t believe I was so anxious and scared about it, it went great! So I don’t have any horror story to share…

    I was able to complete the whole workout (although I was sweating like crazy). I had never worked out for longer than 20-25 minutes before, but this time I worked out for 50 minutes! Everyone was so nice too and the trainer always helped me when I had bad form when learning a new exercise.

    So my first trip to the gym was a big success! And I can’t wait to go back! Honestly I would never have gone if it wasn’t for NerdFitness and Rising Heroes. Thank you so much! 😀

  • Really great tips for beginners like me

  • BaldV

    Hey Steve, excellent article!

    What about some “core” exercises? Like situps, crunches or planks?

    I’ve been doing the “pull-up, push-up, crunches” routine every other day, and running (~5 km) on the other ones. Haven’t figured out how to include some leg exercises in the “muscle days” because then I’m not able to run on the following day.

  • JJ Pittenger

    I agree with the beginning of this blog. For the best results and getting your body acclimated to exercise, go with graduated cardio and body weight workouts. If you go right to weights, especially heavy ones, you can increase your risk of injury. I think that proper body movement is key as well.

  • Bodyn Soil

    So many people I know struggle with feeling comfortable at the gym, even after going for awhile. This is a great article to share with those friends to keep them motivated. Thank you.

  • Bodyn Soil

    I’m a trainer and I bet she was thinking that she was so glad you took that first step and didn’t turn around and leave. If it were me, I’d want to do what I could to help you hit your goals for yourself and to love the body you’re in.

  • starsapart

    Oh yeah, I figured that out eventually. I was way more critical of myself than anyone else could ever be. Fortunately, I didn’t quit the gym over it. 🙂

  • Cr4d

    This happened long ago when gyms were all chrome. Barbells were in racks in 10 pound increments. I was just going into high school. Wanted to see how much i could press overhead. Cleaned the weight to my shoulders. Shifted my hips. Steadied my feet. Slight bend in my knees. Then a powerful thrust shoving the bar right into my chin. Yes, I was the young kid that knocked himself out that first day in the gym.

  • bashomatsuo

    My horror story was that someone had not put the clips on the bar in the Rack and left the weights on and when I took over I didn’t notice. Consequently on the first rep, one side fell off and then the other, each falling at least 6 foot and slamming on the floor.

  • Cr4d

    Congratulations.

  • I would take one more step back – how many people are terrified to even consider going to gym because they are afraid that they are going to look silly or will be judged. As the result, many will never have a courage to even get to gym and will deprive themselves from the beautiful opportunity to experience what their body is capable of.
    In my mind, every scary big task (and signing up for gym and actually showing up is that for many people) can be broken into small and not scary tasks. The smaller and simple, the better. Imagine that you are going through these tasks like mario and have fun with it.
    Also, so what if you look silly? Not taking yourself too seriously and a beginners mind actually open you to so many opportunities to learn new things and meet people who are genuinely willing to help.

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  • macazootie

    I vote casting Amy Shumer for this role.

  • This is so awesome, Patrick!! I’m so glad to hear you had a good time. CrossFit is what got me into lifting, but I did it in my garage with friends before trying an actual gym. I was TERRIFIED when I first walked in, but loved it. I’m glad to hear you did, too!! Good for you for being brave and giving it a shot 🙂

  • Patrick

    Thank you! I was so sore for the next few days after my first time trying Crossfit, I couldn’t even move! Some of my friends and family thought I would quit, but after I healed, I signed up for more sessions and now I can already see some improvement! I still feel sore, but it’s not as bad as the first time. I’m so glad I found a kind of workout that I really enjoy doing!

  • Lisa Fedel

    Not a “first day” horror story, but it was my first time back to they gym in a while and I was really motivated to get back on track. I go through the first couple of exercises, then over to the TRX bands for some exercises. TRX bands are not properly hooked up. My left shoulder and hip take the impact, and I’m humiliated and hoping nobody saw. Guy comes up, asks if I’m alright and that he’s a volunteer firefighter. I honestly am in horrible pain and short of breath, but said I was fine and left the gym.

  • Rhia

    Horror story… kinda.

    Not used to working out, I got on an elliptical. I found it fun. I liked the way I moved. I almost felt like I was flying. Well, in the middle of the workout, I felt find, energize, and pushed myself. As soon as I stopped moving, I realized my heart was beating really hard and I could almost hear it thundering in my ears. I went to get off the elliptical, fell, and almost passed out. I got a few bumps and bruises. I had a few people come to check if I was ok. I had to sit down and drink water for about 30minutes before I felt like I could drive home.

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  • Cr4d

    Good post.

  • Tony Langdon

    I know it took me ages to work up the courage to join a gym the second time around. I had been interested for years, before I actually did join. Having a gym 400 metres from home and literally walking past it every time I caught the train eventually wore me down, and 20 seconds of courage did the rest. Once I joined, I never looked back. 🙂

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  • Maria Milagros Garcia

    Hello! I also had mine. I used to work out a lot in the past but never in a gym. Now, 200 and something pounds heavier, went to a gym for the first time and i felt so out of place, self concious and fat specially fat. I didnt know how to turn on the treadmill! It was so embarrasing. I spent a whole month only in the treadmill terrified to do something else… then i decided to try spinning (almost died) and i have been spinning for 4 months now, i can actually stand up and all. I am ready for the next step but i cant even walk into the “strength/weight zone. I am so afraid

  • Harriet

    What if your gym is really small and doesn’t have an area to do bodyweight exercises?

  • Me

    I want to share my first step experience in Gym….
    I am a student, a tall not-so skinny student. My classmate invited me to join with him in the gym, i was happy while feeling nervous because it was my first time. And so we went there( gym) and there’s a lot of people, LOTS OF FUCKING MUSCLED PEOPLE and here i am, a tall skinny stick guy who’s trying/hoping to be like them. But my classmate is a well trained muscled nerd so i took an advice from him and then there’s a guy came to me( He’s a trainer). He taught me the basic things to do before carrying a bunch of weights. After that, he took me around and do the Weight stuff for increasing muscle in my chest and biceps. I was exhausted so I sat on the bech waiting for my classmate to finish his work…..2 days after i felt muscle pain around my chest, bicep and back. It feels great huhuhuhu hahahahaha
    The end