On my first day at the gym, I nearly dropped a barbell on my face.
When I walked in, a guy in the corner was deadlifting loudly. Chalk dust was in the air around the platform. A chorus of grunts surrounded me. I had no idea what I was doing at the gym, and I was intimidated from minute one.
Gathering all the courage I could muster, I went up to the only person I vaguely knew and asked “I’m new to the gym. What do I do?”
That workout was terrifying. I could barely bench the bar. I don’t even remember the other exercises I tried—the bar rushing towards my face is a snapshot locked in my mind.
As you might expect, it took a while before I was ready for day two.
But I did eventually come back, and the years of lifting (and training others) that followed taught me a lot that I wish I had known on my first day at the gym.
Questions like “what to do my first time working out” or “what things should I bring to the gym” have answers that are pretty simple once you’ve been lifting for a while.
What about feeling like you don’t belong? Or like you’re being judged? If you understand gym etiquette, have tools to manage gym anxiety, and know exactly how to ask for a spot, those feelings are a lot easier to deal with.
You can even figure out the best times to go to the gym, so that you avoid the crowds.
This guide will help. It should cover everything you need to know on your first day at the gym. You’ll learn:
- A short workout that starts creating a positive feedback loop, getting you to come back to the gym for more
- A simple psychological technique that helps you avoid feeling judged at the gym
- Exactly what to bring to the gym (and what to wear so you don’t stick out)
- Gym etiquette, including what to say if you need to ask for help
- How to find times the gym is least crowded
- Fitness terms you need to know (or will just overhear), in the glossary at the end
If you need help getting to the gym in the first place, check out my free Roadmap to Fitness. It gives you a simple, 5-step process that uses psychology to get you in the gym consistently.
Table of Contents
- What Should My First Gym Workout Be?
- Keeping Spirits High: You Aren’t Being Judged on Your First Day at the Gym
- Understanding Gym Etiquette
- Know What to Bring to the Gym
- How to Reduce Muscle Pain after the Gym
- When is the Gym Least Crowded?
- Glossary of Fitness Terms for Your First Day at the Gym
- The End of Your First Day
What Should My First Gym Workout Be?
Let’s start with the big question: what workout should you do at the gym?
It feels like there are a million options out there. Stronglifts? Starting Strength? PPL? C25K? WS4SB? 5/3/1? PHUL? Smolov? What do all of these names even mean?
Don’t worry about any of that. On your first day at the gym, keep it simple. As I’ve written before, the best workout is the one you can stick to. And having a plan before you get to the gym can seriously reduce gym anxiety.
I’ll give you a good “first day at the gym” workout in a few moments, but feel free to choose whatever you like: it’s important that you pick a program you want to follow.
Creating a positive feedback loop
The most important part of your first workout is that it gets you to come back for a second workout. The next most important part is to get you feeling good and learning some key movements.
As Fitocracy founder Dick Talens says, “the only way to succeed at fitness is to create a positive feedback loop.”
Exercise is inherently rewarding—it can actually make you feel pretty good. But it won’t do that if you go in on your first day and try to lift the entire gym. Starting light and simple will keep you from getting too sore, and begin setting up your positive feedback loop.
Terry Crews had similar advice in his Reddit AMA:
“It has to feel good. I tell people this a lot—go to the gym, and just sit there, and read a magazine, and then go home. And do this every day. Go to the gym, don’t even work out. Just GO. Because the habit of going to the gym is more important than the workout.”
Despite what so much of society seems to tell us, working out can feel good. It will feel hard sometimes, but still good. And it doesn’t need to be super hard on day one; your first day at the gym is the most important time for working out to feel good.
A simple “first day at the gym” workout
I’m going to give you 5 exercises to do on your first day at the gym. Remember, the goal here is just to come back for day 2. I recommend 3 sets per exercise, but if you only want to do 2 or even 1, that’s ok for now.
I’m linking you to videos for each exercise, but if there are any you feel less confident about that’s ok too. Focus on getting at least one exercise right. Next workout you can master the second one.
|Goblet Squats 3 sets of 6 reps|
|Push-ups 3 sets of 6 reps|
|Romanian Deadlift 3 sets of 6 reps|
|Inverted Row 3 sets of 6 reps|
|Plank 3 sets of 25 seconds|
You probably still have a couple of questions, so let’s walk through this. Here are some of the most common questions that people have on their first day at the gym.
What are sets and reps?
If you don’t know this yet, don’t worry! You’ll pick it up quickly.
A rep, or repetition, is completely doing an exercise once. Six reps of push-ups means doing 6 push-ups.
A set is the collection of reps you do without rest. So if you do 6 pushups and then stop, you did one set of 6 reps. Rest a bit and start set number 2.
You’ll most often see sets and reps listed as [Sets]x[Reps]. So “3×6” is the same as saying “3 sets of 6 reps.”
How much weight should I use?
Luckily only two of these exercises require weights.
For goblet squats, I usually say that a 20 pound dumbbell is a good place to start: this is light enough that you can probably do it, but heavy enough to serve as a counterbalance that lets you get deeper into the squat.
For Romanian deadlifts (often written as RDLs), start with a standard 45 pound barbell.
If those numbers feel too light or heavy, feel free to adjust them. Remember, the goal is to keep you moving and coming back for round two, not just to get you super tired.
How long should I rest between sets?
This is a question that’s still under debate by a lot of people, and usually depends on the goals of your exercise (strength, muscular endurance, power, muscle growth etc.).
For the purposes of this beginning program, about 60 seconds of rest between sets is perfect.
If you have any other questions, feel free to leave a comment or send me a message (I read every and reply to every legitimate email).
Keeping Spirits High: You Aren’t Being Judged on Your First Day at the Gym
Let me start by reassuring you: you aren’t being judged. People in the gym are usually dialed into their own workouts. Headphones are in, weights are moving, and probably no one is looking at you.
In fact, if anyone does look at you, they’re more likely to think “way to go” than anything else. People in the gym, especially the super in-shape people, are usually super supportive.
They might even envy you! This comic from the Oatmeal takes an entertaining look at some of the social dynamics of the gym.
That said, I know hearing that “you aren’t being judged” and believing it are two entirely separate things. One way to stay focused on yourself is remember your plan, running through the exercises of your workout in your mind.
Another way is to borrow a cognitive behavioral technique from psychology. I covered this in-depth in this article, but you can check out one example technique below.
A psychological technique to reduce gym anxiety
Inaccurate thoughts are at the core of our gym anxiety. Thoughts like:
- “I don’t belong here”
- “I’ve tried to work out before, I’m just a lazy person”
- “Only really fit people go to the gym, and that isn’t me”
- “Everyone is judging me”
These kinds of thoughts are tempting. I know I definitely had to overcome them when building my workout habit, and I failed more than a few times.
Whenever you have a negative thought like this, make a note of it. Jot it down on paper or the notes app on your phone—anywhere that gets it out of your head and into the real world.
Once you have the thought down, take a few minutes and rip it to shreds. Logic the hell out of it. “Only fit people go to the gym?” Bullshit. Gyms exist so that people can get fit.
Attack your negative thoughts from every angle, and write down your answers. Writing things down makes them easier to deal with. In your head these thoughts and rebuttals are amorphous blobs. Outside your head, your concerns seem less concerning and your responses more brutally accurate.
This is rooted in cognitive behavioral techniques, and it really helps tear down gym anxieties.
Understanding Gym Etiquette
It makes sense: if you feel like you’re out of place, you worry about doing something socially unacceptable.
Fortunately there are relatively few unwritten rules of the gym, and they aren’t hard to learn.
1) Don’t bother someone in the middle of a set
Unless someone drops a barbell on their neck, your question can wait until the set is done.
This is mostly common sense, but you’d be surprised at how often it comes up; I once tweaked my back because a guy literally tapped me on the shoulder in the middle of a rep.
If you need a spot or want to work in, that’s totally fine. But wait until the set is done.
2) No curling in the squat rack
The bigger rule here is: don’t use equipment unnecessarily. Don’t go hogging multiple pieces of equipment, or (if you’re doing some kind of circuit or superset workout) offer to let people work in.
But especially don’t curl in the squat rack. If the equipment looks like this or this, it’s intended for bigger exercises (squats, overhead press etc.) that really can’t be done at all without them. There are other places to do curls at the gym.
3) Re-rack your weights
When you finish with the equipment you’re using, clean it up. Leaving weights on the bar is both annoying and confusing. It’s annoying because the next person has to do extra clean up. It’s confusing because it isn’t obvious that equipment is free if there’s still weight on the bar.
People at the gym are mostly super nice people. But they are also ultimately there to work out, not be chummy.
It’s totally fine to chat with people every so often, and more than acceptable to ask for a spot, but try to avoid talking their ears off.
Along the same lines, don’t be gabbing away on your phone in the gym. If there’s an important call, take it in the lobby.
5) Asking for a spot is totally ok
These rules have so far been a lot of things that you shouldn’t do. But one thing you definitely should do it ask someone to spot you when you need it. Asking to work in is also totally acceptable.
If you hang around the gym long enough, you’ll probably be asked these questions yourself.
How to ask for a spot
If you need to ask for a spot or want to “work in,” how do you go about it? People are often busy with their sets, and headphones mean that you can’t just say “hey” to get their attention.
First of all, if you need a spot, you want someone that knows what they’re doing. Go ahead and locate the biggest person in your immediate vicinity; it’s not a foolproof method, but it should be good enough.
Once you know who you want, walk over to them and get their attention (after their set is done!). You’ll want to approach from in front of them; it makes it easier for them to notice you, especially if they’re wearing headphones.
To get their attention, I usually give a little half wave in their field of vision. They’ll take out an earbud and you can ask “do you mind spotting me real quick?”
That’s it. It’s that easy. Sometimes they’ll even know what you want and volunteer themselves. The same rules apply to working in.
Know What to Bring to the Gym
One great thing about working out at a gym is that you really don’t need to bring much with you. This is my standard gym bag.
You probably don’t even need most of this stuff. I keep the balls around for self-myofascial release, the bands for stretching and targeted glute work. You probably only need gym clothes (more on this in a second).
There might be some other things worth bringing, depending on your gym. You might want to bring a lock for the locker room, a towel for the showers, and shampoo/conditioner/bodywash. A lot of gyms (mine included) provide these things, so make sure you check what you need when you sign up.
There are also a few things you probably don’t need to bring:
- Lifting gloves: I understand that weights can hurt your hands sometimes, but trust me when I say you’ll get used to it. Moisturize and keep lifting; your hands will be fine. Wearing gloves actually makes lifting less safe and less effective, as you have less control over the weights.
- Lifting shoes: I’ll give some shoe recommendations in a moment, but you don’t need powerlifting or olympic lifting shoes. These often have an elevated heel, which artificially increases your ankle mobility and therefore lets you squat deeper/more. You don’t want that unless you intend to compete, since they’ll limit your actual ankle mobility.
- Chalk/Wrist Wraps/Straps/Fat Gripz/Knee Wraps/Lifting belts: All of this equipment has its place, but you don’t need it on day one. It’s better to get some lifting experience first.
What should I wear to the gym?
Let me start by saying—I know next to nothing about women’s fashion. My specific recommendations will probably mostly apply to men, but the general advice stands: just wear athletic clothes and you’ll be fine.
If there were a uniform for the “new person” at the gym, it would be an oversized T-shirt, basketball shorts, and tennis shoes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s something a lot of people wear.
But seriously, most clothes will be fine. Don’t wear jeans or cargo shorts and you’re basically good to go. For a long time I just wore plain black crewneck shirts from Target.
If you want my more specific recommendations, here they are:
- Shoes: I used to prefer Nike Frees or New Balance Minimus, shoes that don’t provide that much support and make your ankles work to support you. I recently switched to some Mizunos that are a little more supportive. Ever have foot pain? If yes, you might want something with support. Employees at a running store will be very knowledgeable and can help give you specific recommendations based on your feet.
- Favorite shirts: Like I said, I used to wear a ton of black Target crewnecks. Now I wear crewnecks, old ultimate frisbee jerseys, or tank tops.
- Favorite shorts (mini rant): I straight up do NOT understand how ultimate frisbee shorts aren’t insanely popular. I used to lift in basketball shorts or basic athletic shorts, but discovering frisbee shorts was an absolute game changer. They’re ridiculously comfortable and allow full range of motion. Every athlete I know that’s tried them thinks they’re awesome. You can check ‘em out here.
I have no affiliation with any of those products, but they are my gym apparel recommendations (especially the shorts).
How to Reduce Muscle Pain after the Gym
It’s a cruel trick of the gym that your first days are always the most difficult.
After your first workout, you’ll probably get sore. Your body isn’t used to exercise, or to the specific movements you’re putting it through. Until it adapts, you’re going to feel it. First time gym soreness is totally normal.
The causes of soreness and gym-related body pain are complicated, but they boil down to this: if you do new exercises, you’ll get sore. For a little bit.
Thankfully, this doesn’t last long (via GIPHY).
As you get more experience working out and movements become more familiar, you’ll get less sore and you’ll get sore less often. This is also a reason I like to ease people into working out—the workout I laid out above is great for your first day because it teaches you the fundamentals at a reasonable intensity.
But let’s say you are sore. Can you still work out? How can you reduce soreness?
The short version: yes, you can still work out while sore. You reduce soreness by resting, eating, and sleeping.
The longer version is that yes, you can still work out while sore. You might notice that the range of motion of your sore muscles is pretty limited. When your hamstrings are sore, for example, it gets harder to touch your toes. That can make some exercises more difficult.
If you’re super sore at the gym, make your workout a bit easier than normal. Do some cardio, stretch, and decrease weight on your lifts if you have to. Once your soreness goes away, you can get back into full workouts. How long does soreness last? It should go away on its own within a week.
If you’re looking for some specific ways to reduce soreness, there are some things that might help. Notice the emphasis on “might.” By far the most important ingredients to reducing soreness are rest and time. These extra steps could make a small difference:
- Eat good food: Eating high quality foods with a good amount of protein gives your body the fuel it needs to recover.
- Foam roll: Foam rolling helps improve the quality of connective tissue, and can feel good on sore muscles.
- Stretch: Stretching a sore muscle feels fantastic. Especially if soreness affects range of motion, stretching can help you get a bit more movement out of a sore muscle.
- Take an ice bath: The research on ice baths is mixed, but taking the plunge into a cold bath will help reduce the actual body pain of soreness, even if it doesn’t turn out that it helps you heal faster.
- Spend time in the sauna: If your gym has a sauna, hanging out for a few minutes after your workout can help prevent soreness from limiting your range of motion.
- Do some light cardio: Getting your heart rate up and moving can help you deal with muscle soreness.
- Sleep: I said it before, and I’ll say it again: nothing is more important for recovering than lots of good, high quality sleep.
Even the worst gym soreness should fade within a week. As you get more experience in the gym, you’ll get less sore from each workout.
When is the Gym Least Crowded?
Most of the new lifters I’ve worked with prefer to exercise when the gym is relatively empty. How do you know when that is?
Let me start by saying that the best times to go to the gym will vary by location. A popular group fitness class on an ordinarily unpopular day of the week can really boost foot traffic and crowd things up.
In my experience with commercial gyms, this is the general breakdown of times:
- Monday/Tuesday around 6pm is the busiest the gym gets
- 6-8 am on weekdays is also a fairly popular workout time. Fewer people seem to work out in the morning, but the gym still gets somewhat busy.
- Friday/Saturday night is the least busy
- Thursday/Friday around ~6pm is the least busy an after-work time slot will get
- Saturday/Sunday during the day is a pretty consistent stream of traffic. The gym stays moderately occupied throughout the day.
- Any weekday will be quieter from 9-5
Want to know for sure? When you get your gym membership, ask the sales rep or the person at the front desk how busy the gym gets. They’ll usually have an idea of the most popular times for that location.
Another note: the gym will always be crowded around New Years. It also is almost always back to normal after Valentine’s Day.
Glossary of Fitness Terms for Your First Day at the Gym
When you research fitness, or just hang around a gym, you’re likely to come across these terms. Hearing a bunch of words and having no idea what they mean can be stressful, so I put together a list of some common ones.
This list isn’t exhaustive, so if you hear a word that isn’t on here, shoot me an email and I’ll add it.
Aerobic exercise (Cardio) – Exercise that uses aerobic energy systems. Most people refer to this as “cardio.” Aerobic exercise tends to be less intense and take longer than anaerobic exercise (but not always).
Anaerobic exercise (Lifting) – Exercise that uses anaerobic energy systems. Lifting is the most common example of anaerobic exercise, although lifting is not automatically anaerobic (it depends on intensity).
Big 3 – Refers to the main powerlifting movements: squat, bench press, deadlift. Powerlifting has had a big influence on the fitness industry, so you’re likely to hear about this if you hang around gyms often enough. Some people might also ask about your “total,” which is your personal best for each lift added together.
Body composition – The ratio of different substances in your body, including fat, muscle, water, and bone. You’ll most often hear about this in reference to fat and muscle percentages, but you’ll probably also hear about “water weight.”
Bodybuilding – Using weight training to intentionally shape your body. Bodybuilding competitions involve posing, and are judged based on mass, symmetry, proportion, definition, and stage presence.
Circuit training – A popular form of exercise that involves going from one exercise to the next with no or minimal rest.
Concentric – The part of a movement where a muscle is contracting. Examples include going up in a squat (quads contract) or pull-up (biceps, lats, etc. contract).
Core – Basically abs, but core also includes your entire midsection (including your lower back).
Cross training – When someone that does one kind of exercise does a different kind of exercise. If a runner did a swim workout, or a football player played some ultimate frisbee, they would both be cross training.
Curlbro – Dudes that basically only do curls at the gym. May also do some other upper body exercises, but definitely not legs. Found frequently in commercial gyms.
DOMS – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Ever feel sore after a workout? This is why. DOMS usually strikes the day after a workout, and is more intense if you’re doing a routine for the first time. If you’re just getting started DOMS can last a week, but it usually goes away after a few days. It’s totally fine to work out while you’re sore.
Eccentric – The part of a movement where a muscle is lengthening. Examples include going down into a squat or lowering a deadlift.
Flexibility (vs. Mobility) – Flexibility and mobility are related but slightly different. Flexibility is the degree to which a muscle can lengthen and mobility is the actual range of motion you have at a particular joint (which is influenced by flexibility, but also soft tissue and bone structure).
Interval training (HIIT) – Training that alternates between work and rest. An example would be 20 seconds of sprinting followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated. High intensity interval training (HIIT) uses fast, intense intervals rather than longer ones.
Isometric – Exercises that work muscles without actually moving them through a range of motion. Planks are an example.
LISS – Low Intensity Steady State. Usually refers to long distance running.
Macros – Shorthand for “macronutrients.” A macronutrient is a nutrient that has calories. The three macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, and fat (micronutrients are vitamins and minerals). You’ll hear this in the diet, of course, and often in terms of the ratios of each macronutrient in your overall diet.
Olympic Lifting – Also called “weightlifting” (as one word), this is the lifting that appears in the Olympics. It is based on lifting the most weight in two movements: the clean and jerk and the snatch. Other related movements like power cleans and clean and press are often lumped into weightlifting.
Plyometric – Explosive exercises that involve contracting a muscle very quickly. Box jumps and other jumping activities are an example.
Power – The ability to exert force quickly. Power exercises include plyometric exercises and Olympic lifts like cleans.
Powerlifting – Lifting based on lifting the most weight on the big 3: squat, bench, and deadlift. At powerlifting meets, contestants compete for the highest numbers in those three lifts.
Pump – When blood rushes to your muscles after a workout. The muscle swells up and the skin feels tight.
Rep – A repetition. Completing an exercise once is one rep.
Set – A collection of repetitions. After a specified number of repetitions you “set” the weight down; doing 12 reps of bench press and then stopping is one set.
Strength – The ability to exert force against a weight. This is different from power because it isn’t related to the speed at which you move the weight.
Superset – When you pair two exercises and do them back to back with no or minimal rest. When written into a program, a superset looks like this:
A1) Front Squat 3×5
A2) Pull-ups 3×8
You would do a set of front squats, then a set of pull-ups, then another set of front squats until you’ve finished all sets.
Have another term you want defined? Just shoot me an email and I’ll add it.
The End of Your First Day
That’s it! Everything you need to know to survive your first day at the gym.
Remember: the goal of workout one is to come back for workout two. So head home, have a nice shower, and relax. Your work today is done.
Of course, sometimes is can be hard to find motivation to go to the gym in the first place. For that, I put together a free, step-by-step guide to using psychology to stop skipping workouts. You’ll also get a free, 46-page eBook with my best fitness motivation tips.