Getting started at the gym can be an intimidating experience, that’s for sure.
Most of the time when we’re a gym beginner.
We’re not exactly feeling out most confident self.
And to make it worse, there’s a bunch of unfamiliar equipment and strange spaces to learn about.
Most articles on the internet jump straight to what to start doing at the gym.
Without explaining how to even understand and navigate the different parts that make up a gym.
So, what are the various areas in a gym?
The 10 different sections in a big box gym are the:
- Reception & Lounge
- Lockers & Change Rooms
- Warm Up & Stretching Area
- Cardio Area
- Free Weight Section
- Platforms & Squat Rack Area
- Gym Machines
- Functional Training Area
- Group Fitness Studio
- Pool & Sauna
Having an understanding of the gym’s general layout will help you to navigate it more effectively.
As well as to help you feel more confident and familiar with the elements of your own local facility.
Let’s dive in.
| Reception & Lounge
The first area of the gym is the reception and welcome lounge, which is located at the front of the facility.
Before you enter the facility, you will be most likely greeted by a staff member in this area.
Upon expressing an interest in membership, the staff member will usually speak to you at the reception desk.
Or alternatively, they will escort you to the lounge where you can discuss your membership requirements and fitness goals.
I have personally also used the lounge area to relax when waiting for a gym partner, or if I need to take a minute to sit down and make my post workout protein shake.
| Lockers & Change Rooms
Next up are the lockers and change rooms, which are usually located either beside each other or together.
Most often when coming in to work out, you will head straight from the reception area to the change rooms to put your belongings away.
Most gyms offer you the ability to lock your stuff away with a combination lock.
The change room areas also have toilets, showers and a place for you to get dressed.
The location of the change rooms varies greatly.
I’ve seen gyms that have them right up the front of the gym beside the reception area.
And I’ve also attended gyms that have them tucked away deep in the back of the gym.
If you’re ever unsure, they are usually pretty easy to find due to their obvious signage.
If you’re ever in doubt, simply asking a staff member will go a long way when it comes to navigating the gym.
| Warm Up & Stretching Area
Once you’ve stored your stuff away in the locker area, it’s time to hit your workout, starting with your warm up.
The warm up area is usually decorated with equipment such as:
- Foam rollers
- Spiky massage balls
- Workout mats
- Skipping ropes
- Mini bands
- Resistance bands
- Yoga Straps
- Exercise and BOSU balls
- Ab rollers
It is usually identifiable by rubber mat floor or astro turf and is an open space with plenty of room to stretch out.
In my decade of gym experience, the warm up area is usually located close to the lockers, but not always.
This area is not only used for warm ups, but also for core training, stretching and you’ll also find the occasional gym goer doing independent HIIT workouts too.
It can also be a good place to take a second before you start your workout, get your program up on your phone, and get yourself mentally prepared for the challenge to come.
| Cardio Area
Next up we have the cardio area, identifiable by the plethora of different machines available.
The cardio area consists of equipment such as:
- Rowing machines
- Skiing machine
- Assault bikes
- Stepper / Step Master
The cardio area is very hard to miss, as these machines take up a bulk of the room in the gym and are almost always located at the front of the gym.
As a newer gym goer, I used to start my workouts on the cardio machine and use this time to scope out the rest of the facility.
As I spun the wheels of my stationary bike, I would subtly observe other gym goers to see how to use the various pieces of equipment and machines.
I would also look down at my program and see where the equipment I needed was located.
Doing the process helped me to feel more prepared and confident going in to a brand new workout.
| Free Weight Section
Next up we have the free weight section, which is usually located quite deep in the gym environment.
Free weights refer to any weight that is lifted freely, without any sort of attachment to a machine or cable.
The free weight section is quite easy to distinguish as it has a large, long mirror directly behind a shelf of dumbbells which vary in weight from very light to very heavy.
Here is some of the equipment you’ll find in the free weight section:
- Flat benches
- Incline & adjustable benches
- Bench press set ups
- EZ bars
- Preacher Curl Machine
This area is a great place to start strength workouts and perform compound exercises such as DB bench press, bench press, DB bent over rows, shoulder presses and more.
| Platforms & Squat Racks
Now, many people would say that the platforms and squat racks are technically part of the free weight section.
And they would be right – they are.
However, I personally like to make a specific mention of them, as they are important to differentiate.
The platforms and squat racks are also not always beside the rest of the free weight section.
In fact, usually they are located at the opposite side of the gym due to how much room they both take up.
The platforms are perfect for performing deadlifts, barbell bent over rows and olympic lifts.
They are identified by a wooden platform encased by rubber matting.
The racks and cages are perfect for barbell squatting, barbell rows, rack pulls and pull ups.
They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes but are quite easily identified pretty clearly by their large metal cage appearance.
These areas can feel a little intimidating when you’re first starting off, but they’re definitely worth using.
If you’re feeling a little nervous, start by going when the gym is less busy so you can play around with the various features such as the handles, attachments, safety bars, etc. without worrying about having to rush.
| Gym Machines
Gym machines can usually be found towards the centre of the gym, between the cardio equipment and the free weight section.
There are hundreds of different types of gym machines, which can make them a little scary at the beginning.
However, almost all gym machines have pictures and instructions on them which you can refer to.
You can also watch the person before you use the equipment before you attempt to use it yourself.
Gym machines can be roughly distinguished into two different types – pin loaded (cable) and plate loaded.
| Pin Loaded Machines (Selectorized)
Pin loaded machines (also called selectorized) are the machines that have a large stack of rectangular weights. You use a pin to select your desired weight when using them.
Pin loaded machines include machines such as:
- Various cable machines and their associated attachments
- Pec Dec
- Chest press machine
- Lat pulldown
- Seated row
- Leg extension
- Hamstring curl
- Standing Calf Raise
There can be up to dozens of these machines in a gym, especially a large big box gym.
| Plate Loaded Machines
Plate loaded machines are the machines that require weight plates to be pushed onto their dedicated metal prongs in order to change the difficulty of the exercise.
Plate loaded machines include equipment such as:
- Leg press
- Hack squat machine
- Smith machine
- Pulldown machine
- Seated row machine
Keep in mind that a certain exercise (e.g. lat pulldown) can have both a plate loaded and pin loaded (selectorized) version.
As a beginner, it might be better to start with pin loaded as they don’t require you to load and unload weight plates.
| Functional Training Area
Functional training has become very popular in recent times, with the rise of brands such as CrossFit, F45, Body Fit Training and OrangeTheory.
If you want to perform this style of training in a big box, you’re in luck.
Many gyms have started to add this type of area to their facilities, especially larger big box gyms.
This section is characterised by large open spaces, often with astro turf, athlete track, or rubber mat flooring.
Equipment the functional training area has is:
- Battle ropes
- Slam balls
- Minimalistic style cages
- Barbells and weights
- Pull up bars
- Box jump boxes
The functional training area is also often used by personal trainers and their clients, so might not always be available for general use by members.
| Group Fitness Studio
The group fitness studio is a dedicated room, most often with wooden or hard floors.
Not all gyms will offer group fitness. Usually you will need to be paying for a larger big box gym for these to be included in your gym membership.
The group fitness studio is commonly used for classes such as:
- Les Mills style classes (Body Step, Body Attack, etc.)
- Tai Chi
It is usually separated from the rest of the gym via a door and is used for group fitness classes.
Your gym will have a group fitness timetable you can refer to if you’re hoping to attend a class.
Your gym may also allow you to use the space independently when there aren’t any classes running.
This can be a great option if you want to practise some exercises without anyone watching you.
Or if you simply want some peace and quiet to work out by yourself.
| Pool & Sauna
Finally, we have the pool and sauna areas, which are located close by to the change rooms.
In my experience, most gyms don’t have these facilites.
The pool and sauna area great for unwinding after a workout.
Or if you’re a water mammal (not like me), the pool can be a great way to work out using swimming training.
In my experience, going with a gym such as the YMCA or a council facility is going to give you a membership that includes pool and sauna access.
I’ve also come across a few Genesis Health & Fitness locations that offer access to them too.