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Walking into a health club for the first time can be as intimidating as the first day of high school. You may feel like a little fish dropped in a big new pond, unsure how to find your way around or nervous about blending in. Fortunately, there’s no need for you to feel like a freshman for long.

To help you get the most out of your gym experience, we asked fitness experts, personal trainers and veteran health-club members to identify the most common confusion points for beginners and offer advice on how to avoid or overcome them. Their tips will help you navigate the place like a pro — from the front door and locker rooms to the group-fitness studios and weight-room floors.

Having these basics under your belt can help you get more out of your membership, amplify your motivation to keep hitting the gym, and go a long way toward creating a more rewarding fitness experience overall.

“When you learn the right way to do things, you’ll see fitness gains sooner because you won’t waste as much time learning the ropes,” says John P. Higgins, MD, CPT, a cardiologist and clinical exercise specialist at the University of Texas Medical School. “You’ll also be likelier to avoid ‘user errors,’ like improper form, that can lead to muscle pulls and overuse injuries.”

The other big benefit of shedding your newbie status early is that you’ll feel more a part of your club’s community, and thus more comfortable reaching out for information and assistance when you need it. At most clubs, there’s always plenty of support nearby — if you’re willing to ask.

“Club employees and trainers are there to help you,” says Kevin Elsey, CPT, an exercise scientist and performance specialist for Athlete’s Performance in Phoenix, Ariz. So, no matter how long you’ve been a member — and whether you forget how to get into your locker or simply aren’t sure how high you should be lifting that barbell — you should never hesitate to ask. Knowledge builds self-confidence, after all, and self-confidence is one of the keys to any successful fitness regimen.

Newbie Basics

Here’s how you can avoid the classic mistakes that get too many newcomers confused from the get-go.

Don’t skip the orientation.

“You wouldn’t buy a car without taking a test drive, so don’t join a gym without getting the full tour and introduction,” says Dustyn Roberts, MS, a sports biomechanics researcher in New York. “It will save you time in the long run because you won’t have to wander around the gym trying to locate the stretching mats, free weights, cardio floor and locker rooms.” What’s more, you’ll learn what the busiest hours are, when the pool is open for lap swims, and what classes and extra services are offered. From your very first day forward, make a point of saying hello and getting to know the staff and fellow members, Roberts adds. It will give you a sense of community, which in turn will improve your chances of sticking to your go-to-the-club commitment.

Start where you are.

No one arrives on day one knowing precisely how to operate the sauna, what kinds of liquids are allowed on the fitness floor and which pool lanes are for laps. Just because you knew how to work the treadmill at your last club doesn’t mean you’re going to know how to operate the one you’re standing on now: The same equipment from different manufacturers will have a different sequence of buttons and options to go through before starting a workout. Nothing screams “Rookie!” like wasting the first 15 minutes of your workout helplessly punching buttons on a console or, worse, facing the wrong way on a resistance machine. So again, when in the slightest doubt, ask for a little how-to help or demo. “Asking a question only takes a few minutes,” says Roberts, “but if you use a machine incorrectly, the resulting injury could last much longer.”

Avoid overscenting.

No one wants to stink up the gym with body odor, but some rookies take it to the other extreme by slathering on perfumes or scented lotions. Even if you don’t think you’ve laid them on heavily, any scented product can prove incredibly annoying to your fellow gym members and may cause some of them to suffer allergic reactions. Arrive at the club reasonably clean and with clean workout clothes. (If you know you happen to smell rank or are otherwise really concerned about body odor, take a quick shower before your workout.) Then dab on some unscented or mildly scented (think natural, herbal) deodorant. These steps should keep you from smelling ripe without offending.

Travel light.

If you’re juggling a book, magazine, cell phone, water bottle, iPod, earphones, your yoga mat and a towel, you’re bound to drop something or leave something valuable behind. You’ll also risk looking like an overburdened one-man band. Take some time to simplify things — find earphones that fit in your ears properly, use an armband to secure your music player and carry a small bag to transport any other required items. Whatever you don’t need for the current portion of your workout should stay in your locker. Of particular importance: Do not bring bags or piles of stuff into a group-fitness class or anyplace floor space is at a premium, since such items might block the flow of movement or traffic.

Dress deliberately.

Fitness fashion is very much a matter of personal taste. Some people like to don stylish garb as a way of building or celebrating their body confidence; others prefer purely functional basics that let them fade into the background. Whatever your tastes, do put some practical thought into what you’re wearing. First and foremost, wear clothes that keep you cool and dry and that allow you to move freely (most gym veterans eschew cotton because it soaks up sweat or winds up sticking, bunching or binding).

Strive for whatever makes you feel comfortable and confident, but don’t let too much hang out. Embarrassing stories abound — about sports-bra malfunctions, see-through stretch fabrics and too-short (or too loose-legged) shorts that have betrayed their owner’s modesty. To avoid becoming the subject of such stories, err on the side of care and caution. Women should invest in a good, supportive sports bra. Men: Jockstraps or compression shorts are a worthwhile accessory. Similarly, those who frequent cycling classes might consider padded bicycle shorts for comfort. Last item: Don’t exercise in flip-flops or sandals. Most gyms won’t allow it, and you’re more likely to injure yourself by catching your sandal on equipment or getting a toe stepped on in class. But do wear shower shoes in the locker room. Otherwise you risk contracting a foot fungus.

Go phoneless.

Work is important, and so are your friends and family, but don’t take calls during your workout. It’s maddening to your fellow gym goers and it totally blows your focus. Elsey suggests that you “make training time you time” by leaving the phone in your locker or car. If you must carry it with you (or if you rely on a smartphone app to log your workouts, for example), be sure to silence the ringer and step to an appropriate location (e.g., a hallway) in the event you have to take a call. This will allow your fellow exercisers to continue their workouts without distraction. Keep in mind that the use of camera phones is prohibited in many clubs. Even if they are not, never take an in-club picture without asking anyone and everyone who might end up in the picture.

Fitness Fundamentals

Once you have your bearings, you’re ready to work out. Here’s how to do it right and steer clear of the “rookie” mistakes even veteran exercisers are prone to making.

Hydrate ahead of time.

If you know you’re working out after work, build some water breaks and snacks into your day. Hydrating too little (or getting overly thirsty and then guzzling way too much water while you’re exercising) is one of the most reliable ways to hit the wall and ruin your workout, notes Higgins. “Prehydrate by drinking 16 to 20 ounces of water 30 to 60 minutes prior to your workout, then sip water or a sports drink every 15 minutes during the workout,” he suggests. (Don’t forget to bring your own water bottle; repeatedly leaving class or your cardio machine to hit the water fountain can be distracting and time-consuming.) After your workout, continue to drink fluids to replace your sweat. “Another 16 to 20 ounces postworkout should be sufficient,” Higgins says.

Eat for energy.

You should definitely get some nourishment into your system in the couple hours preceding your workout, but don’t make the mistake of eating so much that you feel sluggish, says Higgins. Strive to eat something light, healthy and rich in complex carbohydrates (like a banana, berries, whole grains or vegetable soup) in the hour or two before your workout, so that your food is already digested and available as energy by the time you begin exercising. Postworkout, you should plan to refuel again to take advantage of your body’s glycogen window — this time with a combination of protein and carbs (for example, a yogurt-based smoothie, nut butter on toast or a veggie-egg scramble on a tortilla). In other words, don’t use that cardio class as an excuse to hit the all-you-can-eat buffet or fast-food drive-thru — or to load up on sugary energy bars. (See “12 Quick Preworkout and Postworkout Snacks” for more ideas.)

Warm up properly.

This is a habit that takes many fitness enthusiasts years to adopt, so if you learn it early, you’ll be ahead of the game. Even if you’re crunched for time, don’t begin your workout without a little preparation. The few moments you spend warming up (by moving your joints and limbs through their complete range of motion, gradually bringing your heart rate up, etc.) will have a comparatively huge impact on the effectiveness — and ease — of your workout. Warming up for just 10 minutes helps prevent injury while considerably improving the quality and results of your overall fitness routine. Bonus: You’ll also enjoy your workout more.

Gear up gradually.

Your first few visits to the gym shouldn’t be an opportunity to show off how fast or how strong you are, to see how much you can endure, or to try out every last piece of equipment. “Resist the temptation to match your high school mile record or outpace the person on the treadmill next to you, and focus instead on following a training program that helps you get to your goals,” says Elsey. Going all out too fast can lead to early burnout (manifested as a reduced desire to continue coming to the club at all), give you an agonizing case of delayed-onset muscles soreness (DOMS), or even cause serious injury that could derail your workouts for weeks to come, adds Higgins. So take it easy on your first few visits. Challenge yourself — but within reason.

Stay focused.

During busy gym hours, it’s not uncommon to see one or more “wanderers” — members who appear to choose their weights, equipment and routine based almost entirely on what other people aren’t using. This passive approach typically results in an ineffective workout and leaves the wanderer looking both lost and confused. It’s far better, notes Elsey, to “enter the gym with a plan and a routine in mind, and then stick to it.” If you’re lacking a plan, or if an overcrowded fitness floor is making your plan impossible, don’t be shy about asking a trainer how you can get a decent cardio workout on the machines currently available, or if there’s an available resistance machine or free-weight exercise that will help you accomplish your fitness objectives.

Avoid repetitive-exercise syndrome.

If you’ve been doing the same workout for more than a couple of weeks, you’ve probably been doing it too long. “It’s easy to keep repeating what’s familiar,” explains Tom Manella, senior director of personal training at Life Time Fitness, “but if you’re not switching things up and challenging yourself, you’ll blunt your fitness gains.”

Translation: You’ll be more prone to plateau or suffer an injury, and you’ll get bored.

Higgins advises gradually growing your workload. “Aim to increase your exercise volume by no more than 10 percent per week,” he suggests. So if you walk or jog five miles a week, then increase this to 5.5 the next week, then six the week after. For resistance training, if you’re doing one set of 10 reps with 60 pounds, next week you could try to do 11 reps or increase the weight by 10 percent. You need to regularly make adjustments to your routine, too. Build interval training into your cardio; mix balance and plyometric challenges into your resistance training. Every few weeks make a point of varying the exercises and equipment you use.

Become a stickler for form.

Things like holding your breath while you lift, wrenching a too-heavy weight, locking your knees and holding onto the railings of cardio equipment are common form blunders — and they dramatically reduce the impact of your workout. “This is where even a single session with a trainer comes in really handy,” says Manella. “A good trainer can help you determine the right amount of weight for you, demonstrate proper technique, and show you how to adjust equipment for your height and ability.” He or she can also prevent you from flailing about and looking silly.

Clean up after yourself.

Andrew, a veteran gym member we interviewed (who requested we withhold his last name), recalls that during his first visit to the gym, an employee approached him as he stepped off the treadmill and handed him a towel. “I took the towel and wiped the sweat from my forehead, not realizing that he meant for me to wipe the machine instead. It was embarrassing.”

Most gyms offer spray bottles and paper towels to wipe down equipment after use. Also make a point of replacing dumbbells after you’re finished, pick up any trash, and put your dirty towels in the laundry bin. Little acts of consideration like this go a long way toward making everyone’s experience at the club a more conscious, considerate and satisfying one.

Class Conduct

Fitness classes are a great way to get free fitness direction, connect with fellow gym members and have fun while working out, but they can present opportunities for confusion and frustration, too. Here’s how to get the most from group-fitness classes — and avoid creating the friction sometimes caused by newbie misunderstandings.

Monitor your conversation.

Group classes are social by definition, but limit extended conversations to before and after class, and avoid talking over the instructor. “If you do end up chatting in cycling or cardio class — which is more acceptable than, say, during yoga — be sure to take the hint if someone is giving you short, one-word replies,” says Hudson. And keep in mind that if you’re tempted to talk a lot, it probably means you’re not working as hard as you could be.

Share the space.

Being among the first to arrive gives you more choices about where to position yourself, but it does not mean you own the room. Be courteous about making space for fellow classmates, proactively readjust your territory as the room fills, and don’t be offended if someone asks you to move over to make a little more room. In classes where space is limited, avoid bringing personal belongings into the studio; store them in a locker instead.

Come and go with courtesy.

Walking into class late may not seem like a big deal to you, but it’s disruptive to the instructor and classmates, especially if people have to stop what they’re doing and scoot over to make room. Likewise, if you have to leave early, let your instructor know before class so she doesn’t worry that something is wrong.

Respect your abilities.

Lori Schell, a gym veteran in Boulder, Colo., admits she’s made the mistake of signing up for a too-tough class more than once. “I’m generally uncoordinated, yet I would always go to the advanced step aerobics class,” she explains. She assumed the advanced class would be a better workout but found that, instead, she used much of her energy just trying to keep up. “I spent most of the first few classes on the opposite side of the bench than the rest of the class,” she recalls. Of course, being in a too-easy class is no good either, so if you’re not being challenged, upgrade. Class descriptions on the gym calendar or Web site can be vague, says Hudson, so if you’re not sure what class you belong in, talk to the instructor beforehand.

Locker-Room Etiquette

Locker rooms are one of the most vulnerable environments we encounter as adults. Here’s how to avoid awkwardness and feel more at ease from day one.

Pick a locker you can live with.

Choosing a remote locker might seem like a great idea for privacy, but if its proximity to the showers, sinks or pool entrance is too distant, you’ll end up putting in a lot of miles in your towel and shower shoes. You may also wish to avoid a bank of lockers that’s densely occupied — there can be a real crush if a big class lets out and everyone hits the locker room at the same time.

Err on the side of modesty.

Some nudity is completely appropriate and expected in the locker room, but prancing around in your birthday suit is unwarranted and will make others uncomfortable. Practice a little modesty by wearing a towel to and from the shower and sauna, and consider putting on at least your undergarments before doing your makeup or drying your hair. Sitting your naked bottom on a locker-room bench is not only unsanitary, but it can make your gym mates a little queasy — so always put a towel between you and any community surface, including saunas and steam rooms.

Practice good pool hygiene.

Always shower before entering any type of pool. And even in single-sex spas and whirlpools, unless there are specific suggestions to the contrary, always wear a suit.

Be considerate with your stuff.

Don’t let your clothes and gear pile up on communal benches or block traffic on the locker-room floor. Keep your toiletries contained and limit the time you’re using the community hair dryer. No one likes to face a big glob of someone else’s hair or toothpaste, so wipe any spills and loose strands from the countertops and sink before you leave.

Be friendly, but not too friendly.

Assume that most people in the locker room want to keep conversations light and short, and if someone is only partially clothed or nude, he or she might not feel comfortable talking at all. This especially holds true when you run into someone with whom you have a strictly professional relationship. One gym member we polled confessed to running into her psychotherapist exiting the locker-room shower. “Of course, baring my soul in therapy, I often feel naked, but it was unsettling to actually be naked,” she admits. “We just smiled and nodded to one another and went about our business.”

Now you know what most of us wish we knew back when we started hitting the club. But if you’re new to exercise, there is one more important thing you need to do before you dive into your health-club experience: Discuss your fitness goals and workout plans with a health professional. “Obtaining medical clearance is especially important if you’re a man over 45 or a woman over 55, or if you have any cardiac risk factors such as family history, smoking or high blood pressure,” says Higgins.

With medical clearance and your new membership card in hand, and with the suggestions in this article firmly in mind, you’ve got everything you need to make the most of your health-club experience.

Even if you do happen to make a few rookie mistakes (and at one time or another most of us have made them all), it’s no big deal. Every misstep or blunder is an opportunity to grow wiser. Just a few short months from now, you’ll be a health-club veteran yourself — and showing the real rookies how it’s done.

Gym Rookie Cheat Sheet

When all else fails, you can fake it until you make it. Here are some basic steps to boost your confidence and get you in and out of the gym without feeling like a beginner.

Map out your plan before you go. Knowing before you arrive that you’re going to start at the locker room to change, go to the mats to warm up, then lift weights for 15 minutes and finish up with the stair climber for 20 can help you manage your time effectively, help you look like you know what you’re doing (because you do) and trigger you to bring along the right gear for the activities you have planned.

Acquire some terrific togs. You don’t need a whole drawer full of workout wear, but having the right clothes for your chosen activities can go a long way toward helping you feel capable and prepared. Make a point of acquiring some good-quality workout apparel that helps you feel happy, pulled together and confident. Having a couple of simple, well-fitting tops and bottoms you can wear interchangeably will cut down on the time you spend preparing to go to the gym — and eliminate the possibility you’ll skip the club simply because you have “nothing to wear” or because whatever you do have is in the wash.

Pre-pack. Strive to keep some standard, flexible essentials (MP3 player, water bottle, toiletries, shower shoes, heart-rate monitor, cross-trainers, socks, basic apparel) in your gym bag at all times, and in one of the bag’s front pockets, also keep a list of the variable items you might want or need for a given day’s workout (say, a racquet and goggles for squash, a mat and headband for yoga, swim gear for pool workouts). That way, you’ll be less likely to forget something crucial to a particular workout — and even if you do, you’ll be prepared to do something active.

Make a date. Even if it’s just for the first few visits, bringing a friend along or planning to meet a workout buddy at the club can ease anxiety and help you feel that you belong right from the beginning. It can also add an element of fun to your workout experience. You might also ask a more experienced gym-going friend if you can tag along with him or her once or twice just to get the hang of things.

Have your card ready. Be ready to swipe your card or show your ID when you walk through the front door of your club. Fumbling around in your wallet or purse can make you feel rushed and flustered — particularly if there’s a line forming behind you.

Ask for what you need. While you’re at the desk checking in, ask any questions you might have regarding the location of equipment, class availability, even sign-ups and so on. It will save you the trouble of looking for a staff person once you’re inside. And if necessary, the receptionist can ring someone who will come directly to the desk to tell or show you what you need to know.

Think about next time. After your workout, before you head back to your car, note how much time it took you to complete your workout and also scope out what you might want to do during your next visit. Check the times for group-fitness classes, take a walk past the pool, ask the front desk about the climbing wall or schedule an appointment with a trainer. You’ll leave better informed, equipped with a plan of action, and you’ll naturally feel more motivated to come back.

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