How to Navigate the Gym (When You Have NO Idea What You’re Doing)

When I was first started working as a trainer at a gym years ago, for the first couple of months as I built up my client list, I spent some time as a ‘floor trainer’. If you belong to a bigger chain gym, you’re probably familiar with the floor trainer. From a member point of view, they’re there to offer you towels, advice, help with equipment, as well as float around picking up weights and towels people have left lying around. From the gym point of view, it’s a good way for the trainer to interact with members and hopefully pick up new clients from their shifts. On one of my early floor shifts, a manager took me aside and pointed out a woman using an elliptical. “Go talk to that woman,” my manager told me. “She just joined the gym today, she hasn’t worked out in over three years and I’ve been watching her, she’s been on that elliptical for an hour.” 

“Okay,” I replied. “You want me to talk to her about training, or just make her feel welcome?” My manager replied, “She clearly has no idea what to do, she’s probably feeling a little lost. Maybe offer her a free stretching session, because she’s going to be ridiculously sore after that much cardio, and see if she wants some tips on trying out strength training.” 

I did approach her and she wanted NO part of talking to me (which I understand, everyone is wary they’re being sold something and being in a gym for the first time in three years has you in a vulnerable position from the get go). But that was a great experience for me being new as a trainer in a gym. I was comfortable in that environment because I knew how to use the equipment and even before I was a trainer I had a good grasp of what to do (and not to do) when it came to weights and strength training. Having that woman pointed out to me made me hyper aware of all the people who are either new to working out in a gym, or have been there for years and never touched the weights, who just don’t know where to even start or how to learn.

So share this with your gym newbie friends, or anyone you know who wants to work out but doesn’t know how to start. And remember, there are so many people who are more than happy to help you navigate the gym if you need it – I promise no one is judging you for lack of knowledge.


How to Navigate the Gym (When You Have NO Idea What You're Doing)

What’s the Difference Between the Kinds of Weights to Lift?

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 barbell 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. 

If you’re wondering about what weight you should be using, the answer is, it’s trial and error when you’re first starting out. Err on the lighter side to be cautious, but ideally if you’re shooting for 10 repetitions, for example, you should be using a weight that makes the 11th repetition nearly impossible. For more information on weights, check out this guide on how many sets and how many reps are right for you.

How to Use the Dumbbells

Dumbbells are a versatile piece of equipment for weight training. For lower-body exercises like squats and lunges you can use them as static weights by either holding them like suitcases; up on your shoulders; or holding them at your chest.

For upper body exercises you can use them in the same way, as a static way to add weight, or you can use them dynamically. 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. Since they’re in pairs, you can also change the intensity or complexity of an exercise by using them to do alternating exercises (like a bench press where you press your left arm, then your right arm), or unilaterally (like when you do your repetitions of a set using one arm only, then switch to the other side). 

How to Use the Kettlebells

Kettlebells are the one type of weight I would suggest getting a trainer’s help with if you’re unfamiliar with them, or are new to strength training in general. There is a certain technique to swinging and cradling a kettlebell and since they’re a dynamic piece of equipment, you may be more prone to injury from using this weight incorrectly than you would be from using something like a dumbbell or another form of free weights.

How to Navigate the Gym (When You Have NO Idea What You're Doing)

How to Use the Barbells

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

One point about using barbells is that it’s often necessary to have someone offer an ‘assist’ – if you attempt a heavy bench press, for example, it’s important to have someone nearby to ‘spot’ you (which just means be at the ready to grab the barbell and guide it back to its holder if you’re unable to make the lift).

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 slowly until 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 Navigate the Gym (When You Have NO Idea What You're Doing)

How to Use the Cables

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 with your upper body.

There are also attachments for the cables that look like belts, with a buckle (or may be more like a velcro strap). These are for looping 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.

(You can also check out this full body workout using the cables I put together.)

How to Navigate the Gym (When You Have NO Idea What You're Doing)

How to Use the Squat Rack

The squat rack – or the squat cage, as it’s sometimes ominously called – may look intimidating, but this piece of equipment is actually a great way to start practicing using barbells for squats and deadlifts, using the rack as an easy way to get the weight off your shoulders if you realize it’s too heavy for you to lift.

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 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!

How to Navigate the Gym (When You Have NO Idea What You're Doing)

What Are Bodyweight Exercises?

Bodyweight 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. People also use bodyweight exercises as part of a circuit (when they’re going from one exercise to the next without rest in between). You can also use bodyweight exercises as a cardio break in between exercises using weights.

(Check out these bodyweight only workouts next time you don’t have access to weights.)

If there’s one thing I’d love you to take away from this post, it’s that the gym is a friendly place. You may feel uncomfortable being in a position where you’re unsure of what you’re doing, but many people would be more than happy to help you. If you need some help, ask someone who works there to take you through the basics. You’ll probably find regulars notice you getting assistance and offer you help as well. Remember – everyone you see in the gym working out was a newbie at some point and remembers how you’re feeling.

What were your first experiences in a gym like? 

What advice or help do you wish you’d had when you first started working out?


  1. OMG this is seriously a complete guide! I feel like everyone should be handed this post upon arrival at the gym – no matter if you’re new or not! I feel like I practically grew up in a gym but I know that at almost every gym I have joined they offer a “free” personal training session (usually 30 minutes) to go over all this stuff. Again, I think that should be mandatory, since we’re dealing with equipment (and some personalities) that can be dangerous 🙂
    Allie recently posted…The Rundown – FatigueMy Profile

    • It always blew me away how few people took advantage of those free sessions! I mean, I guess I get that they didn’t want to be dealing with someone selling them something, but the value in having a trainer for an hour to ask them whatever you want and get hands on advice seems like a worthwhile tradeoff for the soft sales pitch at the end! 😉
      Carly Pizzani recently posted…8 Inspirational Running QuotesMy Profile

  2. Carly,

    Something worth mentioning: chances are most of the people in the gym are far more concerned with themselves and what everyone there thinks about them to even notice whether you know what you’re doing or where you’re going anyway.

    If more people realized this I think gym attendance would be up! And if someone is judging you at the gym becuase you don’t know exactly where everything is….they need to get a life!
    Rick recently posted…Is Rice Fattening?My Profile

    • Yes, that’s such a good point, Rick! I think when someone is very self-conscious they can feel like everyone is as hyper-aware of them as they are of themselves. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! 🙂

  3. This piece was quite educative especially for newbies like myself. It’s actually funny to think that I have always wondered and tried to imagine how the kettle bell is used. The worse part is that I felt silly about asking, thinking it’s somehow used like the dumb-bell! Ha ha ha! But tell me, while working the upper body which is more effective, the dumb-bell or kettle-bell?


  1. […] How To Navigate The Gym When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing – Perfect for those who don’t workout & don’t know where to start. […]

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