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A Beginner’s Guide to Exercising at the Gym

Getting in shape and losing weight are the top New Year’s resolutions, but going to the gym can be daunting. Get-Fit Guy, Dr. Jonathan Su, gives you the quick and dirty on what to wear, what to bring, when to go, and how to plan your workout so you can kick off your New Year’s fitness resolution the right way.

By
Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT
5-minute read
Episode #565
The Quick And Dirty
  • Run-of-the-mill gym shorts, a t-shirt, and a pair of sturdy trainers (shoes designed for different types of exercises) are all you really need. A sweatshirt or a hoodie is a nice addition when the weather is cold.
  • I’m a believer in packing light when it comes to what to bring to the gym. At the very minimum, I recommend a gym towel, a pair of workout gloves, and a water bottle.
  • There’s really no optimal time to exercise so the best time to go to the gym is whenever you’re willing and able.
  • I recommend exercising 3 to 5 days a week and spending no more than 50-60 minutes from start to finish. Just like how a good story should have a beginning, middle, and end, a good workout plan should have a warm-up, exercise, and cool-down.

It’s the first week of 2022 and if this year is anything like previous years, getting in shape and losing weight are the top New Year’s resolutions. One reason the holidays are so much fun, at least for me, is because all the rules for exercise and eating right go down the drain for the six weeks between Thanksgiving week and New Year.  

Chick-fil-A on a weeknight after already having dinner? Yes, please! I’ll take a spicy deluxe sandwich with extra pickles, mac & cheese, and a strawberry milkshake. That's a 1600 calorie snack and it’s only Tuesday. 

But it’s ok because it’s the New Year. What better time to shed the aftermath of the holiday gluttony than now? So it’s no surprise that gyms across the country are packed as we speak and will be packed for some time. 

If you’ve never stepped foot in a gym before or it’s been a while since you’ve gone, it can seem like a pretty scary place. Where do I start? Am I doing it right? Are people staring at me?

Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a quickstart guide so you can walk into the gym looking and feeling confident and actually know what you’re doing? That’s something I wish I had when I started going to the gym over three decades ago. 

What to wear

There’s a dizzying array of choices when it comes to workout attire. Moisture-wicking and odor resistance workout clothes are nice to have but are definitely not a necessity. 

Run-of-the-mill gym shorts, a t-shirt, and a pair of sturdy trainers (shoes designed for different types of exercises) are all you really need. A sweatshirt or a hoodie is a nice addition when the weather is cold. 

What to bring

I’m a believer in packing light when it comes to what to bring to the gym. At the very minimum, I recommend a gym towel, a pair of workout gloves, and a water bottle. 

In my opinion, the gym towel is arguably the most essential because it can help you stay dry by absorbing excess sweat while minimizing the spread of germs. You don’t need a full-sized bath towel to wipe off sweat during a good workout, while at the same time, a hand towel would probably be too small. 

A towel in between the two sizes and made of cotton for maximum absorbency would be adequate. Be sure to wash your towel after every trip to the gym to avoid odors, bacteria, mold, and fungal infections 

A pair of workout gloves is important for relieving the pressure placed on your hands when lifting weights and preventing calluses from developing. Workout gloves can also increase the stability of your grip and help you hold onto the weights for a longer period of time. 

Also important is a water bottle filled with cool water to help you stay hydrated. Although gyms typically have water fountains, it’s not something I’m completely comfortably using during the pandemic. Plus, you don’t want to jump off the treadmill every time you need a sip of water!

When to go

There’s really no optimal time to exercise so the best time to go to the gym is whenever you’re willing and able. Gyms are pretty busy right after the New Year and stepping into a crowded gym can really hinder your workout. If you want to avoid spending half your time at the gym waiting for equipment to open up, here are the best times to go to avoid the crowd:

  • 5 am-7 am: I started going to the gym around this time when I was in the 7th grade and I can’t recall it ever being really busy. That said, I realized that I’m not really a morning workout person so you’ll find me still in bed around this time. 

  • 9 am-11 am: Most people are at work during this time so you’ll have the gym all to yourself. 

  • 1 pm-4 pm: Again, most people are at work during this time, which means no wasting time waiting for equipment to open up. 

  • After 8:30 pm: This is a good time to go to the gym because the after-work exercise crowd is typically gone by now. Just make sure you don’t exercise too close to bedtime or you might not be able to fall asleep. 

As you can see, most people try to hit up the gym right before work, during lunchtime, or right after work. You can beat the crowd by avoiding these times. 

Personally, I would do my best to avoid the crowd by going to the gym super early or super late if the 9 am-11 am or 1 pm-4 pm time frames are not doable. Speaking from experience, it’s not worth going to the gym if I’m spending half my time waiting for equipment to open up.  

Simple workout plan 

Let’s talk about what a simple and effective workout plan should look like. I recommend exercising 3 to 5 days a week and spending no more than 50-60 minutes from start to finish. Just like how a good story should have a beginning, middle, and end, a good workout plan should have a warm-up, exercise, and cool-down. 

Warm-up 

The easiest way to warm up is by working up a sweat for about 10 minutes on the stationary bike, elliptical, or rower. Start off at a lower intensity level and gradually increase your intensity over 10 minutes until you break a sweat. 

A warm-up will help prepare your body for higher intensity level exercise so you can avoid injuries and optimize performance. It’s especially important to warm up when the weather is cold like it is during this time of year. 

Exercise 

After you’ve broken a sweat with your warm-up, it's time to ease into the meat and potatoes of your workout. This might be a 20 to 30-minute cardio session where you try to maintain a challenging pace on the stationary bike, elliptical, rower, or another piece of cardio equipment.

Or it might be a 20 to 30-minute resistance training session where you perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions of 1 or 2 exercises from each of the categories:

  • Lower body: such as lunges, squats, or leg curls

  • Upper body push: such as push-ups, flat chest press, or incline chest press

  • Upper body pull: such as cable or dumbbell rows, lat pull-downs, or t-bar rows 

  • Shoulder: such as the shoulder press or upright rows

Cool-down

My favorite way to conclude a workout is to spend about 10 minutes stretching the major muscles of the body. Try performing the following stretches on both sides of the body for about 30 seconds.

  • Quadriceps stretch

  • Hamstring stretch

  • Calf stretch

  • Chest stretch

  • Lat stretch

  • Upper trap stretch

If you need help with these workouts or want to take your fitness routine to the next level, stay tuned to Get-Fit Guy every week for more fitness tips. I’m going to have a lot of advice for beginners and experts alike, so whether you’re just starting out or you’re a gym rat like me, I’m going to have some great episodes for you.

5-day gym challenge

Let’s put this knowledge to use with a 5-day gym challenge! Over the next five days, your challenge is to hit up the gym for 4 days, alternating between cardio days and resistance training days. Give it a try and let me know how you feel by emailing me at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leaving me a voicemail at 510-353-3104. 

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT

Dr. Jonathan Su is the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast. He is a physical therapist and fitness expert whose mission is to make fitness accessible for everyone. Dr. Su is author of the bestsellers Six-Minute Fitness at 60+ and Six-Minute Core Strength.

Got a question for Dr. Su? You can email him at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave him a message at the Get-Fit Guy voicemail line at (510) 353-3104.