Gym Selection, Etiquette, & Expectations

A beginner’s guide to facility selection, exercise etiquette, equipment use, and what to expect on your first day at the gym.

Sam Stephens

Updated July 2019

TLDR

To find the best gym in your area, start with online research. Once you have a list of some final candidates, test out your top picks with trial memberships before signing a contract. During your trial, look for a clean facility that contains all of the equipment you need and has a great atmosphere.

Before arriving on the first day, make sure you have the the following basic gym items in a bag for easy carrying – workout clothes/shoes, a small towel, a reusable water bottle, and headphones. If you’re lifting before work, you’ll need extra stuff.

When working out, be aware of your own actions and how they affect others. Be a considerate gym member by cleaning up after yourself, not slamming weights, treating equipment with care, and moving safely. More etiquette and use points are listed below.

If you need help with an exercise or a piece of equipment, ask an on staff trainer or take advantage of the massive online video library on YouTube. Avoid bothering other members.

Have fun and enjoy your first workout. Focus on being a little better each time you visit.

Beginner Gains

For many of us, gyms are familiar places. We know what to do while we’re there, where things are located, and what the social norms are. There’s a good chance our visit frequency isn’t as high as we’d like, but working out and sweating around others is nothing new. However, for rookie lifters, these loud, crowded spaces of self improvement are foreign and can be really intimidating.

If you’re brand new to fitness, it’s important that your initial experiences are positive and rewarding. Choosing a great gym and feeling prepared to knock out your first day can have a major impact on exercise success and program adherence. Anxiety of the unknown is very real and it stops many people from trying new things, but this roadblock is removable if we turn ‘unknown’ into ‘known.’

This guide covers the basics of gym selection, exercise etiquette, first day expectations, and equipment use. This guide does not discuss form or exercise selection. After reading, you should be able to confidently step into a gym for the first time and feel ready for the work ahead. 

If you have no idea what you’re doing within the world of exercise but want to get started, this guide is for you.  

Let’s talk about how to gym.

Gym vs Studio

It’s important to first establish the distinction between gyms and exercise studios. Gyms are fitness facilities that have monthly memberships and allow unrestricted access during normal business hours. In contrast, studios are smaller, class oriented exercise spaces that operate around a set schedule and do not allow ‘open gym’ use. This guide is written for gyms.

If you’re just beginning with a new type of studio based fitness activity (yoga, CrossFit, cycle, Pilates, etc) this article will be less relevant to you, but it can still help.

Exercise classes have beginner participants join daily, so being new is nothing to be nervous about. In any new class environment, it’s best to be proactive and either call/message ahead or show up early to class if you have questions/are unsure about anything. Simply introducing yourself and asking what to expect should be enough for the first day. The instructors will most likely be thrilled you’re interested in learning a new activity and are taking the initiative to do it right. Great teachers love engaged students that care about their subject and will welcome a curious novice into the group and make them feel at home – this is especially true at smaller boutique/privately owned studios. Communicate your thoughts, voice your questions, and you’ll be good to go.

Unfortunately, the atmosphere of a gym can be very different. It’s incredibly easy to enter a weight room for the first time and feel completely lost while everyone else looks like they have it all figured out – they don’t. This guide aims to keep that from happening.

Now that we know the differences between gyms and studios, let’s start things off by looking at the gym selection process.

Gym Selection

The perfect gym for you will depend on your specific goals and activity interests, but all great facilities share some common traits. To start the hunt, we need to do a little online research.

By combining Google web results (“Best gyms in Houston”) with map pin data for each search, you should be able to form a decent list of locations in your area. As that list grows, be sure to compare ratings and reviews on Google, Facebook, and Yelp and feel out the business’s online vibe through Instagram and their website.

You can then narrow the candidate list down even further based on available equipment. We like to keep equipment selection simple and encourage others to do the same by using a select list of free weights and avoiding most fixed movement angle machines. Look for plenty of barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, suspension trainers, open spaces for bodyweight exercises, and treadmills. These tools offer a wide variety of movement options and training styles while remaining constant in their availability and function. Learning to use standard pieces of equipment will provide you with the best training foundation to scale your workouts as you progress in ability.

Most popular commercial gyms will have all of the recommended equipment plus a variety of extra toys and machines to play with. However, this isn’t always true for smaller privately owned places, so it may be best to call ahead for more details depending on the situation.

When all of these attribute filters are applied, you should be left with locations that are reviewed well, appear to have the equipment you need, are within your budget, and just give you a good gut feeling. With this initial list built and ready to go, rank each one in order of appeal and start checking them out in person.

Upon arrival, the first item on your to-do list will be a facility tour. Guided tours are pretty standard practices at most gyms and usually occur the moment you express an interest in joining. However, not all customer service is equal and you may have to ask for it specifically. Make sure you’re shown where the equipment, locker rooms, and personal training desk are located as well as any other areas that interest you. Take advantage of this time to ask any questions about services or amenities that you might have. In most gym settings, the person showing you around will be a membership services adviser of some kind and should be a great source of information. Pick their brain for as long as you need to feel comfortable but save all questions regarding form, equipment use, and programming for the training staff.

It’s entirely possible to drive around town and tour each facility in one day, but that incredibly time consuming method won’t give you any real appreciation for a single location. Instead, set up a temporary membership with your number one pick and complete it before moving on to the next location. Most places have trial passes that range from a few days to a full week and that time should provide you with plenty of opportunities to experience everything a gym has to offer. You’ll be pressured into signing a contract upfront, but it’s important to wait until you’re genuinely happy before committing to something long term. If the first place doesn’t impress you or meet your needs during the trial, move onto the next one.

With the sampling period started, let’s quickly cover some of the things that fall into the ‘impressive’ category. This list is really short and has only two points – cleanliness/maintenance and atmosphere.

Not every gym is a multi-million dollar facility. You can have an amazing workout experience at a high end health club or in a warehouse style gym – there are incredible places at every point along the investment spectrum. However, all great places are clean and properly maintained. During your tour, look for the following issues:

  • Dirty unswept/unmopped floors
  • Gross bathrooms
  • Dusty/grimey equipment
  • Ripped equipment padding
  • A large number of ‘Out of Order’ signs
  • Frayed cables on pin select machines
  • Loose bolts on equipment
  • Unstable benches/seats
  • Unorganized/messy training floor
  • A funky smell
  • A lack of sanitary wipes

Some of these concerns may seem minor, but they’re indicative of an increased injury risk due to faulty equipment. Many facilities will have older machines and may be housed in beaten up buildings, but old things can be taken care of. Do your best to distinguish between age and neglect. Maintenance, janitorial services, and general facility upkeep are part of any good gym’s monthly expense budget, so the red flags listed above won’t be an issue at a quality location.

Regarding atmosphere, the main determinant here comes down to one question – how does the place make you feel? We can objectively measure cleanliness, but the intangibles of a location are what make it special. The interior decorations, music selection, layout, amount of natural light, and vibes from staff/members all contribute to a gym’s personality. A great gym has motivating life within its walls, an energetic quality that’s almost impossible not to feel, and an environment that just makes you want to be better. There’s really no guide for this part – trust your gut.

When you finally do make your choice, be sure to give the membership services advisor the sale credit. It’s always good to have a staff member on your side that can help with any future account changes or questions.

Considering all of the possible factors that could be accounted for when selecting a gym, this section has been pretty brief, but hopefully it has given you enough information to find a great spot. If you need a little more help, let me know. I’d love to work with you and help you find the best gym for your goals and experience level.

Now that you’ve got a basic outline and plan of attack for gym selection, let’s look at what you’ll need to bring on the first day.

What to Bring

The full list of items needed for any workout session will vary from person to person based on individual programming and available gym services, but we all require the same basic stuff. On your first day, make sure to bring –

  • Workout clothes (comfortable and breathable)
  • Compression underwear
  • Workout shoes (cross training or running)
  • A small towel (to reduce sweat build up)
  • A reusable water bottle (plastic or metal)
  • Headphones

If you’re lifting before work and need to shower at the gym, you’ll also want –

  • Work clothes
  • A combination lock (if your gym has lockers)
  • A large towel (if your gym doesn’t provide them)
  • Soap (if not provided)
  • Shower shoes (optional)
  • All other morning ritual items (deodorant, toothbrush, comb, etc)

With your gym necessities laid out and ready to go, you’ll need a bag of some kind to put them in. A backpack, duffle bag, or small drawstring gym sack are all great options. Just get something that can carry your things.

After a few visits, you’ll find out exactly what you need and can make list modifications to fit your situation.

With your bag packed and ready to go, we can shift our focus to etiquette and general equipment use.

Self-Awareness

The most important aspect of gym etiquette is self-awareness. This may seem like a needless point to make, but too many people are completely oblivious of their own actions and how they affect others. A tiny amount of introspection can go a long way in any fitness setting.

Are you making a ton of unnecessary noise? Do you have some funk on you that’s causing a noticeable odor? Is your workout taking up too much space? Are you staring at other people and being a creep? Is your ‘hardcore’ routine putting others at risk? Are you hogging all of the dumbbells?!

Most experienced gym-goers won’t judge rookie lifters on appearance or skill if they’re working to better themselves. Many iron veterans may actually be interested in sharing tips and advice they’ve learned along the way to ensure new enthusiasts have positive first experiences. Try not to feel too self conscious or embarrassed if some activities are awkward at first. Learning takes time and we’ve all been beginners at some point. However, everyone gets a little judgey if another member is being unsafe, dumb, or just really weird. Luckily, this trifecta of negative behavior is completely avoidable.

Be a considerate and attentive human being and you’ll always have great interpersonal gym experiences because your actions will allow others to do the same. Observe the social norms around you and behave accordingly.

Asking For Help

As a self-aware exerciser, you’re probably a little too conscious of your limited fitness knowledge. You’re inevitably going to need some help to get started on your first day and it’s important to seek that information out from the right people at the correct times.

Questions regarding facility layout, amenities, and service/class locations are all great topics for the front desk and membership services team. If they’ve done their job well during the initial tour and sign up process, you should know how to identify every piece of equipment needed in your programming. OK, great – you can find the squat rack. How do you use it?

If you’re brand new to fitness, I highly recommend that you work with a qualified personal trainer to learn the basics. A small initial investment can save you from a ton of mistakes, headaches, and injuries down the line. With the Fitstra Beginner program or others that are similar, exercise variety is simple and limited to only a handful of movements patterns, making it relatively uncomplicated and easy to learn. If you can afford a few sessions (4-6) to cover movement fundamentals, it really will be a tremendous help. There’s no substitute for live instruction.

Alternatively, many trainers also offer discounted or free consultations that are perfect for Q&A style sessions. In these settings you can come prepared with a list of questions and leave the consult feeling confident and ready to get started.

If either of these options are routes you’d like to take, shoot me a message and let’s work together or check out the Finding the Best Personal Trainer guide to make sure you get paired up with a great one at your local gym.

With all of that said, you don’t have to hire a trainer to be helped by one. However, it’s important to know how most trainers are compensated and where the line between ‘I have a quick question’ and ‘I want free help’ is drawn.

Most personal trainers will have absolutely no problem answering a quick question or two if approached at the right time. If a trainer is working with someone or busy writing programs, wait until the current session is over or catch them later when they appear free. A few minutes out of their day to meet a new potential client and help an enthusiastic newcomer should be fine in just about every situation. They’ll probably be happy to assist you. However, most trainers aren’t paid hourly or on a salary basis, their paychecks come from paid client sessions only. This means that if ‘a quick question’ is likely to result in a lengthy conversation, it won’t be appropriate for a random introduction/meeting. Instead, respect the trainers time and the value of their services by booking a consultation or private session. They’ll be much more interested in giving you discounted/free advice later if you take the proper steps to start the client/trainer relationship correctly.

Your next resource for equipment and form information is YouTube. This option is pretty straightforward – search for educational videos that cover form and equipment use. Look at the ratings of each video and browse the top comments to make sure your digital instructor isn’t making any obvious mistakes. To add another layer of security, watch multiple highly rated and viewed videos on the same topic. If they’re all saying the same thing, there’s a good chance the info is solid. If you’d like a list of quality instructional videos from some talented YouTubers that cover all of the lifts in Fitstra programming, check out any of the Programs – written exercise descriptions and video examples are listed at the bottom of each program.

When learning from online sources, it’s a good idea to record yourself performing each lift in your routine for at least the first few weeks. Compare your footage to the instructional content and use a process of elimination to slowly correct errors. This self taught approach will take more time and and you’ll make more mistakes than if you worked with a personal trainer, but it can be really effective for quick learners that pay close attention to the finer details. You’ll look like an experienced lifter in no time if continued learning and the execution of proper form are your top priorities.

If you’ve got some lifting footage that you’d like a second pair of eyes on, shoot me an email. We can set up a consult and do a form review call.

It might be tempting to ask other members for exercise help, but it’s best to avoid this option whenever possible. As a beginner without any real background knowledge or education, you’ll have a hard time distinguishing between good and bad advice. Most experienced lifters have strong, confident opinions regarding the best way to do things, but too many of them don’t really know what they’re talking about. You can learn a ton from other lifters, but it’s important to get the basics from trusted sources before you start considering random outside suggestions. Absorb everything you hear and read with an open mind, but do your own research on these topics to see if they hold up. Seriously, there’s so much bad advice out there.

Also, stopping someone else’s workout to request a quick personal training session can be an inconsiderate interruption to their flow. They’re probably at the gym to destress and enjoy some well deserved alone time, not teach others. It’s likely that there will be quite a few members who’d have no problem helping you, but it’s better to lean on the staff trainers or be self-reliant and use online content than assume your education is another patron’s responsibility. Similar to personal training, use your best judgement with member advice. If a few seconds of Q&A with an experienced lifter can make you safer and more confident without slowing them down, go for it. Just be considerate of everyone’s time and priorities.

It will take you years to master the most important lifts, but you can reach ‘pretty good’ really quickly if you let qualified teachers guide your first steps in the right direction.

Equipment Use & Care

Now that you know how to find all the toys in your programming and have the educational resources to learn proper form for each one, you can finally start exercising as a considerate member with correct equipment/gym etiquette.

The most important thing to keep in mind when using any piece of equipment is that you’re paying for gym access and have an equal right to all the stuff inside. It’s easy to feel pressured to put something away early if others appear to be waiting on you to finish. Instead, try to relax, focus on what you’re there to do, and take the time needed to knock out the sets in your program. You don’t need to rush.

It’s completely fine to use a piece of equipment by yourself, but allowing others to work in with you when appropriate is a polite and helpful gesture, especially at busier locations. If you see someone lingering in the area and eyeing your piece of equipment, ask if they’d like to work in with you as long as it doesn’t negatively impact your session. The same is true in reverse – if an item or machine is currently in use but it looks like you could work in without slowing the other person down, simply ask if it’s OK for you to work in with them. 95% of the time you won’t have to share with anyone else, so just use your best judgement in the rare occasions that you do.

Whether you’re using gym equipment alone or with a partner, it needs to be taken care of. Most of the items in a gym are made of iron or steel, but that doesn’t mean they’re indestructible – everything can break if it’s abused. Unless you’re practicing Olympic lifting with bumper plates on a platform, don’t slam your weights. You should be in control of every movement you make. Certain levels of noise and some ground shaking vibrations are unavoidable, and that’s totally fine, but there’s a clear audible difference between setting down a heavy object and dropping it from five feet in the air.

Along with noise control and equipment care, using manageable weight means that you’ll never need to ask other members for a spot. As a beginner, you should keep 1-2 reps between you and failure for just about every set. If the load is so heavy that you need the safety net of another lifter, reduce the weight. Your first priority should be on motor learning/form development, not maxing out.

If you have to step away to use the bathroom or need to leave an area for a minute or two but don’t want to lose your equipment, leave your towel draped over whatever was being used. Just be mindful of others that might be waiting on you to return and finish. 

Once you’ve completed your last set at any machine or with any piece of equipment, be sure to wipe down any sweat left behind, rack your weights, and clean up after yourself. Leave the place looking better than when you arrived. Don’t make others responsible for your mess.

Play nice with others, treat everything with care, use a little common sense, and you’ll be fine.

You vs You

The final bit of beginner gym advice is really simple – focus on yourself.

There will always be someone who’s bigger, stronger, faster, leaner, etc. These people can be great sources of motivation, but don’t get caught up comparing yourself to others in a negative way. Prioritize your own progress and be sure to take time to step back and appreciate all of your minor victories along the way.

Focus on yourself.

Wrapping It Up

A lot of the information covered in this guide may feel like common sense, but if you learned one thing that will make you more confident and prepared for your new healthy hobby, it was worth the time it took to write it.

Workout however you like at whichever place is best, but wherever you go, always be considerate of others, take care of the equipment, and clean up after yourself. If you adhere to these basic elements of human decency, you’ll be in better shape than a significant portion of more experienced lifters.

Most importantly, have fun.

If you have any other questions about finding a gym, what to expect on your first day, or need help putting together an enjoyable routine to follow once you get there, let me know. I’d love to help.

Reference Disclaimer

Unlike the other science/evidence supported guides, this is an opinion piece based on my own personal experiences in the fitness industry.

Thanks for Saying Thanks

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