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I went to the gym last week, and the experience was quite intimidating. Everyone there was a regular, who knew exactly what to do, whereas I was a newcomer who tried to understand how the equipment worked.

I have been working out for nearly two years now, so it's not like I just recently started weight lifting, but have been doing so from my apartment up until now. One of my roommates had a good amount of weight lifting gear and he didn't mind lending it to me. However, we both moved out and now I have to find a gym if i want to stay in shape.

Are there any tricks to make the first few times less intimidating, or do I just have to man up?

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Have a plan before you get there. Stick to free weights if the machines are confusing. –  Ryan Miller Jul 14 '11 at 13:46
    
I can relate. I just turned 15, but had a gym membership since I was 13. The weights and machines(and the people using them) were so intimidating that I didn't get off the treadmill for the first month. –  Samuel Andrew Jul 14 '11 at 14:00
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Did the gym have a decent free-weight area? Those are usually empty outside of peak/young guy hours. –  Christopher Bibbs Jul 14 '11 at 14:53
    
Maybe not applicable in your specific situation, but a good idea is to simply bring a friend: it will be more fun and in all your confusion someone might just randomly answer what you wanted to know. Of course, if your friend is more experienced than you, then he'll just show you what to do. –  VPeric Jul 14 '11 at 19:37
    
Most of the people in the gym are so obsessed with their own image that they won't even notice you! –  Mongus Pong Oct 27 '11 at 8:23
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7 Answers

If you're new to machines, just take a low amount of weight and see how the thing works.

For example: the regular and incline-chestpress machines in my gym provide 2 somewhat broad handles, which means I got quite some space to place my hands. Every position will train my chest differently. Try different positions and learn how they affect your muscle. Some machines are harder than others. Look at how other people are using them, you can learn a lot from that alone.

Machines that got cables can often be used to train multiple muscle-groups. If you can change the cable position vertically, you can often train biceps, triceps and even some lats and shoulder with just 1 machine. Again: see how other people use them and try things out.

As for free weights.. well they can be quite tricky... I was always performing a dumbell-press where I would have my hands against each other when my arms would be fully stretched, meaning my hands would move towards each other when pushing upward. I tried pushing them straight up instead of to each other (that would be the same movement as with a barbell) and my muscles started burning a lot faster, even with weights up to 10kgs lighter!

The gym can be intimidating when you're new around, but keep in mind that everybody started out with 0 knowledge. Exercises in the gym aren't rocket science and everybody can learn them, it's just that there's so much exercises that it might seem very complex.

Last but not least: never care how much other people lift!!!! I started out with dumbell presses as low as 6kg per dumbell, and now, after 1,5 years I don't see much people (apart from the beasty boys) lifting much more than me. Everybody will be outmatched some day. Even if you can lift 150kgs on the bench, there might come a guy around who does 160kg. Train for yourself for shere pleasure and results and focus on that.

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Just man up and realize that within 3-6 weeks you're be a regular also. MANY of the people at the gym will be more than willing to help/show you how to work any of the equipment. I've read a lot of blog entries and forum posts about bad gym etiquette, some good things to do:

  • getting in the way - find a corner/spot where you're not getting in the way of others
  • listen more than you speak
  • clean up after yourself - put the weights back, wipe up your sweat, etc.
  • keep off your phone

get some advice or a few lessons from the gym's staff or personal trainer and keep going - GOOD LUCK!

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There are two enemies in the gym: Satisfaction and Discouragement. Everything else is irrelevant.

You have allowed one of these to get the best of you. Every person in that gym was once like you and many of them have no idea what they're doing despite appearances.

To prevent intimidation from discouraging you, I would recommend the following:

1) Prepare yourself by studying different techniques, lifts and exercises. This will give you more confidence on the machines. Don't be afraid to examine the placards on machines. I've been lifting for 15+ years and I still observe these because they are very useful for proper technique and workout planning.

2) Talk to people in the gym. This makes a huge difference. Just walk up to people and ask stupid questions. Most people will be happy to talk with you about different techniques and practices. You'll make some friends, you might learn a thing or two and it will help you realize that everyone is just like you.

3) Employ the services of a personal trainer. Many of them are very helpful and should be willing to assist you without charging a fee. Remember, their goal is to build a clientele so they don't mind spending a session or two with you if they think you may become a customer down the road. And you don't have to be embarrassed. We have all worked with trainers before.

Just remember, most people in gyms are extremely insecure which is why they put off an intimidating demeanor. Just ignore it. If you stay focused and committed and just have fun, before you know it, those people who seemed intimidating will come up to you asking for advice.

Good luck and keep working hard!

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Everyone there was a regular, who knew exactly what to do, whereas I was the helpless derp who tried to understand how the equipment worked.

Please realize that you aren't the only person to feel this way! We've all had to learn our way around the gym.

Some Tips:

  • Go to the gym with an "open" attitude, meaning focus on listening and take feedback constructively.

  • Focus on learning proper form. Each exercise has an appropriate form that works the target muscles. Lose the form and you can either hurt yourself or you'll 'cheat' by engaging muscles outside of the exercise's target (which means, smaller gains). Don't ever be afraid to stop and lower the amount of weight if you feel your form slipping.

  • Attack the easiest or least intimidating equipment first. Suggest that you start with machines/equipment first rather than barbells and dumbbells. Most of this equipment has diagrams and instructions how to perform the exercise. All you have to do is follow the instructions!

When you start feeling comfortable, move to the free weights. Start with a low/light weight and perform the exercise to warm-up and to focus on form. When you perform the exercise with weight, do it in front of a mirror and ask someone to watch your form. The mirror is there so you can see how you are responding to their feedback, allowing you to learn what the proper form should look like.

  • Watch others. You can learn by observing others, i.e. how the heck does that machine work? Just hang out until someone starts using it! Just take note that not everyone does their exercises properly and that some exercises are inherently harder than others.

Good luck!

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Part of what makes the gym intimidating to you is what you alluded to in your question: "...who knew exactly what to do, whereas I was the helpless...". In essence, it helps to have a plan before you go in. When you are there, execute the plan. Sometimes the equipment doesn't look like you expect or are used to, so ask someone who works there where the "XXX station" is. Not to long ago I needed to find out where the dip station was. The gym only has the assisted dip/pullup stations, but the guy there showed me how to use it unassisted.

It doesn't take long to become a regular, but it helps to know what you need to do before you step foot inside. If you are used to free weights, ignore the machines and do your routine where the free weights are. That's essentially what I do.

Oh, and I also echo Meade Rubhenstein's advice on gym etiquette.

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+1 Asking how to perform a specific exercise. My gym membership is for a national chain and on occasion I've gone to a different gym where I could not find the piece of equipment I was looking for. In some cases they didn't have it and in others it just looked so different I didn't recognize it. (There are some very peculiar machines for working your obliques.) –  Christopher Bibbs Jul 14 '11 at 18:47
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Most gyms have personal trainers for hire. They'll know the lay of the land and what equipment you can use to achieve your goals. Typically they want you to sign up for a contract of several (6-12) sessions, but you can usually make it clear you just want someone to set-up a routine for you and not be your new workout buddy.

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Many gyms provide a free half hour of personal training to get you acquainted with the equipment. You might ask an employee for an overview. Also, don't worry, most people don't know how to use anything but the treadmill.

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