7 things I wish I had known before joining a gym

a photo of people in a gym running on treadmills
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It doesn't matter how fit you are or even how confident you are as a person, joining a gym for the first time can be very daunting. The same applies whether you are joining a budget-friendly, very busy gym or signing up for a boutique and less crowded facility. Walking through the door and knowing what to do with yourself can be a scary thought. But absolutely everyone in that room has had to do the same, so don't get too hung up on this to start with.

I remember my very first time joining a gym. As a university student, I opted for the cheapest gym in the city (which also meant the busiest option), dragging along a friend with no interest in the gym just so I felt less alone. Soon after, I began going on my own. Through trial and error, teaching myself how to perform things like the best barbell exercises, and enduring a fair few embarrassments, I learned some valuable lessons that I wish I had known before joining.

I used to think the gym was a place where muscle heads went to get swole and where people who didn't like running outdoors went to use a treadmill. Little did I know there was so much more to the gym than this. Since getting into the gym six years ago, I've found a great form of mental headspace, gotten into yoga, seen real changes happen to my body, and built strength all over, helping to injury-proof my body throughout my running journey.

The gym is for anyone, so here are 7 ways to make joining one that little bit less scary.

7 things I wish I had known before joining a gym

Consider your options of gyms

If you're lucky you should hopefully have more than one gym in your local area to choose from. If this is the case, think about what you want from the gym. From my experience, it's not always the best move to pick the first option that comes up when you do a Google search for 'best gyms near me'.

However, some of you reading this may be working within a budget and prefer a more cost-efficient gym membership. If that's the case, consider how close the cheapest gym is to you and factor in the cost of getting there. For example, will the expenses for petrol or public transport add up to a considerable amount? In some cases, you might find it more cost-effective to pay slightly more for a gym closer to you. If not, make sure to inquire about the busiest times at your gym. This way, you can make the most of the equipment during your visits and avoid having to wait for your favorite machines or weights.

Some may prefer a gym that's open 24/7, especially if you work odd hours and want the flexibility to work out whenever you please. Others might seek a gym that offers classes — I once joined a gym specifically for its included yoga and Pilates classes. Perhaps you're looking for a facility with a pool, allowing you to enjoy some low-impact exercise or check off the swimming part of your triathlon training. These are all factors to consider when choosing a gym to ensure you get the most out of your membership.

Ask for an induction to your gym

Personal trainer & founder of Sculptrition, Amanda Place, recommends taking a gym tour and orientation to familiarise yourself with the gym layout and equipment. "Many gyms offer orientation sessions or tours for newcomers. Understanding where everything is located can make you feel more comfortable and confident during your workouts," she notes.

When I joined a gym for the very first time, I wasn't aware that this was a common practice, and I also had too much pride to ask a staff member to show me around the gym floor — pointing out where the cardio machines are, guiding me to the free weights, or indicating the location of the locker rooms. Most gyms will also have someone available to demonstrate how to use each piece of equipment. This is another great way to take away the pressure of figuring out a machine you've never touched before.

a photo of a woman working out on the lat pull down machine with a male trainer helping out

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Consider what you want from joining the gym

Whether you want to lose some weight, build muscle, tone up, or simply blow off some steam, it's a wise idea to have some form of a plan when joining the gym. This way, you are more likely to stay consistent and make progress. 

"Rather than randomly selecting exercises, having a structured workout plan can help you stay focused and organized. This can include a mix of cardiovascular exercises, strength training, and flexibility work," added Place.

People find plans in various ways: some hire a personal trainer, others download one of the best workout apps tailored to their goals, some follow workout videos on their phones, and some prefer the old-school approach of pen and paper to jot down exercises for each session.

It doesn't matter if you're following a TikTok dumbbell workout, aiming to complete a 10-week strength-building plan from an app, setting a goal to run for twenty minutes straight on the treadmill, or attending a legs, bums, and tums workout class at the gym—having a goal when you walk through the door is beneficial.

When I first started at the gym, I sometimes gave up on a workout ten minutes in because I didn't know what I wanted to work on in the gym and found myself looking at others who seemed to know exactly what they were doing as soon as they walked in. I soon figured out that having an idea of why you're at the gym gives you direction and purpose.

Never compare yourself to others

This is a very common piece of advice offered in conversations about feeling comfortable in the gym, but it's crucial to take it on board. I can admit that in the past, I fell victim to comparing myself to others in the gym, looking at someone who can lift double the weight I can or at someone with the perfect physique. However, this mindset doesn't get you anywhere unless you can switch the negative thoughts from a limiting belief of 'I'll never get there' to thinking, 'How can this inspire me?' or 'How can I stop comparing myself to others?'.

Everyone is on their own journey in the gym. Some people have devoted all their spare time to working out consistently and committing to a diet that helped them achieve the physique they have. Others may have spent years learning how to deadlift with perfect form. But one thing everyone has in common in the gym is that they all started somewhere.

A simple but effective trick I used when I first joined the gym and wanted to stay focused on myself without letting my eyes wander to others, was to put on the biggest headphones for my workouts and adopt a 'headphones on, world out' kind of motive. You'll find some excellent options in our roundup of the best workout headphones.

a photo of a man deadlifting with a barbell

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Factor in rest and recovery

Training as hard as you possibly can, as much as you can, is not the key to success in the gym. I once thought that going to the gym whenever I had a spare hour would get me shredded, but it turns out rest and recovery are actually on our side. 

Place advised the following when we asked her about rest, "Adequate rest is crucial for muscle recovery and overall well-being. Don't push yourself too hard initially, and ensure you get enough sleep. Recovery allows your body to repair and grow stronger."

A study in the International Journal of Exercise Science looked at how different rest periods affect performance in a group of men doing resistance training. The researchers discovered that having 48 hours of rest between sessions was ideal for maximizing performance. If you're wondering why you see some people go to the gym near enough every day if this is the case, this is probably because they have split up their workouts into a push-pull regime or divided them by certain muscle groups, meaning they rest one part of the body while working on another part.

Wear what feels comfortable

Sometimes it's not the working-out part that people feel self-conscious about in the gym, but rather what they are wearing. Guys may dislike shorts that cause chafing or vests that are either too tight or too baggy. Meanwhile, girls don't want to hit the squat rack with leggings that aren't squat-proof. As I've learned, investing in good-quality gym wear such as the best gym leggings really can boost your confidence and enhance your workouts.

Also, there isn't a uniform for the gym. Just because you might notice everyone in your gym wearing tight-fitting clothing, this doesn't mean you have to as well. As long as you feel comfortable working out in your clothes and they aren't hindering your exercise, wear what feels right for you.

a photo of a woman in the gym with a towel around her neck

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Ask for help

Picture a young me, new to the gym, never touched a barbell before, setting it up with whatever weight plates I could see around me, positioning myself to hip thrust up, but not being able to lift the bar off the ground. Nothing budged, except my ego. That's when I learned there is no shame in asking for guidance from someone who knows the gym a bit better.

Maybe you have a friend who regularly works out on the treadmill and can show you how to set up a programmed workout or how to safely jump on and off during a speed session. Although I had watched videos online on how to set up a barbell for certain exercises, I still needed some one-on-one help. I asked a friend who had been using the gym for way longer than I had to walk me through how to lift various strength-building equipment, and before I knew it, I was showing friends how to do the same.

And if you have the budget for it, look into working with a personal trainer. According to Place, "A session with a personal trainer can be immensely beneficial, especially for beginners. A PT can assess your fitness level, help you set realistic goals, and design a personalized workout plan. They also teach proper form and provide motivation."

Feeling pumped for your first gym session now? Forget about anyone else in the gym and go get stuck into exercise that makes you feel good.

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Jessica Downey
Fitness Writer

Jessica is an experienced fitness writer with a passion for running. Her love for keeping fit and fueling her body with healthy and enjoyable food quite naturally led her to write about all things fitness and health-related. If she isn’t out testing the latest fitness products such as the latest running shoe or yoga mat for reviewing then she can be found writing news and features on the best ways to build strength, active aging, female health, and anything in between. Before then she had a small stint writing in local news, has also written for Runners World UK (print and digital), and gained experience with global content marketing agency, Cedar Communications.

Born and raised in Scotland, Jessica is a massive fan of exercising and keeping active outdoors. When at home she can be found running by the sea, swimming in it, or up a mountain. This continued as she studied and trained to become a PPA-accredited magazine journalist in Wales. And since working and living in London, she splits her time between weight training in the gym, trying new fitness classes, and finding scenic running routes. Jessica enjoys documenting this on her fitness-inspired Instagram page @jessrunshere where she loves engaging with like-minded fitness junkies.

She is a big fan of healthy cooking and loves learning more about this area with expert nutritionists she has met over the years. Jessica is a big advocate for building healthy relationships with food rather than building restrictive attitudes towards it. When she isn’t eating or running she also enjoys practicing yoga in her free time as it helps her to unwind and benefits her performance in other sports.