When I talk with prospective personal-training clients about their goals, one of the most common things I hear is a desire to fit in. Losing weight, gaining muscle, increasing quality of life – these things all come up, but for every "I want to run a marathon next spring," there is also a "I don't want to look stupid in front of everyone."
Gyms can be intimidating to the uninitiated. Like video games, team sports and online dating, there is a set of unwritten rules that govern the behaviour of gym rats. Heed them and you shall gain the respect and quiet admiration of veterans and gym staff alike. Flout them and, well, nothing much will happen other than being mocked and derided by all. Choose wisely.
Don't be a creep
Yes, there is an undercurrent of sexuality influencing much of what goes on at the gym. The sweating bodies, the revealing clothes, the provocative positions demanded by certain exercises. It can be difficult to focus on training in the midst of all this … if you're a hormonally-charged teenager. If, however, you're old enough to vote and you can't keep yourself from ogling and harassing others, well, you've got bigger problems than your bulging belly.
Do not disturb
Social conduct at the gym is best approached with the same diplomatic grace as the office. You wouldn't walk up to someone's desk and badger them with banalities if their attention was focused on their work. The same respect is owed to serious lifters who treat the gym as a place to get things done. This is not to say you have to conduct yourself like a stone-faced mute. As long as you're not bothering someone who's in the middle of a set, by all means exchange pleasantries, but then be on your way. And no matter how buddy-buddy you may be with a trainer, if he or she is working with a client, it should go without saying that this is not the ideal time to discuss last week's episode of Westworld.
Put down the phone
Smartphones have become essential pieces of gym equipment. We now have access to hundreds of handy apps to track progress, time intervals and monitor heart rates. This is good! What isn't good is when it takes 90 minutes to complete a workout because you're wasting time checking Facebook between sets. If you bring your phone to the gym, switch it to silent (or, even better, airplane mode) so you can focus on your workout. No texting. No phone calls. And for the love of all that is good and holy, no selfies.
If there's a towel, notebook or water bottle on or near an otherwise unoccupied piece of equipment, assume that someone is using it. If no one returns in the time it would take to complete a couple of sets, consider it yours. Otherwise, do something else. There is always an effective alternative to whatever exercise you had planned on doing. Stuck for ideas? Use this as an opportunity to approach your gym crush in a non-threatening, non-creepy manner!
Sharing is caring
The gym is a communal environment; no one owns exclusive rights to any one piece of equipment or chunk of floor space. This means if you're lifting during peak hours (5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.), it's probably not the best time to implement a 10-set German Volume Training protocol. And even if the gym is relatively empty, assume that someone else is eyeing the incline bench you're camped out on. Allowing others to "work in" while you're resting between sets is common courtesy. This holds especially true if you're using high-demand gear such as the squat rack. Which brings us to the most important of the unwritten rules…
Respect the rack
Nearly every gym conflict I've witnessed involves an abuse of the squat rack. As its name states, the squat rack is a piece of equipment that aids lifters in safely performing the barbell squat. Unfortunately, most commercial gyms only have a handful of racks, leading to a power struggle between two constantly warring factions: those who use the rack for exercises that could easily be done elsewhere versus those who know better. Do not be swayed by the arguments of gym bros – if you choose to fire off barbell curls in the squat rack, you deserve every inch of shade that gets thrown your way.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA and a striking coach at Black Devil MMA. You can follow him on Twitter @mrpaullandini