Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 09/05/2012

Gym Etiquette 201

I got my first gym membership in 1980, when I was 23. It was an old-school Vic Tanny. The branch closest to my home was open to men three days a week and to women the other three days. (My memory is imperfect, but I think it was closed on Sunday.) If I wanted to train on one of the no-men-allowed days, I had to go slightly farther to a branch that had separate weight rooms for men and women.

All the things we consider to be gross violations of gym etiquette today were just standard procedure 30 years ago. Nobody brought towels to wipe up their own sweat. It would sometimes take a few minutes to find a matching pair of dumbbells; lots of people just left them on the floor. Nobody stripped weights off the barbells or the leg-press machine.

Personal hygiene was highly variable. Some guys went weeks without washing their gym clothes. When women were finally allowed in the weight room with men, some of them came in wearing neurotoxic levels of fragrance.

Common courtesy was uncommon. My favorite example was the time I asked a couple of guys if I could work in with them while they were doing incline dumbbell bench presses. They had the only pair of dumbbells at whatever weight I used back then, and they may have had the only adjustable bench. They refused. And one of them worked at the gym! (Yes, they were taking breaks in between sets.)

The first time I encountered a personal trainer, he stuck his butt into my face while training a client on the next bench. The second time I met one, he was a gym employee—a total stranger to me—who interrupted my workout to tell me I was doing something wrong. (He may have been right, but it was still a stupid way to get my attention.)

I’ve probably forgotten most of the incidents of mooks and meatheads hogging equipment, screaming and slamming weights, or singing along with the radio. The ones I remember are bad enough. To be fair, I probably committed quite a few violations of my own in those days, which I hope the victims have forgotten.

Manners for Meatheads

Fortunately, we’ve ironed most of this out over the years. A Google search for “gym etiquette” gave me 1.3 million results. The handful of articles I scanned show a few universal ideas and some that seem highly situational. (Who gets to decide how long is too long to rest between sets?)

Most of the basics don’t need to be mentioned anymore. Everyone knows to put equipment away after using it. If gyms don’t provide towels, they expect members to bring their own.

At my current gym there’s a level of courtesy that would be unimaginable at the old Vic Tanny. Along with towels, the gym provides disinfecting wipes, and some people practically scrub down equipment when they’re finished.

Still, I get the impression each of us has a personal code that not everyone shares. Some of the things that bother me don’t seem to bother anyone else. I’m certain I do things that others find annoying.

That’s why I decided to write about some of the finer points of gym etiquette, the practices that aren’t technically out of line in every circumstance, but are still guaranteed to violate someone’s sense of propriety.

1. Blocking the dumbbell rack to do curls, shrugs, and lateral raises

You may think this one is obvious—it regularly shows up on lists of gym-etiquette violations—but I’m one of the few serious lifters in my gym who doesn’t block the rack. (Then again, I hardly ever do curls, and never do shrugs or raises, so it’s not like I have many opportunities.)

To me this is as easy call, right next to not talking on a cell phone in the weight room. If you’re strong enough to lift the weight, you’re strong enough to carry it a few feet away from the rack. But lots of people don’t see it as a problem, including, as I mentioned, some of the most experienced lifters.

2. Playing music so loud I can hear it 10 feet away

I’m one of the last holdouts against iPods in the gym. I don’t care if other people use them (except for the times I’m trying to get someone’s attention and the asshole can’t hear me when I’m standing two feet away; that kind of pisses me off), but why in the world should I have to listen to it?

Sometimes I ask the person to turn it down, and typically he’s nice about it. A couple of times people seemed embarrassed, with no idea others could hear. But one time a kid actually turned his music up after I’d asked him to turn it down. I shit you not: I could hear it across the room.

So what’s the call? Is this just a grouchy-old-man thing, or should it be part of the code?

3. Making gratuitous noise

Thankfully, the screamers are gone, at least from the places I’ve trained recently. The last one I encountered was at a local Gold’s Gym in 2004. He was doing leg presses, as I recall, and seemed quite proud of himself. I never went back.

Some noise that may seem gratuitous at first isn’t really. I used to think it was rude to drop weights on the floor while deadlifting. Now I realize it’s what you’re supposed to do; the alternative is to lower a heavy weight slowly, putting your lower back at unnecessary risk.

But from time to time someone will clank dumbbells overhead on chest or shoulder presses. First of all, it’s a stupid way to train. It takes no additional effort to bring the weights together, since there’s no gravitational resistance. If anything, it takes tension off the targeted muscles. But mainly, it’s making noise for its own sake.

4. Cutting off my space

“Personal space” in a gym is always relative to how crowded it is. I think of it like a checkerboard. You don’t occupy one of the red spaces unless all the black spaces are taken.

That’s the easy part. It only gets complicated when the available black space puts you in between a lifter and the mirror. Normally, if she’s there first, she has dibs on all the space between her and the mirror. But sometimes there’s no choice. I think we all agree on that.

The warm-up area is more complicated, especially for those of us who do mobility drills like the ones Alwyn prescribes in the NROL books. I understand that people can’t read my mind. Unless they’re watching closely, they don’t know how much room I need to the front or side. And if the area’s crowded, of course I don’t expect people to give me more room than anyone else gets.

What frustrates me is the person who has a favorite spot and is going to use it even if it’s six inches from my clipboard and towel.

It’s easy enough for me to move over. The question is what defines an open space. At a driving range or bowling alley it’s easy. In the stretching area, it’s confusing.

5. Not knowing the rules

I’m not the oldest lifter in my gym — we have a large percentage of seniors — but I’m probably the only one whose institutional memory goes back to the Carter administration. Most of the seniors, and quite a few of the younger members, have never been exposed to gym culture. Courtesies that took many years to become common aren’t intuitive to outsiders.

So consider this my open letter to all health-club novices:

Please don’t block equipment you aren’t using

I don’t understand why someone would stand between two benches to do an exercise that doesn’t require either. I don’t understand why someone would put their towel, water bottle, and clipboard on a box or bench when they aren’t even going to use it. And yet, people do.

Please share

When a new lifter gets a program from a trainer, and he sees he’s supposed to do two sets, he immediately assumes it’s two sets without a break in between. So he’ll do a slow set of 12 to 15 reps, set the weight down, look around for a few seconds, and then start his second slow set of 12 to 15 reps.

I don’t expect him to understand I’m in between sets on that piece of equipment. But I do wish he would step away from the equipment in between sets.

Mostly, though, I wish he understood why his trainer wants him to do two sets, instead of one consecutive set of 25 to 30 reps. He’s supposed to be tired after 12 to 15, and he’s supposed to need a minute to recover … which, conveniently, allows someone like me to squeeze in a set of my own. If he doesn’t need to recover, he’s not doing it right.

Please don’t watch Fox News on the TV in the locker room

And if you absolutely have to, please keep the volume down so the rest of us don’t have to listen to it.

If you’re part of the target audience, great. I’m glad you’ve found each other. But please show some courtesy to the rest of us.

Those are my gripes. What are yours?


  • Cheryl

    Great post! I wish my gym management would print this out and paste it on the entrance.

    My gripes:
    People hanging their towels on equipment they don’t use, then get offended when you ask them to remove it because you want to use the machine.

    People who sit on the leg press machine with their legs up, but proceed to air their groin while chatting on their phones for 20 minutes. I kid you not, a girl in a gym I went to did this and proceeded to have a shouting match with the person on the other line.

    People who see you clean the bench BEFORE you use it, then proceed to use it when your back is turned and you’re returning the alcohol spray to its original position.

    • Cell phone + tying up equipment + groin exposure = the gym-etiquette trifecta!

      One of the more fit seniors in my gym wears a pair of gym shorts that I suspect are left over from college. Loose-fitting doesn’t begin to describe them. The other day she not only crowded my warm-up space, she showed me something I really didn’t want to see. I’m still traumatized!

      • Ramdoride

        I was in the gym one day and this young woman was doing something with her legs spread wide open while sitting. Yep, nothing on under those short shorts and everything was reflected in the mirror. I quietly told her this and she simply giggled. AARGH.
        Another time, I was doing push-ups and a girl couldn’t take the time to walk around me to pick up her towel and stepped over me. I came up and politely informed her that that was a no-no. FYI, I am a 61-year old grandmother who has just purchased another copy of NROL for Women. I inadvertently left my last one in the gym and someone took it…really?!? Had name and phone number in it.

  • Adrien Hamilton

    Oh, I have so many.

    1. My gym has two squat racks and last week one of them was out of commission. The other was being used by a couple who were taking turns. When I showed up they were unloading plates so I asked if they were nearly finished. Nope, sorry. They spent the next HOUR hogging the only squat rack. An hour. I never got a chance near it.

    2. This is a common one but if you’re using the squat rack to do curls or shrugs or some other element of lame, I will glare at you. I want the squat rack to do squats. Crazy, I know.

    3. This is specific to my gym but drives me insane. The lockers are wooden and if you let go and let them slam shut, it sounds like a gun going off. BAM! BAM! BAM! You don’t HAVE to drop them shut, people.

    4. The slow meander. My gym set up requires that I walk from one end to another to do everything I want to do, so when I get stuck behind someone walking at turtle pace, it is just crazy-making. Knees to chest! Pick it up! You are at the GYM.

    5. Please don’t steal my plates. Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I won’t be needing those 45lb plates. Just ask before you assume.

    I have more, but those are top of mind. On a more positive note, I want to say that I have been pleasantly surprised at how non-creepy and respectful most men are towards me in the weight room. I still get the occasional surprised look, but mostly I’m treated with respect.

    • That’s quite a list!

      My gym has four squat racks and no stations for barbell bench or shoulder presses, so everyone kind of uses them for everything, from TRX to rack deadlifts to, yes, barbell curls.

      The only time I take exception is when somebody ties up a squat rack so they have something to hold onto while they do a balance exercise, like 1-leg RDLs. Even then, they aren’t being rude. They just don’t know any better.

      • Adrien Hamilton

        Oh, I know I have issues! My gym has one power cage and one squat rack. There is also a barbell bench, which never, ever gets used, so it’s frustrating when you want to squat and the only rack is being used by someone doing shrugs. I have no issue with using the cage for rack deadlifts, though because there’s nowhere else that you can really do that.

        • That reminds me of one of own quirks:

          All the benches in my gym incline, and most people just wipe them off and leave them at whatever setting they just used. Which of course is fine.

          But I feel compelled to run around and set them all flat. (I don’t, but I always think about it.) It makes me think I have an undiagnosed autistic-spectrum tendency.

  • Colorista

    In my little gym, the incline bench seems to traverse around the floor and end up in the oddest spots — under the Smith machine, behind the cable machines…. Its home is over by the dumbbells, near the flat bench. “Put it back where it belongs” doesn’t just apply to weights; it applies to ALL equipment, including the foam rollers, TRX bands, floor pads, kettlebells, and yes, benches.

    • Laura, sorry, the above reply was meant for your comment!

      • Laura Balanko

        oops and I’m sorry too because I accidentally clicked on something and it came up saying ‘flagged as inappropriate’. please ignore. I’m technologically challenged LOL.

    • Sometimes I make a dramatic show of moving benches back to their homes, hoping the person who moved them first is paying attention.

  • William

    Lou, what do you have against Fox? Or is it just news in general?

    • News is fine. I can turn on NPR any hour of any day and learn something I didn’t know. I’m not always interested in the topic, but I appreciate the focus on information.

      Commentary I can mostly do without, at least in electronic media. I like to read good arguments in print or online, but put it on TV or the radio and it’s just some guy with an opinion. When I stumble across it I’m often appalled to realize the person making the argument seems to know less about the topic than I do, and it’s not even my area of expertise.

      This extends to everything, including (and sometimes especially) sports. Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless on ESPN are the worst I’ve seen. They don’t seem to have much interest in the actual mechanics of preparing for and playing sports, so they invent bullshit storylines to make it all seem like we’re watching the great morality play our times. (If you’ve never seen Mark Cuban take them apart, face to face, by all means Google it.)

      • Our TV’s are all silent. If you’re watching a talk show, you have to read the captions.

  • Laura Balanko

    This is a great post Lou. I learned about doing weights when I was in university and part of the class was learning ‘etiquette’. I wish more people took a class.

    Anyway, I haven’t had too many problems over the years but recently I learned the weirdest thing about the ‘gym code’ in our town that I’ve ever heard. Usually, I listen to an audiobook while I’m working out but sometimes I go without my iPod. One of the moms from my son’s school works out at the same gym and was chatting to me at the school one day. She proceeded to fill me in on who is on the prowl at the gym and all the gossip (I didn’t want to hear). The weird thing she told me was this…if you do NOT have earbuds in you are considered to be looking to get picked up!
    To use your phrase, “I shit you not”. There are a lot of people hanging out at the gym for reasons other than health and wellbeing.
    I go to the gym and smile and nod at people I recognize or know but never chit chat or gossip because that’s not why I’m there. Apparently, I have been in a hotbed of iniquity all this time and didn’t even know it!

    I have been doing a lot of workouts from the NROL for Abs so don’t use that gym much anymore.

    • So Alwyn and I saved you from that moral cesspool!

  • Tzubee

    Oh, I’m so glad the basic issues have been resolved at your gym, but at mine, I still have to grapple with the mooks who walk away and leave the plates on the barbell. My usual response is for me (a short, 60-year-old grandmother) to ask if they need help removing the weights. That usually does the trick, but I don’t always see who left them there for me.

    And for some reason there seems to be a small contingent of mostly younger guys who don’t understand the concept of working in, and who seem to feel that it’s a HUGE imposition for them to get off the equipment between sets. Apparently they take their rest period very, very seriously.

    I have a super cheap gym membership and would say you get what you pay for, but I used to belong to a very expensive club, and had the same issues. Some folks are just clueless.

  • Ed Budd

    I was stunned to see “blocking the dumbbell rack” as the first item on your list. In my gym, it’s standard operating procedure. That led me to imagine that I’m the only person who has ever considered it a problem.
    In my list of gym types, I call that person “crowds-the-rack guy.” He picks up a pair of 25-pound dumbells and does a set of whatever—while standing a foot from the rack, preventing the rest of us from getting access to the other dumbbells.
    Crowds-the-rack guy drove 20 minutes to the gym, walked to the locker room, spent 10 minutes changing, and walked to the weight room. He’ll work out for 45 minutes, spend a half-hour showering and changing, and drive 20 minutes home. Yet somehow, taking two steps back before starting his set would be too time-consuming or too much work. I just don’t get it.
    I also like your noise comments. Another of my types is “grunts unnecessarily guy.” Not long ago, I warmed up next to a guy who sounded like he was giving birth to a water buffalo calf. He was doing ab crunches.

  • Fortune

    Don’t talk to me when I’m at least ten feet away. People in my gym will be on the treadmill when I’m on the bike. They’re about fifteen feet apart, and I have to strain to hear them when they talk to me, and I have to yell back. Plus I’m either listening to music or reading, and I’m too polite to say, “Hello, not interested!” I also hate people who try to tell me how to work out. “Be sure to warm up before you do strength training!” “You should follow this routine,” or “Can I show you how to do something?” No, you cannot. I bought The Home Workout Bible and I USE it, thank you very f—– much. Oh, and please put the damn weights back in the holder. And put the weight bench back down when you’re done. I can’t figure out how to get it down, and since you put it up, you obviously know how to put it back down. Geez…didn’t realize I had so many gripes!!

  • Haddasah7

    Can not stand when most of the treadmills/ellipticals/stationary bikes are EMPTY, yet a person gets on the one right next to the one you’re using! I guess I have a larger area of “personal space” I need, but also, I’d rather not smell them sweat and hear them grunt. (And heaven forbid if I have to pass gas!!!)

  • Hey, Lou. Couldn’t agre with you more.
    My son accuses me of being anal because I think plates of the same weight should be racked together, and ideally, balanced on both sides (our racks are attached to the benches and squat rack – Life brand fwiw). Why should anyone have to pull 3 x 45 plates off a rack to get the 25 or 10 buried at the back. It’s not that I can’t, it just seems it would make life easier for everyone if we didn’t have to.

    I saw a gym etiquette poster once that said “DB racks are like strip clubs – 3 foot rule strictly enforced.

  • Lisa Hersant

    I hate it when people leave 100 lb plates on the sled machine. And I really hate it when people go get a papertowel to wipe down the bench and then leave the papertowel on the floor.

  • It seems like many of my gripes have already been aired. Thankfully, I belong to a good (and small) franchise club that’s open “anytime”, and most people are fairly considerate. The one that is done the most is the randomized placement of weight plates around the weight room, making me work a little harder to group them correctly.

  • momboteri

    I’d like to see someone top this one on hygiene. I was taking a break between sets the other day, and I saw this kid lean over after HIS set and blow out each of his nostrils onto the ground! Gah-ROSS! And, being that I couldn’t stand there and watch this without saying something, I cried out, “NOOOO!” He looked up at me startled. I then made the nostril blowing motion, shook my head dramatically, and slowly drew my finger across my throat. By the way, I’m a 55 year old mother of 3, so I have lots of experience with helping someone to understand when they’ve just blown it! Ha! Needless to say, he got the message and cleaned up after himself. If he hadn’t, there would have been more than just his snot on the floor. LOL!

  • I have heard all the etiquette complaints before, but I still see it at our gym every day. All I can think of is the person who is rehabbing an injured knee, looking at the leg press with 300 lbs on it and just turning around and walking out. If you are a meat head, you should be pro- working out. why would you do anything to turn people off the gym?
    My personal favorite is the guy with ear buds, half singing, half moaning along with his tunes. It sounds awful, and I wonder if he knows how loud he is.
    We have a big gym, and it is annoying to have to find anything small enough to be ported off to another room. PUT YOUR TOYS AWAY WHEN YOU ARE DONE!
    Thank you Lou, I feel better now.

  • Becky

    Good Stuff.
    RE: #2, i’m investing in hearing aid stocks. In a dew years, the demand will be huge.

  • Nothing about this irks me, but since we’re on the topic of etiquette… If someone is working on a piece of equipment, and you work in, do you re-set the equipment to whatever weight/position they were using after each of your sets? Vice versa, if someone is working in with you, do you return the favor if they do so? I have no idea what the proper etiquette here is, so I generally end up doing all the setting for both lifters.

  • Jason

    My latest is “using specialized equipment you don’t need.” I’m lucky – my gym has a set of bumper plates, so I can do the Olympic lifts. But I’ve probably had talks with five other members in the last month who came in and hogged them all to deadlift. There are literally TONS of iron plates around. They work great for deads (no one is dropping deads at our gym). Use those. Because when you can do your lifts with iron, but I can’t do the Olympic lifts (safely) without the bumpbers.

  • Brian

    You struck a nerve with this one. I work out at Crunch in San Francisco, a mecca of ego worship if ever there was. My favorite peeve is youngsters who hog a piece of specialized equipment for an hour—a TRX cable, a jump bench—and leave their stuff spread over it while they do another exercise else for five minutes. The best part is their physiques are mediocre and in desperate need of basic movements.

  • maureen

    Mine is for management. Please do not turn the lights off 5 min before closing. I know you want to get home….but I am doing my darnest to put my 45lb plates away… so you do not have to stay and pick up after me…

  • Nick

    I used to stew over people violating my list of etiquette until I noticed I was becoming bitter. Now, I pretend they are my friends. If I was working out with a buddy and he did curls in front of the rack or grunted on his lifts I wouldn’t care. I’d be uncomfortable because he may offend others but his behavior certainly wouldn’t upset me. So when I see a DB leaving weights on the bars I imagine if he was one of my buddies, would it still bother me? Nope, ok. Besides, after reading NROL, I have left leg presses and hammer strength machines behind. So leve all the wight you want on it, couldn’t care less:)

    But this article does give me an opportunity to bring up an issue I have with NROL workouts. The alternating sets. You must have imagined folks with home gyms or 2am workouts. I’d feel way too guilty holding up a squat rack to go do my lat pull-downs. I suppose I could un-rack and re-rack but that’s no fun. Some are ok, like push ups and crunches, but others were not thought out for folks using gym.

  • Auntie

    I’ve only been going to the gym for about 16 months, and up to now I’ve been too awestruck to have any “gripes”. But on Saturday I had to struggle to do my triceps kickbacks with a pair of 12.5 lbs DBs when I should have warmed up with a set using the 10 lbs first. No choice. It was a busy Saturday; everything from 5 lbs to 12.5 lbs was already taken. No problem. But I felt grumpy because some tall strapping guy was using the 10 lbs set to do… biceps curls (!) and shoulder presses (!!!). When I finished my sets I stopped to observe him. I think he wasn’t really exercising, he was secretly using the weights to admire his arms in the reflection in the window! Oh man. Next time I will ask him nicely whether he can exchange DBs with me. If he objects I will do my best to assure him (even more nicely) that an extra 2.5 lbs on each side is not going to break his muscles, which were bigger than mine. 🙁

    • Auntie

      P/s: Lou Schuler, I know that you and Alwyn Cosgrove don’t think highly of triceps kickbacks! But once in a while I like to knock out a few sets at (what are for me) “heavy” weights, just to “learn” the muscles (I suffer from severe dyspraxia), practise control, and maybe see how strong my triceps are getting. And besides, it’s fun… 😛

  • Pingback: Manners in the weight room… » The Weak In Rock | The Weak In Rock()

  • Barry

    It always tweeks me when someone “rest” between sets by sitting on the machine or bench. Get up and move!!! Don’t sit and text.