What you need and what you don’t

December 31st, 2008  |  Published in Starting at the gym  |  21 Comments

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.


  1. Karsten M. Self says:

    February 15th, 2009at 3:24 am(#)

    Add to the resources section: Boris Bachmann’s truly excellent Squat Rx series on YouTube. The video index is at http://youtube.com/view_play_list?p=C03D688F10C4DE1F

    Boris covers form, mistakes, corrections, variations, and supplementary exercises to squat. It’s one of the best references available anywhere. He also maintains a blog at:

    Together, Stumptuous and Squat Rx are my two most frequently given fitness references.

    And for shins’n’grits, Nicole Carroll’s 15 x bodyweight OH squat Crossfit video is an excellent motivator. The power and skill demonstrated leaves this guy in awe.

  2. Fernando A Mendoza says:

    February 27th, 2009at 3:12 pm(#)

    Hi Krista,

    You want to add to the ‘You Need’ Section:
    – weight lifting shoes
    They’re required for squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, presses … and to a certain extent the bench.
    – chalk
    Required for deadlifts, cleans, snatches and presses (standing or benching). Also good for Over head squats.

    I carry these two items in the gym all the time, and I’ve had great progress on my training.

  3. Mistress Krista says:

    February 27th, 2009at 5:54 pm(#)

    Hi there, I cover those in my Guide to Gym Gear here:

  4. Evie says:

    April 6th, 2009at 7:56 pm(#)

    All you really need for weight training is a backpack, some water bottles, and extreme dedication.

    While doing volunteer work in third-world countries, I kept to a three day a week split. One litre of water is one kilo (2.2lbs), so changing my weights was as easy as adding or subtracting a water bottle from my backpack. The backpack had handles in convenient spots, so I could do overhead presses, dumbell rows, presses, weighted push-ups, and deadlifts all with the backpack. When I could get internet access I’d check my form by watching the demonstrations on YouTube.

    I did this barefoot on dirt floors with no air conditioning and a bucket for a shower. Let no one tell you that you can’t start your routine until you’ve bought something.

  5. Christine says:

    May 13th, 2009at 10:09 am(#)

    I recently found out I’m losing my job, and am trying to set up a home gym. It really helps to know what need and what I don’t. And the stores would love to sell you all sorts of crap. Last night I went to Big 5 and had to search through a mountain of manure to find the rose I really needed. ;-) So thanks so much for this entry & for the rest of your site as well!

  6. Jody says:

    June 1st, 2009at 7:39 am(#)

    I’d like to suggest one thing that I have found helpful at the gym: talking to people who look like they know what they are doing and are willing to share. Not the big guy who is strutting around, but the quiet guy or woman who is lifting alot more off in the corner.

    My gym is full of people who don’t know what they are doing, but occasionally I see a friendly guy who seems open to some questions. I always combine his advice with that from some books and websites and distill the best. Mostly it is nice to have someone else confirm what I have been thinking.

    Thanks for Stumpuous!

  7. fitnessbikes says:

    July 18th, 2009at 6:22 am(#)

    I personally liked this article very much. Now I have got an idea of what is needed and not needed.

  8. MaryFulks says:

    August 6th, 2009at 10:06 am(#)

    Okay, I need to start doing something. I had Lap Band surgery in October of 2008, and I thought that was going to get rid of the fat all alone. Apparently, it doesn’t. I have gone from 243 to 211 in the length of time that I have had my band. I really WANT to go to the gym and eat right. I just really don’t know where to start. I go to the gym and lift with my husband, (he goes everyday at 6 am and lifts for 2 hours.) but I look at myself in those God awful mirrors and want to vomit. I look silly slinging around dumbbells. I feel like I have a sign on my head that is big and flashing that says “I have no idea what I am doing!!” As far as eating goes…I don’t even know how many calories I should be getting a day so that I can lose weight. I read all these different things, and everything says something different. I want to do what I have to do to get there…I just don’t have a road map!! I don’t know what to eat, or when to eat it, I don’t know what to do at the gym…I need help!!

  9. Mistress Krista says:

    August 6th, 2009at 12:16 pm(#)

    Mary — read the site. The whole site. You probably don’t need to read anything else, but I also recommend http://www.precisionnutrition.com. Then stop making excuses about how silly you will look and just find a way to move around that you enjoy.

  10. Bluehibiscus says:

    August 8th, 2009at 10:32 pm(#)

    I love this site and recommend it to everyone. Thanks for the excellent information, tips and laughs – it’s nice to find an easy to read and understand site like this one

  11. Mike says:

    December 8th, 2009at 10:29 pm(#)

    The leather/foam belts always make me chuckle. Reminds me of Drew Barrymore’s brother in 50 First Dates:)

  12. Cat says:

    January 29th, 2010at 3:40 pm(#)

    i’ve got type 1 diabetes and it’s always been an issue for me to play sports or go to the gym b/c my bloodsugar drops (then i have to chug juice and usually get really unmotivated as well as feel kind of bloated). my endocrinologist suggested eating something high in fiber about an hour before going to the gym but this usually makes it so i get tummy aches.

    do you have any suggestions for things i can eat beforehand that will keep my bloodsugar up without making my tummy want to defect?

  13. Mistress Krista says:

    February 1st, 2010at 10:39 am(#)

    Cat: Try something like a small protein shake made with some carbohydrate — a very basic blend of fruit/protein powder will do fine. Even just a cup is adequate. Sip at the shake (don’t chug) throughout your workout. This should help keep BG constant.

  14. su says:

    September 28th, 2010at 10:37 am(#)

    can someone explain this about belts?
    “Worn loosely, it can provide proprioceptive cues to keeping your spine in proper position. But as a beginner, you don’t need this.” I wear a belt for squats, deads, and presses but always pretty tight and was interested in this proprioceptive mumbodejumbo.

  15. Mistress Krista says:

    September 28th, 2010at 11:45 am(#)

    Proprioception: knowledge of where your body is in space, and what it is doing. If I ask you where your left foot is right now, you’ll need a half-second to think about it, probably. But if you have something poking your foot (i.e. providing mechanoreception, aka touch cues), you’ll know exactly where the foot is. Adding mechanoreception or touch cues (e.g. from a belt) helps give input about what the body is doing, and thus gives you additional information you need to make decisions about how to move.

  16. Stickman says:

    October 8th, 2010at 11:13 am(#)

    “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.”

    Do gloves really provide assistance to grip? I was helping a friend the other day with his deadlifts and he was having real trouble getting up past about 6 inches off the deck. I suggested he take his gloves off and the bar came up like a baby.

    Mark Rippetoe says that gloves REDUCE grip strength because they increase the effective diameter of the bar – with squishy wobbly stuff at that. He only recommends them if you’ve got torn calluses or something similar that would actually prevent you from working out if you don’t use gloves.

    However, for beginners, I guess it may not make that much difference because grip strength is perhaps less likely to be the limiting factor compared to, say, low back strength. Any thoughts from your own experience?

  17. Amie Spengler says:

    December 5th, 2010at 10:14 am(#)

    I wear gloves, and use straps: my hands sweat a LOT and the gloves keep my hands drier so I don’t slip off the pull-up bar or drop the 45 dumbbell or 135 dead lift. And I add the straps (which, unfortunately being made for MEN, are a little big for my wrists and go on best OVER my gloves) in the 3rd or 4th set when my forearms give out – I use them doing the farmer’s carry with the 45 plates, too, because the darned plates are so thick my little hands can’t hold them.

    My trainer often says, as we make adjustments to various things, “Little Amie, Big Gym”. I get a machine adjusted to where I’m in the right position and we have to grab a BOSU so my feet will not dangle. Think maybe you could hit up an article about us petitely-sized women working out in a place meant for people of a slightly bigger stature? I have to stand on my toes to climb on and off the pull-up station!

    The other day in the gym, a fairly overweight woman was doing skull-crushers with a 15-lb bar, and clearly it was NO effort at all for her – just like going through motions. She did 3 sets. Seriously? She needs to review this site!!!

    I’m 40, 41 in less than a month. I started at 185 in 2005, weigh 130 now after many years of trial & error & yo-yoing. Before & After pics on my Facebook page, with a few videos of a couple sets at the gym with my trainer. Found those VERY helpful for checking my form – hard to see where your elbows are sometimes, and if your butt’s out far enough, your knees are aligned properly, etc…

  18. JT says:

    May 9th, 2011at 10:12 pm(#)

    Here is what you need. In fact it is all you need and it stows away in a little bag so you can take it on trips.
    It sets up inside or outside. You can do at least 70 exercises, probably more. Most if not all require you to engage your core. I have used mine in Hawaii, CA, Texas, La, Tahoe, indoors and out.
    Next, when you get the exercises down you can decrease the interval time between sets and viola! Your heartrate stays high while you are building strength. The trainer was designed and built my Navy SEALs to use to stay in shape in places like Iraq.
    It is called TRX and you can find it at
    They also have DVDs, classes around the world and a forum.
    So, I use the TRX, I do kettlebells, push ups, pull ups and assorted core/ab training. Forget machines. You want to develop functional strength because that is what you use day in and day out!

  19. barefootwriter says:

    November 27th, 2011at 10:12 pm(#)

    I’m with you! I bought an inexpensive pair of lifting gloves, then gave up on them.

    Otherwise, my only special gear is my Vibram Five Fingers (you may not get away with these in a commercial gym), a notebook, and a wrist wrap for my one bad wrist (broken and surgically repaired a few years ago, it balks at bench presses).

  20. Katrina Costedio, Surfer/Writer/Designer says:

    June 29th, 2012at 10:40 am(#)

    Since I’m a CrossFitter, I say fish oil. The one supplement you have to have.

  21. Diane Cavallero says:

    September 2nd, 2012at 9:16 am(#)

    SO here i am again after an abusive partner (“only” mental abuse but dont get me started that trail grrr) left with C-PTSD and trying to find a way back to the me i liked a lot more. and the gym is the way to do it.. but it took a year to get here and i a way way out of shape.

    Have a mate that was also abused and was trying to get her to see that we women are fine wit weights and showed her your page. Happy to report it changed her mind totally about going to th e gym with me to beat the down days and get back in shape. No better revenge than a happy life eh? LOL

    I am delighted that my favorite site for women on th net is also sparking her to get cracking and beat the blues literally to death. i know it will be hard work.. but this kind of pain i take on voluntarily.

    Oh and my one piece of equipment that i cant be without – a decent insert for my gym shoes, which was made for me by my podiatrist who analyzed my gait and sorted out my feet which sorted my knees ad hips nd back to the degree that i regained an inch in height Pretty awesome results for an investment of £180 which seems steep but they have lasted 4 years now. Worthwhile equipment if you are prone to back and knee injuries as i was…. it sorted out that as well, i didnt seem to injure myself at nearly the rate formerly.. so yeah, good kit.

    Oh and hand sanitizer which i use after the sweaty bastards forget as the always do to wipe the machines and weights. |I once caught a nasty skin infection from some one who didnt clean up after themselves and i didnt have my usual towel and sani combo with me it saw a few weeks before i got rid of that too dammit.. grrr

    I tell em what for too but sometimes you cannot, like a dog pooping, catch them in the act. I am a stickler for manners in the gym an that means dont leave things dripping with your effing sweat .. you’d be surprised how many think I am being a bitch.

    They havent even seen me being a bitch .. yet.

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