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10 Things to Do If You've Never Been in a Gym Before

Are you a fitness virgin? No problem—just follow these 10 pointers to get started.
10 Things to Do If You've Never Been in a Gym Before

The first trip to the gym can be an intimidating experience. Between the huge dudes lifting massive weights and the women who look like they’ve sprung from bikini competitions, it can be a humbling place for a newbie looking to get started.

Not only that, gyms typically are abuzz with activity, a flurry of people moving from station to station in what seems like organized chaos, especially during the busy hours. Everyone seems to know what they’re doing and is following what seems to be a long list of unwritten etiquette rules.

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It’s enough to make a newcomer want to grab an exercise DVD and stay home. But a gym doesn't have to be an imposing environment. With a little preparation, (along with clearance from your doctor) you’ll soon learn the ropes—along with the pulleys, weights, and machines—in no time. Here’s how:

The worst part about visiting a gym for the first time is the awkward experience of being given a tour by a pushy salesperson that wants to sign you up for an expensive, confusing membership contract and introduce you to a trainer who will want to sell you a package of sessions. It can make the used-car dealership seem relaxing by comparison.

Instead, enlist an experienced friend who is a member of the gym show you around. As a member, he’s probably allowed to bring a friend for little to no charge. He can give you a tour, suggest a workout, recommend group classes (or take one with you), and generally make you feel like you’re just an out-of-town visitor as opposed to a newbie.

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If you’ve committed to a gym membership and it comes with a free introductory session with a trainer, go ahead and take it. Yes, it will be followed with a pitch to become a regular client. If that’s what you in the market for, it could be worth it. If nothing else, that first-time session will serve as an extended tour of the facility and you’ll pick up at least a few moves you likely can do on your own.

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Even longtime gym rats try to avoid rush hour (typically right after work), when working stiffs occupy every dumbbell, machine, and square foot of floor space. Make your first visit during downtime, which is the middle of the day or even the hours from 7:30 to 9 a.m., when the early birds have headed off to work and before the stay-at-home parents swarm the place after getting the kids off to school.

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You might not want to shower and change clothes during your first visit to the gym, if ever. But you will need somewhere to stash your keys, phone, and wallet. (Do not leave them in the car; gym parking lots are a favorite target of thieves.) Remarkably, some people still put their valuables in unlocked gym cubbies. Don’t take that risk. Bring a lock.

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Gyms produce sweat, both yours and that of others. Wipe down equipment after using and place a towel down wherever you lay your head. Gyms can be breeding grounds for germs. Most gyms have paper towel machines and sanitary sprays positioned around the building. This comes in handy when you inherit a bench someone left glistening with sweat. (Never be that guy.)

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Lock up your phone. Nothing kills the intensity and focus of a workout more than checking your phone constantly. The guy who lays a phone on a bench or around gym machines is the guy who soon will be replacing a screen or phone crushed by a dumbbell.

Nothing is more annoying than the person who makes calls in the gym, snaps selfies, or bumps into people while texting. If down the road you find you absolutely need your own music to train, buy a small music device that’s just a music player. Yes, they still make them.

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If you’re not with a friend for the first time and prefer to avoid the pushy salespeople, you’re on your own. That’s a good thing. Come armed with a short written workout. It can be as simple as push-ups, bench dips, pull-ups, and perhaps a few strength moves you’ve learned from the Men’s Fitness workout page, or just simple exercises using dumbbells or machines.

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If your plan involves three sets on a piece of equipment and someone is waiting, ask if they’d like to “work in,” alternating sets with you. If you’re using a piece of cardio equipment such as a stationary bike, treadmill, or elliptical, adhere to the time limits (generally 30 minutes) if the gym is busy. If such congestion breaks the intensity of your workout, adjust your schedule to come in off hours.

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Even if you’ve never been to a gym before, you probably know how to ride a bike. Even if you don’t, you can ride a stationary bike. Group cycling or “spin” classes are a great way to experience a class at your own pace. An instructor sits on a bike in the front of the room and gives instructions pertaining to speed, resistance, and effort. Take these only as guidelines; you can go at your own pace. Bring a gym towel and a full water bottle and sit in the back, if possible. That way you won’t feel self-conscious and, in what’s often a predominately female class, you’ll have a great view.

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Gym fashions have evolved dramatically in recent years. Tight, skimpy clothing might be the norm for women, but guys can afford to be more conservative. Even if you have a fairly jacked physique due to manual labor, genetics, or outside activities, leave the tank tops at home and wear a compression or “tech” shirt. If you’re carrying a few extra pounds, wear a regular T-shirt (though not a ridiculously oversized one) along with gym shorts and sneakers.

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