A Beginners Guide To Conquering The Gym: Be In The Know!

It is natural to have a fear of the gym if you are new to the environment. It is like stepping into a jungle full of creatures you have never seen who are acting very strangely. The most common worry first time gym goers have is what other people will think of them. Will you look clumsy? Will everyone be judging you because you lift light weights? Well, the fact is that most people in the gym will respect the fact that you are there working out just like them and you don’t need to worry about the others, they will be too busy admiring themselves in the mirror.

You will have decided to go to the gym for a reason, whether it is broad or specific so the first thing that you need to do is establish exactly what your purpose is and set yourself some goals. If you want to optimise your training sessions, reap the most health benefits and fall in love with working out then you need to get over the first hurdle and attack your new lifestyle with confidence.

This article will help explain everything you need to know from gym equipment to gym etiquette and what you will need to take with you.

So let’s start with the basics.

What You Will Need

Training Clothes:

The gym is not a fashion parade. Remember why you are going. Having said that, it is possible to look nice and wear appropriate clothing. The layer closest to your skin should be a synthetic material (such as polypropylene) which helps to draw sweat away from the surface of your skin. Avoid cotton garments as they tend to become wet with sweat and stick to your skin. Whether you opt for tight fitting or looser clothing is up to you, but make sure that you don’t wear anything with toggles/trousers which are too long etc. Anything which could get caught and disrupt your training is a definite no.

If you have long hair tie it up or buy a headband. Again it can get in the way but it is particularly annoying if your hair is flying into your face when you are using the cardio machines. Keeping hair away from your face also prevents you from breaking out in blemishes/rashes.

Shoes are a personal choice and depend on your personal running style/training regime in the gym but avoiding open toe shoes is a must! Running shoes/trainers/ pumps are fine. Most gyms have strict rules about not wearing outdoor shoes in the gym so make sure that you keep your shoes clean and avoid any shoes with black soles where possible.

A Towel:

You will be sweating A LOT if you are working as hard as you should be. Yes, the amount that individuals sweat does vary, but if you are training hard there is no way you will not produce a few beads of sweat in the process! Having a small hand towel close by during workouts is helpful and hygienic. Wiping the surfaces of your machine (even if it appears dry) is a must! Of course the gym will have cleaners but if you think about the number of sweaty people using each machine per day, it would be pretty disgusting if no one tidied up after themselves!

You will need a shower post-workout too so packing a larger towel is a good idea!

Water/Electrolyte Drink:

The intake of water is vital to the chemical reactions that occur in the body to utilise energy, aid muscle repair and prevent damage to cardiovascular, skeletal and digestive systems. It helps your body to remain in a state of homeostasis which includes the regulation of body temperature. Opting for an isotonic sports drink will help replenish electrolytes and fluid lost through sweat.

All gyms will have a water fountain or tap from which you can get drinking water. Always remember to take your water bottle with you when you work out. It is also better to choose a water bottle with a sports lid instead of a screw cap, particularly for cardio training. Throwing water all over yourself while you run might help cool you down but it won’t keep you hydrated ;).

Mp3/iPod (optional):

There has been a lot of research into how music affects sporting/ training performance and the majority of it is positive. However, it is important to recognise that different routines work for different people. Setting up your mp3 with a workout playlist is a great idea! Be sure to include up-beat and intense songs for the most active part of your workout. Finishing the playlist with some slower and relaxing songs to stretch to is also a great idea.

Most people prefer to get into the zone during their workout by blocking out their surroundings and focusing on the task in hand. However, if you have a gym buddy/prefer your workout to be more social or you find music a distraction then this isn’t a necessity. Personally, I find that music helps boost my energy levels and increases the duration of my workouts.

I should note that if you prefer to watch your favourite TV while working out, most gyms have headphone sockets built into the cardio machines so that you can watch and listen to that instead.

A Notepad and Pen:

Whether you hire a personal trainer to help you achieve your goals or not, it is important to keep track of your progress for a number of reasons. Firstly, it means that you have a plan. Going into the gym without a plan is not advisable because you are more likely to quit early/miss out muscle groups/overwork muscle groups.. the list goes on!

Secondly, tracking your progress allows you to re-evaluate your goals meaning that once you hit a goal you can celebrate and push on, rather than celebrating and thinking you can stop trying so hard now. There is always something more you can achieve no matter how elite you become through training.

Lastly, it gives you motivation and belief in yourself when times get tough. There will come a time where you reach a plateau or you feel you are working hard and seeing minor results rather than the big results you deserve. These things take time and having your initial workout/weight/body composition on paper to compare to your current workout/weight/body composition will help to remind you what you have achieved so far and fuel your determination to strive towards your next goal.

Money/ Padlock for Locker (check with the gym)

Nobody wants to be carting a bag around the gym (and most gyms won’t allow this) so you will need to put your belongings in a locker before entering the gym. Whether it is 20p, £1 or a padlock that you need, check before attending your first session so that you can prepare accordingly.

Heart Rate Monitor (optional):

If you want to get the most from your cardio workouts and be able to monitor more specific progress, investing in a heart rate monitor is ideal. They range from the cost-effective to the more technologically advanced, with something in the mid-range being a good place to start. Too cheap and you risk wild inaccuracies, too expensive and you risk throwing money away if you never use it again.

A Gym Buddy (optional):

Attending the gym with a friend who has similar goals/level of fitness to you is great for a number of reasons:

1. Motivation – They help you to push harder during training and actually turn up in the first place!

2. Competition – Training with someone of a similar ability to your own will bring out your competitive streak. You will be surprised how much more you are capable of when there is a little friendly rivalry going on!

3. Safety – If you plan on including weight lifting in your workouts (and you should!) having a spot to ensure that you can push to the limit without hurting yourself is a must.

4. Sharing the journey – It is great to have support and someone who understands exactly how you feel about your achievements, let downs, state of fitness, diet etc  by your side from start to finish.

The bad thing about gym buddies is if you become dependent on their support and they decide to give up. It is important to have your own goals and motivation to keep you going no matter what!

Gloves/ Straps for Resistance Training (optional):

You will find that in adjusting to resistance training or rowing your hands may become very dry and sore and prevent you from exercising as you would like because of the pain this causes. Lifting gloves help provide you with grip and padding so that this discomfort becomes a non-issue and you can train to your full potential. You may also find that you are capable of lifting a heavier weight but your hands slip before you get a chance to perform as many (if any) reps as you would like. Grip strength can become an issue, particularly during heavy compound lifts but with lifting straps you can ensure that you can safely and comfortable attempt heavy compound lifts.

Weight lifting belts are also highly important for postural and general safety reasons. Weight lifting belts are usually reserved for the heavy lifting athletes, however, when you commence training you may find that muscle weakness and adjusting to new ranges of motion/resistance leave you prone to injury so it might be worth investing in a lifting belt to support your lower back.

What You Won’t Need

A Mobile Phone:

Firstly, they distract you. You may think you had a hard 90 minute session at the gym but in reality what you did was sit on the equipment for 50 minutes and text/tweet/chat on facebook...probably about how you are at the gym!

Secondly, they extend the time for which people use machines and this has a negative impact on the gains of others. We are a team and we are all working out to better ourselves so let’s help each other out by not using phones on precious equipment when we can use it anywhere else!

Thirdly, you increase the likelihood of it getting broken, being left or stolen if you take it into the gym.

And finally, the gym is a welcome escape that you are supposed to enjoy! Tune out from the world and focus on your workout.


One of the reasons people go to the gym is because they want to look good. However, wearing a full face of make-up to the gym because you want to look good is actually counter-productive. The risk of breaking out in blemishes is high if you combine sweat and dilated pores with foundation and powder in a horrible gloopy mess on your face.

Skin is made up of an outer layer, the epidermis, and a layer of soft tissue underneath called the dermis. The epidermis constantly grows up towards the outer surface of the skin and sheds dead cells. Our skin acts as a barrier to protect our body from the environment, regulates body temperature and detects and fights off infections. The skin is one of the biggest and most complex organs of the body, containing hair follicles, oil glands, sweat glands, nerves and blood vessels. You can look after your skin by keeping the surface clean and eating well. You have a great routine to keep your body in check and your skin deserves the same treatment.

Gym Etiquette

Like any establishment, the gym has a set of rules (both mandatory and unwritten) that users should abide by so as not to offend anybody else or get kicked out.

Gym etiquette is as follows:

1. Respect the personal space of others. If there is a row of empty machines and only one person using one of them, do not get on the machine right next to them. If you are waiting to use a machine, do not hassle or hover over the person using it. Make eye contact or verbally establish that you want the machine after them and then wait at a reasonable distance.

2. Only occupy work stations that you are actively using.

3. Wipe your machine after you use it.

4. Do not use a mobile phone.

5. Put weights back where you found them.

6. Wash your clothes and shower between workouts. You stink.

7. Do not treat the gym as a singles bar. A glance is fine, staring is not.

8. Do not laugh at those who are overweight/struggling/ putting in 100% effort. They are there for the same reasons as you and you should respect the fact that they are trying to improve.

9. Do not perform ridiculous exercises on popular work stations that are used for something else.

10. Ask for help from a personal trainer/gym employee if you are unsure of anything.

Have fun!

The Equipment

The gym is home to an array of equipment from cardio machines to dumbbells to gym balls and the thing that they all have in common is that they are designed to give you the most effective workout, while preventing your routine from becoming tedious or too easy! If you know how to use all of the equipment, you can mix up your workout and achieve the best results in a faster time frame. Too many people are scared to ask for help or try to use a machine that they are unsure about. The equipment is there to be used (and you pay for it) so don’t waste it!

Cardio Machines

These machines can be used for:

-          Warm-up/cool down

-          Low impact exercise if joint pain/injury is an issue

-          Endurance training

-          Sprint/ Interval training

-          Sport specific training

-          Improving cardiovascular health including lowering resting heart rate and increasing VO2 max.

-          Fat burning/weight loss

Treadmill – This is the most well known piece of cardio equipment. Designed for walking/running at constant/ varying speeds and constant/ varying incline.

Rowing Machine – A total body workout. The resistance can be altered at the base and you can choose whether to race another ‘boat’, pre-set your workout or just row for a certain amount of time/over a certain distance.

Cross-Trainer (Elliptical) – A popular choice due to the fact that it engages all of the large muscle groups while limiting the impact force on the lower body. You can choose to engage both arms and legs or focus on legs and decide whether you want your motions to be forwards/ backwards or alternate between the two.

Stair Master – Again, this cardio machine is relatively low impact while burning calories off at a rapid pace. The resistance and speed of stepping can be altered and this machine focuses on the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves. Try to avoid holding your body weight up on your arms with this machine, it takes away from the muscle groups you are trying to work and you will burn far less calories!

You will also find various bicycles in the gym which include arm bikes, upright bikes and recline bikes. Each machine is designed to target specific muscle groups while challenging your cardiovascular system and burning plenty of calories!

Resistance Machines

These machines can be used for:

-          Increasing strength

-          Increasing muscle mass

-          Fat Burning

-          Sculpting a toned physique

-          Isolating specific muscle groups

The list of resistance machines is so lengthy that it would take a great deal of time to write (and be pretty dull to read through), instead I am going to describe a few of the more popular machines so that you get an idea of what to expect. Personal trainers will be on hand to help integrate you in the gym, introducing you to resistance equipment and demonstrating how it works in more detail.

Adductor/Abductor – Machines which focus on the inner and outer thighs and glutes. Seated in a chair you will adjust the weight at the base of the machine and place your feet on the foot hols with knees pressed firmly into the pads. You will then either push outwards (abductor) or inwards (adductor) depending on which machine you are using.

Lat Pull Down – This machine engages the shoulders, back and biceps predominantly. Seated in a chair (again adjusting the weight) you will grab the bar overhead and pull down towards you. Variations of body positioning and arm positioning are great with this exercise so ask a trainer to show you some options and explain what is best for you.


Chest Press – This is the resistance machine (easier) version of a bench press. Adjust the seat so that the handles either side of it are in line with your chest, then hold onto the handles and push forwards. There are different handle options depending on the muscles you want to activate most. When finishing your set there is a foot pedal which takes the resistance away from your arms so that you can safely return the handles to their starting position without injuring yourself.

Free Weights

This equipment can be used for:

-          Increasing strength

-          Increasing Power

-          Increasing muscle mass

-          Fat Burning

-          Sculpting a toned physique

-          Isolating specific muscle groups

-          Improving posture

-          Improving balance and coordination

-          Total body workout

In the free weight section, you will see the following:

Dumbbells – These are used predominantly to isolate muscle groups, however, if you choose to stand while using them they will also engage your core. There are a vast range of weights and exercises to be utilised. Some exercises cross over with those performed with a barbell (for example, bench press) but offer slightly different gains due to differences in grip, range of motion and stability.

Barbells – These are the long silver bars with spherical weights which can be added or taken off to adjust weight. Predominantly these are used for compound exercises including squats and deadlifts as they allow for heavier weights to challenge the larger muscles groups effectively.

Kettle Bells – These are free weights which look similar to a kettle in that they are weighted with a handle on the top. These weights are used for more dynamic exercises and are usually found on the stretching mats as opposed to in the weight section. Generally, the kettle bell weights available will be far less than the dumbbell weights.

A Squat Rack – A squat rack is an area in which squats can be performed safely with less need for a spot. The rack holds the bar in place so that you can position it properly before lifting the weight, this is necessary if you want to squat a weight heavier than you can physically lift to that height. You can then step back from the rack and perform squats with safety bars on either side of you. If you fail a rep (are unable to stand back up after lowering into a squat position) then you can relieve yourself of the weight onto these bars and exit safely.

Benches – Benches are used to isolate muscle groups and engage varying muscle groups by altering the horizontal bench into a declined or inclined position. They can be used for sitting, kneeling or laying on your back/front while performing specific weight lifting exercises.

Barbell Safety Clip – These are the clips that you should always place on the end of the bar after you have adjusted the weights. This is for safety reasons. Should the weights slip off or move during your reps, you could seriously injure yourself (fast imbalances strain muscles/ break bones) or others.

Alternative Workout Equipment

The majority of gyms have a soft mat section for bodyweight exercises, stretching and cooling down. These sections can also be used for performing exercises which utilises more ‘alternative’ equipment.

This equipment can be used for:

-          Hitting smaller, more neglected muscle groups

-          Mixing up your routine

-          Plyometrics

-          Bodyweight exercises

-          Stretching

-          Stability training

Equipment varies depending on the gym but includes:

Gym balls, balance boards, resistance bands, mats, ab rollers, foam rollers, step/box, medicine balls, punching bag, boxing gloves.

About the Author

Job Role Sports Nutritionist and Social Media Coordinator Qualifications Bsc Sport and Exercise Science Steph has a competitive athletic background which spans 19 years. As a child she performed with the English Youth Ballet and had performed on the West End stage by the age of 10. Her enthusiasm for sport and fitness continued to grow as she did, encouraging her to learn more about nutrition and training. She began using her knowledge and personal experience to help others when she began coaching at the age of 16. From here, she went on to study Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Essex during which time she also received the Most Promising Newcomer Award from her University to mark her outstanding contribution to sport. During her first year of study she was introduced to partner stunt acrobatics and artistic gymnastics. After one year of dedicating herself to a lifestyle revolving around her sport, she was training with the best team in the UK who are currently ranked fifth in the world. Steph has worked in both the private and public sector coaching children and adults from grassroot to elite level as well as providing them with cutting edge advice on how to reach their goals. Steph has received awards for her choreography and has competed nationally and internationally meaning that she can back up her scientific knowledge with a wealth of experience. As our resident Sports Nutritionist, Steph is here to provide the most current and evidence based fitness, health and nutrition information to help you reach your health and fitness goals.


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