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.

Random Musings on Gym Behavior – Part 1

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.

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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….