How to get started in the gym – with an easy four-move beginner’s workout

From choosing exercises to how long to work out for, we’ve got the tips you need.

A gym membership can be hugely beneficial to your overall health and wellbeing. Not only can you get fitter, but it can be a great social activity too. Many different types of membership exist, some for classes only, some for swimming, and some include being able to use the gym.  

Joining a gym can be a path to increasing or preserving muscle mass – something that can decline as we age. Gyms offer a range of machines, free weights and cardio options, meaning you never need to get bored by the same workout. The opportunities are endless, but if you’re not sure what to do when you first join a gym, it can be overwhelming. We’ve got all the advice and expert tips you need to get started.

Woman using a lat pulldown machine in the gymCredit: Shutterstock / YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV

Book an induction

When you first sign up for gym membership, you’ll be offered a gym induction. This is so staff can explain how the equipment works. This is a great opportunity for you to ask questions. As a former gym manager, I can tell you we love it when people do!  

Gym staff are there because they have a passion for exercise, and it makes them very happy to introduce that to others. Think about what you want to know. Do you have a certain goal in mind? Do you need to work on something specific, like toning your arms or improving balance? Staff will be able to advise which machines are best, an ideal rep range, how to use free weights and so much more.  

The gym will have a range of cardio and strength equipment. You might sign up just so you can use a treadmill three times a week, but with all that equipment on offer it’s a great opportunity to add strength training into your routine too. Tackling both sides of the exercise coin will ensure all bases are covered: not only will you be fitter and healthier, but you’ll become stronger too, protecting against many diseases and health conditions.

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What strength machines should you use?

Every gym varies, but these are some of the strength-training machines or equipment you can expect to find:  

  • Leg press 
  • Leg extension 
  • Hamstring curl 
  • Squat racks with barbells and plates 
  • Dumbbells 
  • Lat pulldown 
  • Chest press 
  • Shoulder press 
  • Seated row 

James Staring, founder and lead fitness coach at Fit to Last, recommends using strength-building machines that offer the best bang for your buck: “When choosing machines for a strength workout, try to focus on machines that use as many joints as possible. For example, instead of using a machine that will help you work on your arms, find a machine that presses over your head or uses a rowing motion.” 

Using a shoulder press machine or a seated row (both pictured) will not only work your arms but will also bring in the muscles in the back and shoulders too. Your core muscles (the muscles in the stomach and lower back) will also have to work to hold you steady while performing the exercise. So, not only are you working multiple muscle groups at once, but you’re also teaching those muscles how to work in synergy with one another, improving posture and movement – one of the many benefits of strength training.  

Woman using leg press machine in the gymCredit: Shutterstock / wavebreakmedia

How many repetitions or rounds?

A gym workout can be divided up into exercises, repetitions (or “reps”, basically the number of times you perform each complete movement), and rounds (how many times you do a sequence of repetitions). All need to be considered when planning what to do.  

Time is a factor – how much or how little do you have? Most of us don’t want to spend hours in the gym, but the good news is that just 20-30 minutes of strength training two or three times a week can help protect against osteoporosis, while increasing longevity, reducing pain, keeping you a healthy weight, enhancing mental wellbeing and so much more.  

You might like to pick a specific body part to target on a certain day – such as legs on Monday, arms on a Wednesday, and so on. Or you might prefer a full-body approach. This is often a good idea if you’re just getting started in the gym: you’re less likely to get an injury if you’re not exhausting one body part in a session.  

“As we age, we start to lose muscle mass, which can result in poor balance and increased risk of falling,” Staring says. “By lifting heavier weights, we help to maintain muscle tissue. This in turns helps us support out bodies, helping us to stay stable, flexible and strong.”  

Pick six to eight exercises if your workout consists solely of strength training. But if you’re doing cardio exercise within the same workout, drop down to between four and six. Staring recommends two or three rounds of between five and eight repetitions each. The exact number will depend on the type of exercise and the amount of weight being lifted.  

“The key to the rep range is to choose a weight where you can complete the prescribed repetitions, and not much more,” he says. “If you complete five repetitions with a weight where you could’ve completed 15, the weight is too light. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself – it will really help you get the most out of your workout.”  

What cardio machines are best?

Some gyms offer a vast range of cardio machines, others have fewer options. Most gyms will have a range of the following:  

  • Treadmills 
  • Cross trainers (also known as elliptical trainers) 
  • Exercise bikes 
  • Rowing machines 
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Man on treadmillCredit: Shutterstock / LightField Studios

When it comes to cardio exercise, the best way to approach it is to do what you like best. Cardio is primarily to work out heart and lungs, and then to burn fat. So, if you know you love to run, try the treadmill. If that bores you, opt for something different. And if you’re not sure? Try them all!  

If you’re brand new to gym life, Staring has some tips that might help you when it comes to cardio exercise: “Try to get a machine that uses as much of your body as possible while also avoiding too much impact on your joints,” he says.  

“The rowing machine is the gold standard for this. It’s a fantastic device for helping you improve cardio-vascular fitness and full-body strength and endurance. Just make sure you ask someone to show you how to row correctly so you can get the most out of it.” 

A full-body workout to help you get started in the gym

“Focus on exercises that use as much of your body as possible,” Staring advises. “By keeping this in mind, you’ll get more out of your workouts, you’ll feel better, and you’ll move better.” 

Here’s an example of a full-body workout… 

Warm up (always warm up before starting)

Five minutes on the rowing machine at a pace where you feel slightly breathless by the end. 

Main set

Circuit 1: Complete one set of each exercise, then rest for 30-60 seconds, then repeat. Rest for 60 seconds after completing each round of both exercises. 

  • Leg Press – two sets of eight repetitions
  • Chest Press – two sets of eight repetitions

Circuit 2: Complete one set of each exercise, then rest for 30-60 seconds, then repeat. Rest for 60 seconds after completing each round of both exercises. 

  • Shoulder Press – two sets of eight repetitions
  • Seated Row – two sets of eight repetitions  

Cool down

Walk for three to five minutes on treadmill to allow your heart rate to decrease slowly. 

Still have questions?

Drop me a line! As a personal trainer and fitness instructor who specialises in exercise for over-fifties, helping people discover the joy of fitness is my greatest passion. If you’re feeling unsure or would like a few more pointers, get in touch by clicking the envelope icon in my profile below, and I’ll do my best to help.

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Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her

Updated:

Becky Fuller is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain. Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

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