This is the busy time for fitness clubs everywhere, as people who made bold New Year’s resolutions to shed pounds or gain muscle make a valiant (or maybe just half-assed) attempt at their goal. Every day as I go through my workout I see my gym’s sales rep leading prospective customers on a tour. “Over here we’ve got 86 different exercise machines, and over there another 22 benches and platforms, and in this room 66 cardio stations.”
The visitors follow, bug-eyed, staring first at the battalion of alien machines, then at the muscular guy in the super-tight white shirt completing his dumbbell flyes with a loud grunt and dropping the weights with a crash. Then at the trio of 20-something already-thin women on the stair climber machines, silently stepping sideways and backwards and sideways again. Then at the couple performing yoga poses including (I am not making this up) the husband lying on his back with his legs up as his wife balances in “Supergirl” position on the soles of his feet.
It can be daunting for someone new to this environment. How do you use the machines? What if you get in the way of the “expert” customers? What is that thing with the padded dual armrests and outstretched swivel handles?
It’s a lot simpler than you think.
First, every machine is for a specific exercise. All you need to do is find the ones you need. They’re usually clearly marked “Leg Press,” “Biceps Curl,” etc. The most obvious machines are usually the ones you want to use. Many machines even have instructions listed on them. Get a workout plan (here’s one) and have at it.
Most gyms have a free trial period. Always use the free trial. If there are multiple clubs in your area, try them all. There are a wide range of amenities at different clubs: some have free shower towels, others may cater mostly to free-weight users. Make sure of what’s included in your membership so you’re not unpleasantly surprised when you have to pay extra to use the pool.
When you start a new membership, many clubs offer one or two free sessions with a personal trainer. This is usually to try and sell you on personal training, which earns the club an extra fee. Make sure to take advantage of the free session, and have the trainer show you everything you need to know about the equipment. Additional personal training is great if you can afford it, but if you can’t there are plenty of self-guided workouts to get you where you want to be.
Finally, your membership fee is just as important to the gym as that of the guy with the sinewy glutes. If you’re using a piece of equipment, as long as you’re obeying the rules and using common courtesy, he can wait until you’re done. You might offer to let him “work in” a set while you’re resting, though—he might return the favor by helping you with a new exercise or “spotting” you on the bench press.
There are alternatives to working out in a gym—some dumbbells, a bench and a mat can create a fitness club in your own home, and guys have even been known to train on playground equipment—but a gym is an environment with fewer distractions than at home and more equipment than a set of monkey bars. Wherever you can focus on an intense workout is where you should be, and that’s often the dedicated environment of a gym. Learn and practice proper gym etiquette and you’ll be fine.
Gyms aren’t smelly, dark places anymore—not even “hardcore” chains like Gold’s Gym. In an article in the Shawnee Dispatch, a reporter found that clubs are clean, well-lit and inviting in his aptly titled story, “Even fat, old men are welcome at gyms.” That probably sums it up as well as anything.