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Gym Etiquette

How to behave at the gym

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Updated August 17, 2008

Oh my. That's what I was saying to myself at the gym the other day as I got on a treadmill and noticed the glistening puddles of sweat left behind from a previous exerciser. Sigh.

Anytime you smush groups of sweaty people together in small spaces, there are bound to be problems and, though there may not be rules posted around the gym for how to act, there are some unspoken rules that all of us should be familiar with, whether we're veteran exercisers or we're just starting out.

The Basics

While it's perfectly acceptable to sweat, grunt and make mean faces while working out, there are a few behaviors that aren't acceptable. Here are just a few rules for getting along with your fellow exercisers:

  • Share. If you're doing multiple sets on a machine, it's common courtesy to let others work in during your rest periods. This may not always be practical, but offer to share whenever you can.
  • Clean up After Yourself. My biggest pet peeve is someone who walks away from a machine, leaving a slimy pool of sweat behind. Thanks! Always bring a towel with you and wipe the machines down when you're finished. Most gyms offer wipes or sprays strategically located around the gym for this purpose.
  • Leave no trace. My next biggest pet peeve is the person who leaves six million pounds on the leg press machine. I don't know, maybe I look stronger than I am. The point is, always put your weights back when you're finished.
  • Don't hog the treadmill. Many gyms have time limits on cardio machines during busy hours. There's a reason for that, and you should obey it. And no, throwing your towel over the display doesn't fool me.
  • Keep it down. Most gym-goers I know have seen That Guy. The one pumping away on the treadmill while screaming into a cell phone. Unless it's an emergency, save your chat-time for after your workouts.
  • Cover it up. I respect the confidence that allows some people to walk around the locker room naked. Know what else I respect? Seeing you wearing a towel after your shower to keep the locker room a comfortable place for everyone.

Aside from practicing good manners at the gym, you also want to make sure your workouts are safe and effective. Use the following tips for navigating the confusing world of gym workouts.

How to Workout at the Gym

There are days when I cringe watching people workout. I see people flinging weights wildly, dropping heavy weights on the floor, hanging onto treadmills for dear life and just generally using bad form with their exercises. Here are a few tips for getting an effective workout without hurting yourself:

  • Use good form. Good form is different depending on what exercise you're doing but, in general, good form includes the following:
    1. Don't swing your weights. Unless you're doing a sports specific workout, use slow and controlled movements. If you have to heave the weight up, it's too heavy.
    2. Don't drop or throw the weights down. That's a great way to break a toe--yours or someone else's. If you're using a heavy weight, have a spotter nearby to help you.
    3. Don't lock your joints. When you get to the end of a motion--like a squat--keep your joints soft to avoid hurting yourself.
    4. Don't slump. Keep your abs engaged during all of your exercises and stand up straight to avoid injury and get the most out of your exercises.
  • Let go of the rails. It's tempting to take your treadmill speed/incline up so high, you have to hold on for dear life. I'm not sure why that's tempting, but it apparently is since a lot of people do it. You'll get a better workout if you let your arms swing naturally. Unless you need the rails to keep your balance and stay safe, keep your speed and incline at a level where you can comfortably let go.
  • Learn how to use the machines properly. I've seen people doing crunches on a leg press machine. If you don't know how a machine works, either look at the diagrams on the machine or ask someone to show you how it works. Most gym-goers are happy to help.
  • Learn how to set up a good workout for your goals. Rather than just showing up at the gym and randomly picking machines, have a plan before you walk in the door. This might mean hiring a trainer or educating yourself about the basics of exercise. Or visit my Workout Center for ideas.
  • Learn how to monitor your intensity. Since I started training, I've seen more than a few people puke after working too hard on the cardio machines. Beginner's often aren't sure of how much they can handle and end up working too hard, exercising too soon after eating or exercising without having eaten at all, all of which can cause stomach problems. Educate yourself on how to monitor your intensity and the right way to begin a cardio program.

Being a newcomer to a health club is tough for anyone, even veteran exercisers, especially when you're not sure how things work. Things will typically go much more smoothly if you take the time to follow the rules, be a pleasant gym-goer and, most of all, learn how to set up a safe, effective program. You'll be much more more likely to keep showing up for your workouts and make some new friends with like-minded people.

Readers Respond: What's the worst gym etiquette you've seen?

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