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?