Step 1: Finding Your Gym
First off, you should do some homework to decide which gym to join. Common sense applies -- the gym should be close to either work or your home so that you won't waste a lot of time driving.
Once you've zeroed in on a handful of potential gyms to join, run the gym checklist to make sure its up to par. Many gyms will offer a free trial week, which you should take advantage of.
I tend to favor Gold's Gym because they've consistently kept the highest standards I've seen. However, the closest Gold's is a 30-minute drive away from where I live now, so I go to a smaller (but perfectly adequate) gym in the Powerhouse-chain which is only 2 minutes away from my house. Distance matters when you go often, or in my case, every day.
Step 2: Gearing Up
Ok, so you've parted with some hard-earned cash and is now a proud owner of a freshly-minted membership card. Now you need to get some suitable workout clothes and a few basic accessories. Here's a list of the basics:
- Shoes: Get basic sneakers with thin soles. Avoid running shoes with thick layers of gel or air-pillows. Those are great for running but not so great in the gym where stability is important.
- Pants/Shorts: Pants should be loose enough to allow deep squatting. Shorts... Knee-length or an inch or two above knee-length is good; ultra-short, tight shorts should go the way of shock-orange carpets, bellbottoms and other 70s abominations.
- T-shirt/Tanktop: Loose and comfy does it.
- Sweat towel: Small towel for wiping off the equipment after yourself. Read more about this in gym etiquette.
- Water Bottle: 1.5 liter should be plenty. Don't forget to clean the bottle between workouts.
- Lifting Straps: Optional accessory that helps you train back if you have a weak grip. There are different options such as lifting hooks as well; test and discuss the options with the store owner to find what works best for you. Get yours here.
- Gloves: Also optional. Improves grip (especially neoprene gloves) which can be critical if you do pressing movements with "monkey grip" (grab the bar with the thumb on the same side as the rest of the fingers, resting the bar entirely on the palm. I don't recommend this grip, but some powerlifters swear by it.) Get yours here.
- Lock: Most gyms have lockers where you bring your own padlock.
Step 3: Putting Your Workout Routine Together
I wrote extensively about suitable beginner exercises in my previous article, Laying the right foundation. My philosophy is to focus on mastering the basic, free-weight movements rather than rely on machines. The reason is simple: If you know free-weight exercises, doing the machine variety will be just a nice variation. However, if you've only done machines, where you have a fixed, pre-determined range of motion, you are ill equipped to handle the balance requirements that comes into play during squats, military presses, T-bar rows and so forth.
You may also want to consider hiring a Personal Trainer to get the groove of each exercise right. In the article above I suggest a starting training split that trains the entire body in 2 workouts. If you find 3 or even 4 days to work better, more power to you -- the feedback your body gives you is more important than any suggestion I could come up with.
However, regardless of what kind of split you decide on, you should start keeping a training log right from the start. This will ensure that you stick to the plan in the gym, and will also provide valuable reading later on when you track what worked and what didn't.
Step 4: Filling The Nutritional Requirements
As a beginner, there is no need to jump headfirst into the minutiae of nitrogen balance or dissect the pros and cons of different amino acids. Focus on eating "good food" and avoiding "bad food". Zen-like in it's simplicity, sticking to this rule will take you a long way. You know what is what; Eat plenty of chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, lean beef, parboiled rice, potatoes, thick pasta, oatmeal (not instant) and of course vegetables. Avoid fatty stuff like pizza, ice cream, bacon, soft drinks, alcohol and most snacks and candy.
Once you've cleaned up your diet you can start examining the finer details (calorie counting, breaking down meals into protein/carbs/fat percentages, tracking GI values etc.) as you progress. But, for now, focus on straightening up your basic eating. In addition, you may want consider taking a good multivitamin/mineral supplement and a few protein drinks.
Again, you'll get deeper into supplement territory as you become more advanced, but as a beginner you just need to get the basic vitamins and occasional protein drinks when its impractical to have a protein-rich meal. Never lose sight of the fact that supplements are just that -- supplements. You can read more about the difference between basic food and supplements here.
Step 5: Moving On
Take your time and learn the basics, both in the gym and in the kitchen. Track your progress and evaluate everything often. There is no rush, but keep your mind open to the fact that you'll be ready to move on from the beginner-stage sooner or later. If you start to feel that a certain training split doesn't do it for you anymore -- change it! Tired of the same old exercises? Try something new! Think you're ready for some extra oomph in your training?
Buy a can of creatine and give it a shot! After 6-12 months you should be into Intermediate territory, and you can start cautiously experimenting with intensity-boosting techniques such as forced reps, supersets and negative training. Likewise, you should have a good handle on food and supplement basics, so don't be afraid to branch out and examine supplements like glutamine, BCAAs, extra antioxidants and pyruvate.
The bottom line: Go at your own pace and step up to the next level when you feel good and ready. But be prepared to do so when the day comes. Good luck!