I always used to feel completely lost at the gym.
I’d gravitate toward the treadmill because it was simple and non-threatening.
Maybe I’d meander over to a few weight machines, go through the motions, and just try not to look stupid.
And that was when I wasn’t actually trying.
When I started actually taking the gym seriously, I suddenly felt all this pressure, confusion, and a little anxiety at first.
If you’re getting ready for your first day at the gym, first of all congratulations! Second, I’ve totally got you covered — here’s everything you need to know, bring, and prepare to kick some butt on your first trip.
The number one thing you want to get out of your first day at the gym is a positive experience.
You want to feel great about going so you’ll feel encouraged to come back. The more times you can complete this cycle, the more likely you are to build the habit for life.
Here’s my complete guide to being prepared, forming a plan, and navigating the gym like a pro on your first day.
2 things to prepare before your first day at the gym
I’ll assume you’ve already decided which gym you’re going to go to and either secured a guest pass or a membership.
Once you’ve got that figured out, here are the two main things you need:
Wandering around the gym aimlessly on your first day is a great way to have a crappy experience.
(Take it from me, I used to do this.)
You’ll bounce around from a little walking on the treadmill, to doing some light bicep curls, to trying out some funky machine you’ve never seen.
You won’t get a good workout because you won’t push yourself hard, and without a specific goal to accomplish for that day, you’ll probably leave early and feel a little bummed — like you didn’t accomplish anything.
(Even though going to the gym at all is a great accomplishment.)
Scroll down to see some more ideas about what specific workout you should do at the gym if you’re totally stuck, but as you’re preparing for your first time, you have a great opportunity to figure out what your goals are.
Which body types do you admire?
The physique you covet might inform your workout choice.
Or what physical traits do you value?
- Flexibility and mobility?
- General wellness?
These are good questions to ask yourself as you pick or create your own workout plan.
There’s nothing you HAVE to do, no rules. You don’t have to run if you don’t want to. You don’t have to lift if you hate it.
There are a million viable ways to get fit, and this is your chance to explore which one might be right for you.
Try this: If you’re not ready to dive headfirst into a full workout program, at least go in on your first day with one small goal.
For example, burn 200 calories on the treadmill, or do a few sets of 3-4 different upper body strength exercises.
A buddy. (Or not.)
The research is pretty clear that people who have committed workout partners tend to work out more often and miss fewer workouts.
Enlisting a reliable friend can be a great way to stay motivated to work out.
But you can also become dependent on that person and, if and when they bail, your hard-earned fitness habit goes down with them.
Decide now if you’re the kind of person who needs that support, or if this is a challenge you’ll undergo alone.
Me? I’m a lone-wolf type. My time in the gym is for me and me alone, and I don’t really want anyone else there distracting me.
If you are going to go with a friend, get on the same page ahead of time about when and how often you can both commit to do this!
(Or check out my complete guide to going to the gym alone and how to crush it without fear!)
4 things to bring (and what not to bring) to the gym
Let’s keep this super simple on your first day.
You don’t need a duffel bag filled to the brim with workout gear.
In most cases, all you really need is:
- A gym bag
- A change of clothes & toiletries, if you’re showering at the gym
- Your workout outfit. Shorts or tights and basic sneakers is fine!
- And headphones
That’s about it, for now.
You don’t need mid-workout protein supplements, complicated weightlifting belts or gloves, resistance bands, or anything like that at first.
As you start to advance and specialize in your training, you might start adding some of that stuff in, but for now it’ll only overwhelm you.
Try this: Pack your gym bag the night before, if possible. If you’re 100% ready to go and don’t need to make any decisions about outfits or gear, you’ll be less likely to flake out.
(And check out my complete guide to gym essentials for beginners hitting the gym for the first time.)
The best times to go to the gym, explained
In most cases, you won’t have a lot of flexibility here.
You can go when you can go, and that’s that!
(Usually before or after work, or maybe on your lunch break if you’re lucky. But do check out my tips on how to exercise when you work full-time.)
But if you do want to beat the crowds and avoid judging eyes, most commercial gyms will be quietest during the late morning through early afternoon on week days.
They fill up early in the mornings, around rush hour, and here and there on the weekends.
Going during a peak time isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be a little frustrating when all the equipment is taken. Not to mention, it can add to your anxiety when there are more people around and you don’t know what you’re doing!
For your first day, I would probably aim for a dead period if at all possible so you can feel free to explore, make mistakes, and do your thing.
(For more, check out my complete guide to the best times to go to the gym to beat the crowds.)
What to do at the gym your first day
At some point (maybe right away, but it’s up to you), you’ll want to get on a proper workout program.
What is a workout program? It’s a full blueprint that tells you:
- Which exercises to do each day, for how long, how many sets/reps, etc.
- How to ensure progress from one workout to the next
- Troubleshooting tips (overcoming plateaus, motivation problems)
- And, often, nutritional guides and meal plan advice for weight loss or muscle gain
I could recommend some of the programs that I personally like, but it won’t mean much to you until you’ve decided if you want to build up your cardio, become a great yogi, or build muscle by lifting weights.
(Although I’ll say, the Beachbody on Demand streaming platform has a pretty great selection of full workout programs you can choose from. I don’t love their aggressive marketing, but the BOD service is super legit — click that link to read my hands-on review.)
But for your first day, let’s keep it super simple.
Try this: I actually quite like this free 30-minute workout from Planet Fitness.
This is a great “first day at the gym workout plan” that has you doing:
- A light warm-up on the treadmill (beginner friendly and burns some calories!)
- Lat pulldown machine (one of the easiest resistance machines to learn, works your back and biceps)
- Leg press machine (also pretty beginner-friendly and will build leg strength)
- Stair climber (calorie-torching machine)
- Chest press (hit those triceps and pecs, another pretty simple-to-use machine)
- Ab machine (get started on that six-pack!)
It sounds like a lot, but you’re only at each station for a few minutes and there’s no need to push yourself super hard.
You’ll get a mix of endurance work, calorie burn, and strength/toning here, which is perfect for a beginner who hasn’t figured out what they like yet.
(Also check out my guide to over 14 free workout plans you can start right now, whether you’re into cardio, strength, yoga, or whatever.)
Gym Etiquette Basics (for beginners)
Don’t let the gym intimidate you.
It might feel like there’s this unspoken culture of etiquette and terminology you don’t understand, but it really comes down to only a few things.
Wipe down machinery
This is just good sense.
If you sweat on something, grab a towel or a wet wipe (your gym will probably have dispensers mounted on the wall) and give it a quick wipe when you’re done.
Put stuff back
Gym meatheads love to leave heavy weights lying all over the place, still racked on the barbell, or strewn all over the floor.
Please don’t do this.
When you’re done with any piece of equipment, just put it back where you found it.
If you’re using a piece of equipment and someone asks you to “work in,” they’re not trying to kick you off.
They just want to know if they can squeeze in a set when you’re done and resting, and then you can do a set while they’re resting, etc.
It’s common courtesy to let people work in if they ask.
(For more, check out my complete guide to gym slang you should know.)
What NOT to do on your first day at the gym (3 things to avoid)
I don’t want to overwhelm you with a huge list of faux pas and things to avoid.
But let me hit you with 3 big ones, just so you’re prepared.
Don’t copy people at the gym.
Let me tell you, as an experienced gym veteran…
When you’re a beginner or outsider, it looks like everyone knows what they’re doing.
They really don’t.
I can’t tell you how many people, especially in the weightlifting area:
- Do exercises wrong
- Perform strange and unsafe exercise variations
- Use inefficient training methods
- Generally do dumb stuff
I don’t care if someone is lean and toned, or super jacked, don’t copy what they’re doing.
Do your own research and get on a plan created by someone who knows what they’re doing.
Don’t overdo it on your first day.
If you’re feeling motivated to have an awesome workout, that’s great.
But don’t try to be a hero when you’re not in great shape yet.
Go in, accomplish your small goal, have a great time doing it, and get out.
Next time, you can come back and push yourself a little harder.
If you go too fast too soon, you can end up hurting yourself, or at least extremely sore the next day.
(If you’re insanely sore for 3 or 4 days after your workout, chances are high you won’t want to come back for your next scheduled workout.)
You can’t lose 10 pounds in one workout. This is a process. Let it play out!
Don’t get down on yourself.
If it’s been a while since you worked out, you might be really disappointed by your fitness level (or lack thereof).
You might see people all around you running circles around you, lifting heavier weights, and just generally kicking ass.
But you’re not competing against them. Your only competition is YOU, so again, fall back on the goal you set for yourself, and try to best it the next time.
You win by being consistent and forming healthy habits for life, not by being the strongest or fastest person in the gym.
How to build the gym habit (and make sure you come back again and again)
Your main goal for your first day is this:
Have a positive experience so you’ll be eager to come back and do it again.
That’s really it.
Having a small goal you can accomplish and feel good about is a great way of doing this. But if you need to start even smaller, start with just getting a tour, chatting with the staff, or reading your favorite book in the lobby.
Anything you can do to make the gym feel like a comfortabe and enjoyable place to be is a win, at first!
Some things I really enjoy doing at the gym:
- Walking on the treadmill and watching YouTube videos, sports highlights, or listening to podcasts
- Soaking in the hot tub
- Treating myself to a fun (but not overly indulgent!) lunch afterwards
These are little treats that keep me going and make visiting the gym enjoyable for me, outside of the actual act of working out itself.
From there, force yourself (kicking and screaming, if necessary) to commit to a certain number of workouts per week. I prefer a hard number like 3, rather than a range like 2-4, because it doesn’t give you an easy excuse to skip days.
Aim to grit through your first couple of weeks, dragging yourself to the gym on time exactly as you planned, making it as enjoyable as possible, and stacking small wins.
If you can manage that for a few weeks, it’ll become a habit before you know it.
Hey, I don’t know you, but I’m really proud of you!
Going to the gym for the first time, or after a long absence, is really hard. Like, mortifyingly hard in some cases.
It gets easier and easier the more you stick with it, and you’ll eventually get to the point where you truly look forward to your workouts and the pride you feel after completing them.
Patience. You’ll get there.
Step one is just showing up and having an awesome first day. I hope this guide has helped you get in the right mindset to make that happen!
Any other questions about being a beginner at the gym? Let me know in the comments!
Hope this helps, and please share it with anyone else you think might need it!