Ah January, the time when New Year’s Resolutions kick into effect, and statistically that means a great lot of you will be heading to the gym as you try to get into better shape. Lest you think I’m here to mock that choice, let me put aside concerns right now: I commend you for trying to get your body in whatever shape you want it to be. As someone who has been fighting his way down from fat for the last several years, I think the decision to try and change yourself into the person you want to be is always one worth lauding, be those changes physical or mental. But, as someone who walked into the gym not that long ago with no idea what I was doing or how half those machines work (many of which I still don’t, though one is pretty useful for folding bed sheets) I know how alien and intimidating the place can be, especially when you’re first trying to break in.
Thus, I am going to share with you the lessons I learned by pushing through feeling like a weirdo, as well as a few general tips to help you exercise safely, because I see way too many people hurt themselves during January to not try and educate. I don’t know the secret to washboard abs (eat, like nothing, I think?) or how to lift a truck, but I can certainly help you trudge through the day’s exercises without feeling like a total outcast.
1. Stick to Form
The first lesson of the gym happens before you ever go into a gym. You need to learn the form for exercises. Or, if you have extra cash, hire a personal trainer for your first few visits. Lots of gyms offer them on special during this time of the year for new members. If you want to save the money, then look up various exercises on Youtube, and pay close attention to their form. Do it in your house with no weight to get used to how it should feel. Do it over and over again until you’ve got it right. Then, and this is key, stick to your form when working out.
If it seems like I’m harping on this, I am. If there were a 10 Commandments of exercise, all of them would be stick to form. Every year I see people who are new to the gym swinging weight with methods that pull on their backs and shoulders in a way that’s begging for injury, and often they get just that. I want you all to meet your goals safely, and form is the #1 way to keep from hurting yourself. No one improves themselves by tearing muscles and getting laid up.
2. Be Courteous
One of the strangest things to me is the etiquette in a gym. It’s limited, but incredibly rigid. The first time someone came up and asked me how many sets I had left on a bench, I thought they were implying that I was doing a shitty job and should probably stick to things I was good at, like eating deep fried hamburgers. Only later did I realize that this is one of the most common questions you get in a gym, because the guy was deciding whether or not to wait for me to finish or use a different machine. Especially in gyms with limits machines, time management is important, because none of us have all day to sit around waiting for something to free up.
There a lot of little things I could tell you about (don’t be the person yelling with every lift, towel off your damn machines, never try and occupy more than one machine at a time, never do Crossfit) but the core lesson of almost all of them is the same: just be polite and courteous and you’ll blend in fine. Despite what lazy movies would tell you, the gym is not a hybrid of testosterone jacked up dudes waiting to pick on someone who can barely lift the bar; it is far too narcissistic of a place for that. Everyone is there for themselves, to work on things they want to change. Interacting with each other is something that is kept as limited as possible, because it just takes away from what everyone came there for. Stay polite, and assume others are as well, and you’ll seem like a gym regular within two or three sessions.
3. No One Cares About You
Well… in the gym, I mean. I certainly hope people care about you in your day-to-day life. But remember just a few seconds ago, when I said that gyms were inherently narcissistic? I really meant that. And to me, I think this is one of the best things I ever realized when my chunky ass was bouncing around the treadmill. See, I avoided gyms for longer than I should have because I felt awkward at the idea of being judged for getting so out of shape, which of course only led to me getting more out of shape. Even after I started going I felt really awkward there, until I realized no one cared.
That was the most freeing moment in my exercise career. Finally clicking to the fact that everyone was there solely for themselves meant I didn’t have to give a shit about lifting tens next to guys curling fifties. I could use whatever machines I wanted, even if it meant fucking up a few times as I struggled to figure things out. That was what let me focus on what I was trying to do, rather than how I felt while I fumbled through it. All because no one in the gym gives a shit about anyone other than themselves while under the roof. It’s you vs. you, there’s no need or room for others in the equation. Terrible as that would be for a mentality in most of our lives, in just that one context it actually works out pretty wonderfully.
4. Stick to Your Goddamned Form
Yes, we’re coming back to this, because it is the first and last rule in every day’s session. I know that after a few weeks you’re going to feel comfortable with the weights and see other people who are super fit doing shit that looks way different than yours. You will be tempted to copy them, because if they’re fit and do that then you think you should to. If you must go down this path, either research the form their using, or go up and ask them about it. Don’t just try and cobble some shit together, and honestly, probably resist the urge altogether. The Crossfit fad is dying, but there are some vestiges leftover, and part of that is very bad habits taught by underqualified instructors. Don’t assume a form is good just because you see someone not hurt themselves with it once.
Oh, and one last thing: I know the urge to go up on weights is always tempting and prestigious, but here’s a firm rule to keep in mind: if you have to break form to get the weight up, you need to drop down a few pounds. Or, more simply: If you can’t do the weight properly, you can’t do the weight. Do more reps right and work your way up honestly. It might feel slower, but it’s a lot faster than fucking yourself up and having to quit using an arm for several weeks.
Thus ends my lessons on getting through your early, awkward days in the gym. Good luck to everyone with whatever your New Year’s Goals/Resolutions might be, and keep it safe!