A beginner's guide to your first gym workout

When making gym resolutions you can stick to, those early sessions are key. Here’s how to have the most fun, so you keep going back.

We’re going to level with you – January is the worst time to join a gym. They’re busy, you’re broke, and despite your best intentions, motivation tends to be at an all-time low. But wait, come back! Because while that might seem demoralising, it’s actually a good thing. It means you can focus on doing the one thing that will ensure you’re still using your membership when all the other January joiners have gone back to the sofa – having fun.

They don’t tell you this when you sign up, but the gym can be – no, should be – a pleasurable place to spend time. People obsess about performance, about results, about lifting more and running faster, and forget that movement is joyful. And in the end, the only thing that’s going to keep you exercising is actually enjoying exercise. You can worry about whether you’re doing the right thing once you’ve found a thing you love.

Here’s secret number two – no one cares what you’re up to in there. One of the biggest hurdles to starting a new exercise programme is worrying that everyone else in the gym – with their toned muscles and the expert way they handle a barbell – is silently judging you. We promise you that they’re not. Everyone’s been the newbie who doesn’t know how to get the pin back in the cable machine. They all know how it feels and trust us, they sympathize.

They’re also all too wrapped up in their private struggles to worry what you’re up to. Those grunts you hear emanating from the free weights area aren’t designed to intimidate you; they’re a sign that whoever’s making them is so focused on the load in their hand that they don’t even know you exist.

So long as you’re not obnoxious – by which we mean: respect other people’s space; don’t hog the kit; and please, please wipe away your sweat when you get off the exercise bikes – you’re essentially invisible. So you’re free to explore. On your first day in the gym, test out a bunch of different pieces of kit and see what you enjoy the most. Don’t worry too much about technique, don’t obsess about the numbers on the readouts, just run or lift or box or cycle for a few minutes, then go and try something else. You’ll quickly figure out what you enjoy, and what feels like homework.

If you don’t know how something works, ask. As long as someone’s not in the middle of a rep or can barely breathe through exertion, they’ll be happy to show you what to do. Like we said, they were you a few weeks, months or years ago. They’ll know how you feel and be happy to give you a hand.

Finally, on those first few visits, be sure to quit before you absolutely have to. There is no perfect workout, nor is there a perfect amount of time you should spend in the gym. Just remember that doing anything – even just five minutes – is better than doing nothing. One of the biggest barriers is making your sessions too hard. While you’re still figuring things out, leave while you’re still having fun and you’ll look forward to getting back in there the next time.

Your first weights workout

If you’re still a bit wary of just diving in and trying things out, then it always helps to have a bit of a plan in your back pocket (or tucked into your leggings). The below super-simple workout from Huel’s expert PT, Chris, is built around the exercises that are most important for building total-body strength, but tweaked so you can ease yourself into them without risking injury.

There’s no reps (how many times you perform each move before taking a break) or sets (how many groups of reps you do). Just stick to what feels comfortable. If you absolutely have to have guidance, then three sets of 8-10 reps is a good place to start. Give yourself at least 60 seconds between sets, although there’s nothing wrong with extending that as needed.

The last piece of advice: don’t be a hero. Lifting lighter weights properly is always better than lifting heavy weights badly, and not just because you’re less likely to hurt yourself. You shouldn’t obsess over form right now but in the long run, technique matters. If you get into bad habits from day one then they’ll be harder to unpick once exercise has become a habit.

Work through the moves below in any order. You can do it either as a single session or just choose a few and bolt them together. Like we said, don’t worry too much about things like which muscles to work out on which day, or what the most efficient pairings are. The key thing is to enjoy yourself, sweat a bit, and be excited to come back and do it again.

Pull-downs

Do it instead of: Pull-ups

There is no purer test of upper-body strength than the pull-up – hoisting your bodyweight above a bar from a dead hang. It works your arms, shoulders, back and ab muscles, and demands incredible power and technique. It’s also really hard. So instead, start with pull-downs. You’ll work the same muscles, but you can adjust the weight to make things a lot easier.

How to do pull-downs

Sit at a pull-down machine – that’s the cable with a long bar hanging above the seat – and grab the bar with your palms facing away from you, hands more than shoulder-width apart. Squeeze your abs and shoulders as you pull the bar down in front of you, to your chest. Try to keep your body upright and feel your lats – the big muscles in your back, just below your armpits – doing the work. Hold for a second at the bottom, then slowly release the weight over a couple of seconds.

Raised press-ups

Do it instead of: Press-ups

The old PE teacher favourite, press-ups are harder than they look. You can do them on your knees, but you’ll learn better form if you just change the angle. “It reduces the amount of bodyweight you’re using, which makes them easier,” says Chris. The higher your hands, the lighter the load. As you get stronger, you can get closer to the ground.

How to do raised press-ups

Find a raised surface. It can be anything from a bench to a table, but it needs to be sturdy. Grab hold of it with both hands, palms down in line with your chest, about shoulder-width apart. Your weight should be on your toes and your body should form a straight line from your shoulders to your heels. Breathe out as you slowly lower your chest towards your hands, keeping your abs braced. Pause for a moment, then exhale as you drive yourself back up and straighten your arms.

Dumbbell press

Do it instead of: Bench press

The bench press is the best way to build a strong chest, but doing it properly takes a lot of strength and skill. Even without weights on, a barbell weighs 20kg, which means it’s easy to mess up your technique and hurt yourself. Better to start with light dumbbells, which are more forgiving on your joints and mean you don’t risk dropping anything on your head.

How to do the dumbbell press

Grab a couple of light dumbbells – no, lighter than that – and sit on a bench with the weights on your knees, palms facing in. Slowly lie flat, then light the weights so they’re resting just above your chest with your palms facing your feet. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and push the weights straight up as you exhale, pause, then slowly lower them. It should take a couple of seconds to get back to the start position – don’t let gravity do the job for you.

Bodyweight squat

Do it instead of: Barbell squat

Squatting is the ultimate leg exercise, because it works all your lower body muscles as well as your core. But for something so basic – you’re essentially sitting down, then standing back up – doing it properly is surprisingly hard, and even harder with a weight on your back. If you’re not flexible, or lack core strength, you can easily injure yourself. Start with just your bodyweight to get the technique nailed, then graduate to dumbbells. You’ll find they’re tiring enough even when you’ve not got anything in your hands.

How to do a bodyweight squat

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly out and your weight on your heels. Put your arms straight out in front of you to balance as you slowly sink down – imagine you’re sitting back onto a chair. Keep your weight on your heels, your shoulders back and tense your abs, which will help keep your chest up. You should be looking forward at all times, rather than dipping forward at the waist. Sink as low as you can comfortably get. (Ideally your thighs should be parallel with the floor; if you can’t get that low, start some daily stretching). Pause for a moment at the bottom, then drive back up through your heels to standing.

Dumbbell shoulder press

Do it instead of: Barbell press

Strong shoulders are useful for all sorts of things, but they’re often forgotten. Which is strange, because working them is as simple as lifting something over your head. Now, as you might guess, if you lift the wrong thing you run the risk of dropping it on your head. Which is why it’s best to start with really light dumbbells – or even bottles of water – until you’ve got the technique down.

How to do the dumbbell shoulder press

Grab a pair of light dumbbells and stand with them in front of your shoulders, palms facing away. Squeeze your shoulder blades and drive them up over your head. Brace your core to keep your body upright – if you find yourself leaning back then the weight is too heavy and you could hurt your lower back. Pause at the top of the movement, then slowly lower the weight over a couple of seconds.

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