How to Navigate Your New Gym

Joining a gym can be a great first step toward a healthier life. By now you've probably taken a tour of your new club and you've seen hundreds of machines and contraptions, all designed to whip you into shape. You've seen a calendar of so many fitness classes, it would take you months to try all of them.

You've paid your money, gotten your I.D., and now you're ready. You might be excited, but it can be a challenge to know how to get started at a new gym.

Schedule an Orientation

The first time you walk into your new gym to actually work out, you may feel confused and conspicuous. You probably don't remember how any of these machines work and, worse, you have no idea where to start.

Your first step should be to get a new member orientation. You might be tempted to skip it, but don't—you can learn some valuable information, even if you're a veteran exerciser. In this appointment, a personal trainer or other expert will give you a tour of the club and explain the basics of how things work.

The orientation session may include:

These sessions aren't personal training sessions, so you won't necessarily get a full workout created for you. But this is a great way to learn the basics of how things work. Often, new members skip the orientation because they already know what they're doing or because they want to avoid a sales pitch for personal training.

An orientation will show you where things are and how to adjust the machines and it will also give you a familiar face at the gym. It's nice to have someone you can go to for help if you need it.

After the orientation, start out on the right foot with this overview of the different areas of your gym, from cardio to strength training, so you can figure out where to start.

The Cardio Section

Getty Images/Spaces Images

Most gyms are divided into different areas with cardio on one side and strength training on the other. The cardio section may look like an endless sea of giant machines that whir and rattle and move in strange ways.

Most machines have instructions printed on the console that tell you how to get started. But to help you even more, review this breakdown of the most common cardio machines.


This is one of the most popular machines in the gym because it mimics activities most of us are familiar with—walking and running. Many newbies like to start with the treadmill because it's easy to use and it's familiar. You can walk or run and you can adjust speed and incline for variety.

Elliptical Trainer

The elliptical trainer offers a no-impact workout. It works almost like a bike, only you pedal while standing up. Some ellipticals have ramps that go up and down, while others have arm handles. You can also add intensity by adjusting the resistance.

Stair Stepper

The stair stepper is tougher than the others, requiring more conditioning for the legs and heart, so it may not be best for beginners. With this machine, you stand on the pedals and push up and down while holding onto the handles.

Stationary Bike

The stationary bike is another great option for beginners and probably one of the simpler activities available. Most gyms will offer a recumbent version, which has more back support, and an upright version, which may be more intense.

Try the machine that you feel most comfortable with and allow time to learn how to use it properly.

Strength Training Machines

strength training Machines at the gym
Getty Images/Trinette Reed

Most gyms organize their strength training equipment to help you navigate a little easier. You might find machines categorized by muscle group; Chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, abs, and lower body.

You'll probably notice that there are a variety of machines for each muscle group: a regular chest press machine, an incline chest press, a pec deck. All work the chest, but how do you pick which one to use?

Your best bet is to choose one exercise or machine per muscle group. When you go through your orientation, the trainer will most likely show you the machines you can start with for a basic workout.

An example of a beginner workout on machines might be:

Machines provide support while you learn how to perform exercises with good form. They also work on a fixed path and don't require as much coordination as free weights. Once you get stronger and more confident, add more free weights to the mix to work on other areas of the body.

The Free Weight Section

Dumbbell. Getty Images/Tuomas Marttila

If the strength training machines look confusing, giant racks of dumbbells, barbells, plates and more may look even more daunting. The free weight section will usually be close to the machines and may find a have:

  • Bench press stations
  • Dumbbells
  • Flat and incline benches
  • Fixed-weight barbells
  • Olympic-sized bars
  • Plate loaded barbells
  • Weight racks

You can also include the cable or free-motion machines in the free weight section of the gym simply because cables don't work on a fixed path and are more like free weight exercises since you have to use your own body for balance and support.

If you're not familiar with dumbbell or free weight exercises, you might want to hire a trainer to get individualized help.

Mat Area

Most clubs will set aside a mat area for you to stretch and/or work your abs. You might see mats, exercise balls, BOSU balance trainers, resistance bands, inflatable disks, balance boards, and foam rollers.

You don't have to know how to use all those things. But you do want to make sure you stretch after your workouts to keep your muscles supple and flexible. You don't need anything other than a mat for these stretching sequences:

Group Fitness

People abs on BOSU
Getty Images/Eliza Snow

Most clubs will have at least one studio for group fitness classes and, often, this studio will have glass doors and windows so that everyone can see in. That alone is enough to scare some people away, but don't run off just yet.

If you scroll through the classes your gym offers, you may find something you've always wanted to try—and now is your chance. Classes may include:

Your club might also have specialty classes (core workouts, BOSU Balance Trainer classes, boot camp) and they may even have weight loss programs that you can sign up for with a separate fee. If your club has a pool, they might offer water aerobics as well.

If you are shy or nervous about taking a class, these tips may help ease your nerves:

  • Get a friend to try the class with you.
  • Get there early and spend a few minutes on a cardio machine to calm your nerves.
  • Make friends with someone in the class. Approach someone who looks friendly and ask if they have taken the class before. If they have, admit you're new and ask for details. Many times, that person will take you under their wing and walk you through the basics.
  • Remind yourself you can always leave if you don't like the class or it's a disaster.
  • Talk to the instructor. Get to class early and introduce yourself to the instructor. They will know exactly how to make you feel more comfortable.
  • Watch the class from a distance to get a feel for it.

Don't be afraid to try something new. Just make sure you read the class descriptions and choose workouts that fit your fitness level and goals.

9 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."