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How To Get Started In The Weights Room

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When you first join a gym the weights room can be an intimidating prospect. Everyone else in there seems fitter and stronger than you, and they all seem to know what they’re doing.

So when you’re wavering at the entrance, just remember that everyone started from scratch at some point and the only way to get more comfortable with weights is by using them.

Coach enlisted Fitness First (opens in new tab) personal trainer Luke Chamberlain for all the info a beginner needs to get started in the weights room.

What will you usually find in a weights room?

In your typical weights room you are going to find simple resistance machines for both lower-body and upper-body exercises. These are great for beginners and usually have a diagram on explaining the target muscles as well as how the machine works. They are easier to use than free weights because the machines dictate and restrict the direction of force.

There will also be a squat rack as well as a selection of dumbbells, barbells and plate weights. The dumbbells are usually located near movable benches and the plate weights are usually stored near non-movable benches. There are cable machines or dual-assisted pulleys that can help with the transition from fixed resistance machines to free weights without a big step up because they offer a bit more freedom of movement.

Where should beginners start?

When new to the gym the most important aspect is getting comfortable in the environment so nothing feels off-limits. It’s a great idea to have a go on everything, but be conscious of the amount of weight used so as not to get injured. Start with manageable weights so your body gets used to the movements before upping the weights to a more challenging level for progression. The skill of completing the exercise correctly is more valuable at the start than the weight. This is building a foundation for the future, so don’t be concerned with the other members lifting heavier weights on the same exercise – you will progress much further in the long run.

Do you have any advice on how much training someone should do before they tackle certain weighted exercises? For example, would you recommend being able to do a certain amount of press-ups before using the bench press, or can you go straight in?

There are no necessary exercises to do before you start, but completing some training on resistance machines first will help you to understand where the target muscles are and how they feel when you are stimulating them before you move on to free weights. For example, when learning how to squat, start in the leg press machine, then move up to the squat rack and try to replicate the movement and feedback you have already experienced. The most important advice is to start at a light weight that is manageable and then slowly increase the weight over time.

Are there any pieces of equipment in the weights room beginners tend to avoid that they should be using?

One of the pieces of equipment most beginners avoid is the squat rack. The assumption is that it’s only used for super heavy lifts and really experienced athletes, but it’s a very versatile piece of equipment that should be used by all levels. Practise loading a barbell weight onto your shoulders without assistance from a coach or spotter. Start with an empty bar and slowly build the weight up, drawing on the experience and strength you’ve gained from the resistance machines.

It can also be a good idea to have a professional assess your free weight technique just to confirm what you are doing is correct – it’s going to benefit you in the long term for when you are lifting heavier weights.

What advice would you give beginners on weights room etiquette?

Always put the weights you used back in their right spot, even if the person before you has not. Most weights are stored together and it’s easy enough to see where they should go – if you’re unsure, ask a member of staff.

Obviously the gym can be busy so someone may ask to share the weights with you. Have a quick chat about work/rest timing so you both understand when the weights are available. If they need them for ten minutes straight and you’re doing sets it’s OK to say, “I don’t think our training programmes align” – but try to be polite.

Also, be aware of the style of gym you are in. Some allow you to throw the weights down, scream, shout and train with your shirt off, but most don’t appreciate this behaviour. If it’s intimidating other members it won’t be tolerated. You should feel as comfortable being in the weights area as you would any other area of the gym.

Is there any other advice you’d give to beginners stepping into the weights room?

It may be intimidating when first stepping into an environment you’ve never trained in before, but remember that everyone in there has been where you are. The worst thing you can do is avoid the training space. Although some of the individuals may appear big, strong and a little bit scary you will find that most of the people training in the weights room will be really nice and don’t mind helping you out. Just be sure not to interrupt someone who is in the middle of a set! If you’re still unsure, try talking to a friend or work colleague who wants to try it and train together.

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.