The gym is one of few public spaces where people of all walks of life converge for hours at a time. For some, it’s like church or temple—a place of worship. That’s why we need basic gym etiquette rules to ensure we can all respect one another and share our gyms.
I’ve been a coach for 16 years. More importantly, I’ve been a lifter for over 20, going back to my days as a college track athlete. That was my first exposure to the focus and respect of a good weight room. Etiquette counted for a lot. Not only in terms of sportsmanship, but also awareness and safety. Naturally, the rules of this article are close to home.
Some of this gym etiquette code of conduct may be common sense to you, but there’s always someone who still needs to be told. It’s also a certainty that we’ve all been guilty of breaking at least one rule here.
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Respect the Heavy Set
Every gym will have high foot traffic. But be extra mindful not to get between a lifter and his heavy effort. What does this mean?
Imagine a deadlift platform with a fair amount of open space in front of it, and a lifter is priming up to hit a 1- or 3-rep max. If you’ve got to cross that lifter’s path at the same time, do it by keeping a mild distance to respect his mental focus. Stepping two feet in front of him is inconsiderate, even if you’re not touching him or physically affecting his lift. It’s an unwritten code of respect to give the heavy set some space.
And by the way, “heavy” is relative. A beginner may have a max deadlift of just 135. But it’ll still take the same 10 out of 10 effort all the same for him to get it off the ground, no different than an advanced lifter pulling 550 pounds. There should be no difference in how that’s regarded.
Clean Your Space
This one should go without saying. No one wants to be the guy who leaves nasty sweat stains on vinyl gym benches, or walks away with six plates left on the squat bar. And no one wants to follow that guy to clean up after him, either. It’s a basic courtesy to clean up after yourself in the gym, and leave any piece of equipment the way you met it: clean, sanitized, and unloaded.
No 5-Pound Plates on the Leg Press
This sounds elitist, as though it’s not taking weaker lifters into consideration, but read on.
With all things equal, it’s highly unlikely that with a cradle as large as most plate-loaded leg press stations are, the body will even detect an increase by 2.5 or 5 pounds. Even an increase in 10 pounds is a bit of a stretch.
Often, the smaller plates are tough to find for free weight movements like an overhead press or bench press, taking them for a leg press isn’t putting them to the greatest use.
Moreover, if you’re making an increase of that small an increment on an exercise machine like the leg press, you’d make better use of your time and progressively overload using another piece of equipment the body will derive more benefits from. You can always add one 10-pound plate (or 25-pound plate) to one side of the machine. The imbalanced load will be undetectable when the platform moves as a whole unit.
Don’t Overload the Plate Tree
You know the racks where plates are stored when you’re not using them? If you load them poorly, it can not only be annoying, but a massive safety hazard. Most plate trees have space for the 45-pound plates to be positioned a bit closer to the bottom, and the 25s, 10s and less, to be positioned closer to the top. This allows for ease of access, and not as much catastrophic damage should things come loose and drop from the rack. Be sure to follow suit and not load the heaviest weights higher up toward the top of the tree.
On that note, be mindful of not putting too many plates on the same arm of the tree. There should be at least 2 inches of space between the last plate and the end of the sleeve. That way, if bumped, the plate can’t fall off the rack and crush someone’s foot. If you’ve been in the gym long enough, you’ve definitely heard stories of someone having an injury from a loose weight.
Don’t Deadlift in the Squat Cage
We’ve all criticized lifters for doing curls in the squat rack, but the deadlift holds a position as a close second as far as a squat cage no-no. Unless lifting for a very specific purpose (like a set of overcoming isometrics or reverse band training sets), there’s virtually no need to occupy a squat cage to perform standard deadlifts.
This can be monumentally frustrating for a lifter who’s trying to squat and in need of a cage to do it—especially in a busy or poorly equipped space. Step out of the cage and deadlift on the open floor. It will make no difference to you and more people can get their reps in.
Always Look Both Ways Before Crossing the Turf
Many a time, unwitting lifters have gotten absolutely trucked by someone doing short sprints, sled pushes, med ball throws, loaded carries, or another dynamic or locomotive movement designed for the turf portion of the gym.
It behooves you to remain vigilant and avoid blindly walking across the turf without keeping your eyes open. In a busy gym, you can count on that area to always be in use!
The Gym Isn’t Your Film Studio
By all means, film your training sets in the gym. They give fantastic feedback and provide a visual cue for what to work on. They’re also great content to post on your social to show you walk the talk.
But the moment you bemoan people “getting in the way of your shot,” you’ve played the game the wrong way. Remember: The gym is a public space everyone is paying for. If someone obstructs your camera angle, that’s not on them. And you had better not ask someone to move or switch machines in order to satisfy your tripod setup. Get real.
Stop Reserving More than One Machine
Wanna do a superset? Great.
Wanna do a Triset? Fine!
Wanna do a full circuit? Amazing.
But in each of these situations, make sure the gym isn’t busy. The only setting for any of these examples that require marking your territory on multiple machines at the same time, would be a very low-traffic gym. Ideally, an empty one.
It’s very inconsiderate to tell other people you’re using three pieces of equipment at the same time, and allowing them to “work in with you” isn’t the answer either. Many times, the other people will feel like they’re imposing or disrupting your session if they opt to do so, and will probably avoid it until you’re finished. But doing that disrupts their workout.
Know How—and When—to Dump Weights
Dropping weights that are clearly light enough and safe enough for you to control to the floor isn’t “badass” or necessary. It’s just plain obnoxious and invites risk. The same way a good-quality jump requires a good-quality landing, a good-quality heavy set must come along with knowing how to bail or dump the weight at the end of a set upon technical failure.
This is the most prevalent with dumbbell bench press and shoulder press exercises. In both cases, the weights would be best started resting on the lifter’s thighs, so the “knee” action the lifter creates to put them into their starting position can be assumed.
Once the set is complete, the lifter can bring the weights back to the knees (this is done by meeting the weight on its way down with the knees to “catch” the weight), or they can lower the weight to the ground, keeping their hands on them the whole time to control their bounce and keep them near. There’s no need for dropping weights and letting them tumble uncontrolled, possibly interfering with the lifter next to you.
Lead by Example: Be Helpful and Kind
If you’ve been lifting for years, remember how intimidated you were back when you were a newbie with no gains. There may even be a person who stands out in your memory for taking you under their wing and providing guidance to help you get on your way.
Now it’s time to pay it forward. The amount of people who are quick to make fun of, berate, and discount younger, newer, weaker lifters is shameful. Instead, make a habit of making yourself available for questions, a spot, or any other assistance—when it’s within your bandwidth.
Whether you want to believe it or not, you’re leading by example and setting the standard at your gym.
Wear Indoor Shoes
Always bring along separate, specialized gym shoes, especially if you’re serious about lifting. A flat, wide shoe with zero heel-toe drop (like Chuck Taylor All-Stars) will stabilize you on deadlifts, while one of the big brands’ specific shoes made for lifting will help squats, because they can improve your ankle and knee angles. If you’re doing CrossFit or similar multifaceted workouts, get CrossFit shoes.
This rule is even more important on bad-weather days. If it’s wet or snowy outside, we don’t want you to bring that slush and dirt into the gym.
Be Mindful of Your Sweat—and Stench
There’s nothing wrong with getting wrung out from a hard workout—that’s why you’re there. If you sweat, you sweat. That said, minimize its impact on others. If you’re in a fitness class or using equipment others are waiting for, bring a towel to wipe everything down and take advantage of disinfectant wipes bolted to the walls of practically every gym. Moreover, read the room. If you’re in a CrossFit box with a hardcore fitness set who won’t bat an eye at a little sweat, it’s more acceptable to take your shirt off. But for your typical big box gym, keep your tee on.
Just as sweat can be off-putting, so too can smell. It affects the atmosphere for other people. Take a moment to make sure you aren’t unleashing a stupefying amount of B.O. before heading into the gym.
Follow proper hygiene: Take a shower, use deodorant, and please don’t put on that shirt you’ve been wearing for the last week or so to do your workouts. Do your laundry and invest in an array of sweat-wicking workout shirts.