Whether you’re a rank beginner or are comfortable with a barbell in your hands, public gyms can be intimidating places. There are plenty of rules — both spoken and unspoken — that govern good behavior in the weight room. Unfortunately, most of these lessons are learned through trial and error.
To avoid making any unwanted gym gaffes, you need to know the lay of the land and how to navigate it. After all, the more comfortable and prepared you are to use your new gym safely and effectively, the better progress you’ll make.
As such, we’re going to cut to the chase and lay out some of the gym etiquette essentials you need to know as you get started on your fitness journey.
The Do’s and Don’t’s of Gym Etiquette
- Do: Respect Personal Space
- Don’t: Hog Equipment
- Do: Put Your Weights Back
- Don’t: Interrupt Someone’s Set
- Do: Wipe Down Your Station
- Don’t: Grunt or Yell Excessively
- Do: Ask to Work In
- Don’t: Stand In the Wrong Place
The first few months of the year tend to be the busiest time for most gyms. As such, you’ll likely find that the weight room or stretching area can be quite crowded. The best practice for navigating a packed gym floor is to always be mindful of personal space.
Many common lifting exercises involve large ranges of motion, and the last thing you want to do is bump into someone’s arm or leg while they’re trying to take a set to failure. Try to maintain a few feet between your work area and the person adjacent to or behind you.
This is especially true for free weights. Some machines or cable stations can be fairly cramped, and close contact is sometimes unavoidable. However, if you see someone working on a deadlift platform or in a squat rack, steer clear. The last thing you want to do is knock someone’s barbell while they’re trying to pull it off the ground or jerk it overhead.
A communal space like the weight room means everyone has to share the available resources. One of the worst things you can be in the gym is an equipment hog. To ensure that you’re being an upstanding citizen of the weight room, try to work with only the equipment you need at the present time.
In practical terms, this could mean not using a bench to rest your jacket or water bottle on if you’re doing a standing exercise with dumbbells. Alternatively, occupying a squat rack to perform an exercise you could do elsewhere is a bad look.
And while some exercise techniques, like supersets or drop sets, necessitate using multiple sets of dumbbells back-to-back, don’t start a dumbbell collection at your workstation for no reason. When you need a new pair, put the ones you’ve got back where they belong.
Perhaps the golden rule of good behavior in the gym — you must return equipment to where it came from when you’re finished. Not only does this help keep the gym tidy, but nobody wants to embark on a scavenger hunt just to locate the stray 15-pound dumbbell that was left in a corner somewhere.
Returning your weights to where they belong is a sure-fire way to make a positive impact in the gym. Other gymgoers are likely to notice and appreciate it — and they’re certain to notice if you don’t. What’s more, you may even encourage a breaker of this rule to change their ways.
Lifting heavy weights properly takes more than strength. If you see someone performing an exercise — whether it’s a max-effort squat or a simple biceps curl — don’t interrupt them until they’re finished working.
Not only is it generally considered rude, but nobody wants to be distracted while they’re trying to focus on lifting with good form. Beyond that, you may even startle the person and compromise their performance or safety. If you see someone working near a piece of equipment you’re interested in, or you have a question for them, bite your tongue until they’ve racked their weights.
Despite compelling the closure of commercial gyms the world over, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has at least one silver lining — better hygiene in public spaces, a habit that you should get comfortable with in the weight room.
Most gyms have gone out of their way to make cleaning products more readily available. It’s good manners to take advantage of that and quickly wipe down any piece of equipment you work with, whether it’s a dumbbell handle or an adjustable bench.
And, trust us, your gym is really, really dirty. Viruses can be prevlant on all sorts of gym surfaces, so cleaning up isn’t just about being a good patron, but keeping others healthy.
Make no mistake: the gym is not a library. If you come in to seek solace in silence during your workout, you’re probably going to end up in a sour mood. That said, there’s a fine but very distinct line between exerting yourself and showboating.
It’s natural to make some noise in the weight room. After all, you’re hopefully working with challenging weights. However, this isn’t an invitation to yelp and growl and shout through every rep you perform. If you want to draw attention to yourself in the gym, do so by lifting with good form, working hard, wiping down your equipment, and tidying up after yourself when you’re finished.
Whether on your first day or your fifth week, you’ll inevitably have your workout flow interrupted by someone using a piece of equipment you need. It might be a bench that someone has confused with their personal storage shelf, or a dedicated powerlifter doing 10 sets of squats in the gym’s only power rack.
Luckily, most people in the gym don’t mind “working in” if you ask. On the contrary, you don’t want to loom nearby, waiting for your chance to swoop in on a machine that someone is using. Your presence is always noticed and is rarely comfortable.
Instead, politely ask to work in with the person. They’ll either welcome you aboard or let you know how many sets they have left. If you’re joining up with them, the courteous thing to do is help reload their barbell when you’re done with your set and then help them store the weights away when you’re both done.
The space in front of the dumbbell rack is sacred ground. You might notice an absent-minded patron or aggressive meathead banging out sets of curls six inches from the rack itself. More than anything, this betrays a serious lack of consideration for others.
If you’re working directly in front of the rack, no one can access the weights you’re obstructing. Checking yourself out in the mirror is fine — there’s no shame in admiring the gains you’ve made — but it mustn’t come at the expense of others’ time.
If you grab a pair of dumbbells from the rack, take a few steps away before performing your exercise. This principle applies to areas like the deadlift platform too, as you generally don’t want to obstruct someone’s line of sight while they’re lifting. If you can walk around or behind a lifter instead of directly in front of them, you can stay safe and they can stay focused.
Navigating the Gym Floor
If you’re walking through the doors for the first time, a commercial fitness facility is essentially a foreign landscape. To do what you need to do, you need to get where you’re going — and finding the machine you’re after is sometimes easier said than done.
Here is the basic layout of most gyms so you can get on your way towards making gains.
Nearly every facility will have a space that is dedicated to resistance training. Here you’ll find the dumbbell rack, barbells loaded in bench stands and squat racks, as well as various other equipment for lifting free weights like adjustable benches or deadlift platforms.
The weight room is also commonly home to exercise machines and cable attachments. The selection of machines is often organized by muscle or muscle group — you can find the chest press machine in close proximity to the dip station, and the same usually goes for machines that work your legs.
Most gyms have expansive, spacious areas dedicated to cardiovascular exercise. You’ll typically find many rows of treadmills, alongside stair-steppers, ellipticals, and stationary bikes. The cardio section may also be nearby the gym’s studio, where group fitness classes take place. Many gyms will open their studios to members for stretching or calisthenics when there isn’t a class going on.
Functional Fitness Area
With functional fitness and CrossFit® on the rise, many facilities are expanding their general-purpose cross-training areas. These spaces are not necessarily dedicated to one activity, but provide the tools to warm up, improve conditioning, perform yoga, and everything in between.
Functional fitness areas often have turf laid out for sprints or other agility drills. You can find equipment to train your core with, as bars and cages for some gymnastics exercises, and conditioning tools like battle ropes or weight sleds.
It’s certainly possible to get more out of your trip to the gym than just a solid workout. Many commercial facilities bridge the gap between the training center and health club by offering other amenities for you to take advantage of before and after your workout.
Saunas both wet and dry to aid in recovery, a smoothie bar to get some quick post-workout nutrition in, and possibly even a swimming pool for active recovery or low-intensity cardio are just a few things that you can find in nearly every public gym.
How to Succeed In Your First Week
There’s more that goes into making the most of your fitness journey than having good gym etiquette (although it certainly helps). While avoiding potential faux pas may ease some pre-session stress, you should make an effort to stack the deck in your favor in other ways as well.
Plan Your Workouts
Physical training isn’t a freestyle. If you’re new to the gym, you can make progress doing just about anything as long as you work hard. However, focusing that intensity in the right areas can speed things along even further.
Go at the Right Time
If you’ve got some anxiety about working out in front of others, you can tweak your schedule to give yourself more privacy. Most public gyms get quite crowded at certain times of day — early morning, over lunchtime, and shortly after sundown when people get off of work.
If a more relaxed atmosphere helps you find your groove, hit the gym during off-hours if your schedule allows. Late morning and early afternoon are usually pretty quiet in most weight rooms.
Bring Your Tunes
Speaking of getting in the groove, bring some music with you when you exercise. Drowning out all the ambient noise in an unfamiliar environment and rocking out to your favorite songs can help you calm down and focus up to perform the tasks at hand.
Take It Slow
When December wraps and January begins, it’s essential to hit the ground running on your fitness resolutions for the new year. However, you should balance your newfound motivation and initiative with taking reasonable steps on the path.
Taking on too much too fast — whether it’s working out too frequently or trying to lift heavier than you’re able — is likely to set you back in the long run. It’s okay to take baby steps and build momentum over time, whether you’re completely new to training or are getting back in the swing of things after some time away from the weights.
The gym is only as frightful as you let it be. While it’s somewhat unavoidable to feel like a small fish in a very big pond when you pick up your first weight, know that every single person that intimidates you in the weight room was once in your shoes.
With patience, dedication, and a working knowledge of good gym etiquette — that you now have, and then some — the gym will come to feel like a home away from home before you know it.
Featured Image: Aleksandar Malivuk / Shutterstock