A stranger's foot in your face. Just what you were hoping for during your workout, right?

A stranger's foot in your face. Just what you were hoping for during your workout, right?

By Josie Rubio

If you’ve been to the gym or a fitness class recently, you know it’s crowded. If you’re lucky enough to get one of the good elliptical machines, the eyes of those who have settled for the old stationary bicycles bore into your back, waiting to take the coveted spot as soon as you’re done. The space between yoga mats has shrunk considerably in classes. In fact, many fitness classes are booked, and you have to be extra-careful that a sweeping yoga pose, a vigorous dance move or a wayward burpee doesn’t launch you into your neighbor.

Instead of secretly hoping that others give up on their resolutions to free up the best machines and class spots—or getting discouraged and giving up your own workouts because of the crowds—be creative. We want everyone to reach his or her fitness goals this year, so we asked trainers for some tips for getting your sweat on during the gym’s busy season. 

Problem: All the equipment is taken.

If all the machines are occupied, surely it’s a sign you should head home or to happy hour instead, right? Nope. In case you haven’t heard, bodyweight training is the number-one fitness trend, according to the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual survey. The good news is that you don’t need equipment, and you can do it anywhere—even while you’re waiting for a machine to free up. (For instructions on how to do some of the exercises below, simply click on the links.)

Squats take little space and little time to do while waiting for a machine,” says Jess Horton, an ACE-certified personal trainer at Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach. “Jumping rope is another great one. Both keep heart rate up and keep you moving during designated gym time.” (Don’t have a jump rope? Just pretend.)

To get in some cardio, ACSM spokesperson Grace DeSimone also recommends jumping rope, as well as jumping jacks or jogging in place. You can also do mountain-climbers, says Chris Chinn, co-owner of Sweat City Fitness in Culver City, CA.

DeSimone also suggests the following routine: “Do 10 reps of the following exercises: squats, lunges, push-ups, tricep dips, then hold a plank for 30 seconds. Repeat until a machine becomes available.”

But where do you do these exercises? “If the gym does not have a stretching or functional training area, see if one of the group exercise rooms is idle and use the space,” says Neal Pire, MA, CSCS, FACSM, an exercise physiologist at HNH Fitness in Oradell, NJ.

Chinn says, “Go do some flexibility, foam rolling or core work in the stretching area. You’d be surprised how productive you can be as you wait for a machine to open up.”

As for strength training, Chinn suggests knowing one or two alternate exercises for each muscle group or movement pattern. “I'd suggest knowing one alternative on the machines and one with dumbbells/free-weights that you can do in case one is unavailable. For example, if the machine chest press is full, have the option to do dumbbell chest press or vice-versa. If someone is taking up the squat rack, go over to the machine leg press. Usually the free weights are more available for use than the machines, so if you know how to use free weights for each movement, you should be covered.” (For more exercise instructions, check out the ih8exercise guide.)

Problem: The classes are booked.

The answer to finding a spot in classes is simple, but not necessarily easy. “During the prime time in January, the best option is to try to come at off-peak times or show up early for scheduled classes,” says Pire.

Chinn says, “The busiest class times are going to be 5–6 pm after work, so try to schedule around that time if you want to avoid the crowd.”

Beating the rush might also mean setting your alarm. “Early morning classes typically include those who are committed to staying fit,” Horton says. “Those individuals are up early and ready to sweat before starting the day.”

If it’s first-come-first-served, then arrive about 15 minutes early, says DeSimone. If reservations are required, then book early and set a calendar reminder.

Problem: There’s no space in classes.

Recently a story in The New York Times explored the phenomenon of the front row in certain classes becoming a revered and prestigious position. That’s usually not the case, however, for most classes. “If it's an open class, get there early and find a spot up front near the instructor,” says Horton. “Most people are timid of being front-and-center in a group class.”

DeSimone recommends finding a place away from the door. (We have to admit, we’re guilty of this; it’s as if we feel some sort of comfort if we can escape easily.) “Take a space as far away from the entrance door as possible,” she says. “People tend to hover around the walls and doors of studios. If you move into the room and toward the far side—away from the door—there is usually more space.”

Other Fitness Hacks for Crowded Gyms

DeSimone offers these additional tips for getting through the early-year rush.

  • Learn your way around. “If the gym offers an orientation, take advantage of it.”
  • Have a plan. “Avoid wandering around the gym aimlessly,” she says. “Map out a plan and have a back-up plan.” For example, schedule 20 minutes to bike or jog, and 10 minutes on the elliptical or the rowing machine. That way, if one option is taken, you won’t be slowed down trying to figure out what to do.
  • Arrive ready to get moving. If you’re crunched for time, DeSimone says, “Come dressed to move and shower at home. You will save a ton of time in the locker room.”

No matter what, just keep at it. “Whether it is a class or a circuit or any combination of modalities,” says Pire, “work hard so you can get in and get it done!”

Photo by aerogondo