Most Embarrassing Gym Stories

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Gyms are a sub-culture unto their own.  The reason that some people find Gyms, and especially specialized Gyms/Training facilities, so daunting is the mini-“culture shock” of learning parameters of this subculture.   These are the “do’s and dont’s” that allow one to avoid “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, aka complete social humiliation.   Sometimes, however well-versed one is in gym culture, we all fall prey to the occasional faux pas.

A few years ago, when I first started getting interested in powerlifting, I trained exclusively at a big commercial “Globo” gym.  My enthusiasm for squats was matched by only by my complete, blissful ignorance of technique.  So there I was in a squat rack – completely raw – no knee sleeves, wristwraps, shoes or belt – but on the other hand the weight I was lifting probably didn’t warrant that.   In those days my benchpress was many kilos more than my squat.  To my credit, though, I was wearing Chuck Taylors, and not spongy running shoes.  I was also wearing those sort of thin nylon running trousers, the type you wear to go running when it might rain a bit.  They were the only non-shorts gym bottoms I owned and they had a drawstring that I could tighten to avoid the dreaded “carpenters’ crack” at the bottom of a squat.  They were not, however, very heavy-duty.  Anyway, I am at doing my 5×5 squats at 6:30PM on a Monday night, the height of gym rush-hour.  I am on the 4th rep of the last set, coming out of the “hole” when I hear an audible tearing noise, then a pop and, suddenly, a cool breeze invigorates my nether regions.   The trousers had split wide open from the waistband down to my knee.  The ‘back end” of the trousers had ceased to exist. You know how mothers always tell their kids to wear clean underwear in case they get into an accident?  Words to live by, y’all.

Not long after the “Flapping in the breeze” incident, another ignominious event took place at the same Globo gym.  The gym was packed and I had just completed a killer training session.  I was more than a little light-headed as I proceeded to the showers with my brand new towel, which I had literally just bought at a store just before going to the gym.  The showers in this gym have towel hooks to right of each shower stall (which are enclosed by doors).  So as I faced the shower I hung my towel on the hook to the right of my shower door and took a nice hot shower.  As I exited the shower with steam and water in my eyes, I reached to my right, grabbed the towel and vigorously dried every damp nook and cranny.  This towel went from dry and pristine to wet and befouled in roughly 20 seconds.  As I opened my eyes, I realized to my horror that I had just besmirched somebody else’s towel.  Just as this dawned on me, the owner of said towel exited his shower.  No, he was not pleased and no, he would not accept my brand new, never been used towel in exchange…nor my apology.  Some people apparently lack social graces as well as the common sense to take an unused new towel.  Oh well, lesson learned, always drape your towel of the shower stall door so it’s impossible to mistake.

Finally, in the embarrassing but unavoidable category, I once tore a hamstring muscle by freak accident during a powerlifting competition.  It was so painful that I could barely walk.  I thought this meant that I couldn’t deadlift and consequently would not finish the competition (meaning my other lifts (squat and benchpress) wouldn’t count) until another competitor pointed out that I could just lift the absolute minimum once.  So I went up to the organizers table and told the nice ladies that I wished to change my first deadlift attempt to 70kgs.  I had to say it 3 times as they thought they hadn’t heard me correctly.  I explained that I had hurt my leg but I sort of still got some side-eye.  Anyway, the message didn’t get to the team loading the plates so when my name was called they had to take plates off and leave, I believe, just 2 measly blues on the bar.  Most of the spectators didn’t I know was injured so the scene must have looked faintly ridiculous;  some burly dude walking out for a 70kg deadlift in a competition.  So I “hammed” it up a bit as I hobbled out to the bar, sort of did my deadlift set-up, and invented what might be a new deadlift form – the modified Bulgarian split deadlift.  I did the lift, got 3 white lights, and informed the nice ladies that I wouldn’t take my other lifts.

What are your most egregious gym gaffes?

Gym Etiquette – Unsolicited advice vs. Solicited advice

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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.