How to start going to the gym, Pt 1: The case for the gym visit

Plus: the case for the supermarket as a place to hang out, Smith machine circus antics, and DFW on Hot Ones. This is Links 44!

How to start going to the gym, Pt 1: The case for the gym visit

Gyms are intimidating places. They are unfamiliar; they can be chaotic; they have myriad unwritten rules, such as “Stand ONLY here to do deadlifts, and NEVER stand here to do dumbbell curls, lest you be in foot traffic.” There are invariably some people making noises that sound like two silverback gorillas fighting. This all costs money, somehow. Gyms are ecosystems for which neither school, nor family, nor even gym class adequately prepares us.

I am someone who is inherently initially uncomfortable in any new environment. Spiritually, and sometimes literally, I have to pin myself to the wall and observe the habitat, in order to be sure I am rewarding none of my enemies with the element of surprise. Only after a nice chunk of time spent watching do I feel barely assured enough that there are no imminent threats.

Even some of the most confident and self-assured people I know are like, “Gyms? No thank you. I will work out ONLY in a private stall, obscured from view.” The situation of “starting to go to the gym” is a rare instance where I feel everyone may benefit from behaving as awkwardly as I do generally.

By that I mean: you should separate out the mental task of “going to a new place” from all the other hurdles that getting started with working out involves.

We often think of “starting to work out” as just one, fairly easy, task. But it’s actually three incredibly annoying tasks:

  1. Going to a new place
  2. Sorting out the logistics of your workout in a new place (including schedules/timing)
  3. Putting the pieces together and actually doing your own entirely new workout

That’s too many tasks at once. I say do one at a time.

So this newsletter is the first in a three-part series of “Starting to go to the gym.”1

It may seem like a weird time to publish this, when very few people are going to the gym. But that’s just the thing: the BEST time to ease yourself into gymgoing is when not many other people are gymgoing. The dead of summer, the dead of winter (though crucially, NOT January)—these are the times when you will feel a little more room to breathe.

Therefore, let’s start with the first step: availing yourself of what I’m going to call a “gym visit.”

How to pull off the gym visit

Firstly, you must go to the gym with no expectation of really accomplishing anything. You are just going in order to take in the atmosphere, to people-watch, to vibe-assess.

That doesn’t mean you go and appear to do nothing, standing there slack-jawed in the middle of the room staring unblinkingly at the guy on the AbCoaster (so named because it is more like a carnival ride than a workout). Obviously, you pretend to work out. You do nominal motions of working out. To the untrained, glancing eye, you are working out. But in reality, you are just doing recon. This visit is almost strictly anthropological in nature.

Pursuant to that: secondly, you must watch. Are you curious where people usually squat, or how they adjust the racks? Where they stand to do dumbbell work? Where is the cleaning stuff? What does it look like when someone is resting between sets? How do people “work in” with one another? DOES anyone actually get hectored by any of the bros, or are the bros in fact nice, peaceable, even supportive guardians of the workout machine forest? If you give yourself 20 or 30 minutes of observation time, you can learn all these things.

Crucial to this part of the process is finding a vantage point from which you can observe the parts of the gym you want to use, without either getting in the way yourself or feeling like you’re giving yourself away.2 If there is a well-situated treadmill, just go for a leisurely walk on it.

If the treadmills are too out of the way, try to quickly identify some of the least-used machines to sit on. Ab crunch machines, lat raise machines, and pec flye machines tend to be very little-used; chest press machines are used sometimes, but there tend to be way too many of them. All of these are effectively fancy chairs. Set them to the lowest possible weight and pretend to do reps, and “rest” between sets while you observe. Identify a new underused machine and move after several minutes. No one will be the wiser or care that your workout seems to consist only of ab crunches, lat raises, and pec flyes.

One minor challenge here is that in order to observe the gym’s patterns, you have to go at a reasonably busy time. In an empty gym at 5 a.m., there will be nothing to observe. (The empty gym is actually best for the next step, when you start sorting out the logistics of your workout.) That time will usually be “after-workish until an hour or two before closing,” like 4-8 p.m. In the low seasons, this time will be less chaotic than on, say, January 2. If you are not typically free during this time, it doesn’t matter; you only really need to do this once, though you can technically do it as many times as it takes you to feel comfortable.

But how to get the gym to let you do this? Most gyms, even the dreaded Planet Fitness, will let you visit once, or get a three-day pass, or pay for a day pass, without signing up for a membership. This is the perfect way to do a vibe check on the gym.

This is also the perfect way to procrastinate actually starting your workout regimen, and I know at least a few people are into that.

So that’s it! That’s all of step one. Next week we’ll do step two (layering in logistics), and after that, if you can believe it, step three (actually accomplishing your workout).

The Whole “How to Start Going to the Gym” Series":

What paid subscribers will get this week: I’ve been receiving increasing questions about the concept of “deloading,” or taking a break from your usual training schedule: how to do it, when to do it, how often to do it, why to do it. Breaks are a necessary part of the ecosystem, so you deserve to know the best way of coordinating them!


~Discord Pick of the Week: This squat rack coaster holder that, when empty, doubles as a throne for your favorite pen or pencil. If you do buy this, please send me pictures.~

Crissy Milazzo, who previously wrote of her experience starting to lift, reflects on what it’s been like in the six months since she started doing LIFTOFF and how things have changed for her since she started strength training. She writes:

I spent every night laying on our hard wood floors and complaining to my husband that there was something wrong with me. He listened and held himself back from begging me to go to the gym and lift weights with him, something that had helped him with similar problems. I’d gone with him once before and left almost in tears—yes, seriously—because I felt so uncomfortable and inept in a gym. It’s cringe, but it’s true.

Smash cut to now: I have zero pain in my back and shoulders after walking around, if ever. My legs and torso were likely so weak before (years of hunching over a desk and not strengthening them at all, duh) that my back was doing all the work—its pain was a true cry for help, honey.

Your body is where you live, and you deserve to make it nice!!

A very sweet piece: the case for going to the supermarket a lot and hangin’ out.

The Woman King, featuring, among other things, Viola Davis’s arms, is coming in September. In addressing her “beefed-up physical transformation” in Vanity Fair, Viola says:

We started intensely a few months before shooting—four hours a day, five days a week. Weight training, sprinting, martial arts, and weaponry training for the machete. I like to say that I was the OG warrior.

She lifts!! Also:

I grew up an athlete. The women around me were athletes. There was a normalcy to how I thought about myself. You fight. Aggression is good. Leave it all out on the floor. And as I got older, it surprised me how few women had the advantage of growing up like that. That innate warrior that I believe we all have is dormant in so many women because it wasn’t encouraged or valued.


“Supergran” powerlifter beat cancer twice and set a couple of federation records three years after she was told she had only three months to live. You can’t hold us!

She's A Beast: A Swole Woman's Newsletter enjoys the support of a lovely, generous reader community. Even free subscribers get a free sample of LIFTOFF.

I touched on this in the previous newsletter, but it’s really off-season training time for almost all athletes (except baseball players), so we’ll be seeing some absolutely wild stuff from the trainers of the world. Stay wary; this is not stuff you need to be doing. It is nonetheless often funny to watch.

I’ve been in isolation all week due to COVID, but when I return to the gym I’m going to be extremely tempted to try this move where you reach your legs over your head and lift a barbell with your feet. Could be very bad for the lower back or very fun for the hamstrings—only one way to find out.

The man reviewing historical sandwiches on TikTok.

The real-life diet of the world’s strongest man.

That’s right.


This piece has an ambiguous title, but make no mistake: it’s about how (extended, overly severe) caloric deficits literally make us stupid and blunt our ability to perceive the world. This isn’t an effect of starving; just significant deprivation is enough:

Over a period of three weeks, the researchers restricted the amount of food available to a group of mice until they lost 15% of their body weight… The food-deprived mice easily found the platform when the difference between the right and wrong images was large. But when the difference between the pictured angles was less than 10 degrees, suddenly the food-deprived mice could no longer distinguish between them as accurately as well-fed mice. The consequence of saving energy was a slightly lower-resolution view of the world.

The powerful entice us to always be “losing weight” and “dieting” as a way of keeping us weak—change my mind!!

We have previously covered the increasingly suspicious startup Cerebral. Turns out there are over 2,000 incident reports from employees, “many flagging serious concerns with patient care,” in a period of only seven months.

The only man in the world who is using a Smith machine for the correct purpose (circus antics).

I can’t tell if I hate or love this woman who says diet soda is fine (yes), we don’t eat junk food because it’s cheap, only because the marketing is good (eh), and salad is just expensive water (oh!… maybe?).

Minnesota Republicans accidentally voted to legalize edibles. Minnesotans, your recovery evenings and days just got so much better.

Frank Bruni, uh, wrote something weird about Planet Fitness. Maybe instead you’d be interested in reading how Curves gave rise to Planet Fitness?

If you ever wondered what happened to Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest fixture Takeru Kobayashi


Usher’s Tiny Desk concert.

An oral history of Contact. Goddamn, I fucking love Contact.

The new breastfeeding guidelines are so...??? and I liked this piece on it.

This piece about a video game heist reminded me of one of my favorite leisure activities: watching this guy clean and restore old video game systems. Incredibly soothing, to me.

I posted about this on Instagram, but my new “thing” is writing postcards to voters on the bubble for winnable campaigns. You can sign up to do this at VoteForward or ActivateAmerica, and if you search “voter postcards" on Etsy you will get a bunch of cheap and cute bulk options. A perfect activity for when you are resting and half-listening to some reality TV.

That’s all for this week! I love you for reading, thank you, let’s go—

  1. If you are as wound up as I am, you may find this breakdown helpful for starting at ANY new gym; they are all the same in many ways but different in others, and often they are mayhem. It pays to dip a toe in, rather than set expectations high and be mad because you got there planning to do squats, and there was a gaggle of guys in sunglasses and Beats headphones yelling and occupying all four of the racks for hours.

  2. If you are deeply preoccupied with this concern, know that most people in a gym, especially those who are there at the busy times, are only dimly aware of other people in the gym, let alone whether you are acting as a double agent. No one cares what you are doing.