Gym Class: A Beginner’s Guide to Gym Workouts

Illustration by Taylor Anne Mordoh

When the weather outside is frightful, it’s the perfect time to work out indoors! If you’ve always wanted to try a commercial gym, or have a membership and don’t know where to begin—well, come on in to Gym Class and let’s get you started! Most fitness centers have a similar setup, with a variety of cardio equipment, weights machines, and free weights. Some facilities will also offer things like studio space (for yoga and other guided classes), spinning bikes, saunas, and hot tubs. I’ll give you the tips you need to get a well-rounded workout at a basic facility. If you can also relax in a hot tub after, that’s awesome—enjoy.

Things You’ll Need

  • A gym membership (or trial pass, to see if you like the place)
  • Workout clothes: choose something you’re comfortable in that allows you freedom of movement
  • A journal to log your workouts and progress

Basic Technique

The most important piece of workout equipment is your journal. If you take a few minutes at home and write down your workout for the day (or your workouts for the whole week), it gives you a firm plan to follow at the gym. Just walk in, start your warmup, and then follow your plan. This will help you to not feel overwhelmed by a busy room with many options. Also—especially as you’re just starting out—it’s important to track your work so you can watch your progress and consistently push to challenge yourself with higher weights, more reps, and so on. Later in this piece I provide a sample template for one week of workouts. Use it as a building block to start creating a fitness plan that incorporates your favorite activities and feels best for you.

Here are the components of a well-rounded session at the gym. You can expect a typical session to take about 45 minutes, including your warmup. If you’d like to add cardio to your routine, I suggest doing so at the end of your workout.

Warmup

Begin your workout with a 5- to 10-minute warmup. This can be on whatever cardio machine you like (treadmill, elliptical, rower, stationary bike, etc.). Keep your effort low: you’re just waking up your muscles and getting your heart rate going a little. For example, a comfortable walking pace for me on the treadmill is 3 mph; for a warmup, I’d walk at that pace with no incline for 10 minutes.

Exercises

When planning your workout, think about your exercises in terms of large muscle groups. I categorize the primary groups as:

  • arms
  • chest
  • back
  • core
  • legs

You can choose to focus on one group per workout (example: leg day, with several leg- and glute-focused exercises; arms/chest day; core day), or you can structure your workouts to include one or two exercises for each group. In this Gym Class, the sample workouts will be of the one-of-each variety. I like this structure for beginners because it helps you get comfortable with moving around the different areas of the gym, and it also won’t get you so sore in one muscle group that you can’t go in for your next workout. (Sometimes it can be hard to walk after a heavy leg day.)

Sets and Reps

Doing an exercise multiple times is called doing “reps” (repetitions). You do reps in “sets.” A good place to start for most of the exercises here is three sets of 10 reps. This number is easily adjusted (maybe you want to do eight reps per set, or four sets per exercise), but 8-12 is a good target range for reps: if you can’t do eight reps in a row, the weight you’re using is probably too heavy; conversely, if you can easily do more than 12 reps in a row, the weight is probably too light.

Where to Start and Measuring Progress

When you first try an exercise, you’ll need to figure out an appropriate starting weight for your body. Let’s use single-arm dumbbell shoulder-to-overhead press as an example. In this exercise, you start with a dumbbell at your shoulder, press your arm straight up overhead to full extension, then return the dumbbell to your shoulder. That’s one rep. To figure out where you should start, have a variety of dumbbell weights nearby. Try a few reps with 5lbs. If that’s super easy, try a few with 8lbs. Still super easy? Move to 10lbs. Maybe that starts to feel more challenging. Can you do an unbroken set of 10 reps with 10lbs? If not, drop back to 8lbs. In this way, settle on a weight you can do for three sets of 10 reps. Make note of the weight in your journal, and the next time you try the exercise, see if you can do a bit more. Maybe you do two sets at 8lbs, and your third set at 10lbs, and start working toward all three sets at 10lbs that way. You want to do a little more each workout, whether that’s increasing weight or adding another rep or two to your sets.

Machines Versus Free Weights

There are pros and cons to all the equipment in a gym. The weight machines can help you maintain correct form and better target specific muscle groups, but they don’t work the stabilizer muscles or allow full range of motion in the way dumbbells or barbells do. On the flip side, it can be easier to injure yourself with free weights if you’re not using proper form. But please don’t be scared of the free weights! Dumbbells provide a great workout, and I absolutely recommend including them in your routine. If you’re also interested in using the barbell, check out my Gym Class on powerlifting for tips on including the bar in your workouts. Finally, bodyweight work—pushups, lunges, bodyweight squats, and so on—does not require equipment but should be considered an important part of your fitness routine.

Cardio (optional)

If you’d like to include cardio in your gym visit, try a 20- to 45-minute session at the end of your weights session. Aim for maintaining 60-70% of your maximum effort for the full session: this is called steady-state cardio, and it’s beneficial for building up endurance and aerobic fitness. Note: While adding cardio may help you burn fat more quickly, be aware that it may also impede muscle growth. Keep your fitness goals in mind while planning your workouts: if your goal is to add strength and muscle mass, you may want to avoid frequent, sustained cardio sessions.

Stretching (optional)

At the end of your workout, it can be relaxing to find a floor mat and give some love to sore spots. Don’t lie down while your heart rate is still high; take a few minutes to walk around, catch your breath, and ease into your stretching/cool-down time.

Training & Sample Workouts

Here’s a sample week of workouts. Take rest days between workout days; these allow your muscles to repair and recover, which is important part of the strength-building process. I’ve linked to descriptions or videos of each exercise, or to pictures of each machine to help you find it in the gym. If you’re not sure which machine to use, ask a staff member to help you find the correct one for the listed exercise. (Note: 3 x 10 means three sets of 10 reps.)

Monday
Arms: 3 x 10 side dumbbell lateral raises
Chest: 3 x 10 chest butterfly machine
Back: 3 x 10 lat pull-down machine
Legs: 3 x 10 bodyweight squats
Core: 3 x 10 Russian ab twists (advanced: hold a medicine ball or plate to add weight)

Wednesday
Arms: 3 x 10 side dumbbell bicep curls
Chest: 3 x 10 push-ups (modification: keep your knees on the ground, or use a raised surface like a bench)
Back: 3 x 10 seated row machine
Legs: 3 x 10/side bodyweight lunges (advanced: hold dumbbells at your sides)
Core: 3 x 30-second planks

Friday
Arms: 3 x 10 dumbbell overhead press
Chest: 3 x 10 dumbbell bench press
Back: 3 x 10/side dumbbell rows
Legs: 3 x 10 leg press machine
Core: 3 x 10/side bicycle crunches

These workouts are just a small sample of what you can do with bodyweight, dumbbells, and weight machines. When planning your weekly workouts, mix and match as you like to keep things interesting. If you’re not sure which exercises target which muscle groups, look online for ideas. Or spend some time wandering around the weight machine area at your gym: most machines have stickers on them showing which muscles they target, so you can start mentally organizing machines in groups (glutes, chest, back, etc.) and more easily slot them into your workout plan.

Good-to-Know Tips

  • Try a different piece of cardio equipment for your warmup each day or week, so you get used to using all of them.
  • If available, use your gym’s free training session to help you get acclimated (but be aware it can come with a sales pitch for paid training sessions).
  • Ask for assistance when trying new machines—even experienced gym-goers need to be shown how to use new equipment.
  • Safety first! Don’t push so hard you can’t go back for your next workout, and if you feel pain during a workout, stop and check in with your body.
  • Eat plenty of protein and complex carbs to fuel your workouts and aid muscle growth and recovery.

You’ve Got This!

Have a great time exploring your gym, and let me know if you have questions. I’m happy to give advice on workout plans. Also, I’d love to hear about your progress if you begin a training program. Let’s get stronger together!


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Katrina is queer, Latinx, and embracing her futch-ness in 2018. She lives in Seattle with her two dogs. Some of her favorite things are jellybeans, the beach, weightlifting, eyeliner, dad jokes, and impromptu dance parties. Her debut novel THE BEST BAD THINGS will be released this Fall. The book follows Alma Rosales, a queer woman and ex-Pinkerton detective, as she switches between female and male disguises to investigate an opium-smuggling ring. Come say hi and talk about books, sports, or your favorite jellybean flavor at Katrina's website or on Twitter!

Katrina has written 11 articles for us.

28 Comments

  1. Yay, I’m glad to see this series come back! I also recommend the Swole Woman column at The Hairpin – she has a lot of great tips on how to claim your space at the gym. It can definitely be intimidating and the weight room especially tends to be extremely bro-dominated, but I’m here to give YOU permission to take up space and use any and all equipment in the gym of your choice! And if it’s a good gym, the staff will be happy to help you figure stuff out!

  2. This article is really helpful! I’m looking to take advantage of my apartment complex’s gym and have no idea what I’m doing. But after reading this I’m a bit more confident! Now I just need to find the best time to go.

    • Thank you for reading! 🙂

      With a M-W-F workout plan, the weekends are rest days. So some cardio is great — it’s even better if it’s recreational and part of your weekend activities: hiking, dancing, exploring a new neighborhood, etc. You’ll usually feel sorest 2 days after a workout (and the best way to combat soreness is to exercise again), so I’d especially recommend a walk or hike on Sundays (when you’ll start to feel your Friday workout).

    • You’re welcome, Abi!

      Walking is a great place to start. It’s steady-state cardio, and also gentle on your body as you acclimate. You can walk 3x/week, and try going a little farther (or a little faster, if you’re on a treadmill) each new week.

      That being said, don’t let being a beginner keep you from experimenting with the dumbbells and weights machines (or any other exercises mentioned here)! The sample workouts above can be scaled to fit your needs, including the bodyweight exercises (standing pushups against a wall, squats while holding a vertical bar for support, etc.).

      You can start out as light as you need to (most gyms have dumbbells in the 2-pound range, and weight machines usually have a 5- or 10-pound starting point), get used to the movements, and then build up to more weight as you gain strength. You can also play with the number of sets/reps as you figure out what your body can handle.

      If you’re worried about injury with unfamiliar movements, a trainer could be a good investment (even for just a few sessions as you begin). Or find a workout friend with similar fitness goals so you can help each other learn. In any case, start wherever you need to but 1) keep track of your activities & progress in your workout journal and 2) get comfortable with weights training — it’s for beginners, too! 🙂

      • Hi Katrina,

        You are such a star, I can’t thank you enough!

        In any other environment, I would have felt too embarrassed to ask, plus your answer is so helpful and supportive.

        You’ve given me the confidence I need to get started!

        Abi

        • Abi, let me just say that being a beginner is scary, but so exciting too! You will be really sore at first, but once you pass that curve, you will make gains faster than at any other point in your fitness life. It’s so awesome to feel your body changing and you’ll get more and more able to feel in tune with your body. Walking really is a great place to start! My sister is super un-athletic and she got in great shape by just walking. She’d push herself to go a tiny bit faster and a tiny bit farther each time and it really adds up. I believe in you!

  3. This is really helpful. I used to go to the gym and pick weight machines at random and never track my progress. Then I got a personal trainer to show me what a good workout was like and help me get good form for the free weights. Now I’ve quit him and am back at the gym solo with a much improved routine.

    • You’re welcome, Sarah!

      At the gym, I recommend doing the 3 sets of each exercise back-to-back, then moving on to the next exercise. This is mostly for practical reasons: if you’re rotating between 5 different movements (dumbbells, then leg press, then lat pull-down machine, & etc.), there’s a high chance someone else will be using equipment you need when you’re mid-rotation. (At busy gyms, if you’re using the bench press and walk away, you’ve probably lost it forever. And you don’t want to be the jerk who leaves the bar loaded and then disappears!)

      As for rest between sets: play with 30 seconds to a minute, depending on your fatigue levels. You want enough rest that you’re able to do the next set with good form, but not so much that you get cold. (Note: as you start to lift heavier, especially with compound movements like the squat, rest times can go up to 2-4 minutes.)

      Finally, if you have some gym equipment at home, or are blessed with an empty gym, you can certainly try linking the different exercises. In this scenario, try getting through a set of each exercise with no rest in between, then take a minute or two to rest before doing the full cycle again. “Supersets” are when you link two movements, using one to recover from the other: squats immediately into pullups, for example, so the legs recover while you work the arms. Think about organizing your exercises that way in linked workouts, so the muscle groups get mini-breaks while others are working.

  4. Hi Katrina, this is fabulous! Ive got a question about nutrition. How do you feel about eating right before a morning workout? My sports team have got me waking up early to be at the gym at 7am, I am not a morning person. Im struggling balancing getting hungry halfway through, and not feeling bloated by eating breakfast and then hitting the gym really hard.

    • Hi Gilbert!

      I, too, am not a morning person, but I often find morning workouts best fit my schedule. And I can’t eat right before working out — I need at least 2 hours post-meal to digest, even with snacks, or I will get very nauseous mid-workout (especially if there’s jumping or running involved).

      So! I get where you’re coming from, and I have a couple of suggestions to fit your current training schedule.

      Option 1 (if your body can handle some food pre-workout): Have a protein shake when you wake up. It’s not solid food, so hopefully it won’t slow you down too much during your workout — but it will provide some calories to get you through to post-workout breakfast.

      Option 2 (if pre-workout food doesn’t work for you): Hold off on eating anything until after your workout. You might get hungry during your workout, but if you’re getting enough nutrients throughout the day, you should have the energy stores to perform well. Best case scenario: Bring a protein shake & snack (apple & peanut butter, banana & hardboiled egg, etc.) with you to the gym, and eat that immediately after working out. Then go home, clean up, and have breakfast.

      For both of these options, it’s important to not wake up famished, so make sure you’re getting enough food throughout the day, including lots of protein!

    • Hi Gilbert! I love the name. I’m not an expert on nutrition/fitness, but as someone who also does morning workouts despite not being a Morning Person, I find that a small, carb-y snack (like 150-200 calories for me, but YMMV) about 30-45 minutes before my workout helps stave off the “OMG MUST EAT NOW” pangs without feeling gross from eating a full meal before I’m really awake.

      Props to you for being at the gym at 7am!

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