How to Use Gym Equipment for Beginner Weight Training

Get Through That First Gym Session

A man lifting weights.
A man lifting weights. HeroImages/Getty Images

Perhaps you decided to lose weight by giving weight training a try even though you don't feel confident about it. Here are some tips to persuade you that it’s no big deal, and anyone can get comfortable with the gym or health club environment within a few visits.

Even so, going to the gym for the first time can be challenging. It can be especially challenging if you’ve never been particularly active or athletically inclined or motivated, and the environment is unfamiliar to you.

First, I would encourage you to read up on the beginner articles on weight training. This will help to clarify basic terminology and fundamental principles even though you won’t remember it all immediately.

Choose a Gym

Select a gym that’s convenient and suits your experience and requirements. First, I recommend a general purpose gym with a range of services. Getting a medical clearance to train from your doctor is always a good idea. Here are some things you'll typically find in an all-purpose fitness gym:

  • Machine equipment – cable and pulley equipment with easily adjustable weights.
  • A weight room or area where you can train with free weights, such as dumbbells and barbells.
  • Aerobic and cardio machines – treadmills, stationary bicycles, steppers and cross trainers.
  • A floor exercise and, or, cycle classroom where you can do aerobic exercise with an instructor.
  • A free session. Ask for a free session and tour of facilities while letting the gym staff know that you are intending to sign up for a membership at a suitable gym.
  • Try not to choose a professional bodybuilding, powerlifting or Olympic lifting gym. Their range of facilities is often not ideal for beginners.

My favorite gym was very spacious with a pool on a separate level. It was not too fancy, yet well designed and equipped, and had plenty of personal space in busy periods, which added to the ambiance.

Your First Weight Training Session Alone

Let’s assume you’ve signed up for a membership and you just walked in the door for your first weight training session under your own guidance. Here’s what I recommend you do in that first-ever session.

  1. Warm up at low to moderate intensity with at least 15 minutes on a treadmill, stationary cycle or cross trainer. Ask a gym attendant to show you the adjustments. You should be breathing lightly and you should be able to chat comfortably -- in other words, moderate exertion.
  2. Add another five minutes of light stretches. Ideally, you will be sweating lightly.
  3. For this session, you won’t work out with "free" weights unless you are already familiar with this equipment. Free weights like dumbbells and barbells are often in a room of their own, but not always. You will see racks of dumbbells and barbells, benches and weight frames and round weight plates in this area. You will tackle this equipment in a future session.
  4. In this first session, you will use up to seven standard weight training equipment stations with adjustable weights that most reasonably equipped gyms will have available. You will do some “crunches,” which can be done with a machine, fitness ball, or a mat.

    Adjustable machine weights are fundamental to the gym weight training experience for beginners. Being able to use the weight machines will also give you confidence in the general gym environment. You can move on to more complex free weight exercises when you get used to the gym, perhaps in only a few sessions. Don’t hesitate to ask an instructor how something works. That’s what they are there for, yet some need prompting.

    Get Confident With the Equipment

    This first session is to build familiarity and comfort with the gym environment. It's best not to overburden your body with extreme exercise and effort.

    • In your first session, after your warm-up, try the machine-based exercises listed below (or choose similar exercises), cool down, stretch, then finish up and spend some time checking out other facilities in the gym, such as the floor exercise room, stretch stations, cycle spin room, pool and so on.
    • Take your time, investigate how each piece of equipment works and feels, ask questions of the trainers, and take a look around in the free weights room to get a feel for the etiquette and fundamental procedures.
    • You need to understand the equipment adjustments for seat height, leg length and how to select heavier or lighter weights. Spend some time learning these mechanisms. It's not difficult.
    • Most gyms will have machine equipment that works essentially the same way for adjustment and weight selection. Occasionally you will come across an equipment station that has a different mechanism. Find out about it by asking an instructor. Adjustment mechanisms are usually pins, levers, and screw type and spring loaded knobs.
    • Treadmills, cycles, and other cardio equipment usually have digital press button menus. Again, make instructors earn their pay by getting them to explain the options to you. Don't let them get away until they do!
    • Once you understand the general setup and movement of a particular machine, choose a weight that is light enough for you to concentrate on the functioning of the equipment rather than the effort of moving a heavy weight. You can adjust the weight upward once you're comfortable with the operation of the equipment.
    • Warm down: Stretch for about 10 minutes, working all major muscle groups. Check out the locker room, showers, sauna and any other provided equipment and facilities before you leave.

    Be Consistent

    I recommend at least two workouts each week starting out. At some stage, you may wish to employ a personal trainer or gym instructor to design a program specifically for you. Or you can just work up some experience on your own with the assistance of these notes. Chances are, gradually you will see results and the weight training experience will be useful and rewarding.