Barbell Etiquette: How to Keep Law and Order at the Gym

Etiquette: It exists at the dinner table, and it exists when you’re throwing around heavy barbells.

The ultimate rookie mistake: An athlete is finished lifting and begins to unload his barbell. He strips off the two 45 lb. plates from one side of the barbell, leaving the other side loaded.

Uh oh!

The side of the barbell still loaded with 90 pounds plummets to the ground, sending the barbell flying in the process.

When it comes to barbells, there is etiquette—rules if you will—to help avoid situations such as the latter, because, as the saying says: Safety first.’

In this case, to keep not just you, but also those around you, and the barbells themselves, safe.

Rule #1: Don’t Be a Close Stander

Personal space is important in life, and it’s even more important when someone’s setting up for a heavy snatch.

If your gym has lifting platforms, the rule is simple: One person on the platform at a time. If not, then stay a good five feet away from other lifters. More importantly, be mindful as you’re walking across the gym to avoid walking directly in front or behind someone setting up for a clean and jerk.

Rule #2: When it Comes to Plates, Less Is More

Loading 5 lb. steel plates upon 5 lb. steel plates onto a barbell is a flogging offense at some gyms.

Instead, aim to put the fewest number of plates on the barbell as your can. In other words, if you can load a bigger denomination of a weigh, then do. For example, instead of loading your bar with four sets of 25 lb. plates, grab two sets of 45s and a set of 5s instead.

Rule #3: Employ Safe Dropping Habits

If you train at a gym where you’re allowed to drop weights, make sure you have enough space to drop the barbell, and make sure you drop with control. (I have definitely witnessed some unsafe dropping in my days, where barbells ended up smoking the wall or a post).

Rule #4: Be Kind When Unloading

To protect the equipment, be gentle when you’re unloading the barbell to avoid empty barbells from crashing to the ground, potentially ruining them. (It’s also not so pleasant on the ears).

Rule #5: Keep the Weights on the Barbell

Don’t forget to use clamps, especially when you’re lifting overhead via a press, a jerk, a snatch, or a thruster, for example, and definitely when you’re bench pressing. Sure, clamps might not be 100 percent necessary when you’re deadlifting—though sometimes it is—but any time you’re lifting the bar higher than your waist, be safe and clamp up.

Rule #6: Don’t Drop an Empty Barbell

For the sake of the barbell’s health, and for the sake of your ears, avoid dropping an empty barbell.

Rule #7: Don’t be a Plate Hoarder

Every gym has a few plate hoarders: The people who know they’re eventually going to be adding more weight onto their barbell, so they collect a dozen plates of various loads and sprinkle them on the ground around their platform. As a general rule, if you’re not currently using a plate, put it away.

Rule #8: Find a Spotter

If you’re getting even close to possibly failing a lift—namely a bench press or a back squat—find someone to spot you. In some cases, it’s OK to dump the barbell off your back during a heavy squat, but only if you’re 100 percent comfortable doing so, and only if you make sure the coast is clear behind you.

Rule #9: Adhere to the Percentages

If you’re following a training program that prescribes percentages for your lifts, adhere to them, even if you find yourself thinking, “That seems light.” Trust the program and your coach (unless you don’t, in which case you should probably find a new program or coach).

Rule #10: No Bloody Barbells Allowed

While this one’s a little gross, sometimes barbells cause skin rips. And sometimes rips bleed. If this happens, take the time to disinfect and wipe your barbell down when you’re done.

Bonus tip: If I had a dollar for how many times I have seen athletes put an entire block of chalk on the floor only to step on it and crush it to smithereens five minutes later. To avoid this, keep the chalk on your hands, or in the chalk bucket.