Between some menacing-looking machinery and those icy, take-no-prisoners stares, it’s no surprise that gyms can score high on the intimidation scale. But a commitment to fitness doesn’t have to land us in panic mode. Read on to learn the need-to-know workout lingo that will make navigating the gym a breeze.
Illustrations by Shannon Orcutt
Bodybuilder: With bulging biceps and X-shaped frames, these larger-than-life gym bodies don’t just happen overnight. Heavy lifting and a strict diet are a few of the prerequisites— just ask Arnold. Some of the not-so-nice names we had to leave out: meatheads, guerilla, and many other terms of endearment courtesy of The Jersey Shore.
CrossFitter: In the CrossFit revolution, these super-fit (or at least super-motivated) specimens are its humble disciples. Their daily workouts, aka “WODs,” include tens to hundreds (yes, hundreds) of reps of high intensity functional movements, including pull-ups, box jumps, burpees, running, Olympic lifts, and squats. Not quite Navy Seal-fit? Weight and intensity are both scalable, depending on fitness level.
Gym Rat: Don’t bother calling the exterminator. These workout-aholics will do whatever it takes to get their daily burn. Spot them morning, noon, and night, maneuvering the floor with a cool, “I know what’s up” swag.
Mr. Varsity: If anyone’s got game, it’s this guy. Boasting “big man on campus” cockiness (errr, charm?), this all-star athlete doesn’t let a day go by without plying his trade. Expect a well-rehearsed variety show of weights, plyometrics, and track work— plus a few winks for the ladies.
Power Couple: His-n-hers workout gear may be a tip-off, but what often sets these duos apart is their matched intensity. Look out for synchronized movements or a him-then-her rotation punctuated with lots of starry-eyed high fives— or PDA (get a home gym, please!).
Powerlifter: Need a hand? These singlet-wearing bundles of might could single-handedly move your baby grand. What they might prefer to do? Math (in multiples of 45lbs), and compete in the following three moves: squat, deadlift, and bench press.
Spin Head: Maybe they sport their own cycling shoes, or at least a whole lot of
sleek, logoed spandex. What these spinning enthusiasts all seek out is that high-intensity, peddle-pounding burn.
Personal Trainer: Not only are they fit, knowledgeable, and commanding, the best among these no-fuss pros help clients achieve their fitness goals through safe and effective exercise techniques (and can make stairs a no-go for at least 48 hrs, or until the soreness wears off). There are numerous certifying bodies for trainers, so make sure to check credentials before investing in some serious instruction.
Weekend Warrior: The mid-week grind is all that keeps these exercise enthusiasts from going full-throttle. Come Saturday, though, expect a range of intense, strenuous workouts— maybe even a 10k run or a 2-hour mountain bike ride with friends.
Yogi (or Yogini, for the ladies): It’s about more than just downward facing dog for this loose and limber set. Armed with toned, sinewy limbs, Lululemon anything, and a healthy dose of WOOOOSAH, these yoga lovers live and breathe its principles beyond the purple mats.
Circuit Training: This A.D.D.-friendly workout combines a series of strength and cardio moves to blast maximum calories and fat. Complete the circuit? Repeat it three times through, with little to no rest between sets.
Compound/Functional Movements: Also known as multi-joint or complex exercises, these movements work multiple muscles as a functional unit, promoting stability and maximum calorie burn. Some classics include squats, bench press, and pullups.
Drop Sets: Using this grueling strength training technique, weight is reduced mid-set, and the exercise continued until exhaustion. The best way to drop it like it’s hot? Have a partner switch out the weights so there’s as little lag time in between reps as possible. Just remember, while “descending sets” can be effective for building strength, they’re extremely taxing on the body and are not recommended as a daily training method.
Failure: Sometimes failure can be a good thing— at least when it comes to resistance training. When training to failure, an exercise is repeated until exhaustion, the point when the muscles pretty much go on strike. While this is one tool for building muscular strength, size, and endurance, proceed with caution, as using this method can potentially increase the risk of injury.
Forced Reps: Almost as fun as they sound (insert grunts and groans here), these are extra repetitions at the end of a set that require the help of a spotter (think a bit beyond failure). The incentive: the potential for greater gains in muscle mass and strength.
Interval Training: By alternating bursts of light and intense activity, this popular training method helps maximize fat-burning potential while boosting metabolism and cardiovascular fitness levels . For a quick and effective workout, give one of these beginner programs a try.
Isolation Exercises: Unlike compound/functional movements, these targeted exercises hit just one muscle at a time. One quintessential bodybuilding favorite: the bicep curl.
Lifting: Also known as strength training, weight training, resistance training, and of course, pumping iron, lifting is the go-to method for increasing muscular strength, size, tone, and endurance. Workouts can utilize dumbbells, weight machines, kettlebells, resistance tubing, body weight, or a combination of them all.
Negatives: Also called “eccentric contraction,” this is the act of lowering the weight slowly under tension to the start position. Why get negative? Performing negative reps can help stress (and therefore strengthen) muscles in a different manner than simply lifting and lowering, helping the body break through existing strength plateaus.
Progression: Consider this “Movin’ on up” for muscles. Progressions can include anything from increasing weight resistance, repetitions, or number of sets in a workout to decreasing rest time for cardiovascular training. Tracking progression over time in the gym and on the track is a great way to gauge improvement— and see what might need some extra work.
Plateau: Seeing results takes time and practice, and even then, it’s common for progress to eventually come to a halt. Since the body naturally adapts to the stresses of exercise (especially if performing the same routine daily), try varying the program and revving up the intensity to push past workout slumps.
Plyometrics: These movements (like broad jumps, vertical jumps, and even explosive skipping) are designed to increase speed and explosiveness while strengthening joints and muscles. But before bringing back the Kriss Kross, remember that safe and effective plyometrics are all about quality, not quantity.
Supersets: Beef up any workout with this super-charged approach in which two exercises are performed back-to-back with no (or at least minimal) rest in between. Add in a third exercise, and you’ve got a triset. The payoff: more work in a minimal amount of time.
Split: No, we’re not talking about the banana-ice cream-and-fudge variety. A split routine involves dividing up the muscle groups into different training days (i.e. “Monday is leg day in my 5-day split”). The cherry on top: each body part will have sufficient time to recover and rebuild.
The Moves & Machinery
Bench Press: An upper body favorite, this multi-joint exercise is used to strengthen the chest, shoulders, and triceps. Since weights can get heavy, spotters are strongly advised.
Burpee: There’s nothing rude about letting out a few of these at the gym. A variation on the classic “squat thrust” (add a pushup in the down position), this full-body move is properly finished with a vertical jump.
Clean & Jerk: One of two highly-technical Olympic weightlifting events, this explosive two-stage movement begins by “cleaning” the weight from the floor to shoulders, and then “jerking” it overhead with a mighty push from the legs.
Deadlift: Anyone with a toddler has some experience with this movement. Swap in a loaded barbell, though, and form really starts to matter. For a detailed rundown from legendary strength coach Mark Rippetoe, watch here.
Dips: While most of us prefer our dips with the chips, in this version both hands will unfortunately be busy. Performed on a bench, “captain’s chair,” or assisted dip machine, this tricep, shoulder, and chest exercise is particularly effective because it hits all three muscles groups in addition to effectively engaging the core.
Military Press: Move over GI Joe (and Jane), this exercise is key for anyone looking for some serious overhead strength. From a standing position, with an overhand grip, press the barbell upward until arms are fully extended overhead (be careful not to lean too far back during the lift). Lower back down to the shoulders and repeat.
Pec Deck: A machine alternative to free weights, the pec deck is a popular choice among bodybuilders aiming to isolate and strengthen the chest muscles, or pecs (short for pectorals).
Planks: Jack Sparrow’s absolute favorite, this core-stablizing exercise keeps us on our toes (and forearms) while working the abs, lower back, and obliques.
Power Rack: Also known as a power cage or squat cage, this piece of equipment is where some seriously heavy (or simply safe) lifting takes place. Designed with safety bars to allow for a safer workout, the four-posted rack is a go-to for squats and presses, to name a few.
Pull-ups: The next logical step after graduating from Huggies, this impressive big kid move uses bodyweight to work the back, arms, and shoulders. “Pullups” generally refer to the movement performed with an overhand grip, while chinups are their underhanded cousin. Not quite there yet? Check the gym for an assisted pull-up machine, or try building up to the full movement with pulldowns.
Skullcrushers: Don’t worry, relatively few skulls have actually been harmed during this dynamic triceps exercise. Still, the move brings the barbell (or dumbbells) within inches of the forehead, making for an adrenaline-pumping exercise. We definitely advise a spotter for this one!
Smith Machine: No, it’s not a 16th century torture device. This safety-first piece of equipment holds a loadable bar in place on vertical poles where it can slide up and down without a hitch. Careful not to confuse it with the power rack, however, as Smith Machine’s fixed-plane barbell provides a completely different set of movements than a free weight barbell.
Snatch: Watch out, Brad Pitt. Arguably the most highly technical (read: most difficult) movement in strength sports:, the snatch involves lifting the barbell from the floor to a locked arms position overhead in a smooth, continuous motion. A combination of strength, speed, and precision are needed for this Olympic weightlifting event.
Squat Rack: Prepare for little more than popping a squat at this weight room fixture. Built to hold a fully loaded barbell, these stands serve similar purposes as power racks, though without the safety bars.
“Can I get a spot?”: Death by free weights would be a terrible way to go, so asking an able bodied gym-goer for a hand is always advised. That added security (and perhaps a few grunts of encouragement) might even push the body to reach its healthy, uppermost limits.
“How many sets do you have left?”: When a machine is in use, workout busy-bodies want to know how long they’ll have to wait around for it.
“Can I work in?”: Assuming this isn’t code for “wanna go out sometime?” these gym-goers are asking if it’s cool to grab a turn while you rest between sets.
“What are you lifting today?”: For those following a split training routine (see entry above), the question is what muscle group is on the agenda for that day. The reply might be something like “legs,” “back,” or “chest” (as opposed to “grocery bags” and “laundry baskets”).
“What’s your max, bro?”: Oh, how we love the bro talk. Don’t recall those personal bests? Pick your favorite number and tack on at least one zero to the end of it.
“Can you help me load/rack these?”: Remember how important it was to put toys away? After loading (i.e. adding) weights, proper gym etiquette states they should always be racked or stripped (i.e. removed) and returned from whence they came.