30 years ago I joined my first gym. It was a hugely overpriced affair located in Boston’s Financial District. It was filled to the brim with big, bright, shiny machines (Nautilus was a big deal in those days) and entitled Type A douchebags. Forget even approaching the bench press in those days as: a) there were very few of them and b) they were permanently colonized by Roided out curl-bro neanderthals who had a predilection for silly baggy multi-colored “work out” pants. This was decades before “leg day” entered the lexicon. Since the gym was always, always crowded you had to learn a form of gym etiquette very quickly to avoid, shall we say, “unpleasant” experiences. But it was there that I realized that gyms are amazing places to study human interaction. African wildlife documentaries always have watering hole scene as it’s an easy way to film a large number of species interacting in a relatively small space. And I put to you that if I was young Sociology or Anthropology student, I’d do my field work in a gym for the same reason.
In the past 30 years I have worked out in gyms across North America, South America, Africa and above all in many countries in Europe. I’ve noticed some behavior is fairly universal while others are what you’d call site specific. Some of these include:
- Nudity in the locker room – Ah, the locker room…stomping ground of the archetypal Naked Old Dude. Yes, they exist in ever single country I’ve ever visited and, no, they didn’t give single f***. Clipping toenails, drying their hair (or worse) and engaging in extended conversations all whilst butt nekkid. As for the under 65 crowd, I’ve noticed some cultural differences. People from Germanic influenced countries and cultures are by far the most at ease being naked, at not just in the locker room. Think of them as Naked Old Dudes in training. In the US, Latin America, UK, etc people generally are not phased by it given that you go, take your shower, get dressed. If you want debate last night’s game, for God’s sake put some clothes on. And, perhaps surprising to some, the most reserved are Europeans from the “Romance Language” countries. Wearing your boxers into the shower is very common. I am, of course, a product of the cultures I am exposed to the most so I admit on more on US/Romance language side of the spectrum. Ok, yes, one has to get nekkid to change clothes or take a shower but why, oh, why do you need to be over by the sink, shaving, without a stitch of clothes on.
- Working “in” with a stranger – This is very common, necessary practice in US gyms, especially in bigger cities. What this means in practice is that you very nicely ask the person who is using the equipment you’d like to use if you can work in as she or he rests between sets. In Latin America and Africa this is fairly common as well. In my experience, it’s fairly rare in “commercial gyms” in many Western European countries. Not coincidentally, I find that Western Europeans are also much less likely to engage in conversations with random strangers than those other cultures. The exception to this rule (speaking of Western Europe) are specialty gyms – power lifting, strong man or Olympic lifting. The difference is you’re then in a subculture with its own norms.
- Using the gym as a pick-up joint – I haven’t noticed much regional variation for this behavior. Yes, there are some men and women who do, but it’s actually far less common than people think. The big whopping exception to the rule are personal trainers. I have known people who own and/or managed commercial gyms and judging from the “behind the scenes” tales they tell (as related to them by their staff), it’s probably even more soap opera-esque than people think. Note: I am not referring to strength training gyms as they don’t have “personal trainers”. They have coaches whose job it is to teach the proper form and programming you need to achieve your sporting goals. Personal Trainers work in commercial gyms and, aside from making you look ridiculous on a Bosu ball, I’m not sure if they serve a useful function unless it’s the service alluded to above. Finally there is universal Gym archetype number 2 – the creeper. This is generally a guy who is more interested in staring at women than achieving a new PR. At a commercial gym, it’s undeniable that 95 percent of the women are there to take class of some sort and or run on a treadmill. They avoid the weight room it can be intimidating to the uninitiated but also, I imagine, because it’s populated mainly by dudes and thus the chance for being ogled is that much higher. Which is a shame as they are depriving themselves of a chance to get stronger. If a guy is doing his thing in the weight room, chances are he’s all business and goal oriented. I’ve seen many guys more interested at checking themselves out in the mirrors or taking Instagram pics than ogling the few women that venture into the weight room. That lone guy in your Zumba class, though….