Getting started at the gym is a bitch. There’s the looking like you’re new and don’t know what you’re doing. There’s the actually not knowing what you’re doing. And then for us trans* people there’s the added stress of “which locker room”…”are they looking at me?”
I’m no fitness expert by any means, but I’d like to do what I can to help other people to survive their first trip to the gym.
First tip: Don’t Hurt Yourself
Simple enough, right?
Before lifting, warm up. Stretch first, then do some light-weight reps that move a lot of muscles. The goal of this isn’t to get stronger – it’s just to move the muscles. Even if you’re just doing cardio, even low-impact cardio, stretch some.
Before switching over to full-weight reps, practice moving smoothly through your entire range of motion with the exercise. Not moving through the entire ROM limits the benefits of the exercise and increases the chances that you’ll hurt yourself. Practice moving from the start to the end position with a little more weight than you would use to warm up, just to add some resistance but not enough to make it an actual work out. After you’ve mastered the motions, it’s time to move up to full-weight exercises.
Know how to use the equipment. A lot of the equipment has decals explaining their use and if not, don’t be afraid to ask the gym staff. Believe it or not, it is also in their best interest that you don’t get hurt in the gym.
And more than anything, don’t listen to that beef-brain logic that “pain is weakness leaving your body”. It’s not. Pain is your body’s indication that something is wrong. If it hurts, stop. Decrease your weight and try again. If it still hurts, knock it off. If you have some kind of chronic injury, check with your doctor or orthopedist before exercising – they can give you exercises to do, or to avoid, to not aggravate your condition. That’s not to say that your exercise shouldn’t be strenuous or difficult. But you should know the difference between the discomfort of a good, tough work out and the pain of overdoing it. And stay on the safe side of that line.
Second tip: Stay motivated
Less easy than step one, admittedly, so let’s start easy.
Find a playlist that keeps your head in the game. It’s doesn’t matter which genre. Be okay with the fact that it might change every day, or between lifting and cardio. I like to find a good one on Pandora or iHeartRadio. Pandora has a great “Hard Rock Strength Training” if you’re into that scene, and iHeart has an entire line of “perfect for” stations. I usually alternate between Halestorm and Chase Rice on iHeartRadio.
Build some consistency. Just commit yourself to going. Make a schedule and stick with it and be realistic. If you don’t go at all right now, it’s crazy to think you’ll have the motivation to go every single day. Start small and work your way up.
Maybe find a gym buddy that’ll follow you there. Hold each other accountable for showing up and putting in time.
Find pleasure in the little things. It makes it easier to feel like you’ve accomplished something. A lot of people have this instant gratification sort of mentality. If they don’t see gains or cuts after just a couple of trips to the gym, they assume it’s not working and they just give up. That’s not true at all, but it’s easy to get discouraged. I use activities I like to motivate me to do things I don’t like. For example – I hate leg day and I love arm/upper body day. So I make leg day early in the week and if I skip it because I’m being unmotivated or lazy, arm day gets replaced with another leg day. It’s a vicious cycle that results in me doing leg day. I also am not a huge fan of running, but I am a huge fan of that endorphin rush after, so I put up with the running. Try not to give in to that instant gratification impulse: “I went to the gym, so I can afford to eat a pint of ice cream”. You did go, and you can “afford” to eat it more than you could have without going, but remember that a pint of ice cream will undo a lot of the good you just did. In addition to being loaded with calories, a lot of people forget the other things in foods that may be worse than the calories. Ice cream is loaded with sugar and cholesterol on top of calories. Now don’t get me wrong, I love to have a scoop now and then, but try to get away from using food as a reward for working out.
Third tip: Track everything
Track your measurements – and not just your weight or Body Mass Index (BMI). Let’s take my not-so-secret man crush, J.J. Watt For example.
This guy is 6’5″ tall and weighs in at 289lbs, for a BMI of 34.3. Obese is defined as a BMI of 30 or greater. Byron Jones, on the left, is 6’0″ and 205lbs, for a BMI of 27.8, which falls on the high end of the “overweight” range. Neither of these guys are at all what you’d consider unhealthy (except maybe that JJ seems to not be wearing socks inside those massive shoes…).
The measurements I like to track are my weight, waist size, neck size and bicep size, which can all be used to help calculate body fat percentage. Which is a much more useful metric of actual body composition. So at 6’0″ and 199lbs…I’m actually, theoretically similarly built to Byron up there. Throw in a waist measurement of 33″, I clock in at a BMI of 27 (so “healthier” than Byron), but a body fat percentage closer to 12-15%. If I was only tracking weight, I’d be frustrated that I’ve “plateaued”. I’ve been at 199lb for about a year now. My waist measurement has gone down 3-4 inches over that time and I’ve added about 1-1.5″ to my biceps and lost 2″ from my neck. The point is that your weight, while important, isn’t the best measure of overall health and fitness. Know all your numbers.
And while we’re knowing our numbers…track your lifts. I underestimated how cool it would be too look back at my lifts from when I first started lifting to what I’m lifting now. I’ve doubled my bench press and nearly doubled the bicep curl. This will do wonders for your confidence. And on a vaguely related note, try taking some before and after pictures.
Last but not least, try to have fun. You’re more likely to keep going if it becomes something that you enjoy.
That’s all for now, but I’m sure I’ll have more gym advice before too long.