What you need and what you don’t

It’s tempting to think when starting out that you need a whole array of belts, straps, gloves, and suits to begin strength training, especially if you see a lot of folks in the gym all decked out like medieval cyborgs. Well, the truth is that you don’t. Here’s what you need and what you can do without.

whatcha need

access to heavy stuff

Most of us don’t have a complete home gym sitting in our nests. If you are thinking of putting together a home gym, check out my suggestions on what to buy. If you don’t want to buy stuff for home, the first thing to do is find a gym. When looking for a gym, here are some things you should think about. Is it reasonable? Don’t pay for crap like a juice bar or the upscale clientele. Often you can find cheap rates at your local Y or university/college gym. Is it convenient? Someone did a study showing that the ideal maximum distance a gym should be from your home, school, or work should be 12.5 minutes. I think that’s a little harsh but you get the general idea. If your gym is too inaccessible, you probably won’t go.

What kind of equipment does it have? You’re looking for a gym that has free weights and plenty of them. Look for squat cages, dumbbells, and bench press racks. If all you see are machines, this probably isn’t a gym for serious weight training.

Can you get a trainer? Often gyms include a free first session with a personal trainer, something a beginner should take advantage of, since they can show you how to properly use the equipment. However, be warned: this first free session is also often an opportunity for gym sales staff to bombard you with an aggressive marketing pitch.

Do they take you seriously? If a gym staff greets your request for weights with sneers of derision or worried clearly-she’s-crazy pity, you might find that they’re the ones who also have a trainer that tells you to stay off the heavy stuff. Don’t be scared off by gyms with virile or famous names like Gold’s or Pitbull. Often these places are very welcoming to serious women lifters and have plenty of goodies in terms of their equipment.

good form

Learning good form is very important. I have illustrated some common exercises on my Dork to Diva page. Also check out Biofitness’ demos, and Exrx. Or, go to your local library and check out some books on weightlifting. Look at how to do the exercises properly and safely. This will save you injuries and problems in future.

comfortable clothing

If you’re in the gym to pick up, by all means be generous with the classy workout togs. But if you don’t care about having the latest in butt floss (which is a bad idea while squatting anyway), then just wear something comfortable. You don’t need to look mahvelous to get a good workout. The beauty of the gym often lies in the fact that everyone is so concerned about how THEY look that they can’t be bothered to notice how YOU look. So you don’t need to invest in a new ensemble just to pump the iron.

proper nutrition

See the “Eating” section of this site.

a notebook

As a beginner, one of the hardest things to learn is how to focus and develop a program. Getting things in writing helps immensely. You can plan out your workouts, record your progress, and generally keep informed about how and what you’re doing. At first it might feel a bit geeky to carry around a notebook but once you see how much it helps you stick to a program and chart your development, you’ll come to appreciate it. It also helps you remember what weights you did, how many sets, and how many reps. You’ll know when it’s time to move the weights up without having to work from memory every time. As a beginner it’s easy to feel overwhelmed; this puts you in control.

If you’d like something to get you started, site reader Jennifer has made a workout log template (pdf) that you can print off and take with you to the gym.


Despite the claims of ads for Gatorade etc., water is really the best liquid for rehydration (unless you’re running a marathon or something, where you sweat so much that sodium retention becomes an issue). Carry around a bottle of it when you’re in the gym and drink regularly. Thirst appears only after you’ve been dehydrated for a while, so it is not a reliable indicator of your body’s need for water. If you’re doing this whole working out thing right, you’ll be sweating like it’s high noon in Death Valley so drink up. Also, having a water bottle will save you the trip to the water fountain during which some gym moron can rip off your weights.

a grasp of basic gym etiquette

One thing that won’t get you far in the gym is an attitude. Be a decent human being in the gym and clean up after yourself. Re-rack your weights, don’t hog machines, wipe off your sweat, and for heaven’s sake, try not to block anyone’s mirror!

whatcha don’t need

a belt

You see a lot of guys hanging out at the gym wearing those big leather or Velcro-nylon belts. They wear ’em everywhere—to the water fountain, on the StairMaster, doing bicep curls. You’d think their spines would just collapse like so much gelatinous goo if they ever took those things off. Now, a belt does have its uses. During heavy squats, deadlifts, and presses, the belt can help stabilize your torso through increasing intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). Worn loosely, it can provide proprioceptive cues to keeping your spine in proper position. But as a beginner, you don’t need this.


Gloves are a pretty personal thing and if you want to wear them that’s fine. The danger in gloves is that the assistance they lend to your grip impedes your grip strength development. If you’re worried about calluses, pick up a foot file. Every day in the shower, file down your calluses. After the shower, apply some heavy duty hand cream. You’ll have some skin thickness there which will protect your hands, but it won’t feel rough.


Along the same lines as gloves, straps wrap around your wrist and then around the bar. Once again this is aiding your grip potential, which does not force you to develop much grip strength. However, straps are fine to use as your grip develops. You just work till your grip fails, then use the straps to keep on going. A helpful tool, but not a necessity for a beginner.


You hear about all these marvelous things that will not only make you skinny and beautiful but will also make you pack on muscle like the Incredible Hulk on ‘roids. Most of them are crap, variously packaged forms of speed, novocaine for your stomach, or other things that have very unpleasant and potentially dangerous side effects. As a beginner you should rely on nutrition and exercise alone to build muscle mass and burn fat. I would recommend only a daily protein shake, which gives you a convenient, portable, high-quality source of protein that you might not be able to get in your diet, and a daily multivitamin.

snazzy and chic gym stuff

As I said, no-one cares what you look like since they’re all fighting to keep from getting crushed by heavy objects or climbing infinite virtual hills. Besides, you’re just going to sweat all over it and probably smear some occasional grease or plate crud on it too.

a personal trainer

While I recommended taking advantage of a free personal training session, a PT is not required to help you learn if you take charge of your own education. If you choose to lay out the cash for one, great. But find one that will take you seriously and show you how to do the exercises right. I have already heard enough horror stories about personal trainers to last me a lifetime. If possible, find yourself a trainer with experience in powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting.

a gym full of the latest and weirdest isolation machines

Considering you can get a great workout with just two dumbbells, you don’t really need that machine which does your inner thighs. Performing basic compound exercises with free weights will give you a full-body workout. See “Don’t Fear the Free Weights!” for more on this.

Beginners: also check out ExRx.net and the amazingly informative beginners’ section as well as the other wonderful resources.

The Weight Training Guide is another resource aimed at beginners.