Lessons Learned from 1 Month at the Gym

I have made some major realizations about this placed that is home to some and hell to others. And I have recognized that if I didn’t figure this all out, I probably wouldn’t be sticking around.

Today marks the end of my first successful month in the gym. I have gotten gym memberships in the past, but have never stayed persistent. Something changed this time.

I have made some major realizations about this placed that is home to some and hell to others. And I have recognized that if I didn’t figure this all out, I probably wouldn’t be sticking around.

Back of Hercules in main square in Florence, Italy.
Photo by Simone Pellegrini / Unsplash
  1. There are three major muscle groups that you train at the gym.

You have your chest, which pushes, your back, which pulls, and your legs (technically your front leg muscles/quads and back leg muscles/hamstrings are two different groups) which squat.

You also have your core, but it gets worked on as you’re doing everything else. Plus, it’s your first month, you don’t have to worry about everything. Also, I just prefer a group of three.

Photo by Luis Reyes / Unsplash

2. There are three types of equipment at the gym.

There are dumbbells, barbells and machines. Here is how you need to think about them: you move dumbbells (highest degree of freedom), you move with barbells (reasonable freedom of movement), and you move within equipment (most restrictive motion).

Dumbbells are also known as free weights. They are the most fundamental piece of equipment in any gym. And you are in in complete control of how they move. This means is that your body is not just moving a weight up-and-down. Say for instance if you are doing a dumbbell chest press; in this case you are controlling every nuance of the path that the weight takes to the top and on the way back.

In a nutshell, you will get a more intense workout with less weight if you use dumbbells because they require the most stabilizing. This is also why almost every movement that you can do with dumbbells is a compound movement (we will discuss this more below).

Barbells are technically a simple machine. The fact that there is a bar connecting the weights on your left and right side means that you can worry less about stabilizing the weight, at least medially. This in turn means that you can lift more weight.

Machines (that aren’t barbells; and it is worth noting that they aren’t complex machines by the engineering definition because they largely rely on fulcrums and pulleys) are fickle objects. They vary by type and design across gyms.

Machines can be designed to target specific muscles or a muscle group, but regardless, they do not typically work out multiple major muscle groups and are thus associated with isolation motions (as opposed to compound motions, noted above).

Something to note with machines is that you have no say in how the weight moves. And if you feel awkward when using a machine it could (a) just be doing the movement wrong (I mean, it is still your first month) or (b) be that the machine doesn’t work for your body.

The key point.

For chest for instance, you can do dumbbell press, barbell press and machine press. You are targeting your chest in all three cases. But you are targeting it in different ways. The point of having three different types of equipment is so that you always have three different options, at least.

The gym is there for you. If you’re having a bad day, let yourself be held in a metallic machine cradle. If you’re on a roll, go with the free weight option. Tired of the barbell, do something else.

Photo by Bruno Nascimento / Unsplash

3. There are three types of movement that you can do at the gym

Compound movement: is any movement that implicates all of your bodies major muscle groups. This is in part dictated by the exercise that you choose to do as well as the way in which you do it.

For instance, when doing a deadlift, you really have no choice but to use your whole body. Although the movement is targeting all of the muscles on the backside of your body (both those of your legs and back), your chest and front leg muscles are also being worked severely to raise and stabilize the weight.

In other cases, whether or not the movement is compound is up to you. For instance, when performing a bench press, you have two options. For one, you can push using your legs, squeeze your core, and arch your back: that would make the exercise compound and you would be able to move more weight. Or, you could not do all that and just push using your chest and arms. In this case, you would be  isolating your chest and arms 'duh!' (triceps specifically).

Isolation movement: As noted in our bench press example above, an isolation movement targets one or two muscles as opposed to every muscle group. These are really good if you are targeting a single area (it could be a really big area like your entire chest, legs or back), you want to change things up, or you’re just dead tired. Most machine movements are isolation movements.

Dynamic movement: These are among the most athletic motions that you can do. Not only are these compound movements, they also target more than one muscle group sequentially. Also, they involve cardio and cardio is your friend.

The most famous dynamic movement is probably the muscle up. With the muscle up, first you do a chin up. This motion works your whole body, hence it is a compound movement; it targets your back specifically. But then, as you reach the top, you transition into a dip exercise, implicating your chest and triceps more acutely.

While dynamic movements can often seem daunting and are not typically seen as often in the gym (largely because people find them daunting), it is definitely worthwhile to try incorporating a few. There are many dynamic movements far less complex than the muscle up that are accessible to beginners. Look them up!

Photo by Gabin Vallet / Unsplash

Bonus: There are three types of people you’re going to meet in the gym.

The gym bros. They usually appear in groups. There are two subsets: those who are bros and who genuinely care about working out, and those who are just there to bro-out. The former will usually give you a ‘spot’ if you need it. It is good to check out their form. You can often ask them for tips.

Weird people you wouldn’t want to interact with regardless of where you meet them. You don’t need to interact with them here either.

People who want to teach you how to succeed. While they are rare, they are a godsend resource. By forging friendships and getting to know people at my gym, I was able to learn all of the content that I have just shared with all of you. People like them make sure you're not wasting your time when you show up. They save you money as you don't need to get a trainer to teach you stuff. They are also the reason you will want to keep going to the gym: respect them!