How to Navigate Your Gym - Don't Be Intimidated!

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6 Steps to Navigating the Gym - Don't Be Intimidated!

Woman smiling at the gym
Getty Images/Thomas Barwick

Just joined the gym? Congratulations on taking your first step towards a healthier life. By now you've probably taken a tour of your new club and seen lots of shiny, sweaty people working out.

You've seen hundreds of machines and contraptions, all designed to whip you into shape. You've seen a calendar of so many fitness classes, it would take you months to try all of them. You've paid your money, gotten your I.D. and now you're ready. You may even be excited, right?

Where Do You Start?

But what happens that first time you walk in the gym to actually workout? You may feel confused and conspicuous. You probably don't remember how any of these machines work and, worse, you have no idea where to start.

Start out on the right foot with this overview of the different areas of your gym, from cardio to strength training, so you can figure out where to start.

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Get Your New Member Orientation

Man helping woman with machine
Getty Images/Cultura RM/Antonio Saba

After you join a gym, you may be offered a new member orientation. You might be tempted to skip it, but don't...you can learn some valuable information, even if you're a veteran exerciser.

In this scheduled appointment, a personal trainer or expert will give you a tour of the club and give you the basics of how things work. Other things that may be included:

These sessions aren't personal training sessions, so you won't necessarily get a full workout created for you. But, this is a great way to learn the basics of how things work.

Too often, new members skip the orientation either because they already know what they're doing or because they want to avoid a sales pitch for personal training (and a sales pitch is always a possibility, since that's how trainers get their clients).

But, even if you already exercise, an orientation will show you where things are, how to adjust the machines and it will also give you a familiar face at the gym. It's nice to have someone you can go to for help if you need it.

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The Dreaded Cardio Section

Treadmills
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Most gyms are divided into different areas with cardio on one side and strength training on the other. The cardio section may look like an endless sea of giant machines that whir and rattle and move in strange ways.

Here's something that may make you feel better: Most machines will have instructions printed on the console that tell you how to get started. To help you even more, the following is a breakdown of the most common cardio machines and which ones are great for beginners.

The Treadmill

This is one of the most popular machines in the gym because it mimics activities most of us are familiar with -- walking and running. Many newbies like to start with the treadmill because it's easy to use and it's familiar. You can walk or run and you can adjust speed and incline for variety.

The Elliptical Trainer

This is another popular machine because it offers a no-impact workout. It works almost like a bike, only you pedal while standing up. Some trainers will have ramps that go up and down while others have arm handles. You can also add intensity by adjusting the resistance.

The Stair Stepper

This machine is tougher than the others, requiring more conditioning for the legs and heart, so it may not be best for beginners. With this machine,you stand on the pedals and push up and down while holding onto the handles.

The Stationary Bike

This is another great option for beginners and probably one of the simpler activities available. Most gyms will offer a recumbent version, which has more back support, and an upright version, which may be more intense.

This doesn't cover all the machines available, so look around for other options. Try choosing the machine that you feel most comfortable with and allow time to learn how to use it properly. Even walking on a treadmill will feel odd at first.

More: Cardio Machine Workouts

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Strength Training Machines

strength training Machines at the gym
Getty Images/Trinette Reed

The strength training area may be the most confusing in the entire gym, full of odd looking contraptions with handles and straps and cables.

But, the good thing is that most gyms organize their strength training equipment to help you navigate a little easier. For example, you might find machines categorized by muscle group; Chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, abs and lower body.

You'll probably notice that there are a variety of machines for each muscle group -- a regular chest press machine, an incline chest press, a pec deck. All work the chest, but how would you pick which one to use?

Or should you use all of them? Your best bet is to choose one exercise or machine per muscle group. When you go through your orientation, the trainer will most likely show you the machines you can start with for a basic workout. But, an example of a beginner workout on machines might be:

If you're a beginner, starting out with machines can be a good choice because they provide support while you learn how to perform the exercises with good form. They also work on a fixed path and don't require as much coordination as free weights. Once you get stronger and more confident, you'll want to add more free weights to the mix to work on other areas of the body.

You can learn more about how to choose exercises in Weight Training 101.

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The Free Weight Section - Oh My

Dumbbell. Getty Images/Tuomas Marttila

If the strength training machines look confusing, giant racks of dumbbells, barbells, plates and more may look even more daunting. The free weight section will usually be close to the machines and you may find a variety of interesting equipment here such as:

  • Dumbbells
  • Plate loaded barbells
  • Fixed-weight barbells
  • Flat and incline benches
  • Olympic-sized bars
  • Weight racks
  • Bench press stations

I would also include cable or free-motion machines in the free weight section of the gym, simply because cables don't work on a fixed path, like the machines mentioned above, and are more like free weight exercises since you have to use your own body for balance and support.

If you're not familiar with dumbbell or free weight exercises, you might want to hire a trainer to get individualized help. You'll also find detailed free weight exercises in exercises for individual muscle groups.

6
Group Fitness Classes

People abs on BOSU
Getty Images/Eliza Snow

Another section that may scare a new gym member is the group fitness area. Most clubs will have at least one studio for classes and, often, this studio will have glass doors and windows so that everyone can see in. That alone is enough to scare some people away, but don't run off just yet.

If you scroll through the classes your gym offers, you may find something you've always wanted to try...and now is your chance.

Just a few classes your gym might offer include:

  • Step aerobics
  • Kickboxing
  • Group strength training
  • Dancy classes like hip-hop or salsa
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Spinning (on a stationary-type bike)

Your club might also have specialty classes (core workouts, BOSU Balance Trainer classes, boot camp) and they may even have weight loss programs that you can sign up for with a separate fee. And don't forget, if your club has a pool, they might offer water aerobics as well.

If you're shy, these ideas might help:

  • Watch the class from a distance to get a feel for it.
  • Get a friend to try the class with you.
  • Get there early and spend a few minutes on a cardio machine to calm your nerves.
  • Make friends with someone in the class. Approach someone who looks friendly and ask if he has taken the class before. If he has, admit you're new and ask for details. Many times, that person will take you under his wing and walk you through the basics.
  • Talk to the instructor. Get to class early and introduce yourself to the instructor. He or she will know exactly how to make you feel more comfortable.
  • Remind yourself you can always leave if you don't like the class or it's a disaster.

Don't be afraid to try something new. Just make sure you read the class descriptions and choose workouts that fit your fitness level and goals.

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The Abs and Flexibility Section

woman in warrior 1
Getty Images/Tatiana Kolesnikova

Most clubs will set aside an area for you to stretch and/or work your abs. This is often a favorite part of the gym, but this area can often look a little intimidating with all kinds of contraptions. You might see mats, exercise balls, BOSU Balance Trainers, resistance bands, inflatable disks, balance boards and even giant foam rollers.

Don't worry...you don't have to know how to use all those things! But, you do want to make sure you stretch after your workouts to keep your muscles supple and flexible. You don't need anything other than a mat for that. Below are examples of flexibility workouts for all fitness levels:

If you are interested in some of the other equipment and working your abs, you'll find some resources below:

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