From how to get a good rate on your membership to gymetiquette that won’t make others give you major side-eye, these tips will make you feel way more confident about hitting the gym!
Whether you’re a gym rat or just dipping your toes in the pool of studio options, we guarantee there are a few things you don’t know about the gym. There are ways to work out effectively, properly, considerately (!), and strategically. There’s gym etiquette to follow and surefire ways to get the maximum results from each and every visit. And, there are a ton of gym myths out there that we’re here to bust. Here are unwritten gym rules that will make your experience a lot more pleasant—and the likelihood of you sticking with it for the long run will go up by a ton! And don’t miss our 40 Tips for Motivation That Actually Work for when you feel your willpower start to wane.
This should go without saying, but all gym equipment comes into contact with a lotof people’s hands and sweat—so make sure you wipe down all equipment after you’ve used it. Many gyms will leave out an antibacterial spray and paper towels, which you can use for this exact purpose. “And many of us will forget to clean the weights after we’ve used them at the gym,” says Becca Napelbaum, Cleaning Expert at Handy.com. “However, the more people touch the weights, the more sweat and bacteria they will accumulate. Plus, weights can also accumulate dust, which can irritate your lungs when you work out. Make sure to wipe them down before and after every use.”
If you bring your own yoga mat to classes at the gym, you should clean it at least once a month, especially during the warmer months. “You will know when the mat needs cleaning because it will start to smell and look dirty as it tends to collect oils and sweat,” Napelbaum says. “It is advisable to make a natural solution of water and vinegar and wipe the mat down, as that will disinfect it, as well as restore some of the rubber’s texture. Avoid using soap and drying your mat in the sun, since will cause damage to the rubber.” And if you don’t have your own mat and are you’re using the one available at the gym, carry antibacterial spray with you and spray the mat before and after every use. People—and their feet—are gross. It’s not worth the risk. (Speaking of gross, find out The 17 Dirtiest, Grossest Things in Your Kitchen!)
Spinning is an amazing workout, but many don’t know that it can be dangerous for your neck if you’re not positioned right. “Teachers say, ‘Shoulders down,’ but they don’t help everyone,” says certified fitness trainer Shari Portnoy. “It is very important to make sure you tell a spinning instructor you are new and ask about your neck and shoulders. You will save a lot of money on massages or chiropractors.” If this is your workout of choice (or you want it to be), then check out these 33 Indoor Cycling Questions Answered in 5 Words or Less.
Classes at the gym are a great way to set an appointment with yourself so you know that you will get there at a designated time. But beware, as classes that use weights and have fast moves may do nothing for you other than play music you like. “Classes are designed to get you in, especially if you haven’t been a gym goer before,” explains Portnoy. “Doing the moves wrong have no benefit. If you are new, ask the gym for a class where the instructor goes around to help you. Save an injury and a waste of time.”
“The most important thing that no one ever tells you about the gym is that going there should be fun,” says Sarah Hays Coomer, author of Lightness of Body and Mind: A Radical Approach to Weight and Wellness. “The people who see the most results have usually found an outlet at the gym that gives them pleasure. Whether it’s yoga, spin, or Zumba, there are plenty of fun ways to lose weight and enjoy your exercising!
When you join a gym, you should have three goals in mind for yourself. Is it losing body fat? Training for a race? Learning to do a pull-up? “Research shows that setting fitness goals helps you achieve success and keeps you from dropping off,” says Sahmura Gonzalez, Master Trainer at CRUNCH Union Square. “Set yourself up for success and set a realistic routine for yourself. Start with committing to come three times a week for at least 30 minutes. Once that becomes a habit after about four weeks, increase it to four times. If you join a gym and right away make a promise to yourself that you will come seven days a week, you will feel bad if you miss a day or two and start to feel bad—and like going to the gym is impossible.”
Gyms are no longer filled with just meatheads. “Most gyms ages range from ages 18-80 and enjoy different types of exercise from Zumba, Olympic lifting to corrective and rehabilitation and prevention,” says Gonzalez. “Everyone thinks they are getting judged by the fit people in the gym. In actuality, even those people have their own goals—and insecurities—so don’t fear or feel that you’re being judged!”
When it comes to working out—especially for beginners—sometimes less is more. Keep in mind is that your results aren’t going to come in one day. It’s very common to try to ‘crush it’ in the gym one day, and end up missing your next two workouts, or even a few weeks because you are too sore or too tired from the first one! “Keep the workouts at a level that you can do consistently for the best results over time,” recommends Tyler Spraul, certified strength and conditioning specialist. “Once you’ve built a steady base, then you can take steps to increase the difficulty and continue to improve.”
If you’re planning on taking a shower at the gym before you go to work, take a look at the class schedule to see when a class gets out so that you aren’t stuck in the line of people who also need to shower. “Around 8 a.m. is when people are just finishing up with their workout and getting ready—so, plan accordingly!” recommends Gonzalez.
Yes, it’s true that January is one of the busiest times of the year at the gym—but there are ways you can minimize the mania in your own gym sessions. “Do a Google search for your gym and it should show you when your gym is busiest. If your schedule allows, avoid those times. It differs from gym to gym, but for the most part, peak hours fall on Monday through Friday between 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., with the occasional midday mini-rush from about `12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. On weekends, avoid anytime from about 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.,” says Blaire Massaroni, Crunch Union Square Personal Trainer.
And if you can’t help but go during peak hours, there are ways to get around the crowds. One way? Head to the weight room. “In a world full of cardio kings and queens, take this chance to be a free weight pioneer. It may still be a bit hectic, but you won’t find yourself having to wait for nearly as much equipment.” And you can also look out for extra space. “Look for a cluster of machines where an additional piece of equipment wouldn’t fit, but where you could easily get your stretch on or use the space to create a self-contained killer 10-15 minute HIIT workout instead of waiting for those cardio machines.” And lastly, Massaroni says to find other ways to do your moves. “If you’d planned to do dumbbell rows, but all the benches are taken, think about the range of motion you’re actually trying to train. Then try to replicate it on the TRX or by hanging under a secure barbell or smith machine. This is a good opportunity to try some new modalities and find new ways to get creative and spice up your workout regimen.”
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You know how gym memberships seem to get lower and lower? And you know how some people—maybe you, maybe your friends—pay each month but never actually show up? “The gym business is actually predicated on people signing up and paying up, but not actually showing up,” says Tim Blake, owner and founder of. Some figures suggest that only 20 percent of members use the gym on a regular basis. “So, for a gym big enough to support 1,000 active members to be commercially viable, they’ll have to sell about 5,000 memberships. That’s why the rates are kept low enough so that people won’t cancel their membership, even if they don’t show up.”
There is an unwritten culture at the gym and there are rules. “It taps into social dynamics with people; how considerate are you to others? Are you taking up unnecessary space? Are you being hygienic and wiping down the machines after use? Are you resetting the weights to their normal volume after using them for the next person?” says Dr. Rob Silverman of NY Chiro Care. “Working out at home or engaging in other solitary athletics like running or cycling is different than immersing yourself in a place where several hundred people go work out every day.”
If you’re dedicated to using that gym membership, you will notice a few other shifts besides the drop in pant size. “You’ll get better at scheduling and time allotment. You may find yourself sleeping better and your mind being sharper. You’ll start breaking down mental barriers and excuses like, ‘I don’t feel like going’ and instead just doing it,” says Silverman. “Like they say, the hardest step is getting started but once you start, you can’t stop.”
You get to the gym and the weights look intimidating, while the overabundance of treadmills and elliptical trainers are calling your name—besides, you know you’re guaranteed to break a sweat there. Good move? Not so fast, says Kathleen Trotter, personal trainer and author of Finding Your Fit. “Don’t rely on steady-state cardio. You need to do more than just mindless cardio and should instead do interval training two or three times a week,” she recommends. “Interval training improves cardiovascular fitness, insulin sensitivity, HDL (good)cholesterol and helps reduce both visceral and subcutaneous fat.” One of Trotter’s favorite interval workouts is “rolling intervals.” After warming up, cycle through 30 seconds at regular intensity, 20 seconds at a slightly higher intensity and 10 seconds at an even higher intensity. Repeat for 10 to 15 minutes. Diehard runner? Well, in that case, don’t miss our Eat This, Not That! for Runners guide.
Don’t fall into the trap of believing that lifting weights and doing intervals a few times a week means you can be a sloth the days you don’t get a gym workout in. “Prolonged sitting negatively affects the cardiovascular, lymphatic, and digestive systems, not to mention your metabolism,” says Trotter. “It is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes, and affects how our bodies metabolize glucose. Move wherever and whenever possible.”
Taking a water bottle to the gym is as necessary as bringing along sneakers—but if you’re doing the environmentally-friendly thing of bringing a reusable one (and we hope you are) then please be sure to wash it thoroughly after every gym visit. “If you do not clean it afterward, every sip you take will be filled with thousands of bacteria. Additionally, bacteria flourish in dark and moist environments, so if your bottle doesn’t have a chance to dry, it is guaranteed to play host to plenty of bacteria,” says Napelbaum. “Clean your water bottle after every use; some of them you can just throw in the dishwasher and others you can clean with warm, soapy water and a brush.”
Sore muscles are extremely common if you’re weight training at the gym, but that doesn’t mean that it is normal. “You shouldn’t have to suffer through the next couple of days after a high-intensity workout,” says Dr. Matt Tanneberg, sports Chiropractor and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). “There are ways to prevent muscle soreness before it happens and also ways to cure it once it has already set in. Delayed onset muscle soreness (a.k.a DOMS) is the term derived the post-workout muscle soreness that many of us have experienced. It is caused by small, micro tears of the muscle that occur during exercise. We used to think that muscle soreness was due to lactic acid build up in our muscles but more recent research has shown that these micro tears cause inflammation within the muscle which is actually causing the soreness that we feel. Typically, we will begin to experience DOMS 12-48 hours post-workout, with the soreness peaking at about 48 hours and it will begin to dissipate between 48-60 hours.” To prevent this, be sure to warm up, cool down, use a foam roller after your workout, then engage in controlled, static stretching followed by icing your muscles and then rest. And speaking of recovery, find out the 12 Best Recovery Fuels for Every Workout.
Don’t assume that if you’re going to the gym, you’re automatically making progress. “If you aren’t changing up your routines by varying pace, resistance, or type of exercise, you aren’t going to get very far,” says Coomer. “Exercise is always better than no exercise, but if you’re not out of breath or a little bit sore now and then, you probably aren’t challenging yourself enough to make progress.”
When you’re working out at the gym, getting a full range of motion in your moves is very important. “I frequently see people doing bicep curls or whatever movement with half the range of motion needed to get the full benefits. Go down in weight if you need to and check with a trainer to make sure you’re fully completing the motion without going too far or injuring yourself,” says Coomer. “This applies to everything from weightlifting to aerobics. It’s always better to do any exercise with correct form before adding resistance or additional sets to your workout.”
Yes, going to the gym and working out is great for your overall health and metabolism—but it’s not a magic solution to losing weight. “You can work out at the gym every day, but if you need to lose weight, you have to make changes to your food intake,” says fitness trainer Carol Michaels. “The number of calories burned is not always accurate on a machine. Do not get fooled into thinking that you just burned 500 calories in 30 minutes by walking on the treadmill.”
Trainers will approach you and you should be open-minded to their suggestions. “They will probably try to get you in for a trial session and it can be a useful session, even if you don’t want to buy sessions,” says Gonzalez. “If they’re good trainers, they’ll be respectful of your wishes, learn your name, and still say hi to you when they see you. The more you feel you have a community at your gym, the more you will go!”
“If you don’t have embarrassing moments at the gym, you’re probably not going as hard as you could be or should be,” says competitive bodybuilder Joshua Petrecky. “If I had a dollar for every time I failed at the gym and been somewhat embarrassed by the attempt, I’d be rich.”
If you’re taking a yoga class, be sure to wear your shoes or flip flops from the locker room to the yoga room. “No one likes bare tootsies in the gym,” says Gonzalez. Now with that said, some people will take off their shoes while they’re squatting, dead lifting or performing certain exercises—so don’t be surprised! “Though, they really should just keep their socks on!”
You don’t have to be afraid or intimidated, which is one of the main reasons new gym goers fail at going on a regular basis. “Everything’s organized for you at the gym; there’s not a single machine, weight rack, barbell, or cardio machine that you can’t handle. Just start small and work your way up to the complex, more advanced machinery. All your fears of being judged are in your head,” says Silverman. Still need a boost?