Learning the Lay of the Land at the Gym

You walk into the gym. To your left is the free weight room, complete with bulging arms and grunts. To your right are the weight machines, squeaking their way through a workout. And in front of you lies the land of cardio, sweat puddles and blinking red indicator lights beckoning you. What do you choose?

When I first joined a gym in high school, I chose cardio land. This was mostly related to my belief that constant steady-state cardio would keep me skinny (when in reality, skipping breakfast and eating carrot sticks for lunch was probably doing that for me – another story for another time). I slowly ventured into the weight machines, and in college, I found a balance between strength training and cardio. This transition was helped along by Alex who had lifted weights in high school and actually knew what he was doing.

This workout routine continued after graduation, weight machines, cardio, abs, weight machines, cardio, abs, etc. I didn’t venture into the weight room, except occasionally for bicep curls or triceps extensions. In my defense, the gyms in San Francisco, at least the gyms I can afford, are crammed into office buildings and thus have weird layouts and minimal free space for free weights. I used to hit the gym after work when the entirety of the city was also working out. Unless you were extremely territorial, there wasn’t a lot of room to get your barbell on.

My relationship with the gym changed for two reasons: one, I started hitting the gym in the morning and two, I cracked open New Rules of Lifting for Women. Going to the gym at 5 am meant I wasn’t bumping elbows with anyone while doing shoulder presses. Sure, sometimes it’s hard to get up when it’s still dark outside or when it’s raining and I can feel a little frantic, but the fluorescent lights and the soothing white noise of cardio machines both wake me up and calm me down. I never regret it once I get there.

New Rules of Lifting for Women completely changed the way I work out. I remember reading about the squat rack and thinking “but I can’t do that – it’s in the free weight room. That’s only for hardcore people.” Um, hi.  I’m at the gym to lift weights at 5 am – pretty sure I’m hardcore enough to use the squat rack. So I asked  Alex, my resident expert, to be my training buddy for a few months and he was my spotter and my coach. He encouraged me to use the squat rack and the chest press benches. He literally helped me lift me as I attempted chin ups.

Did I sometimes feel silly as Alex held my waist and lifted me up guys were deadlifting hundreds of pounds? Sure. But guess what? When you are lifting that much weight, you’re pretty much focused on not falling over and injuring yourself. At best, I get smiles of encouragement in the free weight room, but mostly, I get ignored unless someone wants to rotate in. Alex and I still hit the gym together, and he still spots me if I’m lifting particularly heavy weights, but after months of practice (mostly mental), I now enter the free weight room with confidence that I know what I’m doing. Plus, I’m much less afraid to try new things in the weight room since I’ve done some exploring. I also find the challenge of free weights to be more rewarding.

And, because I know whoever reading this is wondering, yes, I did see a change in results. Since using free weights, I feel more balanced, stronger overall, and I’ve seen more muscle definition. At the end of a workout, I feel like my whole body has been exercised, rather than two or three very specific muscle groups (even when I’m doing something fairly specific like a chest press or shoulder raise – using free weights makes your whole body balance and tighten, versus keeping it stationary like at the weight machines).

I’m not a personal trainer and I have no qualifications in that area, so I can’t tell you what to do once you get into the weight room. But here are my recommendations in how to make the transition, if you’re interested:

1. Find a time to hit the gym when it’s not crowded. Even if you can only go a few times in off peak hours, it’s worth it to have the space, mentally and physically, to try things out and get accustomed to the equipment. This could be early AM or later at night. In college, Alex and I would routinely hit the gym around 10 pm when it was less crowded. Oh to be in college again!

2. Find a buddy/coach. Maybe this is a friend who lifts or maybe it’s a few sessions with a personal trainer. I’m sure there are even step by step videos online that could serve as encouragement and instruction in form.

3. Start small. Try out the squat rack or do push press combos and then move on to your regularly scheduled routine. It’s always less intimidating when you get the hang of one thing first. Also, lift lighter weights until you have good form.

Most importantly, be safe and smart. Research and know what good form looks like so you don’t hurt yourself! Any new form of exercise can be a shock to your body, but hurling around heavy weights with no forethought is a special recipe for disaster.

Also, be sure you know your weight room etiquette before you go!


2 thoughts on “Learning the Lay of the Land at the Gym

  1. The free weight section has always been intimidating for me. Thanks for your perspective, I really need to get up the courage to go in there.

    • You can totally do it! It’s scary but it’s worth it. If you have any other questions or need support, just let me know! I can be a virtual encouragement buddy!

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