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New to the gym? Use these strategies to make the most of your workouts

It's time to put that gym membership to work. A fitness and weight-loss coach covers everything you need to know.
Woman doing cable rows at gym
If you are new to cable machines, a simple upper back exercise while seated on a bench is a great place to start.Hero Images / Getty Images

Do you have less than positive memories of gym class when you were a kid? Whether it was being picked last for dodge-ball, being forced to do activities you didn't enjoy or feeling self-conscious trying to keep up during the mile run, that experience sticks with you. In fact, one study found that how we felt about gym class decades ago may shape how we feel about exercising today — as well as whether or not we choose to exercise at all.

Many of the women I work with as a coach are extremely successful in their personal and professional lives, but feel overwhelmed by the thought of stepping foot into a gym. One of my clients was so nervous about going to the private gym in her condo building that I had to personally escort her: I drove to her home, went up to her unit, got her headphones and playlist set, rode with her in the elevator, walked her into the gym and put her on a treadmill where I encouraged her to walk for 20 minutes.

She felt so embarrassed, but I assured her that this is extremely common — joining a new gym or re-entering a gym you belong to (but haven’t visited lately) can be intimidating and overwhelming, which is enough to deter us from taking that first step.

But research shows that those who have a gym membership are 14 times more likely to meet the recommended weekly physical activity guidelines, so it’s worth it to work through those fears. There are over 40,000 gyms in the United States, and while each one is laid out differently, there are some commonalities between each one that you can familiarize yourself with ahead of time to feel better equipped to utilize the space.

Use this overview to brush up on the different types of equipment and areas that you will find in every facility. Plus, get some pro tips on pulling together a workout that will help you feel more confident next time you step foot inside of your own gym.

Cardio Equipment

Many gyms have basic cardio equipment, like treadmills, recumbent bicycles and ellipticals. Some gyms also have stairsteppers, gliders and spin bikes, too. No matter which cardio machine you choose, make sure you hold on to the machine while stepping onto it. Never hit start before getting on the equipment! This could lead to tripping, falling or a twisted ankle. So first, step onto the machine and then hit “Start.”

Pro Tip: If you’re a true newbie, be careful about hitting anything other than “Start” or “Quick Start.” Many machines have automated workouts (i.e. Hills, Fat Burn, etc.) and if you push one of those buttons, you’ll be at the mercy of the machine's preset routines. It’ll change levels and sometimes change speed or difficulty without warning, whereas when you simply click “Start” you’ll be able to make manual adjustments.

Once you’re moving, check out how the machine is automatically set. On the elliptical you’re set at a starting level, and on the treadmill you’re automatically set at a 0 incline. Increase the speed or the level, or play with the resistance on a machine, and try it out. You’ll feel it harder to keep up without slowing down. You can also leave the level and resistance as is and play with the speed. Interval training (try alternating between one minute base speed, and one minute at an increased speed) is a great way to up your calorie burn and break a sweat.

Out of all of the cardio equipment, I generally recommend that my clients try out the treadmill first. Everyone knows how to walk, so hop on the treadmill and click “Start.” Then, increase the speed to a level 3 (or a comfortable walking pace for you). Simply walk like you would if you were going on a walk outside. Start breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. Pump your arms. Look around, take in the lay of the land here, and embrace the energy of the gym. The purpose here is to get to the gym habitually, so at first, stick to something you know and feel comfortable doing to get your foot in the door (literally!)

Once you feel comfortable on a piece of cardio equipment, you can bump up your workout and go faster or harder by manually changing the settings. I like to suggest to clients that they make an upbeat playlist and walk to the beat of the music. Research shows that listening to upbeat, fast-paced music helps increase the rate at which you work out. So this is an easy way to begin to take your cardio workout to the next level. You can also follow our one-month treadmill plan HERE!

Free Weights

If you see a weight rack full of dumbbells that look as big as your body, this is not the rack for you! There is usually a section of very heavy weights (we’re talking 50 pounds and up) and rack of lighter weights. Find the lighter rack and start your strength training there; I usually recommend that my clients start with dumbbells instead of trying to adjust the cable machines or using fancier equipment (more on that later). Dumbbells are easy to control and pick up without any set up. If you are completely new to strength training, start off with smaller weights, somewhere in the 3-5 pound range. In some gyms, the weight racks might not start that low, so you may have to go into a group fitness class room or another section of the gym (like the stretch area) to find these lower weights.

Pro Tip: I personally do my lower body exercises, like squats, side lunges, etc. in the same area as the dumbbells. This is because I like to switch between lower body exercises, and upper body exercises, so staying in one spot makes my workout more efficient.

You can do bicep curls, overhead presses, side extensions, or even just hold onto one dumbbell as you do lower body exercises like squats and lunges.

Pro Tip: Do your exercises facing the weight rack so that you can see people walking by you and in front of you to pick up the weights. Especially if there’s a mirror in front of you, you’ll be able to monitor the traffic of people coming your way and this will help you feel more comfortable doing your exercises. (As opposed to having your back towards the rack, and not knowing where people after pick up their weights.) Plus, you’ll be able to keep an eye on your form in the mirror.

Cable Machines

There are so many exercises you can do on the cable machines. In fact, some private gyms or home gyms only use this one piece of equipment! From legs to upper back to arm exercises, you can use a variety of attachments to the cables to hit every area of the body. But they can be a little intimidating if you’ve never used them before.

One exercise that’s simple to set up is an upper back exercise while seated on a bench. You’ll see a rack of weights in front of the bench, and an attachment with two handles connected to the cable. If you can hold onto the handles with two hands, you can leave it on the cable. If not, you may need to swap it out by unhooking the cable, taking it off, and replacing it with another attachment that’s close by. Start at the lowest weight (by pushing the pin into the top slot), and sit back on the bench. With your abs pulled in and your shoulders pulled back, you can hold onto the attachment with both hands and slowly pull it in towards your chest. Squeeze your upper back and shoulder blades together for this exercise, and then release your arms back to the starting position. You can repeat this for 3 sets of 10 repetitions.

Pro Tip: If you see someone who looks to be a similar build as you, watch them on a cable machine. Pretend like you’re stretching or changing your music on your phone while watching them. Once they’ve finished, go up to the machine and try to perform the exercise. If it’s too difficult, take the pin out of the weights and put it up a couple of notches to reduce the weight and try again.

Open Floor Mat Space

Many gyms have a mat area that can be used for pre- and post-workout stretching, ab exercises, foam rolling and band exercises. Typically the bands and foam rollers are in a bin or hanging on the wall nearby. Look around for these pieces of equipment if you want to use them.

You can lie down on your back or put a towel down first (some gyms also provide mats you can use). Here, you can do ab exercises (like crunches, sit ups, planks etc.) or foam rolling and stretching do whatever feels best for you. Stick to your space, but don’t feel cramped. People can and will walk around you! You can easily find foam roller, band and stretching routines online that you can follow while you get comfortable with each movement.

Pro Tip: Stretch before and after your workout in this area. Use this time to spy on other people at the gym to get some ideas of different exercises you can try, and to get a better lay of the land and notate where all of the different equipment is located. Stretching is the easiest place to start: It may feel like you’re doing “nothing” but you really are doing something — just sitting upright and then leaning forward will stretch your hamstrings!

Finally, if you feel a little lost, know that you’re not alone. Even I sometimes don’t know how to use certain machines or equipment and I am in multiple gyms a week training clients and working out myself! I look at the pictures on machines, search for workout moves online, and experiment with new things all the time. You do not have to be an expert to get in a solid workout Remember: Walking in the door is half the battle, so you’ve already taken a step in the right direction.

Try these routines at the gym

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