The ultimate beginner’s guide to the gym

December 27 2018

Certain gyms may seem quite intimidating if you’ve never been inside one before. For some people, they might conjure up fears of men built like freight trains performing deadlifts only thought possible in cartoons, or women sculpted like goddesses running their third treadmill marathon of the day.

Who wouldn’t be intimidated by that?

But here’s the thing: gyms aren’t actually like that. In fact, gym-goers and staff often go the extra mile to make newbies feel welcome. After all, we all start somewhere: it’s sticking to the journey that really counts.

Here at DW Fitness First, we want to do everything we can to help you feel prepared for the gym so you can start your fitness journey with confidence. We’ve put together what we believe is the best gym guide for beginners, which covers everything from which gym machines to use to booking a personal trainer.


      1. The best time to go to the gym
      2. What to take with you
      3. Warming up
      1. Where to start
      2. Getting started with gym machines
      3. Using free weights
    1. Booking a gym class
    2. Booking a personal trainer

Before you start

Health requirements

A gym is a place that can help you get fit and strong, and everyone is welcome, wherever they are on their fitness journey.

However, it’s important that staff know about any existing medical conditions you might have before you jump straight into exercising.

Here are a few things they might ask you to disclose:

  • Any existing heart conditions
  • Ongoing conditions like diabetes
  • Any major operations you’ve had in the last 12 months
  • Whether a doctor has advised you to abstain from exercise in the past

At DW Fitness First, we ask that you read and agree to our health pledge. We’ll respect your decisions about exercise, and only intervene if we think there’s a genuine danger to your health. All the information you provide is kept confidential, too.

Membership options

Most gyms offer more than just ‘a membership’. Often, you’ll have a few options to choose from so you get the deal that’s right for you.

At DW Fitness First, we have a tiered membership scheme. It’s designed so you only pay for what you’re going to use. We also offer discounts for students.

Here’s a list of the membership options we currently offer:

Budget membership options

  • Off-peak — A cheaper membership for people who only plan on visiting the gym when it isn’t typically busy.

Discounted memberships

  • Corporate gym memberships — Ideal for businesses that want to keep their staff healthy and happy.
  • Student membership — A discounted membership for full- and part-time students who can provide a valid NUS card.

All-in memberships

  • Peak — Visit your gym during opening hours at any time of the day, all year long.
  • Multi-club access — Gives you access to multiple gyms across the country. Ideal for people who want to go to a club close to work in the week and visit one closer to home at the weekend, or those who find themselves travelling around the country often

Take a look at all our membership options to see which one best suits your needs.

Trying out a gym first

Not quite ready to commit to a membership? Some gyms will offer you a taster session so you can get an idea of the general feel of the club before you sign up.

At DW Fitness First, we go a step further by giving you a full three days of free access for you to decide.

You can get your free trial here.

Gym inductions

A gym induction is a brief tour of the gym’s facilities. It covers gym etiquette (which can vary between clubs), how to use the machines, and how you can access each area of the gym.

A good induction is key to getting you started on the right foot. The staff that run inductions will always have tips and advice that could save you a lot of hassle later on, like the best times to use what equipment and what exercises are great for beginners. 

Check out our in-depth guide on how you can get the best induction possible for a great head start.

Preparing for your first visit


The best time to go to the gym

People often ask, “What’s the best time to go to the gym?”

The answer is: it depends.

Morning vs evening

Morning is often touted as the best time to go, but for ‘night owls’ — that is, people who feel more energised later in the day — it’s probably not a great idea.

Finding the best time for you relies on your ‘circadian rhythm’. Thankfully, it’s a lot less complex than it sounds. Your circadian rhythm is basically your internal clock, the one that causes you to fluctuate between alert and sleepy throughout the day. The post-lunch urge to nap (we’ve all been there!) is thanks to your circadian rhythm.

If you consider yourself a morning person, get up an hour earlier and hit the gym before work. If you can’t get anything done before your 9 am coffee, don’t beat yourself up about it — hit the gym on your way home instead.

Working to your schedule

If your schedule is getting in the way of your circadian rhythm, here’s a tip: get an extra hour of sleep every night. We feel our circadian rhythms more when we’re tired, so getting to bed a little earlier might mean you can muster enough strength to be in the pool by 7 am, even if it doesn’t feel natural for you.

Dodging peak times

Of course, one other factor at play is when the gym is busy. If you like your space, try going when your gym is typically less busy (this varies between clubs). That might make you eligible for the off-peak membership option too, so you’ll even save a bit of money.

What to take with you

There isn’t a lot you’ll need to bring along with you to your gym sessions but there are a few essentials.

Here’s a list of things that pretty much everyone could use in their duffle bag.

Gym kit: the essentials

Warming up

If you’re feeling self-conscious on your first gym visit, your first instinct might be to get straight on the treadmill or weight machine and ‘prove your worth’ to the onlookers.

But doing that neglects one of the most important parts of a workout: properly warming up.

Warm-ups are important because they prepare your body for the demands about to be put upon it so you don’t injure yourself. A warm-up loosens your muscles so that you’re less likely to pull them during exercise and warms them up too, reducing the likelihood of a lactic acid build-up that can lead to cramping.

Here’s an example of a simple warm-up that’s ideal for beginners:

Example warm-up for beginners

For more on how to effectively warm up, check out our in-depth guide on warming up from exercise, with sports psychotherapist Paul Martin.

Your first gym session


Where to start

So you’ve made it to the gym and you’re dressed in your fresh training gear, ready for a good workout.

But where do you begin? There are dozens of different machines and exercise areas to choose from, and people seem to just instinctively know where they’re going next.

The truth is, good workouts aren’t improvised: they’re meticulously planned ahead of time. Those people who seem to glide from treadmill to tricep press are actually following a well-kept schedule, tailor-made to get the most out of each session.

So what’s the secret to mapping out a workout that works for you? It’s understanding what each piece of gym equipment is designed to do — and how it can align with your aims.

Getting started with gym machines

Once you’ve got your heart pumping on the treadmill, you can expand your horizon and check out all the other machines on offer.

Your induction should include a brief ‘how-to’ for each machine in your club. If there’s one that was missed out and you want to use it, don’t try to figure it out on your own: ask a staff member to show you how to use it properly.

Using a machine incorrectly could not only damage the equipment but could also lead to injury — not a great way to start your time at the gym!

Here’s a quick breakdown of some machines you can expect to find in most gyms:

Section 1: Cardio machines

Best for: Losing weight; strengthening your heart and lungs.

  • Treadmill — A running machine that can provide a great workout to improve your cardiovascular strength. You can adjust incline and pace depending on what type of workout you’re looking for.
  • Elliptical cross trainer — A dual-action trainer that works both your upper and lower body in tandem. Provides a low-impact way of exercising your hamstrings, quads, glutes, chest, back, triceps and biceps.
  • Rowing machine — Simulates the movements of a rower’s body, swapping the water and oars for a handle and chain. A fantastic full-body workout that puts emphasis on your core and melts away fat.
  • Exercise bike — A sit-down cardio machine that works all of your leg muscles. You can increase resistance to strengthen and tone your legs.
  • Stair climber (or ‘stepper’) — Like a treadmill, only with steps! Provides a workout that's easy on your joints but still works every muscle in your legs.

Section 2: Resistance area

Best for: Building strength and mass; muscle toning.

  • Chest press — Simulates a barbell or dual-dumbbell press in a more controlled environment. Sitting at a 45-degree incline is a great way to engage your upper chest muscles without feeling overwhelmed.
  • Chin-up machine — Designed to help you become stronger simply by using your own bodyweight. Beginners can use the assisted mode to help make things a little easier.
  • Bicep curl — A machine that isolates a workout to just your biceps.Good for toning or developing muscle in your upper arms.
  • Tricep press — Works your triceps, along with your shoulders and lateral muscles, as you push down to lift a weight behind you.
  • Cable machine — Can be used in multiple ways to work triceps, biceps, chest and more. Doesn’t follow a rigid movement like other machines so it works more of your muscle fibres, which is better for building strength.
  • Leg press — Builds muscle and tones your legs by making you push with your feet against a selected weight. Targets your quads, hamstrings and glutes — perfect for shaping up that behind!

Section 3: Flexible space 

Best for: Conditioning; targeted stretching; rehabilitation; functional training; freestyle group training.

  • Kettlebells — Cannonball-shaped weights with handles. Ideal for merging cardio workouts with strength-training to blast away fat while toning your arms and core.
  • Medicine balls — A weighted ball typically the same size as a basketball. Best used for strength conditioning and rehabilitation exercises.
  • TRX (flexible suspension system) — A rope-like system that allows you to use your own body weight to tone up and build core strength.
  • Weighted sled — A piece of equipment you can add weights to and push or pull to develop your strength. Great for sports conditioning.

Using free weights

People who are new to free weights can sometimes make the mistake of wandering into the free-weight area of a gym, grabbing whatever dumbbell takes their fancy and promptly hurting themselves when they discover it’s far too heavy.

The good news is that free weights aren’t dangerous if you use them properly. Here’s how you can get the most out of the free weights at your club.

  1. Start with bodyweight training

Bodyweight training is a form of training that doesn’t require you to use weights in order to build strength. And building strength — not just muscle — is key.

Bodyweight training is a safer way to prepare your body for weight training than going in right away. Things like squats and push-ups are simple ways to get your muscles used to working against resistance. Ask staff at your club to recommend somewhere you can do some strength training. If you’ve never used weights before, it’s a good idea to do bodyweight training for your first few sessions.

If you want to learn some bodyweight training exercises, our FGT Explore classes will give you some great ideas you can use. These classes will also introduce you to using equipment in the freestyle area in a safe and effective way.

  1. Go for lighter weights first

Perhaps more so than any other part of the gym experience, free weights come with a need to ‘prove yourself’. You’ll need to fight that urge if you want to start your weight-training journey on the right foot.

The first time you pick up free weights, start at the bottom and work your way up. If you’re trying a barbell out, try doing a few reps using just the bar. You’ll be surprised how heavy they are.

If you’re feeling self-conscious, know that experienced deadlifters still warm up by using the bar on its own, so you won’t be the only one.

Thinking of doing some deadlifting in the future? Check out our guide for beginners.

  1. Remember the etiquette

There are a couple of rules you should follow in the free weights area:

  • Don’t drop weights — Dropping weights constitutes a safety hazard. Not only that, but it also damages the kit and disturbs other members. Instead, you should slowly lower weights back down to the floor when finishing your sets.
  • Put weights back — Nothing is more frustrating than getting half-way through your session before finding the next set of dumbbells is missing because someone misplaced them. As soon as you’ve finished with your weights, place them back in the correct place on the rack.
  • Ask for a spotter but be considerate — Some exercises (such as a bench press) are dangerous without a spotter. Our staff are always happy to help, so ask if they could spot you, or try using one of the machines instead. Don’t drag someone else out of a focused workout if you don’t need to.

It can be a little bit daunting to use free weights if you're unfamiliar, so don't be afraid to ask a member of staff for some pointers on your technique. It's what we're here for!

A beginner’s workout

Now that you’re properly acquainted with the equipment you’ll expect to find at the gym, it’s time to start using it.

Though there’s no “one-size-fits-all” workout, here is an example workout that uses a variety of gym equipment and works your whole body. It should take you between 45 minutes and 1 hour to complete.

1. 5-minute cardio

A 5-minute fast-paced incline walk on the treadmill to get your heart rate up and mobilise your joints. You can just use the ‘Quick Start’ option

2. Resistance training 

Choose a weight that you can lift for 10 reps. The last few reps should be really challenging! Leave around 60 seconds’ rest between each set.

Do three sets of 10 reps for each of these:

  • Dumbbell lunges
  • Leg press
  • Dumbbell shoulder press
  • Lat pull-down
  • Cable chest fly
  • TRX planks (3 sets of 30 seconds)
  • HIIT cardio circuit

3. Additional cardio

5 rounds with minimal rest:

  • 10 burpees
  • 10 press-ups
  • 10 sit-ups


Finish it off with 5 minutes of stretching and light cardio.

Looking for more workout ideas? Check out We also have workout videos that you can follow here.

Supporting your fitness journey


Booking a gym class

Attending the gym regularly is a fantastic step in the right direction. If you really want to see gains, though, you should sign up for a gym class.

Gym classes are sessions led by a professional trainer who will take you through a fixed set of exercises. They’re done in groups, so it’s the perfect opportunity to build some friendships as well as pushing yourself a little further than you might by yourself.

There are hundreds of different classes to choose from, ranging from yoga and aqua aerobics to boxing and even dancing classes.

These classes vary in intensity and duration. If you’re just starting out, we recommend going for a low-intensity or low-duration class so you don’t push yourself too hard. You can find information about all of our classes online, and you can book through our Core app too!

Some classes are only available at specific clubs, so check out the timetable to see which classes are available at your gym. You can also ask a member of staff at your club for more details about classes.

Booking a personal trainer

While classes are great for giving you new ideas for workouts, they can’t always help you forward with your specific goals. The next step forward is to hire a personal trainer.

Personal trainers are fitness professionals who work with clients to create custom workouts and provide advice during exercise. They can help you achieve any goal, including:

  • Reaching an ideal weight
  • Developing strength
  • Rehabilitation after an injury
  • Improve their performance in a particular sport

Each club works with its own set of personal trainers, so you may see them around the gym working with other clients and sometimes with groups. You can inquire about getting a trainer at the front desk of a club.

Personal trainers aren’t covered in the cost of a membership. However, many gym members find it’s worth the cost of even just a few sessions when you’re starting out because it sets you out on the right path so you can train effectively going forward. Personal trainers will also keep you accountable to your goals, preventing you from slowly drifting away from your routine and not hitting your goals.

Gym staff will usually set up a brief ‘meet and greet’ with your personal trainer so you can get to know their training style and they can learn what it is you want to achieve. Check out these 6 questions you should ask your personal trainer to decide whether they’re the right one for you.

Become a gym pro

So there you have it: the gym is a mystery no longer.

In time, it’ll all become second-nature to you. As you build confidence, you’ll begin achieving the goals you set out for yourself and establish a routine that keeps you fit, happy and energised.

Whatever level of fitness you're at, always remember that if you are ever unsure about anything during your gym experience, our staff members and PT's are always happy to lend a helping hand. 

Check out the latest updates from Inside Track for more tips for gym-goers.