What do you really need to know about going to the gym to lift weights for the first time?
No, we’re not going to rehash the things tons of sites write about like wearing “closed-toed shoes,” to keep your grunting at a minimum, or to try your hardest not to stare at people. (Isn’t it insulting to be told these things?)
So, unless you’re the type that was about to deadlift in their flip-flops… here are a few things to consider when hitting the gym for the first time.
1. Get a real workout plan that’s so straightforward that even a zombie could follow it
Many people feel a bit of anxiousness going to the gym for the first time. It could be being in a new space or being surrounded by fit and focused people. Maybe it’s the dozens of different machines that look like ancient torturing devices.
When your stress levels go up, any plan you had up in your head is now gone. Stress is like putting blinders on your head, and it makes you focus. Focus is a good thing in the case of the gym, but you can’t think or remember as well anymore.
So if you have your workout printed or copied down into your journal, you don’t need to think. All you have to do is glance down, and then do it.
Do this thing eight times, then do that thing eight times, etc.
It keeps it simple, straightforward and gives you confidence since you’ve got a plan to stick to. Better than that guy aimlessly drifting between the curl machine and the pec-dec before texting his way out of the gym.
Keep your head down, do the work, put your weights away, and move onto the next thing.
2. Find a good warm-up to do before you lift
Warm-ups used to confuse me, since I’d think, “Well, it’s 6 pm, I’m already feeling pretty warm.”
I didn’t know I was skipping out on a shortcut to lifting heavier weights and being more athletic.
If you find a good workout plan, it’ll often come with a warm-up. If yours has a warm-up, be the type of guy who realizes that the expert has included that warm-up for good reason. (And if you don’t have one, here’s a good general warm-up written by Marco on Bony to Bombshell.)
The reason why you should warm-up is because a good one does a lot more than just getting you warm. Yeah, getting physically warm is helpful if you’re working out in the morning or your gym is unusually cold, but some of the other benefits that a good warm-up would include are:
- Postural drills will allow you to improve your capabilities over time, so your form and athleticism will get better without even trying. Do the drills, sleep, and move a tiny bit better tomorrow. Repeat 100x.
- Stability drills that can help you reduce injuries so you can keep lifting consistently. Doing a warm-up drill like the Bird Dog won’t make you bigger or leaner, but it’ll make your back stabilizer muscles stronger so you can bulletproof your spine, build a rock-solid core, and protect your back. Or maybe doing a t-spine mobilizing drill will mean your shoulders don’t click when pressing overhead anymore and you’ll slowly be unwinding your hunchback posture.
- Joint lubrication drills will help improve your range of motion. The larger the natural range of motion you do, the bigger, rounder, and more 3D your muscles will look.
Warming up is a great time to be fixing up your posture and bulletproofing your body. If your posture gets stuck in a bad position, your muscles won’t get the full, 3D shape that they could have. These types of mobilizing drills and things like foam rolling can help open up that range of movement you’ve lost.
3. The night before you work out, watch a couple of different videos for each exercise
Find a couple of intelligent trainers that you can trust and watch some of the longer videos that cover the subtleties in the exercise form. Watch it the night before, so your brain can cement it a bit more in your head while you sleep.
If you’re looking for some trainers that you can trust that have great content on Youtube, check out:
- Mike Robertson on Youtube
- Eric Cressey on Youtube
- Bret Contreras on Youtube
- Squat University on Youtube
When you get to the gym, leave your phone in the locker, or at the very least don’t be the guy watching a how-to video right there on the tiny little screen on your phone. Just give it a shot and do your best. As long as nothing hurts, you’ll be okay. Your ability to perform the exercise with the form like they’re demonstrating won’t be possible yet anyways. (We’ll cover why in point #7.)
4. Eat a good meal with lots of protein 2-3 hours before the gym
Showing up to the gym is like showing up for a test in school. How well you do is how well you prepared beforehand. Don’t be the type to show up hungry, a bit thirsty, and tired. Those people won’t get a good workout in. And they’ll be leaving the gym feeling pretty beat down.
Eat a meal with at least 30g of protein a couple of hours before, and with some carbs. That will help you feel good when you hit the gym. Try and drink some water before the gym too, so you’re hydrated.
5. Pray (or meditate)
There’s no research I can cite for this one, though I’m not trying to go too woo-woo on you, it’s something I’ve found helpful in terms of mindset.
Mindset, we do know from studies, plays a massive part in your ability to succeed.
In a classic 1972 study, guys were told they were given steroids and to work out for 4 weeks. Compared to the regular guys, these guys gained over four times as much strength in the same time! When you believe that you’ve been given steroids, you just know you’re going to get gains, and so they did.
What is a simple prayer you could do in the gym parking lot or as you walk to the gym? One that would align with your strength goals? Here are some I do occasionally:
“Help me to stay safe and not do anything stupid today. Help me to get bigger and stronger, so I can be resourceful, helpful, and protect those around me.”
“Give me the strength to push myself, make me realize the potential my body has inside of it.”
“Give me peace as I enter the gym. Help me see only good intentions in the people at the gym. Give me a learners heart—that everyone I run into may have something that they can teach me.”
Even prayers that are more grateful in style could help you keep the right mindset in the long-run—especially if training were to become frustrating or boring.
“Thank you for the opportunity to work out. Thank you for this experience of that is about to happen, including the pain that comes with it. Thank you that I have a body that is healthy enough to train and build up. Thank you that I have enough time and money that I can pursue this.”
Not into the idea of praying? You could still try saying these and just write it off as experimenting with the “illusory truth effect.”
6. Be the most courteous person at the gym
I saw this one skinny guy come into the gym—never seen him before and never saw him again. Grabbed a bunch of dumbbells and brought them around the bench. He would bench and then do a bunch of superset exercises. Then all of a sudden, he just left. Left the weights on the barbell, left the dumbbells littered around the bench. No respect for the next guy.
Be considerate, and don’t be the guy who barely follows the gym rules. Elevate the gym culture up a notch.
Be the type who wipes down their bench after sweating on it, even if no one else does.
Be the type who reracks their weights, even if no one else does.
Be the type who is friendly and willing to work in with others and share equipment.
Be the type to wait while someone finishes their set of deadlifts, before walking around them. (Some guys seem to have no care and are walking way too close to someone who is currently lifting heavy weights.)
Be courteous and you’ll do great.
7. When lifting, be okay with your form being only okay
You won’t be able to make your form look like the form you see in the videos, and that’s okay. You can’t take the knowledge you have in your head, and magically apply it instantly into bodily knowledge.
You will need to do the exercise. Sleep. And try it again.
Over time your brain will rewire, and your body will adapt. That’s how your form, coordination, and athleticism will get better. You won’t even need to think about it.
Dan John, a revered strength coach, says that we shouldn’t even worry about someone’s butt-wink during a squat until their 10,000th squat. We couldn’t agree more. (Butt wink is when someone’s lower back tucks down, due to less mobility, as they get to the bottom of a squat.)
Let’s get some reps in, as long as it’s pain-free, and let time practicing take care of it.
8. Lift lighter than you think you should—go heavier if needed on the next set
Many people often pick the heaviest weight they can pick up, seemingly to prove that they’re not weak (to the figurative person watching them in the gym.)
But this sets them up for failure. The first reason is because if they’re new to lifting weights, they don’t need insanely heavy weights to grow. They might really overdo it when it comes to muscle damage. They’ll be better off using a moderately heavy weight and getting more reps in.
The second reason is that if they go too heavy, that will put them at a higher risk for injury because they’re still uncoordinated in their lifts.
The third reason is that they will likely be going too hardcore, and they will get serious soreness for 1–3 days after the gym (called DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness.)
DOMS will make their muscles ache, and they’ll be sighing and moaning all around the house and at work. Being new to the gym might mean you’ll get DOMS anyways, but a lot of the pain can be avoided by just going lighter than you think on your first few days of working out.
So picking too heavy of weights will make your muscles more damaged and need to repair more so you might get smaller gains, it’ll put you at a higher risk for injury, and make the next few days needlessly painful.
So for your first few workouts, try picking a lighter weight than you think you need. And if the weights feel way too easy? Just count it as a warm-up set and try again. Or count it as a set, but on next set, try going heavier.
9. Drink a protein shake during or as you finish your gym session.
You’re going to need more protein to repair your muscles and rebuild them bigger and stronger (a process called muscle protein synthesis.)
Almost nobody is naturally eating enough protein, and now you’ve just run your body through a challenging workout. Instead of a supplement, many people think they’ll eat more meat, but that is expensive, hard to fit into your stomach, and often pretty boring to chew. (Who really wants to eat two chicken breasts for dinner?)
Some people claim that there are huge benefits for having protein during a workout. Research seems to say this isn’t true, though there might be a tiny benefit for well-trained guys.
The main reason we recommend having a protein shake at the gym is because many people often find the gym blunts their appetite for a little bit anyway, so this is a good time to have a quick protein shake to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and to make it easier to reach your new, higher daily protein goals.
It’ll be hard to forget to have a protein shake when you habitually tie it to your workout. Every time you work out, you have a protein shake. Super simple, and it should help you hit your goals. You can learn everything about protein powder in our free super-guide.
10. Forget what time it is and go to bed if you’re sleepy—you might need an extra hour or two
Research shows that we need at least 7.25+ hours of sleep to be optimally healthy. Many people will need more than that.
And lifting for the first time?! You can bet that your last dollar that you’ll need more sleep.
After much experimenting, I found that I need around 8.5 hours every night to feel my sharpest and best. And I’ve noticed that when I push myself, doing extremely heavy lifting or trying to grow, I will temporarily need more sleep. Sometimes up to 10 hours!
Since you’re new to the gym, you may push yourself pretty hard. It’s tough not to when working out in a public setting and you feel motivated to lift heavy.
So if you’re feeling exhausted, and it’s “only 10:00 pm”, allow yourself permission to go to sleep. Even if you feel like an old person, it’s okay this time. You probably need it.
- Get an expertly programmed workout that you can follow on autopilot.
- Do a warm-up to get better posture without trying, bulletproof your body from injuries, and increase your mobility to allow for more 3D muscle growth.
- Watch a few videos on every exercise and sleep on it.
- Eat a solid meal with at least 30 grams of protein 2–3 hours before you lift weights.
- Try praying for safety, strength, determination, and grit. Give thanks that you have a healthy body to train, and the time and money to do it.
- Be courteous and aware. Wipe down your bench, rerack your weights, work in with others, and give people space when they’re actively lifting something.
- Know that your form won’t look great. Do your best, and as long as nothing hurts—you’re golden. Your body will get better with practice.
- Lift lighter than you think for the first few sessions to reduce DOMS. After a week or so, now you know what you’re capable of and can start to push yourself.
- Drink a protein shake while working out or after you’re done working out. This will make it easier to get enough protein in during the day, and it’ll be tied to your workout so you won’t forget to do it.
- Go to bed when you feel sleepy. Working out will make you need a bit more sleep.
If you’ve already hit the gym before, what do you wish someone had told you about before going? Leave a comment below and fill us all in!