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5 Tips to Navigate a Busy Gym

Here’s how to make the most of the busy season at the gym.

A woman smiles as she works out in a gym.

When the frantic pace of the holidays finally ends, many health-minded folks face a different kind of rush: the new-year crowds at the gym.

Come January 1, fitness clubs teem with people, including lots of new faces. The weight room suddenly feels congested, classes are full, and lockers (and parking spaces) are at a premium. Regulars whose routines are disrupted might feel frustrated by the flux of New Year’s resolution makers. Meanwhile, newcomers may feel intimidated and uncertain about where to begin — a combo that puts them at risk for quitting before they really get started.

We asked Boston-based strength coach Tony Gentilcore, CPT, CSCS, and David Freeman, OPEX, CCP, NASM-PES, national manager for Life Time’s Alpha program, for strategies to make going to the club in January a great experience, whether you’re a seasoned gym-goer or an enthusiastic (but perhaps apprehensive) newbie. Here are their suggestions:

  1. Commit to a Schedule

Even if you have an established regimen, a crowded fitness floor may dissuade you from showing up. For old-timers and neophytes alike, now is a good time to double down on your commitment to yourself.

“It sounds pretty plain and simple, but just having a set agenda for the week goes a long way,” says Freeman. “Whether it’s three or four days a week, or Monday-Wednesday-Friday, these are your staple days that you’re going, regardless of rain, sleet, or snow.” Or crowds.

Gentilcore adds that newcomers may want to start on the conservative side to keep this commitment realistic. “Many people start like gangbusters and think they’re going to hit the gym five to six times per week,” he says. “Then they feel discouraged because they were only able to get to the gym two to three times. Prove to yourself you can handle two to three days for an extended period of time before you commit to more.”

  1. Fine-Tune Your Attitude

Impatience and irritation — with yourself or with those around you — can put a damper on an otherwise perfectly good workout. For the regular whose front-row spot in yoga has been usurped, or whose routine in the weight room has been unwittingly interrupted, patience and goodwill are key.

“Remember that you, too, were once a newbie,” says Gentilcore. “While it’s easy to roll your eyes at the influx of resolution makers, it’s a nice reminder that everyone started somewhere.”

Freeman teaches his clients that stress management is just as key to health as movement, nutrition, and sleep. “Whether it’s meditation, time alone, self-reflection — whatever will allow you to be at peace, to be calm — that’s huge,” says Freeman. And where better to reap the benefits of your stress-management practice than when you’re waiting in line for the lat-pulldown machine at the club?

  1. Have a Plan . . . and a Plan B

If you tend to get overwhelmed by all the activity (or all the options), start with a simple workout agenda, says Freeman.

“Create a plan of execution before going into the club so you’re not walking around aimlessly saying, What should I do today?” he advises, noting that your plan can be flexible and still yield results. “Whether you’re running on a treadmill for distance, are on a stairclimber for distance, or on an elliptical machine for distance, you can still accomplish your goal in one way or another.”

The more experienced you are, of course, the more plan-B options you’ll have. “So the squat rack is being used. OK, let’s go with goblet or landmine squats,” advises Gentilcore.

“Someone’s using the seated-row machine? OK, cool, revert to TRX or a chest-supported bent-over row instead.”

  1. Look to the Professionals

“It can be intimidating on the gym floor,” acknowledges Gentilcore. “Who knows what all those machines are for?”

If you’re new to working out, he suggests hiring a personal trainer to show you the ropes. “They can take you through an appropriate assessment to come up with a fitness plan that best meets your goals and takes into account your ability level and injury history,” Gentilcore says.

If personal training isn’t an option, Freeman recommends starting with group fitness programming. “I would rather someone have an instructor who’s guiding them — having them feel directed versus trying to figure things out on their own,” he says.

  1. Think Big Picture

The reason regulars are often cynical about the January rush is that the crowds tend to thin out come February and March. But it doesn’t have to be that way. This year’s fitness-club newbie can become next year’s veteran — with the right mindset.

“Instead of ‘New Year’s resolution,’ I always ask, ‘Hey, what’s your New Year’s evolution? How are you going to evolve this year?’” says Freeman. “If you’re evolving, you’re learning.”

Freeman adds that setbacks are part of the process. “Through failure comes success. You have to go through those times to be able to really appreciate the reward when you get it. The resilience, the accountability, the responsibility — all these different pieces come in and you understand this is a journey. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”


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