How to Crush the Gym Even if All the Machines Are Taken

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A crowded gym is about as much fun as Monday morning traffic... except somehow worse. Navigating crowds without any clear traffic pattern as you try to beat Danny Dumbbell to the squat rack in an epic show of race-walking and is both anxiety-inducing and infuriating, especially when you lose. And especially when you know he's going to hang out on the rack for a good 20 minutes, refusing to let anyone else work in. Your workout just got screwed.

The good news is the New Year’s resolution surge, followed by the spring break surge, will eventually die out and pre-January quiet will descend on the gym. The bad news is you have to deal with the crowds through March. Here’s how to keep on keepin' on, even when all the machines are taken.


Grab a jump rope or a timer

Of course the first area to hit capacity in practically any gym is the cardio theater. For some reason, gym-goers seem to be brainwashed into thinking the only way to exercise their hearts is by trudging along on the treadmills.

You don’t need a treadmill, elliptical, upright bike, or stair climber to raise your heart rate -- all you really need is a jump rope or a timer and an open space large enough to accommodate your body. Jumping rope actually burns about the same number of calories per minute as jogging or running (depending on your intensity level), and it’s easier on the joints than either of those activities. Start with a simple interval program -- try jumping for 30 seconds and resting for 30 seconds, repeating for 10 to 20 minutes.

If you don’t have a jump rope (or you don’t feel coordinated enough to put one to work), put yourself through your own bodyweight high-intensity interval training (HIIT) routine focused on cardio moves. For instance, perform a four-minute Tabata workout of 20 seconds high-intensity work followed by 10 seconds rest for a total of eight rounds. Choose any two of the following exercises to alternate between.

  • Burpees
  • Mountain climbers
  • Bear squats
  • Lateral slides
  • Skaters
  • Ski jumps
  • High knees
  • Butt kicks
  • Jumping jacks
  • Hacky sacks

After performing your first Tabata, rest one to two minutes, then perform three more Tabatas, choosing two new exercises for each Tabata routine.


Pump iron... without a rack (or a machine)

Squat racks, bench presses, and open benches are the next areas to get backlogged with excited gym-goers who assume you need a pre-designated space to enjoy a workout.

You don’t. You’re the master of your universe and your workout, not the gym manager who ordered equipment and organized the gym.

All you really need is something weighted, so pick your pleasure: dumbbells, kettlebells, pre-weighted barbells, medicine balls, or individual plate weights. Select your preferred item and find an empty space on the gym floor. Also, newsflash! You don’t even need to be in the free-weight area. Grab your weights and take them wherever you have room to move.

The most important exercises are those that work multiple muscle groups at once, like squats, lunges, push-ups, deadlifts, shoulder presses, rows, and pull-ups (or assisted pull-ups). By adding weight and adjusting your body position, you can easily get a total-body workout without ever using a machine or hanging out on the gym floor. For instance, try the following series:

  • Medicine ball slams, three sets, 30-45 seconds
  • Goblet squat, three sets, 10-15 repetitions
  • Walking lunges with dumbbells, three sets, 12-15 repetitions
  • Push-ups, two sets, 8-12 repetitions
  • Deadlift, two sets, 10-12 repetitions
  • Single-leg deadlift, one set per leg, 10-12 repetitions
  • Bent-over dumbbell row, two sets, 10-12 repetitions
  • Shoulder press, two sets, 10-12 repetitions
  • Plank, two sets, 30-45 seconds hold
  • Weighted oblique twist, two sets, 12-15 twists per side

Select a weight so that the last one to two repetitions of each set are difficult to perform with good form (although not impossible). Allow a moderate amount of rest (30-60 seconds) between each set and exercise.


Take a class

Classes certainly get crowded, too, but most gyms cap enrollment so participants have sufficient space to move around safely. Plus, you get to work with a certified instructor who can help correct form while keeping you motivated and on track.

The trick here is knowing your gym’s rules about signups. Some gyms have first-come, first-served policies that require you to show up early to snag a spot -- a brutal task for the most popular classes. Other gyms allow online scheduling so you can sign up in advance, but there may be a cancellation fee if you fail to show up.


Work with a trainer

Hey, if you sign up with a trainer, crowded gyms become his problem, not yours. You're paying him good money to help you navigate the gym floor and keep you working hard, so if the machines are crowded, he’ll have to figure out creative solutions on the fly. Not only will this alleviate the stress you have about how to work out amongst the hordes, but chances are you’ll learn new exercises along the way.

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Laura Williams is an exercise physiologist and fitness writer who almost always brings her own jump rope to the gym because cardio machines suck. Follow her on Twitter: @girlsgonesporty.