It’s no secret that most gyms will see a spike in new memberships at this time of year. Many people choose January to better their lifestyles by embarking on a new programme of exercise, of which gyms are often an integral part.

Joining a gym isn’t an absolute necessity for those looking to improve their overall health and fitness; bodyweight workouts are free and can be undertaken at home, and local facilities such as parks provide space for people to get in some cardio.

However, for many, gyms provide a more practical, convenient and comprehensive workout environment. Cyclists and runners will know that weather conditions outdoors at this time of year aren’t known for their clemency; and it isn’t always feasible for someone to purchase their own exercise equipment and store it at home.

On the other hand, gyms are indoors, dry and warm, provide access to just about every piece of equipment you would ever need, and are staffed by people with fitness expertise in a range of areas.

First-time fears

That said, newer gym-goers may be intimidated at the prospect of using these facilities to begin with. Exercising in the close proximity of strangers can be daunting; and it’s understandable that nerves and feelings of self-consciousness may set in and make it a less-than-enjoyable experience. What’s more, the sheer range of exercise options on offer can be overwhelming, and it isn’t easy to know where in the gym is the best place to start.

The above factors can have a detrimental effect on motivation, which can in turn hinder the pursuit of your fitness goals.

Conversely, the more you enjoy exercising and feel comfortable doing it, the more likely you are to keep it up. Familiarising yourself with the gym and the facilities it offers, as well as knowing what makes an effective exercise plan, are key to making a gym regime stick. The gym is a great place for newcomers to get fit; you just need to become confident in using it.

Exercising in the gym: FAQs

This week, we thought it might be useful to pose some of the more frequently asked questions new gym-goers might find themselves asking, to a fitness expert.

Gemma Seager, also known as Retro Chick, is the brains behind Lipstick, Lettuce & Lycra, where she writes extensively about exercise and fitness, as well as nutrition and healthy eating.

We asked her a series of questions about establishing an exercise routine, gym etiquette, and how new exercisers can develop their fitness plans to help themselves achieve more:

Busy periods and etiquette

Q. Many of those who have recently taken out a membership might find that they can’t get on the machine or bit of equipment they want to use, because it’s January and many gyms are at their busiest.

Are there any particular times when they tend to be quieter?

Gemma: ‘Quiet times will most likely depend on your gym, what its opening hours are and who are the most regular users. Most gyms are busiest outside regular working hours, so if you go at lunchtime or immediately after work you'll find it very busy. Going very early in the morning or late at night can be quiet if you work regular hours. If you do shift work or are self-employed and able to go during the day, the mid-afternoons and mid-mornings can also be a little quieter.

Q. If someone wants to use a machine which is in use by someone else, is there an etiquette they should follow if they want to use the machine after them?

Gemma: ‘Wait until the person using the machine has finished their set. Don't march over to them while they're exercising. I normally just ask how many sets they have left and if anyone is waiting after them. If no one else is waiting I just ask if they could let me know when they're done and then either use a nearby machine or the mats in the meantime.’

Organising your workouts

Q. For someone new to exercise who is looking to improve their overall fitness, how would you split exercise sessions between cardio and weights? Is it better to do two cardio sessions and one weights session per week for instance? Or would you advise doing a mixture of the two in each session?

Gemma: ‘Ideally to avoid overworking muscles you should split your cardio and strength training so you can focus on your individual goals for that session. If you're very new to exercise, however, then key factors in building a workout plan should be to focus on the time you have available, and building a plan that you find you can actually stick to. You can combine cardio and strength training in one session if it helps you manage your time; just make sure you don't compromise your form and cause injuries by over tiring.’

Q. Which cardio exercise would you advise for someone starting out? Should they be looking to increase the amount they do or go a little faster each time?

Gemma: ‘Running is a simple cardio exercise with not much specialist equipment needed past a pair of running shoes. It's also very easy to tailor to your fitness levels. You can combine running and walking, add faster sprints, or simply run faster, slower or further depending on your goals.

If you're just starting out there are lots of couch to 5k programs and apps that will help you build up from a mix of running and walking, to running for a full 30 minutes. The key for beginners is to remember not to start too fast and tire yourself out. That's something I struggled with when I started running.’

Lifting for beginners

Q. Which do you think is better for someone starting out at the gym: lifting machines or free weights?

Gemma: ‘If you've never used weights before then lifting machines are a safer way to start. The weights have a set range of movement which means you don't need to worry as much about your form and you are less likely to get injured.

I would encourage anyone to move onto free weights if they can. If you can get a session with a trainer to give you some advice on form then they are far better for helping strengthen your core muscles.

Q. Should someone reinforce any part of their body with particular exercises before they start lifting weights?

Gemma: ‘It really depends on how strong you are to start with. It is always good to have a strong core, and non-weighted core exercises* can help you achieve that; but using weights can also help you strengthen those muscles.’

* - Some examples of non-weighted core exercises might be crunches, sit-ups, planking or Russian twists.

Q. Should someone look to increase their lifting in particular increments each week? Is it better to do more reps or to raise the amount they’re lifting?

Gemma: ‘I would advise starting with a simple program and adding weight each week. Something like the Stronglifts 5x5 program, where you do five sets of reps and add 2.5kg to the weights each session. 1.25kg is normally the smallest weight in the free weights section, so it's easy to add these each time to build up strength.’

Q. Sometimes new gym-goers looking to use the weights section might be hesitant to do so because the area is full of experienced people taking lifting very seriously. Do you have any other advice for them?

Gemma: ‘It can be intimidating to go into the weights room for the first time, but just remember that everyone is doing their own work out. Not worrying about you.

Booking a session with a personal trainer can be really helpful to help familiarise yourself with the equipment, give you some advice on your form and raise your confidence a little when you have to approach it alone. Going to the gym with a friend can also make it a lot less intimidating, as well as giving you motivation to stick to your routine.’

You can read more on exercise and fitness from Gemma over on Lipstick, Lettuce & Lycra.