How to Get More Out of Your Gym Membership

The weather has finally broken, and with any luck winter is behind us. Beach season will be here before we know it, and in an effort to look and feel good for summer, a lot of people have gotten gym memberships. There isn’t much point in buying a gym membership, though, unless the benefits are going to be reaped from it. Otherwise, a better course of action might be to save the money, drink one less cappuchino a day, and call it a draw. But if you’re serious about getting results, consider some of the following. I am not a certified trainer or medical expert, however; these recommendations are based largely on my own experience. Consult a certified person for more information.


1. Go!

This one’s obvious, but the more important point is how to avoid the pitfalls that prevent your actually getting to the gym. Schedule it; know how it fits into your weekly routine. How many times a week depends on what your exact routine is, but let’s just say that, whether you’re at the gym or on the bike trail, you should be working out a minimum of five days a week.

Don’t allow distractions, even important distractions, to crowd out your gym time. At gym time, the gym is the most essential thing. The other stuff can be important in its own time. Turn off the computer, leave your phone at home, and just go. The Internet will be there when you get back, and if it isn’t, we’re probably all better off for it.

In my own experience, I’ve found that the most crucial part of a workout routine is getting dressed and heading out the front door. The rest follows naturally, and barring sheer laziness, there’s no such thing as a bad workout. Even the worst workout beats getting fat in a cubicle.


2. Make a circuit and keep moving

I’ve seen it over and over again: people sit on machines for twenty minutes at a time, taking long rests between sets. If you do all three sets of an exercise at once, you will be slowed down, and then the overall benefit of the workout will be compromised. Unless you’re one of those big thick power lifters this is probably not the way to go, especially if you need to trim down a bit.

Make a circuit of various exercises and keep moving. Obviously, you’ll have to work different muscles in adjacent exercises. For instance, on back day, I do rows, then shoulders, and then back extension, then lat pull down, and then ab exercises in the captain’s chair. This gives the various muscles time to rest, but while one muscle is resting, I’m working on another. My heart rate stays up, and I get more done faster. How uneventful are the lives of the equipment squatters? Don’t they have anything else to do?


3. Watch out for the lazy people

In every gym there will always be people who don’t take my advice in #2. They’re gonna get in your way. It’s annoying, but there isn’t much you can do about it, especially these days when people are becoming increasingly unapproachable. If it seems possible, ask an equipment squatter if you can do a set while they’re resting, texting, googling, fiddling with their iPod, etc. Some just might let you. Otherwise, you’re going to have to work around them. This might mean that instead of doing a lat pull down, for instance, you’ll have to do an old-fashioned pull up. Know what your options are with the equipment in the gym so that you don’t waste time waiting for people who workout sub specie aeternitatis.


4. Change it up

When I was in the middle of losing weight, I would sometimes hit plateaus, as is common. In this situation I would handle it one of two ways: I would go pig out to restart my metabolism, or I would cut back to perform a similar trick on my body. This is a form of changing it up. If you do the same workout all the time, you run the risk of your body getting so accustomed to it that it won’t be of full benefit. You also run the risk of phoning it in absentmindedly. Change things up. Use different exercises from time to time to work the same muscle group. Instead of barbells all the time, use dumbbells sometimes. Also, every fourth week I do high reps and low weights, rather than the routine for the other three weeks, which is high weights and low reps. Just make sure you’re still making enough effort. If it seems too easy, you probably need to add weight or reps.


5. Eat better

I have a friend who used to say, “You’re a runner; you can eat what you want.” This is from a couch potato’s nutrition manual. It’s very easy to overeat after a workout. You must know what your nutritional needs are and not take in more than that. The kinds of calories you consume are also important. For a weight lifter, it’s recommended that you consume at least one gram of protein for every pound of lean muscle mass. Whey protein supplements are a good resource here because it comes without a lot of the regrettable by-products that other sources of protein have. Take it right before or right after working out. I even know some people who carry it with them through the gym. Stay away from energy drinks; they’re candy. Make sure you’re getting enough carbs, but not too much. Consume them earlier in the day, and, in the main, before your workout occurs if at all possible. Stay away from junk food. If you have an irrepressible sweet tooth, as I do, designate one day a week on which you’re allowed to have a dessert.


6. Study

There is merit to simply getting started even if you’re not sure what you’re doing. But by all means study exercise science as much as possible. As little as fifteen minutes a week can make all the difference. I like Scooby’s website; he gives a lot of good information in a succinct manner without running a racket or engaging in buffoonery. He’s also honest about what is verifiable fact and what is his opinion. His videos make it very easy to get a lot out of the website, so you have no excuses left.

Make sure your resources are reputable people, and avoid gimmicks that promise quick results. I almost gave up on weightlifting last year because I didn’t think any progress was happening. This was impatience spurred on by those ridiculous late night commercials that try to convince the viewers that you can go from being Jabba the Hut to Christian Ronaldo in six months. It’s totally irresponsible. I wonder how many people with an otherwise good head on their shoulders have given up on being in shape because snake oil salesmen skewed their expectations.

There’s also the option of taking classes or getting training sessions at your gym. Again, make sure you’re dealing with reputable people. Not every licensed driver is good on the road, and not every certified trainer has his stuff together. I met with one guy who said he was doing so much cardio that he didn’t bother working his legs at all in the lifting department. I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life, and never asked his advice again. Also, he had a bigger gut than I did in my fast food days.

If you do end up with a good trainer—and in my current gym there are several, thankfully—there are things they can give you in a one-on-one situation that you might not be able to give yourself. For one thing, they can get to know your needs and help you sift through the thicket of information and contradicting opinions that are out there. Secondly, they can push you in a workout beyond what you thought was your limit. This is also safer because you have a spotter. Earlier this week I was on the bench press by myself when I experienced form failure in the middle of a rep. The weights went crashing everywhere. It was totally awesome but I’m lucky I don’t have a broken collarbone. That’s why we’re supposed to use spotters.


7. Check your progress

In any fitness effort it’s important to hold yourself accountable. This will not only keep you motivated; it will also let you know if you’re on the right track with your approach. The first thing most people think of is body weight. This is important, but don’t forget that if you’re lifting weights your weight will probably go up even as you get thinner and/or fitter. I also recommend tracking body fat percentage. The equipment that uses bioelectric impedance may not be absolutely accurate, but under consistent circumstances you will get a good relative idea of your fat percentage, and as long as that number is going down, that’s all you need to know. You can also get a tape measure and measure your waist, biceps, and whatever else might be giving you anxiety in terms of its size. Finally, look in the mirror, and take pictures occasionally, and save them for comparison. You’ll be amazed. Some people might accuse you of being a narcissist, but these days that’s usually no worse than the pot calling the kettle black.

Finally, remember H.L. Mencken’s sturdy advice that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. As long as you’re making an honest daily effort—and there is no substitute for that—you will be better off in the long run, occasional bumps in the road notwithstanding. And don’t forget to have fun. You’ll never feel better than when your body rewards your sweat with a nice dose of endorphins.

Now get started.


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