How to Work Out Properly In a Commercial Gym

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

I know many NF readers are hardcore Crossfit or elite gym fanatics, but for a lot of us the monthly cost of an expensive membership is incredibly prohibitive.

Home gyms often lack the necessary equipment (squat racks, barbells, heavy dumbbells, etc.) to get a full workout, so we resort to the LA Fitness, 24-Hour Fitness, or Gold’s Gym right down the street.

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

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

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

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

You know what?


I look at each day in the gym as a battle that I need to win, and you should too.

If you are somebody that’s intimidated by a commercial gym, or you’re really self-conscious and not sure what equipment to use or how to use it, have no fear. I’ve been there too, and I know exactly how you’re feeling.

This stuff is can be really overwhelming, and I know it keeps a lot of people don’t start or quickly fall apart because they don’t have the right support team or plan in place!

If you are somebody that is looking for guidance, form-checks on your movements, a workout plan built for your goals, and nutritional advice based on your bodytype, check out our uber popular 1-on-1 coaching program Our Nerd Fitness Coaches work with busy people like you to develop a workout plan that’s specific to you and your goals and lifestyle, and a nutritional plan that doesn’t suck.

Pick a Good Target

I’ve already covered how to not suck at working out in a previous article, so today’s post is more of a “how to have the right mentality while working out.”

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

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

Other than that, make sure you actually test out the gym before giving them your money.

Read this article I wrote on how to pick the right gym for you.  Once you’re ready to start working out, it’s time to get fired up.

Bring your own music

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

Other than getting pumped up, there’s one other big advantage to bringing your own tunes: it allows you to zone out those around you. Remember, you’re training and doing exercises that 99% of the people there wouldn’t even consider, so you’ll probably get funny looks.

Rather than worrying what these people think (which I explain next), keep your headphones in, your head down, and just focus on YOU.

Block out your troubles from the work day, the stress from your home life, or the worry of tomorrow’s big presentation.

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

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

Ignore 95% of the equipment

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

Lift weights first, then go do some intervals to finish out your workout.

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

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

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

Don’t know what to do?  You can build your own workout, or you can download our Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know guide and we’ll help you with a specific plan to work your way up from gym newbie to weight training regular. Get the guide when you sign up in the box below:

Ignore 99% of the people exercising

Ignore and block out pretty much every single person in the gym (which including the trainers). In my experience over the past fifteen years, nine out of ten people in a commercial gym have no idea what they’re doing, which means that as an informed individual you will tend to get funny looks when you train properly.

Every single day I shake my head while watching people around me doing useless exercises, using too much weight, and performing every movement improperly. What’s crazy is that in ALL of that time I’ve spent in a gym, I’ve probably seen only a dozen people do a proper squat.


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

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

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

As I’ve stated in my Billy Madison article, don’t worry about these people or what they think about you while you’re exercising.  They’re probably more self-conscious about themselves than you are.

Remember: headphones in, head down, zone out.

Do your thing and get out of there.

Tips and Tricks

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

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

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

Put on Your Helmet, Go To Battle

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

As rebels in commercial gyms, we are the outsiders.

I wouldn’t have it any other way! 

If you want to take things to the next level, I hope you check out our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program where we can help you reach your goals the right way. No shame. No Guilt. Just professional guidance, accountability, and complete confidence that you’re doing the right thing!

You can learn more and schedule a call with us by clicking in the box below: 

If you’re looking for more tips on how to work on in a gym, make sure you check out our other articles on the subject!

I hope to see you one day soon in a gym. I’ll be the guy rocking out my headphones, swinging from gymnastic rings, and getting weird looks from everybody around me!




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