Everything You Want to Know About the Gym But Were Too Afraid to Ask

Carly Pizzani | Mar 19, 2014 Healthy Living

Strength training floor at the gymAre you totally at a loss as soon as you're faced with the weight training floor at the gym? If you're in the category of not even being able to fake-it-'til-you-make-it (because you're not even sure what you're supposed to be faking), you're in luck!

From choosing your weights to trying new equipment, let's check out some of what you'll encounter on the gym floor so you can feel super-confident about beginning a strength training routine!

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Image via Brisbane City Council/Flickr

  • The Complete Newbie's Guide to the Gym


    Image via pasukaru76/Flickr

  • How to Choose Your Weights


    When choosing what weight is right for you to lift, always try a lower weight first, so you can gradually work your way up by trial and error to the correct weight.

    Ideally, you want to be using a weight that would be too difficult to lift for one repetition past your goal range. So if you are doing 10 repetitions of an exercise, you'd want a weight that you couldn't lift an 11th time.

    There are three types of weights to choose from in the gym. The first are free weights, like dumbbells, barbells, bodybars, and kettlebells. All of these -- except barbells -- will have their weight written on them. If you can't find a guide posted for the barbells' weight, a general rule of thumb is that the 5-foot barbells are 35 pounds, and the 6-foot barbells are 45 pounds. 

    The second type of weights are the plates that stack on the ends of the barbells and on some machines. They are clearly labelled with their weight and usually range from 2.5 pounds up to 45 pounds.

    The third type of weight is on the machines, a stack of weight plates called selectors. You use an attached pin to select the weight you want. These are marked with the weight in pounds on each plate to show what weight you're using. The only exception to this rule is the assisted pull-up machine -- in its case, the weight written on the selector plates is not the weight you will be lifting. This machine is just giving you an assist to do what would usually be a bodyweight exercise; a pull-up. That means that the weight you select is subtracted from your own weight and the remainder is the amount you’ll actually be lifting. Counter-intuitively, the higher the weight you select on this machine, the easier it makes the exercise.

  • How to Add Weight to a Barbell


    To add weight to a barbell, take a plate and slide it onto the end of a barbell while it's resting on a rack, ready for you to use. You'll find the clips either hanging on the bench rack or on hooks by the stacks of plates. Squeeze the handles to increase the opening, then slide it on until it's securely pushed against the plate. 

    This stops the plates from sliding or falling off as you complete your exercise.

  • How to Use the Dumbbells


    Image via PeterJBellis/Flickr

    Dumbbells are a really versatile piece of equipment for weight training. Since they come in pairs, you can use them to do upper body exercises one side at a time or alternating between sides, as well as together. When held against gravity, you can use them to do rowing and pulling movements, which work your back. When you're lying on a bench or pressing them overhead, they're working your chest and shoulders.

    You can also use these to add weight to lower-body exercises like squats and lunges by either holding them like suitcases; up on your shoulders; or holding one at your chest.

  • How to Use the Barbells


    Photo via ucniss/Flickr

    Barbells are a great way to add an equally distributed weight to upper and lower-body exercises. The classic barbell exercise is the bench press, shown here, where you press the barbell up over your chest while lying on a bench. 

    However, don't be afraid to use the barbells for standing exercises, either. You can rest the bar on your upper back, behind your shoulders, or hold it in front of you at your chest to add weight to lunges and squats.

  • How to Use the Assisted Pull-Up Machine


    The assisted pull-up machine has a bunch of different handles, something that looks like a seat and, usually, no clear instructions on how to enter and exit. This machine is a great piece of equipment that is worth familiarizing yourself with. 

    First things first: The seat is for your knees! To enter the machine, you face it, hold the handles at the middle, then step up on the bottom risers. Put one knee then the other on the seat, then, using the handles, push yourself up so you can grab the handles at the top. The different handles are just to change your grip -- you can hold it wide or have a narrow grip to pull yourself up. 

    Once you’re done with your set, let yourself drop so you can transfer your grip down to the middle handles again. Take one knee off the seat and step that foot down to a riser. Slowly let your other knee rise up with the seat. When it comes to a stop, you can step that foot down as well. (Warning: If you do this quickly, it will make a ridiculously loud crash.)

  • How to Use the Cables in the Gym


    Cable machines can be used for just about any exercise you can think of. There are usually lots of different types of handles, ropes, and attachments that hook onto the cables via small carabiners, but don’t feel overwhelmed. Find a handle that feels comfortable and use that to try any kind of pulling or rowing movement, or turn so you’re facing away from the machine to do pressing and pushing movements.

    You can also use leg attachments for lower body exercises -- click to the next slide to find out how!

  • How to Do Lower Body Exercises With Cables


    See the mini-belts with the attachments for the cable? Don’t be shy about using these -- they loop around your ankles so you can hook your leg up to the bottom cable to do all kinds of lower body exercises like leg lifts, lunges, and knee-ups. Try a light weight at first since the resistance of the cable is going to affect your balance.

  • How to Use the Squat Rack


    Image via PeterGordon/Flickr

    Ahh, the squat rack -- or the squat cage, as it’s sometimes ominously called. While it may look intimidating, this piece of equipment is actually a good way to start practicing using barbells for squats and deadlifts.

    Inside the rack, a barbell rests either on adjustable shelves at what should be your shoulder height for squats and lunges or near the bottom of the rack for deadlifts. The beauty of the squat rack is that if you get to the point where you can't hold the weight anymore, you just lean the barbell back onto the resting points for the bar, or if you drop it, the sides of the cage will 'catch' it.

    Every rack has a slightly different way that the resting shelves adjust, so don't be afraid to ask someone for help with adjusting for your height -- it won't make you look clueless!

  • What Are Bodyweight Exercises?


    Image via NatetheApe21/Flickr

    Hint -- bodyweight exercise does not mean throwing someone over your shoulder. Bodyweight (or as you may hear it alternately called, calisthenic) exercises are pretty self explanatory. Anything you do without an added weight is called bodyweight. 

    Feel free to try bodyweight exercises on the strength training floor -- it's perfectly acceptable to use the space for bodyweight moves and can be a great way of perfecting your form before progressing to adding weight to the exercises.

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