Welcome to the gym (sort of)

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I’m staring at my own reflection in a YMCA weight room mirror and I’ll be honest: I look miserable. Normally I love being at the gym, but today the room is packed with strangers who seem to have made new year’s resolutions to be as annoying as possible to the regulars.

There’s a guy directly in front of me, a heavily inked Travis Barker knockoff whose neck tattoos are bigger than his biceps. I just watched as he took five pairs of dumbbells from the rack and arranged them in a careful half-circle at his feet. He’s surrounded by 300 pounds of iron, but the only muscles he’ll work are the set between his eyebrows as he practices his most aggressive facial expressions in the mirror. He’s trying so hard to be menacing, but he actually looks like he’s trying to do math in his head.

In the center of the room, a father and son have stretched out on two of the three weight benches, both of them wearing so much neoprene that they look like they’ve just finished a morning shift at Sea World. They have wraps on their knees, sleeves stretching from their thin wrists to their elbows and lifting belts cinched tightly around their waists. They will leave without touching a single weight, although they will spend the next 10 minutes talking to each other about the Carolina Panthers.

I have never seen any of these people before, but I know I’m stuck staring at them for the next month, or until they lose their motivation somewhere in their own sofa cushions. It’s not that I fault anyone for trying to better themselves — especially when it comes to making healthy choices and positive lifestyle changes — but I wish that several dozen people didn’t do it at my gym, all at once. The only upside to all those shiny new gym memberships? The real and exciting possibility that I’ll see someone get hurt.

I hate new year’s resolutions, which is why, if I bother to make them, they’re things like “Work on chewing with my mouth closed” or “Spend more time weeping about my wasted potential.” I think that if you really want to change your life, you won’t wait until you peel the plastic from your David Hasselhoff-A-Day calendar; you’ll do it when you realize that you get winded when you unclog the nozzle on your spray butter, or when you pull a muscle moving the thimble from one side of the Monopoly board to the other.

If you’re still convinced that this is Your Year, the one when you get in shape — a shape other than oblong — and introduce yourself to your expectations, here are a few tips to help you through your first few weeks at the gym.

First, know your limitations. You’re probably either a beginner or you haven’t been in a weight room since Brad and Gwyneth shared a haircut… and that’s okay. Yes, the guy beside you has six plates on the bar and arms that are bigger than your first apartment, but he’s also been coming here every day for the past decade. You might look like him someday, but there are hundreds of workouts between now and then. Today is the first one. Pace yourself.

Know that it doesn’t matter how much — or how little — you’re lifting. If you have to start with the bar, or even with a PVC pipe, do it. In your first few weeks, you should be working on form, on technique and on getting comfortable with the weight. No one will notice if you’re counting reps with the smallest dumbbells or with an empty bar. They will notice if you’re doing something stupid or unsafe or if you’re casually calling your insurance company to check what your emergency room co-pay is.

Don’t offer unsolicited advice. This goes for regulars, too: Unless someone makes eye contact with you and speaks the actual words, “Could I ask you for some advice?” don’t tell anyone what they should be doing or — even worse — that what they’re doing is ineffective. The only caveat? If you see someone attempting something dangerous or that you’ve seen in a YouTube video with the word “Fail” in the title.

But do ask questions. If you don’t know what a machine is for or what an exercise is supposed to accomplish, ask someone. Don’t walk around, nodding your head slowly like you’re trying to figure out whether a framed slash of Crayola color counts as modern art. Most of the people at my gym — myself included — will be glad to explain what or why we’re doing something, mainly because it gives us a chance to talk about ourselves. Plus, we’ve all been there, staring open-mouthed at the dude angrily abusing the hip adductor machine and wondering what that could possibly be for.

Don’t stare open mouthed at the dude angrily abusing the hip adductor machine. 

You’re at the gym to work out, so work out. Don’t stand in the squat rack for a full 15 minutes, taking selfies and debating which hashtag to use. Don’t monopolize more than half of the weight benches while you and your dad adjust your knee sleeves and talk about Cam Newton’s right shoulder. Don’t block the dumbbells while you lean toward the mirror to fluff your eyelashes or flex your triceps or both, simultaneously.

No one cares that you’ve worn full makeup to the gym, nor does anyone expect it. Not unless you’re a member of KISS.

Don’t do bicep curls in the squat rack. Trust me on this. It’s annoying and unnecessary, like a spoiler on a sedan or Kellyanne Conway’s speaking voice.

And especially don’t do forearm curls in the squat rack. Dateline wouldn’t even bother investigating your murder.

Don’t come back. I’M KIDDING! I’M MOSTLY KIDDING! I’M SORT OF KIDDING! Now could I borrow two of those 10 dumbbells or what?