What should you do in the gym?

How many times have you asked yourself that question? If you’re not scheduled for a group fitness class, then it’s pretty much up to you to decide for yourself how to move, if you’re heading to the gym. Here are some questions you should ask yourself …

  • When was the last time you lifted weights? If it was just the previous day, then maybe you are due for a HIIT cardio session with some stretching instead of weightlifting.
  • Have you been doing a lot of hard workouts lately? If so, then maybe you should have a lighter day of incline walking with some stretching. (Why? Read this to see why every workout doesn’t have to be hard.)
  • Is your workout slate pretty clean? If so, then maybe today is a good day to do a full-body resistance session. And if that’s the case, you need a plan.

What should you do in the gym Via A Lady Goes West

After many years as a fitness person — both an informed one and a newbie — I am well aware that having a plan is a necessity. If I’m not teaching Les Mills BODYATTACK or BODYPUMP, then I’m probably doing a solo session, and I always go in with the exact same loose plan. Here’s how I do it …


  • Foam rolling for a few minutes. Get the quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes and upper back with some fairly quick rolling along the muscle to get it ready.
  • Dynamic movement for a few minutes. Do some plank walk-outs, arm circles and maybe even light bodyweight lunges to get loose.
  • Step it out. You will often find me power-walking on the treadmill at a high incline with my arms pumping. I start almost all resistance sessions with a 5-10 minute warm-up of fast incline walking, because boy, it works to get your body and mind ready. Try moving at 4.0 MPH with a 5-8 percent incline, and don’t hold on.

The work.

  • Full-body work is the way to go to burn big calories. While doing split days and isolating your muscle groups is excellent for building physique, it’s really only a good option for those who plan to lift weights each day. If you’ve only got a few days a week to do resistance, then go with full body.
  • My workouts almost always includes some form of squats, deadlifts, chest presses, rows and core work. I always take time to use dumbbells and a bench, and sometimes utilize the pulling machines, Roman chair or back extension contraption.
  • Reps matter. I either do four sets of eight reps. Or three sets of 10-12 reps, depending on the weight. The heavier the weight, the less reps, of course. It’s great to vary this as well throughout the week.
  • Circuits. I also like to do no more than four different kind of moves in a set to get a good cadence, then I do a second “circuit” if you will, which can include another two-to-three moves. Two circuits is plenty for a session, and I usually spend no more than 30 minutes total on the weightlifting portion.
  • Here are some workouts you can follow for ideas: A busy girl’s three-move total-body dumbbell workout20-minute total-body dumbbell workout and A short-on-time dumbbell workout.

The Stretch.

  • I finish every workout with about two-to-four minutes of stretching and foam rolling again. I usually try to put my legs up one at a time on a box for a nice hamstring stretch. Then I grab a band to help release the upper-body. When all is said and done, the cool-down and stretching portion at the end of my workout is usually shorter than it should be, but it always gets at least a couple of minutes.

Hydrate and recover.

  • After the workout, it’s either time for breakfast or a protein shake and always a lot of water.

The moral of the story? Have a plan when you hit the gym, so you don’t waste any time, and make sure your plan has a few of these elements mentioned above. When in doubt — Warm up. Work. Cool down. Use the foam roller and drink plenty of water. And if you’re having problems with motivation, a new playlist or a new workout top can do wonders!

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Questions of the day

What’s your normal gym routine?

Do you have a favorite piece of gym equipment?

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  1. Having a plan is so important! I typically workout from home and have a little notebook where I’ve written down my favorite circuits. I prefer to use dumbbells. I really want a kettlebell set though to try to start incorporating some different moves into my strength training.

    1. Hi Patricia. That’s awesome you keep track of your favorite circuits. And yes, kettlebells have a different center of gravity will be recruit your muscles in a new way. Hope you get your hands on some at home soon. Have an awesome day!

    2. These are such great tips Ashley!! Even though I typically walk into the gym with a plan, I’m totally saving this post because your circuit workouts are so perfect for me! Thanks so much for sharing!

      And I totally fall victim to making most of my workouts really tough. I definitely agree that lighter workouts are important and my goal is to start incorporating them more in my routine.

      Have a fabulous day!!

      1. Hi Mackenzie! I did the too-hard workouts for a long time too. It’s a mental shift to understand lighter workouts are good too. When in doubt- incline walking for the win heheh! Hope you have a good day!

  2. I’m all about having a plan and can’t imagine trying to tackle a workout without having it planned out on my phone – notes is my best friend! I always make sure to do a proper warm up and cool down/stretch with my workout sandwiched in there. I love full body workouts with a bit of cardio sprinkled in and my favorite pieces of equipment are kettlebells and the Bosu.

    If i’m not motivated to come up with a workout or I’m stumped on what to do I like to do Fitnessglo videos (it’s great because their website tracks how much cardio, strength & stretching you do in that week so you can see what’s missing) or I’ll do a quick search on Youtube.

    1. Hi Catherine! You are good! I love a gal with a plan in the gym. And yes, a little plyo or cardio mixed in with weights helps get the heart-rate up! Happy sweating!

  3. This is something I totally struggle with – I actually HAVE to write my weekly workout plan (including circuits, cardio and classes) on a blank sheet of paper every Sunday and leave it on the kitchen table….otherwise, I will a) lose motivation and b) get gym confusion!! When I do find myself without it, I have to do some hard thinking. Very helpful tips above!! πŸ™‚

    1. Hahaha so many studios, so little time! It’s so easy to go to a new class every day, but you know you need to fit those basic elements in the week too. Good work, Jill!!

  4. Love this! I’m just getting used to our “big box” gym down the street, whereas I used to have my work gym that was essentially empty 24/7. Understanding that other people may be using the equipment I’m interested in means that I’ll likely be leaning on dumb bells a lot more often than usual. I’ll try one of your workouts today!

    Thanks for sharing. πŸ™‚

    XO, Jessica

    P.S. Day 1 of full time blogger status was yesterday – I shared your advice to “get yourself out of the house at least once a day” with Ray, so now I have him holding me accountable. Appreciate your advice!

    1. Good luck in the new endeavor… It’s exciting!! And YES– make plans to see other people often heheh. I like to use Dumbbells so I don’t have to share equipment with others in rotation at the gym too. I’m pretty used to busy gyms, sometimes it provides extra motivation hehee

  5. Gotta have a plan. With my clients currently, I am doing mostly full body because of their frequency and needs, but I usually do cardio and then whatever body part that I am working on. I love my body split days!

    1. I agree full body makes sense for most average exercisers and for your clients. I’ve never really done split days myself. One day maybe!

  6. Thank you for sharing these ideas Ashley, because we have a home gym, and sometimes I’m wondering what to do. I think I’m due for a full body resistance session. Weights are actually a really fun break from cardio.

  7. I have serious “gymtimidation,” so I struggle with this even though I have a pretty good sense of how my body works and how to work certain muscles.
    I am drawn to group fitness as a result, but since my time is so limited (FT working mom) and I can only attend classes twice a week, I need to take this advice and get over my gym anxiety. I think I’ll check out some of the example workouts you’ve included!

    1. I know, it’s not always easy to get to group fitness classes. I like them as well, as you know. When it comes to being nervous in the gym, just remember everyone is so worried about themself they aren’t judging you!

  8. Oh my gosh…the uncanniest timing. I went to your blog to look for a workout because I’m trying to decide what to do in the gym today! And what do you know I find this blog post! Well written as always and I totally agree that not every workout has to be a total killer.

  9. Hm… good question! I guess my fave piece of equipment would be a lat pull down machine since I cant do anything similar to it at home… well I guess I could with a band, but I don’t! πŸ™‚

  10. I love all your circuit workouts! The 3-Move Total Body Dumbbell Workout is my current go to for Monday :). Those plank jack burpees oh boy!

    I currently do a a circuit on Mondays and Tuesday – Friday I take various cardio/strength/pilates classes in my work place gym. I typically take either Saturday or Sunday off and do a mix of Popilates or wight training on the other day.

    Hope the (not so new) job is going well πŸ™‚ . Does Rudy miss you ?

    1. Hi Jessie! So glad to hear you get a chance to fit in some circuit training with all of your group fitness! And yes, I miss Rudy a lot during the days, but luckily we have a dog walker to come hang with him each day ehhehe!

  11. these are great tips! Thanks for sharing with us–I try to swap out what I’m doing depending on the day so i make a playlist of the different workouts for the week. That way on the day of, i just have to hit play and work it out!

  12. This is great!!! I get to the gym about 2-3 days a week and do full body but always think I should focus on certain areas, good to know full body is just fine!! πŸ™‚

    1. Hi Kelsey! That’s great that you are doing any sort of weightlifting three times a week — yes full body is fine, lady! Keep it up! Thanks for stopping by. πŸ™‚

  13. love this reminder! i have been pretty good about making a weekly plan the past 2 years , and following it, or adjusting so i get most of it in during the week!
    and since about the fall of ’14, i have had a really good warm up routine that i love! jog, stretch, a bit of dynamic stretch, and dynamic movements, it’s probably my favorite part of my WO! hah. (except squats and deadlifts on those days πŸ˜‰ ) but i usuallly run out of time to stretch after, i know it is neccessary and so freustrating!!

    also- i’d love to see what a full body circuit workout is like for you! are they the same when you do them during the week or varied? i’m asking because i feel like you’ve only posted quick WOs when you dont have much time- but i’d love to see what a full WO is like πŸ™‚

    1. Yes, so glad you have a good routine — and going strong since 2014 ahha! Yes, I will definitely post more about a full weight routine one day soon. Thanks for asking! πŸ™‚

  14. Great article! You really gave me some great ideas for those days where I just can’t figure out what to do. I usually work from home and when I can’t decide what to do for my workout, I tend to just throw a workout video into the DVD player.

  15. I usually go to the gym 2-3 days in a week, but I still struggling to develop a consistent routine. I think I should consider at least one weekly swimming session.

    Thanks for the great article. It helps me to get rid of many confusions!

  16. Love this.
    Thanks for the tips.
    I always find it easier to take classes at the gym. You get a good workout within an hour of class and have people around you, an instructor, and music to push you!

  17. I haven’t really tried going to the gym, but we do have our own gym at home. It’s more convenient because I don’t have to go out of our house and travel just to do my workout. Once I get up in the morning, I can easily go to our gym which is beside my room, and do my routine. The downside of having a gym in our house is, building a consistent routine. I tend to be more lazy and I don’t see a lot of people doing their best to get fit and healthy. Since my family members, just do exercise when they feel like to. Thanks for sharing this post. I think It’s better to go to an outdoor gym and practice consistency. This way, I can maximize our own gym and be more consistent at home. By the way, Is it always better to have a trainer at first?

    1. Hi Joe! It’s VERY helpful to work with a trainer when you are starting a fitness routine to get some tips, but it’s not a total necessity. You just have to be careful to read HOW-TOs to practice your form and look in the mirror, which is the best way to prevent injuries. Home or gym workouts are fine, as long as you are consistent and motivated. Good luck to you!

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