The Gym Culture Handbook

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Simple tips for acclimating yourself at the gym.

WebMD Feature Melyssa St. Michael has witnessed more than her share of health club etiquette violations. As a veteran bodybuilder and Director of Baltimore's UltraFit Human Performance gym, she's seen members hog the treadmills, block the aisles between weight machines, and take marathon showers in the locker room.

"You always have people who think they own the gym and forget that everyone else pays a membership fee, too," St. Michael says.

Yes, even at a health club -- a place where skimpy attire, profuse sweating, and mild grunting are perfectly acceptable -- there are rules of etiquette.

"You're going to be interacting with other people, so there's a protocol that's important to follow," St. Michael says.

If you've recently joined a health club, you may find the environment intimidating. Learning the unwritten rules can help you feel a lot more at home at the club -- and help you make friends while avoiding nasty stares.

If you come across a situation that you're not sure how to handle, simply ask one of the trainers on duty. "The experts can save you from embarrassing moments," New York City fitness trainer Mike Gostigian says.

Here's a rundown of the courtesies expected at a gym:

  • Don't sit on a machine you're not using or when you're between sets. Let a fellow gym member "work in" (alternate) with you. If someone else is using equipment that you have your eye on, feel free to say, "Mind if I work in with you?" It's perfectly acceptable for you to change the weight setting or seat level; just be sure to restore them after your set.
  • Keep your grunting to a minimum. Sure, a weight room isn't a public library, but it's not a championship wrestling arena, either. "Some of these guys scream like it's the equivalent of male childbirth," Gostigian says. Loud noises not only distract other gym members but alert them to the fact that you're lifting more weight than you can handle.
  • Don't tote around your gym bag. That's what lockers are for. "Gym bags on the floor are a hazard," St. Michael says. "Plus they take up space, and the gym's crowded enough as it is."
  • Don't drop your weights. When you're finished using a set of dumbbells, gently place them on the ground. "I've seen people drop their dumbbells from four feet in the air," Tucson trainer Steve Canis says. "It's a macho thing." It's also a dangerous thing; the weights can bounce around and break someone's toes.
  • Keep your sweat to yourself. Carry a towel and wipe off the equipment when you're finished. "Some people leave a puddle of sweat on the bench they've just used -- it's disgusting," Gostigian says.
  • Unload your weight bar. Don't assume that the next person who comes along has the ability or desire to clean up after you. "A lot of guys leave heavy weight plates on a barbell and then walk away," Gostigian says. "But for most people, just lifting those 45-pound weights is a challenge." By the same token, a guy bench-pressing 225 pounds isn't going to want to bother removing someone's 10-pound weight plates.
  • Don't hog the drinking fountain. "If you have seven people waiting in line behind you, don't start filling up your two-gallon jug," St. Michael says.
  • Observe the gym's time limits on the cardiovascular equipment. Many clubs restrict you to 20 or 30 minutes on the treadmills, bikes, and stairclimbers during rush hour.
  • Return your weights to the rack. If you leave dumbbells on the floor, someone may trip over them, or the weights may roll onto somebody's toes. Be sure to place them back in their proper spots. No one should have to waste 10 minutes hunting for the 15-pound dumbbells, only to find them sitting between the 40s and the 50s.
  • Exercise courtesy in the locker room. Don't take up three lockers and spread your clothing over an entire bench, forcing other people to put on their socks while standing up. "People will rip off their sweaty clothes and run into the shower, leaving their undergarments all over the place," St. Michael says.
  • Be courteous in exercise classes. Don't show up late or distract the class by creating your own workout routine. And play nice! "In New York City, people will get in fights over spinning bikes," Gostigian says. "It turns into a boxing class instead of a cycling class."
  • Watch where you're going. "People are oblivious to what's going on around them," St. Michael says. "Sometimes when I'm doing lateral movements for my shoulders, someone will walk right by me and I'll almost hit them. Weight lifting should not be a contact sport."

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