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A Beginner’s Guide to the Gym: Everything You Need to Know

A Beginner’s Guide to the Gym: Everything You Need to Know

“Palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy” -Eminem.

Although Eminem was talking about being nervous before walking into a rap battle, that phrase perfectly described scrawny, terrified, 16-year old Steve the first time I walked into a gym.

20 minutes later I found myself seriously thinking, “Uh oh! Crap. Am I going to die?”

I knew “going to the gym” and “working out” were things that were going to make my life better. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to DO in the gym. I walked in with no plan and left an hour later with a bruised ego and bruised rib cage.

Maybe this is your first Nerd Fitness Article. Perhaps you’re thinking about going to the gym but are afraid, you only use the treadmill in your gym, or you’ve been reading Nerd Fitness for years and finally decided, “I’m going to start going to the gym because I know ‘strength training’ and ‘lifting weights’ is good for me.”

Then, you hear that tiny voice in your head:

  • “You need to get in shape first before you go to the gym so you don’t look foolish.”
  • “Stick to the cardio section. Maybe the machines. Don’t go near the free weights though, that’s for bros and meatheads and bodybuilders.”
  • “As long as you don’t try anything new, you can’t mess up. Stick to what you know.”

And that’s what I’m going to cover in today’s article: how to not suck at going to the gym for the first time. This will apply if you just joined a gym this morning, or you’ve been a member at a gym for the past two years but are ready to venture outside of the newbie zone (what you know) and into uncharted territory (the free weights section or something else).

My First Day in the Gym: A Horror Story


I had just been cut from the high school basketball team.

As a high school kid with acne, braces, a sweet flat top haircut, and not a tremendous amount of self-esteem, this was naturally the end of the world. Although I had been cut because I was bad at basketball, I made a plan to “work out” and get big and strong at the gym and make the team the following year.

A few days later, I joined Sportsite, the only gym in Sandwich, MA (yes, that’s actually the name of my hometown). I had no idea what I was doing, or even how to work out. When I walked in the door, my eyes bugged out of my head and my heart started racing.

There were so many machines everywhere! And people running on various forms of cardio equipment! And really strong jacked dudes picking up heavy things.

Here I was, 5’11”, probably 110-120 pounds, and clueless. Like a sheep without a shepherd, I wandered around the gym for 20 minutes, assuming that everybody there was staring at me.

Of course, they weren’t. They would be soon, though, thanks to my idiocy.

Because I didn’t know how to use any of the equipment, and I was scared of face-planting on a treadmill, I did the ONE thing I knew I was supposed to do: bench press!

I walked over to a bench, and proceeded to put 45 pound plates (the big ones) on either side of the bar. Mind you, I’ve never worked out, and now the weight I attempted to lift was heavier than my bodyweight.

I lied down on the bench – no spotter, of course – and proceeded to use my spaghetti arms to lift the weight off the safety supports. Unsurprisingly, the weight immediately plummeted like a sack of hammers onto my rib cage, and I was trapped under the bar. I was now in a full on panic mode. I slowly leaned the bar to the left, and watched as the weight on the bar slowly spiraled off the end. The 45 pound plate fell off the bar to ground, throwing the bar off balance and quickly shifted all the weight to the other side of the bar, where that weight fell off.

Because the free weight section of Sportsite was on the 2nd floor, these weights hitting the floor sounded like two gunshots had just gone off.

Remember how I said I was worried everybody was looking at me before? Now everybody WAS looking at me. I sheepishly put the bar back on the supports, sat up, and pretended like nothing happened – internally I was crying and looking around for a hole to crawl in.

Jim’s Story:

Do you know Jim Bathurst, head trainer at Team Nerd Fitness? One-handed handstand master, super strong, badass Jim? The guy who can now do things like THIS?

He had a first-day horror story just like me! Here’s Jim:

Way back in highschool, when I started lifting weights, I came into the weight room to lift and decided I would bench. The bench was over in the corner – bar up on it with a pair of 45 lb plates on either side. “No problem! Warm up weight!” I thought. What I didn’t see was that someone had left a single 25 lb plate on the outside of one of those 45 lbs plates.

Now, it doesn’t take a math degree to know that 45 lbs on one side and 70 lbs on the other side is a bit uneven. Simultaneous surprise and horror as I unracked the bar and proceeded to dump 70 lbs to one side, and then 45 lbs to the other side, my arms locked out in a combination of terror and self-preservation. Yes, all eyes on me at the point. I wish I could’ve teleported out of there. What did I do? I simply left the gym and never worked out or bench pressed ever again.

J/k – I got stronger, entered powerlifting competitions, and benched 300 lbs:

Lift long enough and every single one of us has probably been embarrassed in the gym in some way (I’ve got plenty of stories).

Both Jim and I have come a LONG way, and we want you to feel comfortable in a gym like we do these days. Confident, excited about your training, and at home in a place that used to terrify you.

Here’s a “Don’t Suck” Plan that will walk you from “wandering sheep” to “confident gym goer” in 4 stages.

But First, Get Your Head Right!

lego master
Regardless of your physique, if you are 400 pounds or 100 pounds, going to a regular commercial gym for the first time can be intimidating as hell.

And that’s only if you can get yourself to use 20 Seconds of Courage (A Nerd Fitness rallying cry) to walk in the door!

I know many people who say “gyms are not not for me,” or “gyms are dumb” and never even go in one, simply because gyms can be scary/not welcoming/not cool.

IF YOU DON’T HAVE A GYM MEMBERSHIP, but are looking to start going, here’s how to find the right gym!

Now, if you CAN work up the courage to get in the door, you’ll be faced with the following:

  • People dutifully using machines that somewhat resemble medieval torture devices, with pained looks on their faces.
  • Others on cardio machines, treadmills, ellipticals, and can already picture yourself wiping out and ending up in a YouTube fail montage.
  • Really strong people picking up heavy weights and instantly compare yourself.

If you struggle with self-confidence, or you don’t love how you look in the mirror yet, you might assume that everybody around you will be judging you the whole time and don’t want to subject yourself to this torture – that you need to somehow get in shape FIRST before going to the gym!


If you are going to start using a gym, it’s time to mentally get your head in the right place! Here are some truths you need to know:

  1. Everybody around you is just as self-conscious as you are. Yes, that super jacked dude. Or that thin (or jacked), fit woman on the elliptical. They aren’t focused on you, because they’re too busy living inside their own head wondering if everybody is thinking about them.
  2. Everybody starts somewhere. You don’t look good so that you can then go to the gym. You go to the gym to get stronger, more confident, and then look good.
  3. MOST will applaud you for trying. When I see somebody who is severely overweight at the gym, it makes me happy – they’re trying to better themselves. This is the mentality 90%+ of the people will have.
  4. MANY will be too self-focused to even notice you. These are the dudes lifting up their shirt in the mirror to check their abs, doing bicep curls in the squat rack, and/oor making sure they take photos to post on Facebook to prove they did in fact go to the gym. #Fitspo #Instagram #OtherNonsensicalHashtags
  5. A RARE few will judge. Though, they’re not just judging you, I promise. They’re judging EVERYBODY around you, because they can’t help but compare themselves to others. This is no different than in real life. Screw these people, haters gonna hate, slaters gonna slate.

Sure, you can say “people are mean, the gym is scary, I just won’t show up.” But then, the terrorists win. And so do those people. And nobody likes those people any way.

Instead, do the following:

  • Accept that some people suck (like anywhere in life), and most people are indifferent or focused on being self-conscious themselves. Everybody else will applaud you for trying and being there.
  • Make an epic playlist that makes you feel heroic. Wear clothes that you feel great in.
  • Keep your headphones on, zone out everybody, and go about your business. You do you. Imagine you’re the only one there.
  • 20 seconds of courage, when necessary, to get you to take action.

Stage 1: Get the lay of the land, maybe get on the treadmill


As stated above, the toughest part about going to a gym for the first time is just walking through the door. If you do that, you’ve already gone farther than 74% of the population (a totally made up statistic that I’m using to prove my point), so give yourself a pat on the back.

So on your first day in the gym, just GOING to the gym is a big step in the right direction.

Note: you might need to also change into gym clothes if you’re coming from work. I know walking out onto the floor in gym clothes might be intimidating too (another chance to use 20SoC!).

If you haven’t already done so, ask somebody at the front desk the following:

  • “Hey I’m new here, could I get a tour of the gym?” OR
  • “Excuse me, today’s my first day, can you point me in the direction of a place I can stretch?” AND
  • “Can you help me work the treadmill?”

If you’re able to get a personal tour, great! Ask the treadmill question when you get to them. If they can’t walk you through, just do a lap yourself and see where things are and who is doing what.

When you’re ready, walk over towards the treadmills or stretching area, and do a few basic stretches while continuing to get the lay of the land and see what people are doing (don’t stare excessively). Not sure what to do for stretches? That’s okay!

Start here:

  • Roll your head in circles, slowly clockwise, then counterclockwise.
  • Slowly roll your shoulders forwards and backwards.
  • Keep your legs stationary, and twist your torso, left and right.
  • Quad stretch:

  • Cross one arm in front your chest, then the other, as demonstrated here by Jim:

These stretches have the awesome side-effect of being able to look around the gym and get the “flow” of things, while still looking busy. Jim STILL uses this “trick” when checking out new gyms.

Really just getting your body moving. If you walked out right now, it’s still a win for Day 1 in a gym.

If you’re up for MORE, consider the next step:

Get on the treadmill and start it up, based on the staff’s instructions. If you weren’t able to get instructions, many have a “quick start” button that will start things up. Too much? Scares you already? Okay, just stick with the stretching and get out of there. When you’re ready, come back and try the treadmill.

Yes, that’s right, I’m telling you to do “cardio” on a machine! (maybe the first time ever on Nerd Fitness!):

Why? It gets you moving, and out of your head! I know you’re smart – you’re reading NERD fitness. But you also probably deal with paralysis by analysis a lot and can overanalyze everything!

So, for your first 10-15 minutes, just walk. Set it at 3mph or 3.5 or whatever speed is comfortable but not too strenuous. Something that gets you moving, gives you a chance to decide what you’ll do next while you look around the gym. (Gives you a chance to get out of your head and stop thinking everyone is looking at you.)

If this is ALL you do, spend 15 minutes walking, and then go home, it’s still a victory. Repeat this as many days in a row that you need to until this starts to feel comfortable and you stop feeling self-conscious.

Scientists, benedictine monks, and german scholars refer to such a thing as a “routine.”

As you get more comfortable, you can can increase your walking speed or length of walking (20 minutes, 60 minutes, whatever)

If I’m gonna walk, I like to crush podcasts while doing so (My favorites: Tim Ferriss Show, Pardon My Take, and Bill Burr). Maybe you do books on tape. Whatever floats your boat.


  • Walking through the door makes you a winner.
  • Ask for a tour if you need to know where things are!
  • Change into workout clothes.
  • Stand in one spot, do a few stretches, get the lay of the land.
  • Try the treadmill if you’re up for it.

This routine might only be a day for you, or it might be two months of this before you finally feel like you don’t want to jump out of your own skin while in the gym. Going to the gym is the habit I want you to build, so this is a great start.

Stage 2: Join the Bodyweight Brigade!

lego workout

After getting comfortable with the stretching/treadmill routine, you may want to hop on a weight lifting machine at this point like the leg press or chest press machine.

Is this progress? Sure!

Can you do this? Absolutely!

But, but, but… we are going to recommend you try some bodyweight exercises instead as your next step.

Controlling your body through space is going to be more beneficial in the long run than strapping into a machine and moving through a set path. If you can do bodyweight exercises proficiently, then stepping into a machine is “easy.” The reverse is not always the case.

So, if we’ve convinced you to try some bodyweight exercises, then next thing is to identify a place in the gym you can do bodyweight exercises where you’re not in the way. This oftentimes might double as the place that some people are doing stretches.

If you don’t know, ask the front desk or a trainer! That’s what they’re there for!

So after your 10 minutes on the treadmill, your next step is to go to a place you can do the following:

  • 10 bodyweight squats
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 bodyweight squats
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 bodyweight squats
  • 10 push-ups

Can’t get through it all? No worries, do what you can. If you don’t know how to do those movements well, watch Jim, Staci, and myself show you from the NF YouTube Channel – pick the variation that is right for you!



If you did just the above for another month, you’re off to a great start! If you’re feeling frisky and starting to find some comfortability in the gym, it’s time to branch out more!


  • Warm up on the treadmill with a 10 minute walk
  • Find a place where you can do bodyweight movements out of the way
  • Complete 3 circuits of 10 push-ups and 10 bodyweight squats each at a pace that works for you.

Stay at this stage as long as you need, until you can move on!

Stage 3: Join the Dumbbell Division

weight room

It’s time to wander into the place that strikes fear in the heart of most gym goers: the free weight section. Gulp.

DO NOT FORGET THIS: If you are a 400 pound woman, or 65 years-old, or a 100-pound man, you have just as much of a right to be in the free weight section as anybody else.

It might take yet another 20 Seconds of Courage to wander in there, so I’m challenging you to try it.

After you do your 10 minutes of walking on the treadmill, go to the dumbbell section, grab a single 10 pound dumbbell, and find a flat bench like this:

Stand next to that bench, and make sure nobody is using it. If somebody is at a bench nearby, ask them “is anybody using this bench?” If they say no, put your towel on the bench, your 10 lb dumbbell on it, and stand next to it.

We’re going to add a one arm dumbbell row to our circuit above. You can see skinny-me demo it here:

That’s it! Just one dumbbell exercise! Here’s your new circuit:

  • 10 bodyweight squats
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 one arm dumbbell rows (10 per arm)

Do this circuit once, and then repeat two more times if you’re feeling good.

Congrats! You’ve used dumbbells!

Remember, everybody started somewhere, and we’re just working on getting you comfortable being the free weight section.

Want to continue adding in dumbbells? Let’s add them to the squats. If you’re feeling strong, you can use the same dumbbell to do goblet squats. They’re named as such because it looks like you’re holding a goblet that you don’t want to spill. Here’s a video of Staci and Jim demonstrating the Goblet Squat pulled from our premium course, The Nerd Fitness Academy:

So your routine is now 3 circuits of the following:

  • 10 goblet squats
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 dumbbell rows/side

If you go to the gym 3x a week, and work your way up to the following routine:

  • Light stretch and walk on treadmill for 10 minutes
  • Work up to 3 complete circuits of this beginner circuit
  • Go home and eat good food and play video games like a boss.

This will put you ahead of 95% of the planet and gym going population as far as on a great path to building a healthy, antifragile, resilient body. Add a little more weight here and there- making the minimal possible jumps each time. Make your push-up variation a little harder over time.

You can stick with the above for MONTHS.

Ready for another upgrade?

The last dumbbell exercise to learn is the dumbbell romanian deadlift (RDL). This is like a cousin of the bodyweight squat where we move through the hips more than the knees. Grab a pair of dumbbells now, push your hips back and bow forward like you’re being polite. Bring the dumbbells to about your knees, not to the ground, then stand back up.

You can see the exercise right here:

Every other workout, swap out the goblet squat for the dumbbell romanian deadlift.

So our circuit is now, alternating with each gym day. Do 3 circuits of each if you can! If the weight is too light, use heavier dumbbells the next time you train.

  • 10 goblet squats OR 10 dumbbell romanian deadlifts
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 dumbbell rows per arm.

Stage 4: Enlist in the Barbell Battalion


Okay, you’re feeling good in the dumbbell section now. You’ve worked on these exercises and feel a lot stronger. For weeks, or months!

The two final pieces of the puzzle are things I want for you so badly, because I’ve seen how much they have changed my life, Jim’s life, Staci’s life, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people here at Nerd Fitness:

Picking up a barbell, and learning how to squat and deadlift.

There’s something powerful about old-school strength training with exercises like the back squat and the deadlift. Show me somebody that’s strong at both of these movements, and I’ll show you somebody that’s in better shape than most of the human population.

But wait!

Even an empty barbell can be heavy, if you’re not ready, so before we jump into this deep end, I want you to be able to strongly complete our circuit with the following weights:

  • 10 goblet squats – 45 lbs (20Kg dumbbell), 10 RDLs with 20 lbs (9-10 Kg dumbbells)
  • 10 push ups (on knees or regular)
  • 10 dumbbell rows with each arm  – at least a 20 lb dumbbell

WHEN YOU ARE READY, I want you to read the following:

Strength Training 101: The Squat

And then I want you to find a squat rack (NOT a smith machine):

THIS IS ONE TYPE OF SQUAT RACK (the barbell is NOT connected to apparatus). USE THESE.

THIS IS A SMITH MACHINE (bar is attached to apparatus). AVOID THESE.

If using a squat rack scares the crap out of you, I would wait to attempt your FIRST trip to the squat rack when the gym is nearly empty, or recruit a buddy who knows what they’re doing. If there’s a special day you can go VERY early to the gym, or VERY late, or during the workday, do it then.

I want you to attempt a back squat with JUST the bar (first ask the staff or a trainer how much the bar weighs: most standard barbells weigh 45 lbs (20Kg) but your gym might not have standard barbells).

You can then complete our tried and true circuit – replacing goblet squats with barbell squats.

So our circuit is now:

  • 10 barbell squats or 10 dumbbell romanian deadlifts
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 dumbbell rows/side

Congrats! You’re using barbells!

Next step? More reading:

Strength Training 101: The Deadlift

The deadlift movements starts with the weight on the ground, and ends with it on the ground. If you’ve got regular, large weights (usually 45 lbs/20 kgs) on each side then the bar sits the proper height off the ground. Some facilities have lighter plates at that same large diameter. Use them.

If you are lifting less weight (or just using the bar to start off) then DON’T do the deadlift from the ground. The bar will be too low to the ground and mess up proper technique. Do the romanian deadlift instead! (Whew, glad we learned that!). Just use a barbell instead!

START WITH LIGHT WEIGHT – JUST the bar. And work on technique. Only then should you start adding more weight, and add it slowly – you’ll be picking up heavy weight in no time, so don’t rush it.

Here’s Staci demonstrating a romanian deadlift with a barbell:

Once you’ve started doing these two movements in your routine, your two alternating gym days will look like this. Simply alternate every time you go to the gym (with a day off in between sessions):

DAY A CIRCUIT – 3 rounds of:

  • 10 barbell squats
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 dumbbell rows per arm

DAY B CIRCUIT – 3 rounds of:

  • 10 barbell romanian deadlifts/regular deadlifts
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 dumbbell rows per arm

Stage 5: Where to go from here?

Did I tell you that I’m proud of you yet? I really am, I promise. Your mom is proud too. So is your dad, but he just doesn’t know how to express it.

So now you’re thinking: “Steve, I did a squat. It was terrifying but I did it. I tried deadlifts too and those are kind of fun. What’s next? Give me MOAR!!”

It’s like we’ve finally learned to cook, and now you’re asking for more spices.

What’s a super standard exercise that you see being done in gyms all over? And is amazing for you?

The pull-up!

Not sure how to do one properly? Or you can’t yet? Don’t worry, we have you covered for good technique:

Alternate one arm dumbbell rows with pull-ups or an easier pull-up variation.

So our circuit will be alternating these movements on your A and B Days:

DAY A CIRCUIT – 3 rounds of:

  • 10 barbell squats
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 pull-ups or pull-up alternatives!

DAY B CIRCUIT – 3 rounds of:

  • 10 barbell romanian deadlifts/regular deadlifts
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 dumbbell rows per arm

Spice it up further! If you’ve read up to this point, and put the work in, we hope you feel like a gym regular! At this point, throw in or replace another exercise:

Want to do some planks? Put them in the circuit!

Lunges to replace the squats or deadlifts one day? Sounds good!

There are a ton of different options for what to do and where to go if we’ve gotten you more comfortable in the gym, we’ve done our job!

Tips, Tricks, and Knowledge Bombs

lego tricep

Take your time! The above plan might take you months to move through, and that’s okay. I would rather you slowly wade into the water instead of terrifying yourself with the thought of cannonballing into the deep end and never going to the gym to start. So stick with what you know, and then bit by bit, one movement at a time, branch out and try new things.

Do what makes you happy. You might have noticed above I didn’t mention things like bicep curls, bench press, cardio classes, spin class, etc. If those things make you happy, start adding them to the mix. However, if you are only doing those things because you think you are supposed to, don’t! The above 5-Stage strategy combined with a healthy nutritional strategy will get you 95% of the way to where you want to go. I promise. Nerd’s honor.

Write down everything you’re doing. Keep a simple note on your phone, write in a notebook, use Evernote, whatever. Write down what you do so that you know what to do next time. When you get stronger and things feel too easy, you know to move up in weight slowly (and record that too!). Keeping track of everything is one of the easiest and important ways to make progress. Staci, Jim, and I ALL still record our workouts each time, and focus on getting a teeny tiny bit stronger with each session.

It’s better to lift a TOO LIGHT weight than try one that’s TOO HEAVY. You want to finish the workout saying “hey I could do more, this is encouraging” rather than “that was too much, I hurt myself/failed/and I’m demoralized.”

If you don’t know, ask somebody that works there. If you’re worried that you’re using a machine incorrectly, and you’re sheepish and self-conscious about it, ask somebody who works in the gym. Usually there will be trainers that work there walking around the floor – ask them! That’s what they’re there for. They can help you set the safety bars and pins on the squat rack if you’re not sure how. They can tell you how to adjust the seat on a machine, or how the treadmill works. That is what they are there for!

If you want to hire a trainer for a few sessions, it might be a great investment! Here’s how to find a good trainer!

If you are a member at a Planet Fitness or similar gym: Your gym might not allow you to do barbell deadlifts, might not have a squat rack, or ONLY have a Smith Machine. If this is true of your gym, this is okay. You can still get quite strong with the dumbbell workouts and bodyweight movements in Stage 3! And you’ll be that much more prepared when you do start working with barbells.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Just going to the gym takes courage. Trying a machine for the first time takes courage. Picking up a dumbbell takes courage. Using the squat rack takes a lot of courage. Don’t worry about perfect, or having perfect form or the perfect routine After you finish this article, just START! It’s how we all learn: like scientists trying new experiments and subtly tweaking the variables.

Share your first gym day horror story!

lego dumbell

My first day in the gym involved me almost killing myself by way of a barbell on the bench press. And then I came back the next day and tried again. Jim nearly flipped himself off the bench (why is it always the bench?!).

Oh, and by the way – that first day? It was the most important day of my life. It started me down a path of bettering myself, learning how to train, and now running Nerd Fitness for 8 years! I’m so happy I made those mistakes.

Do you have a horror story you can look back on now and laugh? I would love for you to share it below to make your fellow future-first-time-gym-going-Rebels feel better!

We all live inside our own heads, and can talk ourselves into our out of anything. If you have never been to a gym before, and you’re afraid to go, read the stories below.

I bet whatever you have in your head for “the worst that could happen” is not nearly as bad as some of these stories! And who cares how bad things were? They survived and are stronger for it.

If there are any questions we can answer, or if you have any other tips to share with people who are afraid to go to the gym and wander into the free weights section, share below!

Leave your gym “First-Day” horror story below! We’ll pick the top 3 most horrible and mail out signed copies of my book, Level Up Your Life.

Thanks for sharing, and see you in the gym!


PS: In case you missed the announcement, doors are currently open for Rising Heroes, our monthly team-based habit building adventure. Enrollment is open til Thursday at midnight!


photo: lego people looking at barbell, lego storm trooper workout, lego master, scared lego with weight, lego tricep on guitar

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Published at Tue, 28 Feb 2017 17:29:17 +0000