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How to Get Started in the Gym

Despite public health efforts¹, only ~2 out of 10 Canadian adults meet the recommended minimum of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week.² Furthermore, those of us that do take the initiative to hit the weight room may find that sticking to our plans is more difficult than anticipated. It may be relieving to know, however, that this is a common experience among new gym-goers, about 50% of whom either cease exercising altogether or report decreased physical activity levels within the first months following exercise initiation.³⁻⁴ This may be mediated in part by the amount of pleasure derived from exercising.⁵ This week's article will therefore discuss how to manipulate your strength training variables to promote exercise enjoyment, and thus, lifelong exercise adherence.

High intensity exercise generates feelings of displeasure.⁶ Therefore, start out by performing 2 workouts per week.⁷ On a Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale of 1-10 (1 and 10 being minimal and maximal subjective effort respectively), you should aim for an RPE of 5-8.⁷ Perform 2-3 sets per muscle group.⁷ Prioritize exercise machines as opposed to free weights since they are safer and do not require advanced neuromuscular control.⁷⁻⁸ More specifically, opt for machines that target small muscle groups such as the leg extension machine as opposed to large muscle groups like the leg press.⁷ Rest for about 90 to 150 seconds between sets.⁷ Shorter rest periods may produce anxiety and longer rest periods may produce boredom.⁹ Perform your favorite exercise last to conclude workouts on a positive note.¹⁰

After some time, this training protocol will become too easy. At this point, you can add an extra training session into your week.⁷ Perform 3-4 sets per muscle group at an RPE of 6-10.⁷ You can also experiment with different exercises to see what you enjoy the most.⁷ At this stage, you should be familiar with your bodily responses to exercise and can self-select rest times between sets.⁷ Once again, perform your favorite exercise last to conclude workouts on a positive note.⁷

Although this information may be overwhelming at first glance, it can be comprehensively summarized in the following statement-start out slow and focus on making sustainable progress over time! Good luck!


  1. Waxman, A. (2005). Why a global strategy on diet, physical activity and health? World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics, 95, 162–166. doi:10.1159/000088302

  2. Statistics Canada. Table 13-10-0337-01 Household population meeting/not meeting the Canadian physical activity guidelines, inactive

  3. Dishman, R. K., & Buckworth, J. (1997). Adherence to physical activity. Taylor & Francis.

  4. Marcus, B. H., Dubbert, P. M., Forsyth, L. H., McKenzie, T. L., Stone, E. J., Dunn, A. L., & Blair, S. N. (2000). Physical activity behavior change: Issues in adoption and maintenance. Health Psychology, 19(1), 32–41.

  5. Rhodes, R. E., & Kates, A. (2015). Can the affective response to exercise predict future motives and physical activity behavior? A systematic review of published evidence. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 49(5), 715–731.

  6. Ekkekakis, P., Parfitt, G., & Petruzzello, S. J. (2011). The pleasure and displeasure people feel when they exercise at different intensities: Decennial update and progress towards a tripartite rationale for exercise intensity prescription. Sports Medicine (Auckland), 41(8), 641–671.

  7. Cavarretta, D. J., Hall, E. E., & Bixby, W. R. (2019). The acute effects of resistance exercise on affect, anxiety, and mood - practical implications for designing resistance training programs. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 12(1), 295–324.

  8. Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning (4th ed). Human Kinetics.

  9. Bibeau, W. S., Moore, J. B., Mitchell, N. G., Vargas-Tonsing, T., & Bartholomew, J. B. (2010). Effects of acute resistance training of different intensities and rest periods on anxiety and affect. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 24(8), 2184–2191.

  10. Hargreaves, E. A., & Stych, K. (2013). Exploring the peak and end rule of past affective episodes within the exercise context. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14(2), 169–178.

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