15 Ways to Make the Most of a Gym Membership

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Older man at the gym with a towel around his neck
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STAY PUMPED

If joining a gym is on your to-do list for the new year, you're far from alone. January is notorious for attracting new members hoping to keep their resolutions. If you're a gym-going newbie, you can boost your chances of success -- and get a lot more bang for your buck -- if you heed some simple tips that will help you find the right place, set goals, and amp up your workout.

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TRY BEFORE YOU BUY

Every gym has strengths and weaknesses. Do the hours work with your schedule, and is the place packed when you'd normally go? Is the equipment up-to-date and well-maintained? Are the locker rooms tidy and well-stocked or dirty and neglected? These questions are hard to answer without actually trying out a potential gym, so make sure you take advantage of free trials before signing any contracts. Some facilities will even let you work out for up to a week before deciding whether to continue.

Older woman looking at gym contract with gym employee
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READ THE FINE PRINT

Once you've found a place you like, scrutinize the contract before signing. Will you be paying month to month (usually more expensive) or signing up for a year or more? Can you "freeze" your membership temporarily if you know you won't be able to go for a certain period of time? And when you want to cancel, is the process straightforward or are there hoops to jump through? For instance, some gyms may require proof that you're moving a certain distance away or have a medical issue that makes it impossible for you to continue. At a minimum, you'll probably be required to put your cancellation in writing.

Fitness instructor with a clipboard at the gym
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GET A FITNESS EVALUATION

After you've joined, many gyms will offer a free fitness assessment and use the results to recommend a fitness program. It can help you get a sense of your current fitness level, giving you a baseline for comparison once you've made progress. Assessments may include measurements and/or body-fat testing; a cardio endurance test on a treadmill; a strength test using common exercises like squats, push-ups and planks; and a flexibility test using common stretches.

Personal trainer working with a woman lifting weights
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HIRE A TRAINER TO SHOW YOU THE ROPES

Personal training can certainly be expensive, so think carefully before making a long-term commitment. However, paying for just a few sessions can be a worthwhile splurge if you haven't hit the gym in a long time. A trainer can create a personalized fitness plan for you, demonstrate exercises both on and off equipment, make sure you're using proper form, and offer plenty of motivation for when you do go solo.

Women in a fitness class
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TRY A CLASS OR TWO

Many gyms offer a diverse roster of fitness classes. Even if you typically prefer a solo workout, consider shaking up your routine with group fitness. Not into traditional aerobics? Try boot camp, kickboxing, spin or high-intensity interval training. Need a good beat? Try Zumba or some sort of cardio dance. Want to slow it down and focus on strength or flexibility? Check out pilates, yoga, or barre. Whatever you choose, the camaraderie and variety might keep you coming back for more.

Woman on a treadmill smiling
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DON'T BE SELF-CONSCIOUS

Yes, you will see some ultra-toned bodies. Yes, you will see some ripped guys bench pressing what seems like twice their weight. But you'll also see average Joes and Janes at the beginning of their fitness journey, just like you. Consider investing in a few gym outfits that make you feel good, but above all else, remember that most other gym-goers aren't focusing on you. They're concentrating on their own workout and worrying about their own flaws.

Older man lifting weights by himself at gym
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AIM FOR OFF-PEAK TIMES

If you have a flexible schedule, consider hitting the gym when it's not so packed -- think mid-morning or mid-afternoon between the morning, lunchtime, and evening rushes. Another possibility: late in the evening once the post-work crowd has left. That way, you won't have to wait for a machine or wade through a super-crowded locker room. However, keep in mind that crowds are always thick in January as people try to make good on their New Year's resolutions. Gold's Gym, for instance, has said traffic can jump 40 percent from December to January.

Young woman eating at the gym
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POWER UP BEFOREHAND

No, you might not want to down a full meal right before heading to the gym, but experts say eating a small snack of protein and carbs up to two hours before your workout can help keep you energized enough to follow through. The longer or more intense your session, the more important this is. Just make sure to give your stomach a little time to settle before starting your workout.

Woman listening to music on the treadmill at work
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SAVE THE CHIT-CHAT FOR LATER

Going to the gym with a buddy can be a great motivator -- you'll have someone to keep you accountable on the days you'd rather stay in bed or binge on a new show. But if you find yourself chatting up others for your whole gym session, you're probably not working out hard enough. Save the chit-chat for your warmup or cool down, or grab a nutritious meal with friends afterward. In between, pop in your earbuds and commit to getting that heart pumping.

Man using the bench press
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CHANGE UP YOUR ROUTINE

Once you've got a lock on your gym routine, it may feel like you can sleepwalk right through it. So instead of robotically heading for that easy half-hour on the elliptical or same circuit of free weights, do your mind and body a favor by trying something new. For instance, if you're strength training, tack on more weight or reps to your normal sets. If you're doing cardio, add high-intensity intervals to keep your body guessing.

Woman in the locker room at the gym
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BE A QUICK-CHANGE ARTIST

Locker rooms can seem like a huge time suck in a jam-packed day, but not if you go in with a strategy. Cut out on classes a little early to beat the shower rush, or better yet, bring some freshening cloths and wipe yourself down without setting foot in the water. Dry shampoo can even soak up sweat and oil in the hair. Skip the locker room entirely by investing in some athleisure clothes that can you can wear to run quick errands before or after your workout; that way, you can shower at home where there's no wait.

Woman in a sauna
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TAKE ADVANTAGE OF OTHER AMENITIES

Some gyms have a lot more to offer than fitness equipment these days. Bigger facilities may offer free childcare for little ones, snack or smoothie bars, and cardio or spin theaters where you can watch a movie while working out. If there's a pool, it may be accompanied by some sort of whirlpool or steam room -- great for unwinding and easing muscle soreness after a tough workout. One of the most commonly overlooked perks: Your membership may allow you to work out for free or cheap at an affiliated gym when you're traveling.

Woman cleaning a machine at the gym
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LEARN PROPER GYM ETIQUETTE

If you've found a gym you like, be a team player and follow the rules. Whatever you do, heed those signs imploring you to wipe off those benches or machines after you use them. During busy times, stick to time limits on cardio equipment, and let others work out instead of dominating a particular bench or weight machine for a long stretch -- your muscles will appreciate the break. Head to the lobby or another area away from others if you need to take a call. Above all else, give others personal space and let them concentrate on their workout, same as you want to do.

Two girls giving a high five at the gym in push-up position
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REWARD YOURSELF

Some days, scraping yourself off the couch to head to the gym is going to be tough -- very tough. So after a particularly hard workout, a month of consistent gym attendance, mastering an intimidating exercise, or meeting some other goal, don't be afraid to reward yourself. Psychologists say rewards can be effective motivators that keep you heading back to the gym for more. Just steer clear of using that fat piece of chocolate cake as a reward, or you'll undo all the good you did during your workout.

Happy man smiling at the gym with a free weight
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JUST GO

Using your gym membership regularly means you're actually getting a pretty great deal. If you go 15 times a month and your membership costs $40 a month, that's only $2.66 a workout. Picking up the real tab of your workout is everyone who buys a membership and uses it infrequently, or not at all. Those people are keeping prices low for the rest of us -- just make sure you don't become one of them.

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