Start of a new year, all the gyms are going to be full, all the gym-regulars are going to moan about how busy the gym is, how crowded the changing room is, how there's nowhere to park and how someone they don't recognise keeps blocking their down light and mirror spot!
BUT... what if you're NOT a gym regular? What if you've never REALLY set a foot inside a gym, followed any structured gym program or been "shown the ropes" by anyone other than that big guy at the gym? Then read on friend:
If the gym is a new phenomenon to you, here's how you should start out:
1. Learn to move
This is number one for a reason. It's easier to learn something than it is to re-learn something; so get your fundamental movements nailed before you even think about lifting a significant weight. Learn the key "rules" to effective squatting, hinging, lunging, pushing and pulling. Do that and you'll be able to make the most of your gym time in a safe and effective way. You'll also be better than most people in the gym!
2. Get professional help
Don't just rely on the biggest guy at the gym for advice. Their experience and years of training will mean their demands and approach to training should be distinctly different to yours. A professional trainer will be able to offer you specific coaching for your needs and teach you all of the fundamentals mentioned above. You don't have to stay with them forever, but invest in yourself and your body and think of them as lessons or tutorials so that you can then make the most of your time in the gym when you go it alone. You wouldn't just buy a car and "figure it out" without driving lessons (and cars are replaceable!); so why would you do that with your body?
3. Don't start with machine weights and move on to free weights
Many people see this as the "safer" option. However, what it doesn't do is teach you good movement patterns and good exercise habits in terms of recruiting and engaging relevant muscle groups for stability and control. You may well use some resistance machines but, leave these until the end of the session when you're more fatigued. You don't need enormous weights, but the benefits of free weights will always out-weight resistance machines whatever your end goal.
4. Avoid CrossFit
CrossFit might be "cool" but it requires a lot of coordination and athletic prowess to perform it safely and effectively. Don't try and run before you can walk. If you're relatively new to the gym, this isn't for you.
5. Don't "get a bit fitter first"
This is a strange one that I've never understood but still hear it a lot. People think "before I go to a gym and get fit and healthy, I'm going to try and get a BIT fit and healthy".!?! Excuse me?.. By this they usually mean that they're going to churn out some running first for a few weeks. If you're after reducing your body fat then running probably isn't the best thing for your out of condition body nor the quickest way to reduce your body fat. For this, read the next point below.
6. Combine resistance work and cardiovascular work
If you want to improve your body composition, improve your cardiovascular system and become stronger and more robust with a better metabolic rate then you need cardiovascular work AND resistance work. Whatever your age, gender, aims and abilities this is true to some degree. While the ratio and balance of each will vary, the message will not - don't put all your eggs in one basket.
7. Avoid JUST group exercise
More accurately, I'd say avoid group exercise all together. At least initially. in my mind, group exercise is often contradictory as it can't cater for all abilities. Classes are getting tougher and tougher to challenge the regular attendees and numbers are so great, that you can't expect quality 1-2-1 attention and coaching from an instructor. If you're new to the gym it's likely that you won't follow good form (particularly under fatigue) so group exercise may, accidently, cause you more damage than good. Spend some time with a personal trainer and learn the fundamentals (mentioned in point 1) before throwing yourself into high intensity semi-supervised exercise.
8. Train your body - Not your ego
This can be a tough thing to do, particularly if you're 16 and trying to impress potential life partners. However, don't chase heavier weights at the peril of your technique. Work within your capabilities and focus more on mastering the movements than setting personal bests every time you enter the gym. Take your time. The great news for you is, if you're new to the gym then gains and improvements will come relatively easy to you compared to others that have exercised already for year. trust me when I say: You'll find you get WAY more benefit from doing something correctly than incorrectly but with a heavier weight.
9. Train your entire body
Avoid doing things like an "arms day" and instead focus on the movement in section one. At the early stages of training you won't need such an intense stimulus for growth. If anything, you're likely to cause more discomfort than you're happy with and hamper future sessions (see point 12). Try to include plenty of lower body work too; let your body grow and develop in an even and balanced ratio to speed up results and lessen the likelihood of injuries.
10. Give back to your body
Regular exercise is probably a new concept to you. No matter what your age, you need to give a little back and take care of your body. Think of it as fire prevention rather than fire fighting. You don't wait until your car breaks down before you put oil in it and expect it to run. Here's some tips on how you can take care of your body: http://michaeldarren.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/10-ways-to-take-care-of-your-body.html
11. Take your time
Don't expect overnight results. Don't expect to look like the guys and girls in the gym or on the magazine covers just yet; they've probably been training and eating well for years. Be consistent and committed and your results will come,. You will get back exactly what you put in so be honest with yourself.
12. Don't over-do it
This is very "un-me" as any of my clients will tell you. However, if you're relatively new to the gym you're in a unique position. This is make or break time and you're in a psychological minefield. Try (as hard as it might be) to not go all guns blazing on week one. Avoid training for 3 hours at a time every day doing every single exercise that you know. The likelihood is, you'll be sore all over, you'll hate the soreness, miss other aspects of your life (like staying in an watching TV all night), you won't see any immediate results and so you'll get disheartened and pack the entire thing in! Trust me - this happens a lot! Instead, set yourself a realistic and sustainable gym programme (limit yourself to an hour) and weekly schedule, stick to it for 4 weeks or so before adding or adjusting it.
13. Don't overlook your diet
As the old saying goes: you can't out train a bad diet. You're now going to be putting in a lot of effort with your new exercise regime, make sure you get the most from it by eating foods to enhance your results. Seek professional nutritional guidance but, for now: avoid sugars and processed foods and try to prepare all meals in advance. Don't say "I don't have time." If you have time to watch TV then you have time to prepare your food. Prioritise.
14. DO overlook supplements
Supplements are exactly that: a supplement to areas lacking in your diet. They are not the be all and end all, the missing link or the magic pill you "need". Exercise and eat well and you'll be doing enough for now. You may experiment with supplements at a later date but first off, find out how your body reacts to your new diet and exercise regime. Change everything at once and you won't know where the changes are coming from.
15. Enjoy yourself
Initially the gym may be a bit of a slog but make sure you look around, educate yourself and ask enough questions to find a way to make the experience enjoyable. Sure, it's hard work but there's plenty of variations you can add to exercise and the equipment you use in order to make it a little more interesting and enjoyable. If you don't enjoy it at all, you probably won't stick to it!