New to the Gym? Here’s What to Know Before You Go

If you’re looking to exercise more often and improve your fitness, joining a gym is a great option. You’ll get access to a variety of workout equipment, classes and amenities to keep things interesting, and you won’t have to worry about the weather outside.

Still, when you arrive for that first workout and look out at the fitness floor, the gym can be overwhelming. If you’ve never been to the gym, or haven’t been in a while, it might seem that everyone knows what they’re doing except for you.

“People are intimidated by the equipment that they don’t know how to use,” says Neva Avery, a personal trainer and coordinator of UNC Health Wellness Programs. “They can get intimidated by others and worried about their own appearance. The biggest thing is not knowing what to do once they get to the gym.”

Here, Avery provides an insider’s guide to getting ready for the gym so you can reap all the benefits of a fitness center membership.

Start with a Tour of the Gym and Its Services

Avery advises new members to start with a tour of the facility.

“Ask the staff about an orientation to the gym or fitness center,” she says. “They will provide an introduction to the equipment and the fitness floor.” Staff will share any rules or processes that members should know about, such as using the lockers in the changing rooms.

By taking your tour at the time of day when you plan to work out, you’ll get a feel for how busy it might be, which can help increase your comfort level at the gym, Avery says.

Many gyms will include a complimentary session with a personal trainer as part of the orientation.

“During that session, you can talk with a trainer about your exercise goals, and they can provide some recommendations for getting started,” Avery says. “If it’s in your budget, consider working with a trainer for a few sessions. They can build a program for you and help you reach full confidence in navigating the fitness floor. Once people know what to do at the gym, they’re more comfortable.”

Avery says that working with a personal trainer can also help new members avoid injury. “I’ll often see people trying to do what they see on social media,” she says. “Not every exercise is right for every person. Personal trainers can work with people to find what’s best for them.”

Know What to Wear and What to Bring

Don’t worry about designer activewear when going to the gym; all you need are clothes that are easy to move in and shoes that are appropriate for the activity you want to do.

Avery recommends bringing water and a towel, though some fitness centers provide towels.

“Be mindful of how much you bring on the floor while you exercise,” Avery says. “A large bag can take up a lot of room and get in people’s way.”

Besides keeping large bags in the locker room, be considerate of other exercisers in shared spaces by using headphones for your music, wiping down equipment and returning used items to their rightful place.

Familiarize Yourself with the Exercise Options

One of the best reasons to join a gym is the variety of workouts offered under one roof. As you’re getting started, it’s good to know about the most common types of fitness center amenities.

Cardio equipment: If you’re new to treadmills, ellipticals, step machines or stationary bikes, ask a staff member for help. Avery says it’s essential to know where the emergency stop feature is on treadmills.

For any piece of equipment, start at a level that’s appropriate for your fitness ability. “Some people try to go all out and be very intense,” Avery says. “Then they’ll feel beat up, and they won’t continue. It’s also important to include a warmup. Go for at least five minutes at a lower intensity before you increase intensity.”

Follow any posted guidelines about how long you can use a machine, particularly when the gym is busy, and wipe handrails and seats when you are done.

Weight machines and free weights: Avery advises investing in personal training to make the most of this area of the gym and avoid injury. “One idea is to ask for training for a small group,” she says. “Find a few friends to join you. It will reduce the expense and increase your motivation.”

Avery says that people can be nervous about using a machine with others. “It’s shared equipment, so it’s OK to ask someone who’s been on a machine for an extended time or who’s resting if you can work in for a set,” she says. Similarly, be aware of others who might be waiting for your machine and allow them to work in, or use the equipment during your breaks. Once you’re done, rack your weights, or put them back where you found them.

Indoor track: Inclement weather doesn’t have to keep you from a walk or run if your gym has an indoor track. Avery says that some facilities allow strollers on their tracks, which can be welcome for parents trying to find time to exercise. Ask the staff at your facility what’s allowed on the track, and read posted signage about which direction to walk or run.

Group classes: “If you’re taking a class for the first time, be honest with yourself about where you are,” Avery says. “Don’t start with a high-intensity class. It will be discouraging if you can’t keep up and could increase your risk of getting hurt. Start with something less intense and progress to those harder classes.”

Avery says that high-intensity classes aren’t meant to be done every day. Aim for one to three a week, and don’t forget about classes that offer a mind-body component, such as yoga and tai chi. Ask fitness center staff about how to sign up for classes, and follow your instructor’s directions on setting up and returning equipment.

Spinning: Spinning or cycling classes are great for getting in some cardio in a fun environment, but as with any physical activity, Avery cautions new exercisers to start slow.

“Your instructor will be making recommendations about how much to increase resistance and speed, but remember you’re in control,” she says. “You can start with a lower resistance and speed and work up to it.”

If one spinning class left you sore, Avery advises trying again. “We frequently hear that the seat is uncomfortable,” she says. “It typically takes two to five classes before the discomfort goes away.”

Swimming: Swimming is beneficial for someone returning to exercise or living with a chronic disease such as arthritis because there is no impact on the joints. Many facilities also offer water aerobics classes at varying levels.

But keep in mind that no-impact workouts aren’t necessarily easy. “Exercising in water can be more challenging than many people realize,” Avery says. “That’s why it can be a great addition to a workout routine.”

Before getting into the pool, read the facility’s rules about showering and using the swimming lanes. Your facility might also have a schedule for when certain activities are allowed in the pool, such as family swim times, lessons or classes.

Recreation courts: Your fitness center might have spaces to reserve for racquetball, basketball and tennis; Avery says these recreational activities are rewarding because you can exercise while socializing and having fun. Just be sure that you have the right shoes: “These sports have a lot of lateral movement,” she says, “and running shoes aren’t ideal for that because they don’t provide lateral support.”

Ask the staff about court reservation policies and whether equipment such as balls and rackets can be checked out; you might have to bring your own.

Talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program. If you need a doctor, find one near you.