There is no feeling in this world more awkward than walking into a gym for the first time, and that awkward is put on blast if you don't actually have a lot of experience with working out. For all the gym we endured in high school, nobody actually taught us how to handle the gym in real life. It's totally easy to get intimidated, but consider this: even Arnold Schwarzenegger had to start somewhere. We were all just unfit, ill-equipped, inexperienced exercise fetuses at some point in our lives. Gym embarrassment is an inevitability—embrace it with the same gusto you embrace your first set of dumb bells, because there is no escaping it.
What you can and should escape is injuring yourself. It is easy to make a mistake and hurt yourself when you first start working out without even knowing that you were close to making a mistake in the first place, and it's especially rough if it happens right when you're trying to get started on the whole "brand new fit you" kick. An ambitious 15-year-old me once got a matching pair of shin splints that left me unable to walk up stairs without excruciating pain for months, just from a few weeks of running cross country. Don't be 15-year-old me, guys. Instead, you should walk into the gym with confidence, with all of these handy newbie safety tips in mind:
Start with a shoe that isn't too high in the heel
According to personal trainer Justin Mace, those of us who work in offices or settings where we spend a lot of time sitting are especially prone to ankle and foot injuries. "People spend their days in front of their computer with rounded shoulders. When your shoulders are rounded and you stand up, your weight falls to the front of your foot," he explains. The change in your center of gravity in a weak spot makes you more vulnerable to injury like plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonitis, which can be prevented by wearing running shoes without too much of an arch in the heel to start out.
Warm up and cool down at either end of your workouts
The best kind of warm-up you can do to loosen up your joints are short bursts of low impact cardio, which researchers say is more effective for preventing injury and preparing you for a workout than stretching. Cool downs aren't just important for reducing your heart rate at a healthier pace, but also for improving your endurance in general.
Hydrate like a boss
If you want to get the best out of your workouts, you should be hydrating before you even hit the gym. Feeling thirst means you're already dehydrated, and dehydration can lead to cramping, quicker heart rates, and fatigue that makes you much more likely to make workout mistakes that cause injuries. Be especially wary of this if you're outside in the heat, and always carry a water bottle with you.
Start with high rep, low resistance on the weights
It's easy to feel like you're CRUSHING IT when you lift something really heavy and let out a Hulk roar, but it's the fastest way to accidentally tear a muscle right when you're starting out. You can certainly transition into higher weights in a safe way, but at first you should build a lean muscle base by taking the time to do a lot of reps with some smaller weights.
Use an experienced spotter
Going to the gym with someone who is every bit as inexperienced as you can be a really great way to break the workout ice, and will make you feel WAY less awkward than if you were doing it on your own. But as much as you love this gym buddy, they are in no place to spot for you, and you are certainly in no place to spot for them. Experienced spotters know just how many things can go wrong and just how fast it will happen. They're the ones who will make sure you keep all your teeth.
Don't get into a routine at the gym
Even if you're just starting out, you should be cross-training by mixing up your workout every day. Hit the pool one day, the elliptical the next, and do weights the day after that. Not only will this help your endurance, but it will prevent you from putting too much strain on a particular muscle group that you use when you're on a specific machine or doing a certain exercise.
Stretch at the end of your workouts
Keeping your muscles loose and limber by stretching them will prevent the kind of cramping later that might lead to injury, and will also put you in way better shape to conquer whatever you have planned for the next day's workout.
Eat to workout instead of working out to eat
We are all guilty of using the gym as a way to justify funneling Oreos into our mouths (at least I am, hey-ooooo). And while there is nothing wrong with indulging every now and then, your new gym-going self needs proper nutrition to be able to rev itself up. Preface your Oreos with foods rich in protein and calcium, and don't do yourself the disservice of crash dieting. You won't have the energy to work out, and you'll run the risk of passing out in full view of all the hot humans at the gym.
Wear a helmet
I shouldn't have to say this, and I'm hoping that if you are reading this then you have enough consideration for your own life that you read it and said, "Well, duh." But I have seen too many people needlessly risking their lives riding their bikes totally helmet-less in the name of getting fit that I cannot write an article about safety tips without writing this as many times as I can: WEAR A F*CKING HELMET. YOU ARE NOT A SUPER SPECIAL BIKING SNOWFLAKE EXCEPTION TO THE RULE. Too many people have died after ignoring one of the most basic, simple safety tips of all.
Listen to the trainers
I'm not saying you have to run out and pay for a personal trainer because I am currently so broke that ninety percent of my meals are cheese toast. But odds are if you are doing something wrong at the gym, a personal trainer is going to stop you and let you know. They are not doing this because they are super smug and enjoy correcting people (most of the time). In fact, it's probably just as uncomfortable for them to approach you as it is for you to hear it. But if they are letting you know that you're doing something wrong, it is out of genuine concern for your safety and you should listen well and listen good. These humans do the gym for a living, they know what they're talking about.
Don't be embarrassed to ask questions or ask for help
Rule of thumb: If you don't know what it's for, don't touch it. (God, the dirty jokes write themselves.) You can either wait and watch how someone else uses the machine, or just nut up and ask someone. People are usually quite happy to help and then you won't have calf leg raise machine FOMO.
If you are in pain at any moment, JUST STOP
You shouldn't shy away from a challenge during a workout, but pain is there for a reason, and if you're feeling any pain you should stop whatever you are doing and figure out what is causing it. It could be as simple as using the machine wrong, or as important as an indication of a health problem you weren't aware you had. Better safe than sorry.
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