Karen Principato is a long-time runner and self-professed cardio addict. When the 55-year-old Claremont, Ontario, resident first joined a gym, she stayed within her comfort zone and only attended cardio-based classes. “I avoided Pilates and yoga at all costs. I thought they’d be too lame and boring,” she says.
One day, Principato got her gym schedule mixed up; she arrived just in time for a Pilates class, not the rowing class she had expected. Rather than turn around and go home, she decided to stay.
Pilates worked Principato’s body in a different way than she was used to. “It was tough!” she says. “As a newbie, I didn’t see any shortcuts available to me and that was beneficial.”
While she still loves cardio best, Principato now incorporates strength training, yoga and Pilates into her gym routine. Not only has broadening her approach improved her overall fitness and endurance (not to mention letting her run faster), but it has honed her mental focus, too. “If it hadn’t been for my schedule mix-up, I’d still be going to cardio-only classes and missing out on a whole other side of the fitness equation,” Principato says.
There’s no denying that exercise is good for your physical and mental health: It keeps your cardiovascular system up to snuff, reduces stress and helps you sleep better. Whether you want to lose weight, build strength or just keep moving well as you age, joining a gym is one way to make fitness a part of your life.
However, like Principato focusing too much on cardio, many of us are guilty of making mistakes when we first sign up for a gym membership. It can be a confusing and intimidating environment, especially if you are new to working out. What are all those crazy-looking training tools littering the weight-room floor? Do you need to switch up your workout? What exactly should you do?
To help you make the most of your workout time, we talked to experts and got the scoop on mistakes people often make when they first join a gym—and what you should do instead.
You don’t have a plan
Walking into the gym without a plan is like heading to the grocery store without a shopping list: You end up wandering around aimlessly, not quite sure what you need and what to do. Or maybe you pick a random workout posted to YouTube or Instagram beforehand.
“You can’t just show up at the gym and wing it,” says Ashley Borden, celebrity trainer and star of Revenge Body with Khloe Kardashian, especially if you have a specific goal in mind like weight loss or a change in physique. Writing down and following a plan can help keep your gym time efficient, too.
If you’re not sure where to start, don’t fret. An experienced certified personal trainer can help put together a program tailored for you, your current level of fitness and your goals. Contact your gym and talk to a few trainers. “You want to make sure you’re comfortable with them and that their approach lines up with your goals,” says Kindal Boyle, NASM-certified personal trainer and creator of Fit Women’s Weekly (fitwomensweekly.net). And remember, it takes time to see changes, so stick with a program for six to eight weeks.
You follow a tired-and-true routine
There’s no denying that we’re all creatures of habit. Once you find a fitness regimen that you like, it’s tempting to stay right there.
“You end up doing what you know, what you feel ‘safe’ doing,” says Borden. But when you repeat the same cardio or strength training circuit over and over, your body starts to adapt. The result? You hit a plateau, halting your progress. Plus, you put yourself at risk for overuse injuries.
“When you move out of your comfort zone, you see results,” Borden notes. By trying something new, you’ll keep both your body and mind engaged, and your gym time won’t feel boring.
So change up your routine every six to eight weeks. The gym is full of different equipment; try the rowing machine for a great aerobic session
or swap your dumbbells for kettlebells or a medicine ball to challenge your muscles. If you’re not sure how to use a piece of equipment, ask a staff member.
You’re a cardio junkie
You like a good sweat. (We do too.) And when you want to slim down, you probably hop on the treadmill, elliptical machine or bike. While aerobic exercise is one way to rev your metabolism, running or spinning your legs isn’t the only way to burn calories. Plus, spending all your gym time on aerobic activity likely leaves less time in your schedule for strength training—which means you may be missing out on some of exercise’s biggest benefits.
Strength training, everything from lifting weights to bodyweight exercises, should be a key part of everyone’s fitness routine, according to Boyle. Resistance training builds muscle and bone strength, which is especially important as you get older and start to lose muscle and bone mass. “You’re not only building strength and muscle mass but your increasing your metabolic power,” Boyle says.
While both cardio and strength training burns calories while you’re at the gym, your internal engine keeps humming longer after a strength training session, thanks to the so-called afterburn effect. “You’re going to get more bang for your buck,” says Boyle. “You’ll burn more calories up to 48 hours after you finish your workout.”
So don’t skip the weight room. Pencil in resistance training two to three times a week.
You don’t warm up
You have a limited amount of time so you want to get right to the main event. Who has time to warm up?
You do, if you want to avoid hurting yourself. “Warming up is very important,” says Boyle. She explains that when you jump right into a workout, whether it’s cardio or strength training, your body may not be ready to take on the work. Not only will it feel like a struggle, you may increase your risk of injury, too.
Before you start, take a few minutes to warm up. Start with a foam roller to increase blood flow and range of motion; focus on the major muscle groups like your quads, glutes and lats. “Do a couple of exercises that mimic the movements you’re going to do,” says Boyle. If you have squats on the schedule, do a few bodyweight versions first. “It only takes a good five to ten minutes,” Boyle notes.
You overestimate your calorie burn
If the elliptical machine says that you burned 300 calories, you burned 300 calories, right?
“A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that the calorie burn on the cardio machine is accurate. Unless it asks you to enter your height, weight and age, or you connect your heart rate monitor to the machine, it’s not accurate,” says Borden.
A better way to evaluate your workout: Pay attention to your effort level. Score your effort on a scale of 0 to 10 based on your rate of perceived exertion, or RPE. (It goes from feeling nothing at all to maximum exertion; see the box at the bottom of this page.) If you want a more accurate calorie count, invest in a heart rate monitor, which you can connect to most cardio machines at the gym.
Watching TV or reading a book can help pass the time while you exercise. Or, maybe you use your gym time to catch up on email, write your to-do list or scroll through Instagram.
While it may be tempting to multi-task at the gym, you don’t want to shortchange yourself.
When you’re focused on things other than your workout, your brain and body may be on autopilot and you may be going through the motions. As a result, you may not be getting all the benefits of your exercise session and it may keep you from reaching your goals. “How hard are you really working out?” asks Boyle.
Instead, put away your phone and save the emails for when you’re back at your desk. “Give yourself a set amount of time to work out, and be at the gym with a purpose,” advises Borden.
You only use a small part of your gym’s facilities
You pay your monthly gym fee, but are you making the most of your membership?
“Investigate your gym,” says Borden. “Check out the class schedule. If they have yoga and you’ve never tried it before, try it. See what does and doesn’t work for you.”
In addition, some gyms have pools, saunas and steam rooms. These are all great ways to recover after a workout.