How To Get Started At The Gym

How To Get Started At The Gym

The first time you walk into a gym, it can be intimidating. All these people look like they know what they’re doing and you may feel like an outsider, unsure of how it all works. It might seem like you stick out like a sore thumb, but everyone in the gym is focussed on doing their own thing and has the same goals as you.

If you’ve never been to the gym before and you want to start getting in shape, you’re in good company. We’re going to simplify it for you so that you feel confident and ready to get working on improving your body, making it stronger, and becoming a healthier version of yourself.  

You don’t need to know everything about fitness and working out before you enter the gym. Let’s start you off with a solid base of knowledge. We’ll give you the confidence to train effectively from the first day you start.

Making SMART Goals

One of the biggest mistakes newcomers to the gym make is that they walk in with no aim and no plan. Your best gym plan starts before you even walk in the door. And that starts with a goal.

Not just any goal but a S.M.A.R.T. goal.

  • Specific - Make a goal that is direct and drilled-down. Vague goals get you nowhere.
  • Measurable - Assign a number to your goal. Measure your progress with centimetres, kilograms, or in time. As long as you can look to the numbers to show whether you are getting closer or further away from your target.
  • Achievable - Be realistic with what you can do in the gym. Overconfident goals may leave you feeling unsatisfied and unmotivated to continue.
  • Relevant - Are your goals your own? They had better be because that’s what’s going to get you through every day.
  • Timed - Set a deadline for yourself. If you know what your end date is, you can break down the steps to monthly, weekly and daily steps to reach that deadline.

Gym Etiquette

There may be some specific rules at your gym that you should brush up on, but there are some unwritten rules as well. Here are the most common unspoken agreements among gym users.

Wipe down after your set - Be as thorough as possible, wiping all the surfaces you touched and that your sweat dripped onto.

Re-rack your weights - Always put your equipment back after you are done with them.

Respect people’s space - Give people plenty of room to move around you if they need to. Also, people are there to workout and generally not to socialise. Keep to yourself unless you really need help or to ask a question.

Ask if you’re not sure if something is free - A machine may look free but someone may just be resting between sets. Ask first.

Don’t approach someone mid-lift - Wait until someone is done a set or a movement before talking to them. It can be very distracting.

Don’t focus on one muscle group - The gym is designed to work on your whole body. Even the muscles that you don’t notice growing. Your best results come from your total body workouts.

Using Free Weights

Male Scitec Model lifting free weights

The free weights mean the dumbbells, the barbells, the kettlebells, the weight plates, and the resistance bands. Usually a gym will have one section designated for free weight use. As a beginner, you might be tempted to give this area a wide berth and stick to machines. Don’t do that. Learn the techniques and the strategy to using free weights and you won’t have an issue.

Many beginners make the mistake of avoiding free weights when it can give you the best results in the shortest time. Machines can be static and limited in movement. Dynamic free weights force you to engage more than one muscle group, engaging your balance, and working out several muscles over the body.


Barbell weights should be your first point of contact in the gym after a warm-up, of course. The barbell weights are heavy and require your full-body coordination. The best course is to focus on one heavy lifting movement for each session before moving on to smaller, more targeted weight exercises. The main barbell exercises include deadlifts, barbell rows, squats, bench presses, and overhead presses. These are called compound movements because they require the coordination of several muscle groups for the lift. For example, look at the deadlift.

In the deadlift, your arms are contracted during the entire movement. Your quads, glutes, and hamstrings are involved in the lifting and dropping phase, your back and core muscles keep you stable, and your shoulders and trapezius muscles work at the top of the lift. It’s a full body movement that is a true measure of strength.

Compound movements are great for building bulk and develop good core strength.

How do I know how heavy to start?

Use this as a guide. Start doing the prescribed exercise for a set of 5 reps at 10kg. Gradually add weights until your set slows down. Then back it off 2.5kg, and that’s your starting weight. If you do 5 reps of deadlifts and you slowed down at 80kg, your starting weight should be 77.5kg.

How do I know to add weights?

You know to add weight if the day ends in “y”. In other words, you always add weight. This is called linear progression and it’s the key to building muscle mass. For deadlifts, add 5 kgs the next time you do the exercise. For bench presses and upper body lifts, add 2.5 kgs every time. If you lifted 95 kgs on a deadlift on Monday, bump it up to 100kg on Thursday.     


Dumbbells are excellent for smaller movements and adding weight to bodyweight exercises. You can start as small as 1 kg and go up from there. A good rule of thumb is to err on the lighter side when selecting the set you use. If you pick up a dumbbell and it feels heavy, it’s probably too heavy to do a set with proper form.

How many reps should I do?

You want to aim to do 12-15 reps with your last couple reps being at the edge of your ability.  The balance required to keep the weight controlled is as much a part of dumbbell exercises as the actual weight itself. This is called lifting to fatigue. If you’ve got something left in the tank after your set, you weren’t going hard enough to see real benefits.

Do I always use the same weights?

No. If you are, you’re doing it wrong. You might be able to lift heavy weights for bicep curls, but you’ll need extremely light weights for smaller muscles like your deltoid flyes. Adjust your dumbbells for your exercises. And always re-rack your dumbbells when you’re done.


Kettlebells can sometimes be called the king of weights. They are versatile and extremely useful for movement exercises. Using them is a combination of cardio and strength training. Once you pick one up, you’ll realise that the off-centre weight and unique shape make for interesting and dynamic movements.

Kettlebells are excellent for functional strength, meaning strength that doesn’t just look good but serves your body well. Try to include kettlebell swings for strength training and a good cardio workout.

Exercises Machines

Fit woman using barbell exercise machine

Once you’ve mastered the free weights, then it’s safe to turn to the machines. The machines in your gym are designed to use isolated movements to target very specific muscles. Short-range motions and repetitive movements work well but they need to be balanced with free weight training that helps lengthen and elongate your muscles.

When should I use machines?

If you don’t have a full range of motion or you’re not yet comfortable with free weights, machines can work well for you. They don’t require exceptional balance to operate and they’re very easy to grasp. Most machines come with printed instructions on the side to use.

You should also use machines that can make some movements easier. A lat pull-down machine uses the same muscles as you would for a pull-up but is a lot easier to start with. A cable machine can be helpful because it’s so adaptable. You can do bicep curls, face pulls, abdominal twists, and tricep pull-downs all on the one machine.

Machines are great for cardio work as well. A rowing machine, an elliptical, and the standard treadmill are all great machines to get your heart pumping when you’re at the gym. Be sure to include these as part of your workout, just not the whole experience.  

Establishing a Gym Routine

Now that you have a quick and dirty grasp of the different basic elements of a gym, it’s time to put it all together. Establish a routine that helps you progress and build upon what you’ve been doing. A routine keeps you on track so you’re not wandering around the gym, looking for a machine you’d like to try out.

Focus on one muscle group per day - Most experts agree that you have 6 main muscle groups. These include your chest, back, arms, shoulders, legs, and abs (or core). Keep each day focussed on one muscle group, allowing the other groups time to rest and recover. That way you can train every day without over-straining your muscles.

Train 5-6 days a week - Consistency is the key to seeing results. You need to train all the time to get your body used to building muscle mass. If you’re focussing on one muscle group per session, then you train almost every day with no ill effect.

Allow recovery times - Rest is vital to building muscle. Allow at least 1-2 days of rest per week. Do light cardio like walking or yoga on those days. Allow 2-3 minutes between sets for adequate rest while working out.

Eat well - Your efforts in the gym will be wasted if your diet is no good. You must fuel your body with the right macronutrients with carbs for fuel, protein for muscle growth, and fat for essential vitamins. You can’t outtrain a bad diet.  

Gym 101: Graduation

Congratulations! You’ve passed the course and now it’s time to go to the gym. Establish a good habit of going to gym every day, even if you’re tempted to skip. Practice the movements for free weights. Learn the lay of the land for the machines. Figure out what works for you and you’ll be .

Remember that everybody there is doing the same thing as you. We’re all cheering you on.

See you on the floor.

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