The new year is here, and thousands of people all over the world are facing their first time going to the gym.
You may be one of these folks. Maybe you’ve decided this is the year you’re finally going to get started with strength training. You may be preparing to pick up dumbbells or a barbell for the very first time.
If so, way to effing GO! I’m so proud of you!!
On the other hand, maybe you’re an old hand who practically lives in the gym. If so, you may be dreading the impending onslaught of new members, because you’ve been here before. You’ve watched newcomers wander around aimlessly, overwhelmed and unsure what to do, looking baffled as they try to figure out what this machine is for and how to adjust the seat on that one.
Whichever you are, I’m talking to you: veteran and newb alike. There are some things we all need to remember at this time of year.
Let me tell you a story.
The OG powerlifter and the newb
I started my strength journey in my basement gym in 2015, at age 48, using an online program, so I had a little bit of a head start when I started going to a commercial gym a year or so later. I knew some of the basics.
But I was still very much a novice, even with free weights. I had zero experience with most of the machines, because we didn’t have them in my basement. And I definitely didn’t have experience training with other people around.
The gym only had one flat bench. I trained on Saturday mornings, alone, and often I’d go in planning to bench press, only to find that single bench occupied by the same two guys: clearly buddies who met up on Saturday mornings to train together.
We exchanged the occasional smile, but that was the extent of our interactions. It never even occurred to me to ask if I could share the bench with them. Truth be told, they intimidated me. I still could only bench about 85 lbs at that point, whereas they were working up to well over 200 lbs. I felt embarrassed about being what I perceived as weak, out of place, like I had no right to expect to use the bench when people so much stronger needed it.
So, if I arrived and found them already on the bench, I’d just grab one of the portable bench with wheels, roll it into one of the squat racks, and do my thing there.
This was the status quo for quite a while.
One morning, as I was setting up to bench press in my usual spot in the squat rack, a deep voice shouted from across the room, “Hey, come join us!”
I looked up. One of them was looking right at me and smiling.
“Who, me?” I thought. “He can’t mean me!”
But clearly he did.
“That’s so nice of you, but I can’t do that to you!” I protested. “I’m only benching the 10s (meaning 10-lb plates). You’re using 45s. You’ll have to keep swapping them out!”
“That’s ok! We don’t mind. Really. Come on.”
He really seemed sincere. So I somewhat meekly put the portable bench back in its spot by the dumbbell rack and joined them at the flat bench.
They introduced themselves as Glen and Mark. We chatted as we all worked together to strip the big plates off the bar and put on the fives and tens for me to use, then did the whole thing in reverse and put the 45s back on the bar for them…. over and over and over again for over an hour as we all worked through that day’s program.
Throughout, they never once patronized or looked down on me for my lack of knowledge or my tiny plates. They treated me completely like a peer. Glen was clearly the more knowledgeable of the pair and the one who programmed their training together; he quietly gave me a few pointers here and there, but not in a condescending or mansplainy way, and they both treated me with respect, encouragement, and the same sense of camaraderie they shared with each other (I learned they’d been work colleagues and friends for years).
And it turned out this invitation wasn’t just a one-time kindness. They said I should come train with them again, and I did.
And since we all trained on Saturday mornings, this turned into a regular weekly thing. They had to unload and reload a LOT of big plates to make that possible. I will always be grateful for the kindness and generosity they showed me throughout that time.
A transformative relationship
Early on, I learned that Glen was also 50—same as me—and that he had competed as an equipped powerlifter back in the 1990s. He’d never pursued anything beyond the local level, but he could have; he squatted over 700 pounds at that time, and compared to many men who lift that heavy, he was not a huge guy.
When I met him, he was no longer competing due to some injuries he’d sustained, but he was still very strong, and had probably 30 years of lifting experience under his belt.
Shortly thereafter, I decided to train for my first powerlifting meet. Glen and I were the only powerlifting enthusiasts in that gym, and it was wonderful having someone experienced to encourage me and give me pointers. He spotted my squats and cheered when I PRd my deadlift.
That chapter unfortunately closed when the gym shut down (actually prior to Covid, due to a sale). They lived near each other but I lived in the opposite direction, so we ended up training at different gyms after that.
I’ll never be able to quantify what a difference that friendship made in the trajectory of my lifting journey. Those weekend bench sessions were real highlights in my otherwise solitary training schedule.
And the friendship, encouragement, and support I got from Glen–who wasn’t just an experienced gym-goer, but a true OG who clearly commanded respect from all the other regulars in the place–made me feel like I truly belonged.
Like I had found my tribe.
Like I was one of them.
That’s why I’m telling this story.
I don’t care if you’ve never lifted a weight before or if you’re a grizzled old-timer. We all need to remember that everyone—EVERYONE—had a first time going to the gym. We’ve all been the newbie at one point or another.
If that’s you right now, I want you to take comfort and a sense of confidence from that awareness. Let it truly sink in. Remember that we all start somewhere and that there’s no shame in being a beginner.
It’s ok not to know stuff.
And, it’s ok to ask for help.
In fact, I’m here to tell you that even though I’ve now been training for eight and a half years, there are still lots of machines I’ve never used and tons of exercises I’ve never done. My coach routinely programs stuff that I’ve never even heard of before.
Google is your friend—you can find lots and lots of videos that will help you learn how to use the various machines and free weights and do particular exercises.
When in doubt, ask
But also, you can ask. I still do that when I’m dealing with a machine or exercise that’s new to me.
You can ask the front desk folks, especially if you’re not sure how a piece of equipment works, but you can also ask other lifters. I especially tend to do that when I’m doing bodybuilding-style training, because I’m less familiar with those movements, my gym has lots of bodybuilders, and some of them really know their stuff.
If you’re new, take some time to look around. Watch for the people who look calm and confident, who are doing their training in a methodical and controlled way. They’re not showing off, they’re clearly working hard but they’re not doing more than they can handle out of ego. You’ll recognize them when you see them. And those are most likely to be the experienced and highly trained people who 1) know what they’re doing and 2) will probably be very happy to help someone new.
Just remember not to ask questions or get in someone’s space when they’re in the middle of a set—wait until they take a rest. Be polite and smile and most people won’t give a second thought about showing you how to adjust a machine, or answering a question or two about form or technique (although you shouldn’t expect them to coach you or stay there with you for an hour!). In fact, most will be flattered that you thought to ask them.
Take your space
Above all, do NOT be afraid or intimidated. The biggest, toughest looking people in gyms are often the sweetest and most willing to offer help… and if you expect to be treated well, you probably will be. In other words, don’t walk in with a chip on your shoulder or anticipate that you will be unwelcome. This may be controversial, but I believe that your energy has a tendency to manifest and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you project humility, humor, and calm confidence that you have a right to be there (even though you’re new and have a lot to learn) people will react with respect and kindness 99% of the time.
Might you encounter a jerk or two? Sure. There are jerks in the world, and there are jerks in gyms sometimes.
But don’t let someone else’s crappy attitude scare you away. You are a paying member, and you belong there just as much as anyone else.
(However, if it’s your first time going to the gym, it would behoove you to learn some basic etiquette. Here’s a really funny–and definitely NSFW–but also really thorough and accurate list of some of the key things to know.)
Veteran lifters, listen up
This brings me to those of you who find yourselves, like me, in the category of experienced lifters.
Please, as difficult as it may be, think back to how you felt when you walked into a gym for the very first time.
Remember the anxiety, confusion, intimidation of that experience.
Realize that your years of gym experience don’t make you a better or more worthy person; they just make you a more advanced lifter.
Try to put yourself in a kinder, gentler, more patient space when you’re at the gym. Be generous. Smile. Say hello. Don’t be pushy, but offer help if someone asks or seems confused.
Let people work in, even if it is a little bit inconvenient for you. In the grand scheme of karma and life energy, making a newcomer feel welcome and encouraged far outweighs a small amount of inconvenience.
Above all, embrace the newbies. Make space for them. Invite them into the tribe.
How you behave can very literally change someone’s life.
Are you a novice with a question? A veteran lifter with a story to share about your first time in the gym, or a suggestion for the new folks? Drop a comment below, or email me!