Walking into a new gym can often feel like you’ve just landed on another planet — overwhelming and foreign. Your first few workouts might be stressful as you navigate new machines and try to look like you’ve been doing this, well, forever, when it’s really been only a week. And with New Year’s resolutions in full swing, that means quite a few people will be stepping into new gyms (or renewing old gym memberships) over the next month.
But it doesn’t have to be so hard if you have a little bit of direction. A trainer or other experienced professional can make sure you are using equipment correctly — this is a must, by the way — but there are a lot of unspoken rules of the gym that will make you feel more comfortable and help you avoid side eye from regulars. (Our first tip? Ignore the side eye, they were beginners once, too.)
Here’s a list of our best gym tips for beginners.
Find a workout buddy
This one’s a no-brainer. Working out with a friend is usually more fun, and you’ll have someone to encourage you to do that extra set of sit-ups. Also, if you go with an experienced pal, he or she can show you how to use new machines (so you don’t have to subtly stare at strangers) and spot you when you bench-press.
Don’t dawdle on the equipment
Though some gyms have sign-up boards for equipment, especially during peak hours, calling unofficial dibs is a big no-no. “Do not put a towel down thinking you can reserve the bench in between repetitions,” said Ashley Greenblatt, a personal trainer at the Sporting Club at the Bellevue. “This is a good way to make exercise enemies.”
If the gym is busy, try to get all your reps in with a minute of rest in between. If you need longer breaks, try to visit at an off-peak hour — between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Also: The stationary bike is not the place for you to gab on the phone. Take your calls elsewhere.
Keep extra gym clothes in your car
I’m often guilty of skipping workouts because I left my favorite yoga pants at home. Avoid that by pre-packing your gym bag. If you keep three gym outfits in your car or at work, you’ll be able to stop by when you have a surprise extra hour in your day. Can’t remember? Many gyms have locker rentals, and you can keep your sneakers in there.
Always put equipment back after using it
If you hate when people don’t put stuff back where they found it, the same rule applies in the gym.
“Remember, ‘where it goes’ and ‘where it’s most convenient to leave it’ are rarely the same place,” said Marshall Roy, owner of King of Prussia’s Rise Gym.
But even if your gym etiquette is perfect, others may forget to clean up a station after they’re done. Nick Deacon, a trainer at the Drexel Recreation Center, said that to avoid stealing someone else’s station when they’re on a quick water break, you should wait 10 minutes before asking someone nearby if the station is still being used.
“If you find the person using the equipment, politely ask to ‘work in’ with them between sets,” Deacon said. “And if it seems the equipment is vacant, it’s all yours. Just apologize if they ever do return and ask to work in.”
Don’t overestimate how much weight you can handle
If you add more weight at the expense of your form, it’ll make your workout ineffective and cause a few raised eyebrows. It’s best to start out with lower numbers you know you can handle before upping your weights. Pro tip: No one will judge you for not lifting a ton of weight. In fact, most people are too focused on their own workouts to care about what you’re doing with your time.
And please, please keep the gym clean
Imagine going to use the elliptical and finding handles that are slick with sweat. No one wants to be in that position.
“No one wants to saddle up on the bench after someone poured puddles of sweat onto the seat,” Greenblatt said. “There are sanitary wipes set up all throughout the gym. Give the bench a wipe when you’ve finished your routine.”
Another thing you should never do is go to the gym while sick. When everyone’s touching the same things, germs can spread like wildfire.
“Coughing and sneezing your way through a workout will make you the least popular person in the gym, and your body needs rest to fight off your illness anyway,” Roy said.