Think about a gym, what is it? Forget the racks, bars, plates, machines, cardio equipment, mirrors and chalk cloud for a second and think a little more broadly. The gym is a place where people gather for a specific joined purpose, a place for people with a shared interest to strive towards a common goal, and a place where the same faces meet day-to-day and see each other in a very levelling manner.
In the gym you aren’t a doctor, or a powerful CEO, or a waiter. You are a fellow gym-goer and nothing more.
This, much like any other social situation like this, means that there are certain unwritten rules. An unofficial but exceedingly important code of conduct, which remains largely unspoken, yet will still leave you being ridiculed or causing offence if you ignore it.
Here I have compiled the most important ‘laws’ of the gym; the gym commandments if you will. Check them, and pay attention to them.
Don’t be ‘that guy’!
Note I’ll refer to ‘that guy’ or ‘bro’ a few times during this article. These terms are gender neutral, ladies are just as prone to being ‘that guy’ as men are, and girls are just as welcome into the gym bro-hood, too.
Thou shalt not leave thy weights lying all over the damn place
This goes for loading a machine and leaving it, using dumbbells and not re-racking them, and for re-racking dumbbells or plates in the wrong place, making it harder for everyone else to perform their workout.
It’s annoying to find one dumbbell on the rack, and then have to send out some kind of search party to locate the other one, tucked away in the corner of the aerobic studio because you wanted to use it for weighted crunches.
Pick your weights, use them, and replace them.
Thou shalt not display thy nipples through thy overly revealing string vest
I honestly have no idea how this ever got to be acceptable, but it’s really common in certain gyms to see guys wearing the smallest string vest possible, which invariably ends up exposing their nipples to the entire world on every rep.
Nobody wants to see it, and moreover, the average string vest wearer hasn’t been training nearly long enough to require so much exposed skin in order to move freely.
Wear a tee shirt or a sensible vest, and you’ll avoid scaring the poor people in the cardio section.
Thou shalt not be overly aggressive or intentionally intimidating
We all get it, sometimes lifting weights means you need to psych up and channel some inner Hulk. That’s cool, and nobody who trains seriously would really knock you for getting a little hyped before your top set.
But there’s a big difference between a really heavy deadlift or max squat, and grunting aggressively from beneath a raised hood and listening to deafening death metal while doing seated rows.
It’s pointless, but moreover it’s intimidating to the other people in the gym. You may think ‘cool’, or ‘they should grow a pair’, but consider this:
The majority of people in the world would benefit massively from resistance training, and of course the pastime which we all love depends on increased gym numbers which drives up gym incomes and buys us shiny new equipment. This means that it is in OUR BEST INTERESTS, let alone everyone else’s, that gyms are well attended – meaning people need to be made to feel welcome.
One of the key reasons which people give for not going to the gym is that they are intimidated, and that’s time and again the reason why people give for not ever going into the weights room (another reason to be discussed later).
Don’t be a part of the problem. You’re there to train and get on with your life, which is fine, but you also have a responsibility to be approachable and at least welcoming to everyone else. By all means, tell them that you’ll happily talk to them afterwards or over social media at a later date because right now you’re busy, but if your main objective in the gym is to be aggressive, scary and show off how hardcore you are, well…
It comes off as a little insecure.
Thou shalt not hog a piece of equipment without offering for others to work in
There are a limited amount of each piece of equipment in a gym. Some gyms only have one squat rack, and it’s very rare to find somewhere which has as many benches as it needs, and that means that at some point or other, you’re going to be using the equipment which someone else needs.
ASK THEM IF THEY WANT TO WORK IN. This means to let them use the equipment to perform sets during your rest periods.
This shouldn’t affect your session at all, because they will follow rule 4.5 below, but it will make their session far more effective as they’ll not be stood losing their pump for 25 minutes as you do set after set of pulldowns. This is especially important for things like a squat rack which will often be something you need for 30+ minutes at a time, and something which the other person really can’t ‘do without’ or ‘work around’.
As a side note to this, don’t be that guy who needs to have 4 sets of dumbbells at a time so he can do ridiculous drop sets. If you’re going to do that, use a machine or otherwise adjustable single piece of equipment, or just train when it’s not busy. It’s not necessary, and it ruins everyone else’s day.
As a side note to the side note, those who hoard dumbbells for drop sets and then disobey commandment number one should be made to smell month-old dirty protein shakers until they apologise.
If thou is offered to work in, don’t make yourself an inconvenience.
If working in, respect that you were second on the scene. This is kinda like being player 2 on someone else’s Xbox: you have all of the same rights, to a point, but the other person calls the shots.
This means that you need to adjust their weight to yours, and then you need to adjust it back again (some gym bros will form an unspoken agreement whereby each will adjust the weight for the other person, but assume this is not the case and it is your job until it becomes obvious otherwise).
This also means that if you adjust a machine’s settings due to differences in height or proportion, that you need to be responsible for adjusting it back to how you found it.
The exception to this is if working in for a squat, where tradition dictates that the rack be set to the shorter person’s settings for safety reasons.
Finally, it means that you don’t get to do extended, rest-pause triple drop-sets with partials that will leave you “repping" out for 2-3 straight minutes. The other person got there first and you should seek to not impact their session if you can. If this is your MO, wait until they are finished to start making your gains.
Thou shalt not offer unsolicited advice, unless someone is going to kill himself or herself with egregious form.
Unsolicited advice is almost never taken well. Though you may be correct in what you are saying, unless the person is going to hurt themselves it’s far better that you leave well alone.
Explaining to a stranger that they are doing something wrong is a strong (if not intentional) statement that you are better/more intelligent than them, and this only leads to someone A) resenting you and B) paying no attention anyway.
If you want to help them, compliment them on something else LATER in the session as a means of starting conversation, then ask them what exercise you saw them doing earlier. After they tell you what you already know, ask them if they wouldn’t mind you giving them a couple pointers to maybe try a slightly different technique that you have found to be really effective.
9 times out of 10, though, they still won’t pay attention. The best thing you can do is to just ignore them unless you’re asked for advice.
Thy shalt wipe away thy ass sweat from thy bench before leaving it
Ever gone to use a piece of equipment that’s soaked from some dude’s butt and back sweat?
It’s vile, and gyms provide everything you need to avoid being that guy. Just…wipe it down.
Thou shalt not show off, ego lift, shout or otherwise intentionally draw attention to thyself.
Attention seeking is something which is generally frowned upon in society, and the gym environment is absolutely no different.
Attracting attention is fine. Sometimes if you’re performing a lift, or doing an exercise, and you excel at it, you are going to attract some level of attention and that’s not your fault at all. You should not be ashamed to do your best in case someone watches…
Grunting and shouting, slapping your chest, stamping your feet or slamming weights unnecessarily only makes everyone else in the gym uncomfortable, and makes you look like a prat. As mentioned above, a little psych up is totally fine, and we applaud those who take their training seriously – we also wouldn’t dream of asking people to set their weights down gently, it’s not a library.
But it’s not a demolition site, and you only embarrass yourself.
I don’t think we really need to go in to why ego lifting – lifting too much weight with terrible form – makes you look ridiculous either. If you get a sore back from curls, or you round over like a scared hedgehog when doing pulldowns, just lower the weight and do it properly.
Thou shalt train with good form, intensity and progression
It’s painful to see someone in the gym week in-week out, lifting the same weights for the same amounts of sets of the same amount of reps, with the same lacklustre effort and disinterested expression.
We aren’t advising (or advocating) the macho-man hardcore BS which is so prevalent in grainy black and white videos online. You’re lifting weights in your leisure time, not going to war, but you do have to put the effort in, get out of your comfort zone and really push yourself.
This may mean that you break a sweat and pull a grimace or two, so if you find yourself chatting during your set or if you feel that you’re not truly being challenged, it might be time to add some pounds to the bar.
If you’re struggling with a progression model which allows you to improve, don’t feel that hiring a coach or personal trainer is only something which ‘other people’ do. Having some clarity and direction when you enter the gym can be a real game-changer.
Thou shalt not only do the things which thou finds most enjoyable, and instead thou shalt pay attention to what thou ‘needs’ to do.
Depending on your demographic, this could go two ways:
Person A Standard, stereotypical gym-bro. You like doing a ton of volume for chest and arms, you like squeezing your back muscles with light weights and high reps to get a pump, and you consider leg day to be optional, or a burden during which you do the minimal amount possible to be able to consider yourself ‘a person who trains legs’.You end up with terrible imbalances, generally a lack of core and overall strength, and people laugh at you when you wear tight jeans.
Person B The Modern gym-bro. You’ve read all the training articles, you own your own gym chalk, dipping belt and foam roller, and you know who Mark Rippetoe is, this means that you KNOW that all you need are 4-5 compound lifts and a lot of whole milk. You laugh at people doing curls or lateral raises, wouldn’t dream of doing any direct abdominal work, and are assured that drop-sets, supersets and any other intensity techniques are just bro-science. Moreover, anything over 5 reps is just cardio, right?
You end up with terrible imbalances, generally really small arms, and people ask you if you even lift.
We all have preferred ways of training, we all like certain exercises and there are certain things which, if we’re honest, we just wouldn’t do at all. Sure, we can emphasise the fun, we can look for variations of exercises which we find enjoyable and we shouldn’t really do anything that we absolutely HATE…
But remember that you’re in the gym to train and that means working towards self-improvement. Self improvement takes a little bit of effort sometimes.
Thou shalt not stare at, mock or otherwise belittle other gym-goers, for any reason
There is literally no reason to mock or belittle another gym-goer for anything that they do in the gym. Someone with terrible form, someone doing an unusual exercise or using a machine incorrectly, someone massively overweight or weak, someone doing kipping pull-ups in a bodybuilding gym or concentration curls on the deadlift platform – it doesn’t matter.
People are all in the gym to improve themselves, learn and develop their bodies. Most people (especially those starting out) could gain almost unimaginable health benefits both physically and mentally from sticking around, too.
You were new once, remember that. Give them time and they’ll learn, and if you follow the steps above, they may even ask to learn from you.