What to Expect Your First Time in the Gym

Here’s what you need to know for a successful start at the gym.

When you first walk into a weight room, it can be overwhelming. There’s a lot of strange equipment, unfamiliar people, loud music, and unclear etiquette. It can feel intimidating. You’ll quickly find out that some people will be kind and helpful, while others will be brash and inconsiderate. Don’t let the latter discourage you from attending, as they are usually in the minority. If you’ve selected a good gym, the staff will be helpful in showing you around. You’re going to make mistakes, and that’s completely normal. Roll with the punches and give your new environment a few weeks before you make a final judgment.

Any good gym will have a friendly staff to guide you through your beginner phase. [Photo credit: Thomas Showers]

Weight rooms can be wonderful social environments to relieve stress. Many of my good friends are people I met from the gym. Most of them are just trying to enjoy their workout and improve themselves. Our like-mindedness made for a quick connection! On the flip side, you don’t have to do much speaking to people if you don’t want to. I’ve been through many training sessions where I go about my business and only communicate with others for questions like, “Are you using this rack?” or, “How many sets do you have left?” Headphones are great tool if this is your objective; just make sure you are aware of your surroundings.

What’s in a Warm Up?

Okay, so now you’re in the weight room. What should you try first? Find an open area and do a quick 5-minute warm-up. The point of the warm-up is to literally warm the tissues in your body. A warm up can be as simple as doing 25 jumping jacks, lightly rowing for a few minutes, or even performing your first exercise with very little weight. The primary objectives of warming up are:

  • Improve tissue pliability, nerve signal transmission, and muscle coordination via movement rehearsal
  • Excite the endocrine (hormone) system
  • Increase cardiac output
  • Increase synovial fluid viscosity in the joints

Okay, so what do those mean? Improving tissue pliability makes the musculotendinous unit (your muscle and the connective tissue that attaches it to your bones) more compliant and less stiff, reducing your risk for injury. Faster nerve signal transmission will decrease reaction time and may allow you to stay on balance more effectively. Rehearsing a movement at a low intensity for practice will improve your coordination for the higher intensities. Exciting the endocrine system will set the metabolic processes in motion that are necessary for you to exercise at your full capacity. Increasing cardiac output means that your blood is being circulated faster. Increasing synovial fluid viscosity in the joints allows the tissue surfaces in the joints to glide with less friction.

Some people like to get fancy with their warm up by “activating” certain muscle groups that they deem to be important for their performance in the upcoming session. Activation exercises usually address synergistic muscles, or muscles that assist in a movement but are not prime movers. These are located around the hips or shoulders, and are addressed by performing an isolation exercise for the desired muscle. Doing so makes it more readily recruited, or used, during the primary exercises that follow.

For example, you notice your knees are caving excessively inward toward your midline during a squat. This may indicate that your internal rotator muscles are dominating over your external rotator muscles in the hips. Someone who likes activation exercises might use something like a banded clamshell. One set of 10-20 reps per side should be enough. You use that exercise before you squat for the next five sessions, and your knee-caving problem gradually dissolves from session to session. You should now stop using the activation exercise, and continue with the same technique in your squats. If the problem arises again, use the clamshells again or try another exercise.

Overall, a warm up can be simple or complicated. Put something together that works for you, and make sure you’ve broken a little sweat by the end.

Cardio or Lifting? Depends on Your Goals

You’ve just finished your warm up. What’s next? A common question is, “Should I do cardio or lift weights first?” The answer comes back to your fitness goals. If your primary objective is to set personal record times on the rower, running, cycling, etc. do that first. If getting stronger, building muscle, and burning fat are your goals, lift the weights first. If you’re indifferent or don’t have any of these goals, lift first.

Why should you lift before you do cardio? Cardio, if done right, should make you tired. Feeling tired prior to lifting heavy weights is a bad idea because your technique, focus, and strength will likely suffer; dampening the magnitude of stimulus you can provide to your body. Remember: the greater the stimulus, the greater the adaptation. Lifting weights at the appropriate volume and intensity will strengthen and build lean tissue in your body.

new girl at the gym

Lifting heavy weights after cardio won’t allow you to get the best training stimulus. [Photo credit: J Perez Imagery]

More often than not, the cardiovascular training people perform at the gym is called low-intensity, steady state (LISS). LISS is categorized by the intensity and duration you perform it. Walking, jogging, using the elliptical (perhaps the most ineffective piece of exercise equipment you’ll find), biking, or rowing at an easy to moderate pace is LISS. The stimulus you get from LISS sessions is usually not enough to send your body into this anabolic (building) state, and generally makes you feel tired for a short period of time after the session. This tired feeling won’t last like an intense session will. Basically, if you can hold your pace (or intensity) for longer than one minute, without getting heavily fatigued, then it’s too easy.

When it comes to cardio, intense, short bouts of sprinting, rowing, biking, etc. can provide a large enough stimulus to create significant adaptation. Each bout should last one minute or less and be alternated with a rest period. An example would be to row as hard as you can for one minute, rest for two minutes, and repeat for 15 total minutes. This style of training is commonly known as high intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT should be performed as a separate session from resistance training because both should be intense, and your body can only handle so much intensity at one time before it’s too much. HIIT is hard, but that’s the whole point! You’ve got to send a message to the body that it needs to adapt to the demands of this training, and the only messages that get through are the strongly worded ones.

Lifting Lingo

Lifting weights is similar to HIIT in that the lifter usually performs an exercise at a moderate-to-high intensity for a short period of time. This concept is called time under tension. The amount of time under tension for a training session is called volume. If you spend time in a weight room, most people don’t directly measure their volume in seconds or minutes; they measure in repetitions. A standard repetition for a resistance training exercise lasts three seconds; two seconds on the way down and one second on the way up with no wasted time in between. Small groups of repetitions are called sets. Sets are followed by a period of rest to prepare for the next set.

To draw a parallel to the rowing example, a lifter could theoretically perform a similar exercise for five sets of twenty standard repetitions with two minutes of rest between sets. This equates to the same volume as the rowing example. Exercising at moderate-to-high intensities followed by adequate rest periods stimulates adaptations in your body. Lifting weights and HIIT do that job well.

Don’t Over-Think the Cool Down

The end of your exercise session is a good time for stretching or self-massage techniques like foam rolling. This period of training should be used for 5-10 minutes of light movement, stretching large muscle groups, and massaging problem areas. A lot of people cool down by walking to the locker room, changing clothes, and walking to their car. There’s nothing wrong with cooling down this way; in fact, that’s usually what I do. Your body temperature is still decreasing at the same rate as if you performed a cool down routine.

The cool down can be separated from the session completely, if that’s what you prefer. Now, it’s not so much a cool down as it is an excuse to move around and do a quick “system check”. The system check can include a handful of callisthenic movements, foam rolling the entire body, and stretching the entire body. Throughout the system check I pay attention to areas that feel tight, painful, or somehow “out of whack,” and try to relieve them. Sometimes, I’ll do a system check in the morning, before I lift, and before I go to bed. That may seem excessive, but the more it’s done, the easier it is to stay on top of imbalances. Here’s the takeaway for cool downs: You’re going to cool down no matter what. It’s just a convenient place to fit in stretching, massaging, and lightly moving around, which everyone should be doing.

Time to Get Started

I hope this article has answered some general questions you may have had about working out in a gym. In future articles, I’ll be diving into the specifics of the methods I’ve outlined, and show you how to design your own training program. For now, explore the gym and all it can offer.

Don’t let age be a barrier:

Starting Weightlifting Over 40