Warning – this post will likely appeal mostly to hardcore gym rats and/or inveterate students of human behavior. As I have said in a previous post, a gym is to human behavior what a watering hole is to the Serengeti. You see a lot of different types of behavior concentrated in a relatively small space.
Today’s topic of discussion concerns what is perhaps the thorniest topic in the entire canon of Gym Etiquette – unsolicited gym advice. Should you ever offer advice to somebody at the gym and, if so, under what circumstances? Also, how should you handle unsolicited advice? Finally, on rare occasions you might be asked for advice or will ask somebody else for theirs – what is the best way to do this?
First let’s establish the parameters: we are talking about a large commercial gym and you are interacting with somebody you don’t know. I will also assume that you, dear reader, are reasonably adept at reading social cues. In a commercial gyms we need to:
- Realize that a big commercial gym is, sociologically speaking a public space akin to a subway or a shopping center. The norm for interaction with strangers in these cases is usually limited to a brief smile or nod and maybe brief eye contact. You might speak briefly to strangers in all of these contexts, but you would not normally share your unsolicited opinion. It’s the sort of behavior that makes people change seats on the subway.
- Realize that people in big commercial gyms have wildly different goals. Some people want to lose weight, others just want to get jacked, or just get out of the house, or might not even have a clear goal just yet. How do you know your advice is relevant to a complete stranger?
- Be sensitive to social norms when travelling. Social norms for public spaces such as gyms differ from country to country.
- Realize that the business model of most large commercial gyms does not always empower the client. It’s more profitable to install weight machines (almost zero knowledge or technique needed), change half-baked classes frequently (Zumba-combat) and have trainers who run people through bosu ball and mini-trampoline workouts. Novelty sells. In short, a lot of people in the gym aren’t learning a new skill or any useful information. It engenders constant beginner syndrome which is psychologically fatiguing. Approach with caution, Mr. Knowitall.
Given the social dynamics we’ve just explored, in my opinion, I think you could or should offer unsolicited advice in the following situations:
- Imminent danger – Barbell training is a skill that has to be learned. Done improperly you can potentially harm yourself. People new to the sport sometimes unintentionally put themselves in danger. I have pulled failed bench presses off solo benchpressers who didn’t use safety pins or ask for a spot. I’ve also had to jump in more than once to re-rack bars for people who squat backwards (i.e. go forward out of the J hooks and then back up (blindly) to re-rack the weight). Deadlifts are a grey area, sometimes you will see somebody with terrible form attempt weights that are way too heavy. In most cases, I don’t say anything unless they are kids or seniors.
- Advice hacking – Every so often, I’ll be in a commercial gym and I can see that somebody in the rack next to me who is obviously new to barbell training but visibly enthusiastic about it. Clues include new weightlifting belt and shoes while making some obvious beginner errors (example, knees caving in while squatting or leaving that foam thingy on the bar). I have soft spot for these people because I remember how enthusiastic I was in the beginning and also how (at first) I had nobody to teach me the finer points. So I might start-up an innocuous conversation (hey, I am looking for a pair those shoes, where did you get them?) and if the conversation progresses, talk a bit about technique cues that I like to do. Notice I did not say “you should fix a, b and c”.
Those are only scenarios in which I think one could or should interject themselves into a strangers’ workout. I should also point out that I’ve never attempted to give unsolicited “beginner” pointers to a woman I don’t know. One could be accused of Mansplaining, having ulterior motives, etc. Finally, I should point out that the unsolicited advice dynamic is not the same in speciality gyms (powerlifting, etc). These gyms are smaller, people share the same specific goals and the social dynamic is more like a club than a public space. Chances are people are only too happy to get feedback or discuss technique.
I have received my share of unsolicited advice in commercial gyms and it doesn’t bother me. I don’t understand why some people get so butt-hurt about it. I think in most cases it’s simply a way of starting a conversation. It shows some concern on the other person’s part so God bless ’em. Also, I have actually received some pretty good unsolicited advice – it’s not all bad. Yes, sometimes you run into Gym Haters but that is the topic for another post. The unsolicited lifting advice I find objectionable is usually outside the gym.
Solicited advice: Sometimes I’ll see an experienced lifter doing something new or cool. In most cases, I might just straight up ask them about it. If you ask a legit, intelligent question most people love to talk about themselves. The other day a guy asked me about floor presses I was doing as an accessory to my bench workout. It was a good question so of course I was cool with discussing it for a few minutes.