It can be hard enough to motivate yourself to take the plunge and join a gym, but what the heck are you supposed to do once you get there? Years ago I wrote a goofy post on How Not to Make an Ass of Yourself Your First Time at the Gym, and it was a lot more popular than it should have been for being such a goofy post. I suspect it was because so many people are a little gymtimidated, which if it isn't a word really should be. Anyway, so for some better advice on optimizing your gym experience, please welcome Carly Pizzani, a certified personal trainer with an awesome blog Fine Fit Day! (And there's more info on Carly at the end). --Crabby
When you join a new gym, one of the perks often thrown in with your membership is a complimentary session with a personal trainer. They’re trying to get you signed up for training, of course, but as a trainer who used to work in a gym, I can tell you that maybe one in ten of those free sessions ever amounts to actual sessions sold. I always tell people joining a gym to book that free session and use it to pick the brain of the fitness professional you’re paired with - how often do you get a one-on-one with someone whose whole career is built around what to do (and not do!) in your workout to really get results?
For those of you who don’t have this option, I thought I’d put together a list of what I wish regular gym-goers knew to save themselves time, to get results and to maximize their effort working out.
DO: Use the weights. This is the number one thing I wish more people took advantage of in the gym. It’s amazing how many people - and sadly, usually women - join the gym and then just use the cardio equipment or classes. Lifting weights has such a huge benefit, regardless if your goal is fat loss, strength, injury prevention, or just feeling awesome about yourself. And it’s one thing that gyms have that you probably don’t have easy access to at home.
DON’T: Lift puny weights. Okay, 10 points for getting to the weight floor to use the dumbbells, kettlebells, cables or barbells. But if you’re finishing your sets without feeling like the last repetition was the last one you could possibly do, even if someone offered you a million dollars to do one more…you may not be getting as much out of it as you could. It’s simple to work out how heavy your weight should be. Pick a weight, do your chosen number of reps and if you feel like you could keep going, stop and select the next highest weight for your next set. Repeat until you find the magic number. Don’t forget to check in with yourself every couple of weeks to see if you need to increase the weight you’re lifting again - it’s amazing how quickly strength gains can happen, especially if you’re new to strength training.
DO: Multi-joint exercises. When you’re working out with weights, think about the most bang for your buck when you’re selecting an exercise. For example, squatting is awesome - you’re working your hips, knees and ankles, making this a multi-joint exercise. Want to make it even more effective? Add an overhead press to the top, or grab a kettlebell to swing and turn it into a full-body movement. Multi-joint means more calories burned, more time efficiency and better coordination.
DON’T: Bother with isolation exercises like biceps curls or triceps extensions, unless you have a specific reason for doing them. Standing or sitting and doing small, single joint movements like this is not making wise use of your time. Unless you’re specifically working out for something like a figure competition, or you actually use one of those repetitive movements in your daily life, you can skip these - those muscles are getting worked when you bench press, overhead press and row, anyway.
DO: Think about function when it comes to your workout. How often have you gone to the gym, jumped on a treadmill and zoned out for 30 minutes while you run and listen to your music? If your goal is to improve your overall cardio endurance, then by all means, this is a great option. But spending a little time thinking about how your workout will actually benefit your life can be a game changer. Feel winded running up the stairs when you’re late for the train? Think about adding incline running, or the stepping machines to your cardio routine. Hunched over a desk all day? Try using the row machines for your cardio, or focus on pulling and rowing exercises when you use weights to stretch open your chest and strengthen weak back muscles. Have a child who occasionally sprints away from you as fast as his little three-year-old legs can take him, without warning? (Which is fast, by the way!) Do some sprint training on the treadmill to get those fast-twitch fibers at the ready.
DON’T: Be such a slave to function that you forget exercise can (and should) be fun. Maybe Zumba is not functional for your lifestyle at all, but you love it. Do more Zumba. Maybe you spend all day on your feet walking for your job, but when you get to the gym, you just want to watch your favorite tv show and zone out doing long, slow distance for a while. If it makes you happy and feels good, then don’t discount that - consistency is key for any exercise routine, after all, so you need to do what keeps you happy and coming back for more.
DO: Be consistent and make your workout a habit. I really can’t drive that point home enough. Habits are formed when you do the same thing over and over again - if you always head to the gym on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday, pretty soon it’s going to feel like there’s something missing if you have tho skip your regular workout. There’s a tendency for many people to get a little Type-A about what they can accomplish at the gym - faced with a tight schedule one day, you may think you’re better off skipping exercise because you’ll only have 15 or 20 minutes to work out, but that’s a mistake. You can get a great workout done in a short period of time (like these three fifteen minute workouts) and in just getting your butt there, you’re cementing that regular exercise habit in your brain. It’s always worth it!
DON’T: Get so caught up in consistency and habit that you never change your routine at all. Think about the last time you switched up what you did when you worked out. Most people get into a groove and get comfortable - making exercise habitual really does work, after all! But if your workouts are the same week in and week out, switching up one day’s workout for something completely different can make a big difference in the training effect and results you’ll see. Try a spin class instead of running. Lift heavier weights for less reps than usual. Workout with cables rather than dumbbells for a change. Your body adapts very quickly to whatever it’s used to doing, so throw it a curveball to make it work harder.
DO: Remember that what you eat and the timing can have a big impact on your goals. Working out on an empty stomach is a technique that works for some, especially endurance athletes who may do it deliberately in order to train for pushing through glycogen depletion in a long race. But if you’re lifting weights, or heading to a hard class, it will benefit you to time a small snack about half an hour before you work out. Likewise, refueling should be done as soon as you can after a workout, ideally something with carbs and protein.
DON’T: Overestimate how much energy you’re using in the gym and have a free-for-all when it comes to diet. You sweat buckets and feel exhausted at the end of a hard workout - so you can indulge a little, right? Yes, but the operative word is ‘little’. Trust me, chocolate is a big part of my life. But it’s so easy to overeat or consume liquid calories mindlessly, with that idea that it’s okay because you worked out. Particularly if your goal is weight loss, or body fat reduction, what you’re eating has a huge effect on your results (or lack thereof). Keeping a food and drink journal for a couple of weeks just to notice any habits or times when you may overindulge can be really helpful to make small changes that will benefit your goals.
You’ll be surprised by how effective making a few easy healthy habit switches like these can be to your workout results. These are all things I try to drive home with my regular clients, as well as anyone who asks me for training advice.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about working out? Have you ever seen results from switching something up at the gym?
Carly Pizzani is a mama to a rampaging toddler, pregnant with her second child (due in April!), a certified personal trainer, the author of the fitness blog Fine Fit Day a freelance writer, and an ex-pat Aussie living in Brooklyn. She loves running, lifting weights, yoga, spin class, dancing with her son — basically anything active. Keeping mamas (and mamas-to-be) fit, healthy and motivated is what she loves most about her job. You can connect with Carly on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram.