Gym etiquette: “how do I exercise in public after a year of home workouts?”

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Are you going back to the gym after a year? Here’s a quick refresher on gym etiquette, incase you’ve forgotten how to train in public. 

I had a sudden realisation when I caught a glimpse of myself mid-workout last week. I was (vocally) encouraging myself to get through a set of press-ups, talking loudly to myself being a weakling if I didn’t manage another rep. Then, between sets, I was inappropriately dancing around to a blaring 90s playlist. Looking down, my kitchen was littered with dumbbells and resistance bands, and I remembered that in a few days I’d have to get my act together. ‘I need to not do this when I’m at the gym…,’ I thought.

When I went to my friends back garden for a workout the following day, we had the same realisation. She was cheerleading for me (literally – I’m pretty sure there was even a chant), before we both started screeching to a song as though we were at a karaoke night. ‘How are we going to remember to act sensibly when we’re in a public gym again?’ I asked her. 

Learning how to be around others has long been a talking point since lockdown began. Wearing trousers with a waistband, making small talk and smiling at strangers when we can one day leave the house without our mouths covered are all things we’ll have to get used to. However, being back in the gym comes with an extra layer of difficulty. 

You see, gyms were already tricky places to navigate pre-lockdown. If you’ve not been in one for a year, you may forgotten the unspoken rules that become law when you’re around the free weights and machines. I don’t mean wiping down kit or wearing your mask, which should go without saying in a pandemic. Rather, we’ve unpicked the question of how much dancing and singing is allowed, and if it’s ever OK to leave weights out? 

1. Put your weights away

Ok, this might sound obvious because clearly you should never leave your dumbbells on the floor next to your bench (although it is worth reminding people, because it does still happen). But the best etiquette isn’t just to throw your weights on a rack and be done with it. It’s about how and where you put them, because the only thing worse than having to search the floor for a pair of dumbbells is having one 10kg on one side of the rack and having to scour the entire wall of the gym to find the other one. So please, put them back together in a suitable place. 

As for unracking your bar and plates? Let me tell you now that, as a 5ft1 girl, there is nothing worse than a bunch of 25kgs sitting on a bar that’s well above head height. How am I meant to get those off to lower the bar? It’s not only a pain, but it actually makes it impossible or extremely intimidating for some other people to use the kit. Please, just remove your plates.

A woman puts 45lb plates onto a barbell on the floor before weightlifting.
Gym etiquette: please unrack your barbells.

2. Don’t be impatient

My tolerance for people hogging kit is actually quite high. I think it’s a pretty smart idea to find a space in the gym with a versatile piece of kit and stay there for your session. Not only does it save wandering around waiting for other pieces of equipment to free up, but it makes training way more simple for those who lack confidence. 

Only, there’s always the toe tappers, huffers and ‘are you nearly done?’ askers.

So, what’s the etiquette here? Well, first up: you should never make someone feel uncomfortable or intimidate them out of their final set. Everyone has just as much right to be there as you do and, sorry, but the gym is a first come, first serve space – if you wanted a specific squat rack you should have got there earlier. 

However, if you are an experienced exerciser and can see a crowd waiting for the squat rack while something else you enjoy is free, the decent thing to do would be to let other people have a go. 

3. Have some fun

I don’t think anyone should be embarrassed about tapping their toes along to whatever motivating playlist is blasting through their headphones. Seeing other people enjoy their workouts makes me feel more relaxed and, as they say, a smile is infectious. But where is the line between having a little shimmy and the mid-set twerking my friend and I were doing during home workouts? It comes down to the distraction factor.

If I can see you out of the corner of my eye, it borders on being annoying. That goes for anything you’re doing – dancing, chatting to friends or throwing weights around like you’re in a CrossFit competition. Mainly, the worry is that I am nosey and will attempt to watch and end up hurting myself mid-squat. But it’s also worth remembering that, for some people, the gym is a means to an end: they want to get in and out. They go because it’s the only way they can access kit, not because it’s an enjoyable or social event, and they don’t want to listen to the stand up comedy show you’re giving your gym buddies while they train. 

So, giving a shoulder wiggle in the mirror to yourself? No judgement here. Singing and dancing like you’re on a West End show in front of someone who just wants to get on with their session? Probably best not.

4. Please, no grunting

Nothing else I need to say about this. It’s uncomfortable, bordering on sexual, and most of the time comes from men bicep curling, rather than actually exerting themselves. What’s the point? 

5. Have each others backs

Just a reminder: the gym isn’t a football pitch. The other people there aren’t your opponents. Their wins aren’t your losses. We can all get on with our sessions without making each other feel uncomfortable.

I don’t mean befriend everyone at the squat rack or clap every time someone adds another plate to the bar. I mean make people feel welcome – sometimes that’s best done by not looking at them at all, other times it might be giving them a little smile or popping up your fingers to let them know how many sets you’ve got left. Sharing knowing smiles with other women is also something that has hugely helped my nerves in a male-dominated space – creating an unspoken sisterhood among those grunting bicep curlers. 

Basically, just be a nice person. It shouldn’t be hard, but it is particularly important to remember when there may be more first timers in the gym, or even ex-regular gym goers who need to get their confidence back. If you’re not sure, ask don’t stare. And, generally, just try not to be a dick. 

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Images: Unsplash / Getty

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