When I first started going to the gym, I was self-conscious every second. There’s a particular code of unwritten rules in the weightroom. Having a mentor really helps, and without one, it’s easy to be so uncomfortable that you don’t want to come back.
Over the years I’d like to think I’ve picked up most of the “rules”. Here’s a list I wish someone had given me when I was starting.
How to survive and not make a fool of yourself or offend people in a modern weightroom
Hygeine, Apparel, Propriety, etc.
- Exposed skin – Gym apparel varies widely and the limits of “acceptable” don’t always make sense. Cutoffs, tanks, sports bras, and other skin-exposing shirts are almost always fine, but going shirtless never is. There’s no coherent sanitary or modesty explanation, that’s just the deal.
- Wiping equipment – Most gyms provide wipes to sanitize equipment after you use it. Some say that doing so is required. But what really matters is whether most people wipe things down. Follow the lead of the majority here, unless you get something really sweaty, in which case you should always clean it. But a little bit of perspiration is not a danger to your health or anyone else’s, so don’t get too worked up if people don’t wipe things down – that’s normal.
- Being disgusting – If you sneeze into your hand or blow your nose, now you have to go sanitize (at least your hands). The guy who blows his nose throughout his workout and doesn’t wipe things is universally loathed. We have one at my gym, and I know I’m not the only one giving him dirty looks. Not as dirty as his germ-infested hands though.
- What to do with your eyes – Honestly, I wish I knew. Modern gyms often have mirrors on every wall and every time you look away from someone, you’re suddenly staring at someone else. At least during sets, keep your eyes on your reflection in the mirror – but let’s be honest, you were definitely going to do that anyway.
- Making conversation – Don’t. It seems like the vast majority of lifters appreciate the solitude of the gym. Beyond asking people if they’re done with a piece of equipment, there’s no need for words in the weightroom.
- Taking phone calls – It’s hard to believe this ever comes up, but once a month I see someone do a full workout while on the phone. I don’t even get it! Answering a call is fine, the gym is a busy place and one quick conversation isn’t going to make a difference, but a full phone conversation is just weird.
- Equipment is available if unoccupied – The weightroom should be thought of as a number of discrete stations (machines, benches, racks, deadlift platforms), some of which are occupied and some of which aren’t. With few exceptions, occupied stations are just completely off-limits. But you can always take an unoccupied one; if someone left for more than a few seconds and didn’t leave any belongings, it’s fair game.
- Be clear about what station you’re occupying – Don’t stand near a piece of equipment if you’re not using it. Try to give the right cues to others about what station you’re using.
- Approaching station occupants – You are permitted to ask someone how many sets they have left at a station, but if the gym isn’t crowded and this piece of equipment isn’t especially scarce, the current occupant may rightly be a bit annoyed. In my book, it should be all but illegal to ask about “working in” between sets at a station, though this varies gym-to-gym mostly based on how crowded it is. I find working in to be both intrusive personally and disruptive to the set-by-set rhythm of a workout, and would prefer to just work out in my apartment than deal with it. However, I know that some gyms are so packed that it’s the only way to get equipment and is thus more accepted. If your gym is generally very crowded, my advice would be to observe the norms a bit and try to conform.
- Time limits – Rule #3 is automatically suspended if someone spends more than about 10 minutes at a station, which is actually pretty common at the big three (deadlift platform, squat rack, bench press). If someone is holding a station you want for 10 minutes, you are more than justified in asking how many sets are left. It’s the only way to make it clear that you’re waiting, and at that point they have an obligation to finish up. That means that you too need to be mindful of when you’re occuping a station for a long period. It’s occasionally nice to do 15+ minutes of deadlifting or squatting1, but once you know someone is waiting, you should finish up and move on after 10 minutes are up.
- Put away your weights – Don’t ever leave weights loaded on a barbell after finishing. Firstly, it’s rude: someone has to put those away eventually, and not everyone is strong enough to remove a 45-pound plate. But almost as bad is that it makes it unclear if the station is available, wasting valuable gym-equipment resources. Leaving dumbbells on the floor is arguably worse, since it messes up traffic flow and is a tripping hazard.
- Noise from weights – While this is a somewhat contentious topic, I think the median view is that it’s normal and acceptable to make a lot of noise when placing heavy weights back on the ground or in a rack. Upon finishing a set of squats, deadlifts, or bench press, you will naturally have to clang the barbell a bit. Deadlifts usually involve putting the weight down on the ground between reps. This too will be noisy, but as long as you’re placing it (not dropping it), I think people are understanding.
- Noise from grunting – Grunts are also contentious but I think the consensus is a little more negative. Be aware of how loud you’re being; it can be easy to lose track if you have earphones in. Some heavy breathing and quiet grunts are fine, but tennis grunts are going to earn you the ire of other lifters.
- Noise from a speaker – Obviously you must never ever play music through a speaker in a public gym. That is punishable by death, with no right to a jury.
- Asking a stranger for a spot – I’ll be honest, I don’t know if there is a consensus opinion on this. Most strangers wouldn’t ask you for a spot, but I think most people would spot you if you asked. I personally avoid asking for spots from strangers, but if you’re going to do it, look for someone who appears experienced in the gym and is taking fairly long breaks between sets. Be nice, tell them it’s only for one set (it had better only be one set), and mention your expected number of reps.
- Providing a spot to a stranger – If you’re asked to spot, you should accept as long as you’re familiar with how to spot that exercise3. A practical exception is if you honestly don’t think you are strong enough to help with the weight. This is pretty unusual though, since the force you provide is going to supplement the force of the lifter – which obviously should be enough to handle the majority of the load. But if someone is benching or squatting twice as much as you can, you may have to explain that unless they’re trying to live on the edge, they need a stronger spotter.
- Giving a good spot – Spotting well takes practice. Your goal as a spotter is to help as little as possible while also enabling the lifter to finish the rep(s). That means that you don’t help until they are unable to move the weight on their own and their movement is at a near-complete stop. On the bench, the most common failure point is when the bar is a couple inches off the chest; there’s another at the very top of the movement, when straightening the arms. There are two similar failure points for shoulder press. For squats, I think it actually depends on where the lifter gets the most power from (quads, hips, etc.). In any case, you should be watching for the lifter to fail and then applying just a little force to see if that’s enough for them to finish the rep. If it’s not, add more. Between getting the timing right – you can’t afford to be too late, the weight will drop, but too early is bad too since you’re robbing them of a good rep – and applying the right amount of force, this requires some skill. As long you pay attention, though, you’ll rapidly get better with practice.
Squats and deadlifts are typically the two exercises in which you can move the most weight, and they also require balance, so it’s common to start at lower weights and work one’s way up to the “full” load over several sets to become comfortable with the movement. That means the total time at the station can go pretty long. ↩︎
“Spotting” is a term for assisting someone with their lift in case they aren’t able to complete it on their own. Usually, you’ll stand behind them as they set up (potentially helping them get the weights in the right place to start the move) and then just watch them as they do their set, intervening if necessary. ↩︎
I think the vast majority of spot requests are for bench press. The remainder are for squats and some variant of shoulder press. Bench press and shoulder press spots are easy since you can grab the bar and add some of your force. Squat spots are a bit different, as you usually need to help them drive upward, and that means basically doing your own squat movement behind them while pushing their torso upward with your hands. Look it up to see a real example. ↩︎