It can be intimidating heading into the gym as a beginner, as you may not know what exercises to do, how hard to train, or how to maximize your workouts.
To make the best of your efforts in the gym, make sure you go into each session with a plan. When you get to the gym, turn your phone to silent to avoid distractions and focus on the intensity of your exercises. When you leave the gym, focus on your diet, sleep, and recovery because these are also critical components of reaching your fitness goals.
As a coach and trainer who has helped hundreds of beginners start their journey, I have been able to observe and help navigate many of the common issues beginners face when starting out.
Ready to reach your fitness goals? On average, a new Fitbod user who trains 3 times a week for about 45 minutes will see a 34% strength increase after 3 months.
Best Gym Tips for Beginners
1. Ease Into the First Few Weeks of Training
I find beginners are ready to crush themselves in their very first workout. In other words, go too hard, which is not advised.
I recommend that lifters ease into their workouts by stopping just shy of all-out failure on all exercises, at least for the first two weeks.
This doesn’t mean you are not training hard, it means that you’re giving your body the chance to adjust to the extra stimulus.
The reality is as a beginner you are literally starting from nothing.
You can do very basic exercises, with moderate to hard effort, and get good results.
While those beginner gains will last only a few months, it is important not to go too aggressive as it won’t help you get anywhere faster.
In fact, it may derail you right out of the gates due to injury, excessive soreness, and the inability to work out multiple times a week because you are too “beat up”.
2. Focus on Completing At Least 12 Workouts in the First 30 Days
I give all my new clients a goal of working out 12 times in their first month.
If they can master carving out time to get 12 workouts in (on average 3 per week) over a 30-day period, they will have made the necessary behavior changes to stick with going to the gym long-term.
Getting started as a beginner can be tough, as you need to create a new lifestyle routine to accommodate you going to the gym, working out, and then coming home.
If you also have to do that before or after work, you will need to pack a bag and some meals.
Like any habit, working out is all about repetition and making consistent practice.
12 workouts in 30 days not only provide the muscles with enough stimulus to get stronger, but it gives you the opportunity to create a whole new system on how to allocate your time.
3. Choose 5-6 Total Exercises to Do Each Day
I suggest that every beginner finds a program that has them doing no more than 6 exercises on a single day.
Ideally, you would be choosing 2-4 compound exercises, and another 2-3 isolation-type movements to build out a good workout program.
As a beginner, it can be tempting to do every exercise you see on social media on a single day. You are constantly bombarded by “new cutting-edge workouts and exercises”.
If you train more than 3 days a week, you would simply just add more workouts during the week, but still, keep the same number of exercises per workout.
Check out these workout ideas:
4. Keep Workouts Under 1 Hour
I recommend beginners get efficient with their workouts, i.e. do a lot of work in a short amount of time. The idea is to push yourself hard to get a full workout done in an hour.
Beginners often struggle with two things.
- The first is being consistent in the gym, often saying they don’t have enough time to get three or more workouts in during the week.
- The second is when they are at the gym, they often have less than optimal workouts because they are too busy getting distracted.
Both of these can be solved by having a clear workout program that is designed for beginners and can be done in under an hour. This will keep you focused and feeling like you’re accomplishing a lot by the end of the workout.
Once you get three workouts a week at an hour each, and you are doing all your exercises every workout with efficiency, look to add another workout in the week to take your results to the next level.
5. Put Your Phone on DO NOT DISTURB Mode
I suggest you turn your phone to not disturb mode, and switch over to airplane mode so you cannot access social media or emails.
The phone is a huge distraction in the gym. Most lifters will rely on their phone for everything: looking at their workout program, texting people during workouts, surfing social media, and answering emails (or even taking calls).
I understand some lifters have their workouts on a mobile app (like Fitbod), which is great, but do NOT use that as an excuse to do other things on your phone.
6. Stay Off Social Media
Stay off social media! We live in a time where everyone is connected on social media, and the gym is no different. Too often I see people (not just beginners) on Instagram, Tik Tok, and Facebook mindlessly scrolling between sets.
This is one of the fastest ways to lose precious minutes in your workout, and not lose focus. I tell my clients that if they have enough time to do mindless things between sets, they have rested long enough.
You should be working hard enough to warrant your rest period, which typically consists of you sitting down, catching your breath, shaking your muscles, and mentally recovering for your next set.
Any more than that, and you are just waiting time.
7. Time Your Rest Periods
I often find beginners either rest no time at all or rest an eternity between sets. Both are wrong. The reality is, most beginners can get by resting 90 seconds between sets.
This allows you to recover from a tough set, but also keep the stimulus on the muscle enough between sets to have a compounding fatigue effect (basically, over the course of the workout you want the muscles to tire out).
While more advanced lifters may need longer than 2 minutes, most beginners are not strong enough relative to their body mass and abilities to warrant a very long rest period like you would see in elite-level powerlifters.
8. Review Your Workouts BEFORE Walking Into the Gym
Taking the time to review your workout before you head into the gym is something many lifters do not give enough attention to.
I recommend that at the very least you look long enough at your workouts to know most of the movements you need to do in those sessions off the top of your head.
By having a clear understanding of the movements and goal of that day (for example you have leg day today), you are able to move more quickly within the gym and can visualize yourself attacking the movements beforehand.
Lastly, if you are unsure how to do something in your program, you should review your exercises BEFORE you go into the gym, as this again will cut down the time you are spending on your phone.
Fitbod has videos that you can review of each of your lifts so you know what the technique is supposed to be prior to stepping foot into the gym.
9. Record Your Workout Performance Every Session
Recording your performance is very helpful as it allows you to adjust your weights or add reps or sets to further workouts to push progress.
You can also look back on your workout notes and soreness levels to see how to adjust the following week if needed.
What is not recorded, is not only lost but is not able to be used to guide your decisions on how to progress your next workout.
Fitness apps like Fitbod make this extremely simple to do, and even have the ability to do the thinking for you and progress your workouts every week based on the performance of past workouts.
10. Keep a Journal to Review Your Workout and Next Day Soreness Levels
Beginners should write down any notes they had on the sessions, such as anything that they found challenging, a cue that helped them dial in the movement, and a rating of how sore they were after the workout.
Most workout apps do a great job of having you record your sets, reps, and weight, however, I recommend beginners (and all lifters) take things a step further by recording a brief summary of their workout.
All of that info is helpful to look back on the following week to try to repeat “the good” from a prior workout and to fix “the bad”.
I really enjoy looking back on my notes from prior weeks on how well I was able to feel the muscle during a certain movement, and often find it helpful to remember my soreness levels to help dictate how hard I can push in the next workout.
11. Take a Before Picture
One of the most common regrets beginners have after training for a few months is that they don’t have a good “beginning” picture to look back on.
Most of my clients are not overly excited to document their beginner physiques, lack of muscle tone, and excess body fat stores.
However, looking back on the picture throughout your process is a great way to stay motivated, but also to see how far you have come.
Every day when you look at yourself in the mirror, you might not notice significant changes because it’s hard to see small changes over time.
That’s where a picture from a specific date can be extremely valuable.
12. Workout Sometimes WITHOUT Music
This is one that some people may scoff at, but I have come to love working out without music for a few key reasons.
The first is that I find so many lifters (of all levels) become externally dependent on what song is on their playlist or get bent out of shape when the music playlist isn’t good.
Relying on music to motivate you 100% of the time is a huge handcuff to your overall success.
Learn to drive yourself, and learn to do it from the onset.
The second reason is that people tend to space out on rest periods when listening to music.
By not focusing on your next set or your rest interval, people tend to just drift mentally, only to then lose workout efficiency.
13. Eat Enough Protein to Fuel Recovery and Muscle Growth
When looking to build muscle and recover fastener, protein is essential.
I recommend that beginners aim to consume .8g of protein per pound of body weight, per day.
Once you are consistently hitting the minimum, you could bump that up to 1g per pound per day.
Why? Protein is a building block of all tissue in the body, and it is also a key nutrient necessary for hormonal production.
Focus on sources like lean meats (chicken, lean beef, pork), eggs, fish, and greek yogurt. Depending on your diet, you may need to supplement with protein to increase your overall intake.
- Related Article: The Powerlifting Diet: Eating for Strength
14. Use Protein Powder to Increase Protein Intake
If you are someone who is able to get enough protein without protein powder, then you don’t need to supplement with it.
But, in my experience as a coach and trainer for almost 20 years, I find that almost every single beginner consumes half of the recommended protein needed to build muscle.
Protein powder is a supplement that is used to increase your overall protein intake.
Protein powder is simply protein (from various sources, which you can choose based on performance) that has been concentrated into a powder form, making it a fast and easy way to mix into a liquid and drink.
I suggest you go with whey protein (unless you cannot have lactose), as it is inexpensive and easy to find. Here’s a list of the cheapest protein powders that are still high quality.
Most protein powders should deliver 20-30g of protein per serving, and be under 200 calories. If your protein powder doesn’t hit those two criteria, then I would not recommend you choose that one.
15. Try Creatine to Help Increase Strength
I recommend that all lifters supplement with creatine throughout the year.
Creatine has repeatedly been shown to be a safe and extremely effective supplement to help all-level lifters build muscle and increase strength.
Aim to consume 5g of creatine per day in the form of creatine monohydrate.
Any other form claiming to be more potent, more beneficial, or cutting edge is just trying to take your money.
You should be able to get creatine monohydrate from any health food store, just be sure the ingredient list says creatine monohydrate, and nothing else.
- Related Article: The 30 Best Food to Get More Creatine Without Needing Supplements
16. 200-300mg of Caffeine Can Help Boost Energy to Crush Workouts
Caffeine can be a very potent supplement for all-level lifters to take before workouts. It increases mental focus and energy levels.
While it is not essential to supplement with caffeine, you may find it helpful from time to time to have a cup of coffee or a pre-workout (just be sure it is not pumped with sugar) on days you need an extra jolt.
One caveat to this is when beginners get overly dependent on a pre-workout.
You should be able to have great workouts without caffeine. If you cannot, then you are becoming overly dependent on caffeine, and may in fact be using it to mask poor sleep, nutrition, and recovery.
Remember, caffeine is addictive, and the more you take to get a benefit, the more you will need to take it in the future to get the same benefit.
This is why it is important to not use it every single session otherwise your receptors will downregulate and you will be left to rely on caffeine for every workout thereafter (or until you break your habit and your body upregulates its receptors).
How To Measure Progress and Understand If Your Workouts Are Working
Measuring progress as a beginner can be done by both observing your performance in the gym, as well as tracking your objective results on the scale or tape measure.
When starting out, I often set these three goals for my clients, which can easily be measured and progressed every month.
1. Increase Your Workout Performance
I first recommended that all beginners commit to workout out at least 2-3 days a week and that they complete all workouts (100% completion) within the first 30 days.
I then focus on their performance within the workout, looking for weekly increases in reps performed (with the same weight as last week) or adding more sets in the following weeks than prior ones.
Lastly, I will look at how much loading they are increasing as well week to week.
2. Track Your Weight, Body Measurements, and Before/After Photos
I recommended that you track weight, body measurements, and take photos.
Taking just your weight on the scale only looks at one variable, and can often not help you determine if the weight you gained or lost is coming from fat vs muscle.
Taking body measurements (you can measure various circumferences of your body) helps you see what areas got bigger and smaller, which can help you determine where the weight gain or loss occurred.
For example, lets say you gained 5lbs but your waist and hips circumference went down, this could suggest you gained size in your legs and arms instead of your midsection.
Not having both doesn’t allow you to see the whole picture.
Lastly, photos are a great way to visually compare and contrast your before and after journey, and can be used in combination with the data you get from the scale and measurements to provide you with a great view of your results.
3. BodyPods and DEXA Scans
These two devices, BodyPods and DEXA scans, are great ways to accurately measure your body fat, lean muscle mass, and how it can change over the course of 6-8 weeks of training.
Unlike weight scales or scales that estimate your body fat (which are highly inaccurate), the BodPod and DEXA scan are two of the most accurate ways to measure lean body mass and fat.
You can compare your results pre and post to not only determine your weight loss/gain but be able to see exactly how much of the weight you gain/lost came from fat vs muscle.
What To Do If You’re Struggling at the Gym
Below are a few common issues beginners struggle with at the gym.
This is more of a tough love talk for beginners.
The only difference between beginners and more experienced lifters is that experienced lifters have learned the below solutions.
They still have days they aren’t motivated, they still have issues getting workouts in, and they certainly work out sore…they just choose to keep going.
If You’re Struggling With Motivation…
One of the biggest ways to combat a lack of motivation is to learn to not rely on it.
Most beginners assume they need to feel motivated to work out, looking at more advanced lifters, and assume they always feel motivated to train hard to reach their goals.
The reality is people need discipline, which is developed over time, usually by doing things you know you should do (like working out) even when you are not motivated.
Short-term solutions that can help are reviewing your goals, watching YouTube videos, or looking at images that motivate you to become stronger, more healthy, and fitter.
I personally find one of the most powerful ways to get motivated is to think about the example I am setting for a younger me, or my children, or others who I love that look up to me.
Motivation is fleeting, you need to develop the discipline to have success.
If You’re Struggling To Find Time To Work Out…
Unless you work 18 hours a day and sleep the other 6, the reality is that you have some time to work out, you are just not prioritizing your time.
Understand that everyone has 24 hours in the day, and there are always people out there who find ways to combat the same issues and time constraints you face, if not more.
This is not to play a comparison game, but rather simply pointing out the fact they are prioritizing their workouts more than you are.
As a beginner, you don’t need to work out for 1.5 hours a day. In fact, you can get great results lifting 45-60 minutes, three times a week.
If Your Workouts Make You Sore and Tired…
Soreness is often a byproduct of a good muscle-building workout. If you are not light to moderately sore after a workout, you may not be delivering enough stimulus as you could to get results.
Soreness, however, has an upper limit, meaning that if you are debilitatingly sore and cannot train those muscle groups 2-4 days later with intensity, then you may be doing too much in one day.
If you do not have any soreness, try adding another work set or push harder within the rep range you are training (add more weight, slow the rep down, increase the range of motion).
If You Don’t Know What You Are Doing…
This is one of the most common feelings people have when going to the gym as a beginner, however with technology, you can bridge this gap very easily.
Apps like Fitbod take the guesswork out of program design, and once you start logging your sessions the app will take over and tell you what to do every session.
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Should a Beginner Do at the Gym?
For beginners at the gym, it is recommended to go at least twice a week to train most muscle groups twice per week. During the workout, they should perform 5-6 compound and isolation exercises with hard effort, in the rep ranges of 5-10, 10-15, or 15-25, targeting all muscle groups throughout the week. Proper form and technique, hydration, and rest between sets are also important to avoid injury.
What Should a Beginner Do on the First Day at the Gym?
On the first day at the gym, a beginner should start with a simple and well-rounded workout that includes basic exercises targeting major muscle groups, such as squats, lunges, push-ups, and rows, while using light weights or body weight, and focusing on proper form and technique.
How Many Hours Should a Beginner Spend at the Gym?
A beginner at the gym should aim to complete their workout within an hour. If the workout takes longer, it may be due to resting too long or having too many exercises in the program for one day. It’s not recommended to only work out 1-2 times a week, as this can lead to ineffective results and poor-quality workouts, as beginners will try to do a lot of work in a single day.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.