black and red stationary bikes
You may be super happy on your Peloton, but if you learn for the energy of a live class, this is your guide. Photo by David Marioni

How to work out again in real life

Wow, what an incredibly challenging couple of years we have all had! We all deserve to have an honorary star and pat on the back for our collective resilience, strength, and endurance. Maybe it is the eternal optimist in me, but I really do feel that things are going to get better for us all and that we should all strive to continue to lead sustainable, healthy, and happy lives. 

As this last year came to a close, with some time to reflect, it is so intriguing to look back on our own human nature and how we go about our habits when all structures change and seemingly turn into a Dali painting. And then, on top of that, how we adapt our lives accordingly!

As we see how humanity is aching to find sustainable structure, normalcy, and communion once again, I would like to go into a deep dive of guidelines for navigating this familiar but now different territory of the gym and group classes. In a way, it feels like a fresh, fresh start to navigate and understand this space because of what we have all already been through. 

Why even go back?

According to this recent ClassPass survey, more and more people are in favor of returning to ‘IRL’ workouts. The survey, participants felt it was better for their mental health and accountability to have an in-person experience. There were also other factors, like access to specialized equipment and pushing themselves harder than they would when they are home alone.

From my experience, the two main reasons why most people enjoy going to the gym or group fitness classes go beyond the fancy equipment and high-class amenities. They are: COMMUNITY and DISCIPLINE.

One of the joys of fitness is in building a community. You make friends, bond with colleagues and clients, and have something to look forward to socially. The other is accountability. When I was going to Pure Barre four times a week, I made friends with a pack of women and many of the instructors. This motivated me to show up even if I felt tired, or the weather was bad. I still remember one morning when there was a torrential downpour and we all strutted in with our soaked yoga pants and did our thing regardless. The sense of satisfaction and accomplishment you get from the community and the sense of discipline you get from an obligation to show up is very, very hard to replicate virtually, if not impossible, in my experience.

So when it comes to transitioning into the new normal, I was thrilled to go back. And I wasn’t alnone, which inspired me to collaborate with my editor and Equinox trainer Neda and write this post.

Working out in the ‘new normal’ – your complete guide to navigating the gym

While some may be enjoying the more open space available during a very a-typical January gym scene, others are understandably more apprehensive to get their sweat in the gym. Covid is spread through respiratory droplets that in the air- that means through your eye ducts, nose, mouth, and…. Sweat! If you are feeling ill, please refrain from going to the gym (whether it is Covid or general winter cold/fever) and if you are Covid positive, please quarantine at home until you get the green light. You should also talk to your doctor if you have questions and concerns about exercising in enclosed spaces. It is understandable to refrain as there are so many unknowns still about the nature and mutation of Covid; the good news being that it slightly less likely for you to contract from surface contamination.

If you do feel comfortable going back, take all precautions necessary. Disinfect surfaces and weights as you use them, even if you intend to come back to the same weights or machine again. Follow mask guidelines, wash your hands frequently, and maintain a social distance. Always listen to your bod ,and seek out the help of the professionals you need (whether it be your doctor or the general manager of gym). Most gyms and fitness studios are now requiring mandatory vaccinations, and in general, returning to the gym for those who are fully vaccinated is a lower risk activity, according to those who are experts on the topic.

So with that being said, let’s get to it! 

First thing’s first: Understand the blueprint

Whether it is Covid times or not, safety should always hold all precedents! The very first step with that (other than refraining from the gym while sick(, is to understand the layout of your given space before you have your first workout and see what the given guidelines are for the gym. Usually, it is posted on the walls with anywhere from 5 to 10 rules about there being no food or open beverages to not dropping your weights abruptly. Understanding the layout and the rules of the gym, fitness boutique, or studio helps provide a smoother experience for everyone. With this knowledge, you can understand how each step of your workout will unfold with regards to an area for warming up with cardio, the stretching mat, isolation resistance machines, free weights and dumbbells, squat racks, a HIIT area, and an area where you can performs exercises with medicine balls, the TRX, and/or kettlebells, and then a designated cooldown area. Equally important is knowing where the sanitation stations are and where you can get fresh wipes and a towel. 

You know you the best! By doing a little bit research and asking about busy hours (or visiting IRL during such) will enable you to see what the traffic is like! You will be able to navigate whether doing box jumps on a busy Tuesday night will really be feasible or it may be that it is  better during a WFH Friday afternoon.

Understanding the layout of your space enables you to know how you will physically go from set to set without hesitation. If you do have hesitation though, never ever be afraid to ask someone to help guide you. Employees of a gym understand the precedent of safety first and are stoked to see people actually returning, so they are more than happy to help.

Respect space and social distancing

If you are using a cardio machine, and you approach a line of machines, make sure you don’t go right next to someone else if there is space on either side. Get on a machine a few machines down.

The same goes for group fitness classes. Usually the space is limited by space mandate, but you still have control over positioning. Arrive early and try to find a spot on one of the edges, so that you only have a person on one side of you. Be vigilant if the class involves a lot of moving around, like a dance class. If you are in a yoga class and the mats are relatively close, stagger the positioning so that you are a little bit in front or behind the next person, that way neither of you will be distracted by the other’s flow.

In the previous guideline point, I mentioned the box jumps analogy. Circuit training and supersetting is unnecessary for all at any busy, high traffic time at the gym. That can seem like a controversial statement coming from a trainer (but I got it from the ultimate master, Bret Contreras), it shows that you disregard the safety of the patrons around you and feel that you are entitled to all of the space of the gym just for your fitness. Getting a stable routine going is challenging enough in and of itself, the last thing that anyone wants is a visit to the ER. If there is no one around on a quiet Saturday afternoon, then go for it- within reason. But, if it even scrapes the surface of ‘busy,’ hold off, and try something else. By practicing exercises in their designated, given areas (ie foam rolling on the stretch mats vs next to the squat rack, doing ball slams on the court vs a mat, and even preventing yourself from walking in front of someone as they performing exercises in front a mirror) shows that you have respect for those around you (even if their goals are completely, radically different) and boosts morale, and thus, sets a good example for fellow gym patrons. With that being said, and implementing better gym traffic safety guidelines… 

man in black long sleeve shirt and black pants carrying black dumbbell
Re-racking weights is also a good excuse to steal a glance at your progress in the mirror. But maybe with less intensity than this guy.
Photo by Anastase Maragos

If lifting, re-rack your weights

It is wonderful that you exerted yourself but it doesn’t count if you do not put your weights back 😉 Just like at home or at the office, when you can’t find something because it wasn’t put back in its designated spot, the same sentiment is equally irksome here and not to mention, injuries do happen this way! We all have our moments of forgetfulness and slip ups but please treat the space as you would treat your own home. Just think about getting the extra farmer’s carries steps in, your posture will thank you even more! 

Share but also be prepared to adapt

Although it can feel like *the* ultimate luxury to be a member of a nice, private or fitness boutique, one must remember that it is a shared, communal space and in essence, everyone is there for the same purpose of: maintaining or trying to improve their quality of life in some form or fashion. That means that you may have to share the Lat Pulldown machine with 87 year old grandmother who might not move as quickly. In times like these, either try doing a lat pulldown with the cables/ resistance bands- or stay relatively close by (without being hawkish over her) and gently ask to work in sets together. In general, give people their space and don’t be afraid to ask for yours. This point should have been absolute given pre-Covid, but it for sure is now and here on after. 

Beware of the ‘texter’ and do not be afraid to enforce the unwritten rule against hoarding

On the opposite end of the spectrum, don’t be that person that plops down texts all day and all night between sets and if you do see someone doing that, assertively and confidently ask to work in sets. It is an unspoken gym rule that if a machine, bench, or squat rack is free for at least two minutes, it is fair game! You may encounter people who hoard weights and different implements and/or machines for their workout and you may need to borrow something from that which they have hoarded. One must kindly ask to share and if it is objected, remind that the gym is shared space for all of its members. By doing this, it sets a better precedent for the gym atmosphere, and maybe give that other gym patron a reality check, as well! I do realize that sometimes these situations can be a little dicey (especially for the confrontation-averse, like myself), but they matter because everyone is striving to better themselves in this shared space. 

See this year as an opportunity to make new friends

We have been isolated for almost two years. Many of us live by ourselves, and I have to tell you, even as a happily married woman, I have felt lonely. I need female companionship and I need my female friends. What has been so amazing after going back to the gym is that the friendliness of everyone from the instructors to the fellow class and gymgoers is noticeable.

You can make that experience happen, too. Make a lot of eye contact and compliment someone on their workout gear. Or use the end of the class to do a post-mortem on how hard/great/fun it was. I have recently started taking Ballet by Equinox ABT, which is getting rave reviews. There are some clear ex-ballerinas in the class, but then there are newbies like and the new friend I made who also works for a Big 4 firm. At some pointas we were fumbling through our fondus we connected eyes in the mirror and laughed. Now we are texting and keeping each other accountable to show for class. This is what I call “accidental networking”. Accidental networking can lead to amazing opportunities whether you are at the gym or in the office. But it can only happen if you are there IRL.

Wherever you are in your fitness journey, working out at a gym and doing group fitness will open new doors. If you feel comfortable stepping into that again, I hope you feel the same joy I do.

Additional Resources

Covid-19 and the gym: Is it safe to go?

ClassPass’ Beauty and Fitness Trends (ClassPass)

Life’s Course Transitions and Natural Disasters (American Psychological Association)

Worst Fitness Etiquette (DailyBurn)

The 50 Commandments of Commercial Gym Etiquette (Bret Contreras)

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