21 Rules for Going to the Gym Every Grown-Ass Adult Should Know

As the new year rolls in, so do the days of packed cardio machines, fitness classes, and weight rooms. That’s why brushing up on some basic gym etiquette might be a good idea right now—whether you’re joining one for the very first time, coming back after a hiatus, or simply continuing with a regular habit.

And by “might be a good idea,” I mean: as necessary as that extra water bottle during the vaguely ominous “Sweat and Spin” cycling class, or a sports bra that doesn’t become a torture device when it’s time to wriggle out of it. If you’re new you’ll definitely want to acquaint yourself with the rules of the road first. And if you’ve been going to the gym for years, you’re not off the hook; it’s way too easy to get comfortable and let your manners start to slip.

As SELF’s fitness director, a certified personal trainer, and a lifter for nearly 20 years, I have a lot of thoughts on this topic. I’ve belonged to nine gyms over that time span, and there’s one thing I know for sure: People’s behavior on the floor can make or break your experience. And it’s not just the obvious, egregious stuff; there are tons of little things you may unwittingly be doing that can make other people’s experiences less comfortable, more intimidating, or downright icky. If you don’t want to be That Guy (and I know you don’t!), here’s all of the modern gym etiquette you should be aware of.

1. Keep your sneezing, snotty germs at home.

Proper gym etiquette starts before you even walk through the doors. If you’re feeling under the weather, abort mission. In the time of COVID, gnarly colds, gross stomach viruses, a throat tickle, runny nose, or rumbling gut might be a sign of something that can get someone else sick (and sometimes really sick). When your body’s fighting off an infection, you probably shouldn’t be exercising anyway. So stay home.

2. Give yourself a sniff test.

If you’re going to the gym after work, it could be nearly 10 hours since you swiped on some deodorant. And what’s a little ripe under a layer or two of clothing can become downright stinky when you add an increasing body temp, sleeveless shirt, and a whole bunch of arm movement to the mix. If you can smell yourself before you start working out, it’s not going to get better when you start sweating. Toss some body wipes in your gym bag along with your deodorant (and clean gym clothes!), and use both liberally before your workout.

3. Read the rules.

Things that are prohibited in one gym may be just fine in another. Luckily there’s a super easy way to tell: Read the guidelines, which, most of the time, are posted at the front desk or on the gym floor. This will let you know whether it’s okay to do potentially questionable behaviors like dropping weights, using chalk, or lifting in your socks. (Note: Your gym’s actual rules should be the final say, even if, say, one dude is still using his chalky hands to slam his barbell away from his bare feet.)

4. Record video with (extreme) caution.

I’m really not a fan of video at the gym—I think it makes other people uncomfortable and like they need to tip-toe around a space they belong in just as much as the person making content does. Still, I acknowledge that fighting that is likely a losing battle, and there are some legit reasons to do it (e.g., to check form). If you’re going to do it, it’s important to be as unobtrusive and courteous as possible. That might mean filming only during off-hours, setting up your phone so no one’s visible in the background, and skipping bulky accessories (hello, tripod on a crowded gym floor.) And if someone walks through your shot…well, that just means it’s time for take two. Definitely do not scold another gym-goer for doing their thing and impeding your frame.

Also: Your video should feature you and you alone. Please never purposefully record anyone else without their consent, and if you accidentally get someone else in your shot, you certainly shouldn’t post it anywhere. If you feel the urge to film another gym-goer just so you could make fun of them, first direct yourself to item #21 on this list, and then set aside some time for some serious self-reflection so you can tease out why you feel the need to be such an incredible asshole (and then take steps to address it).

And this should perhaps go without saying, but there are two instances where you absolutely should never film or photograph: On the gym floor if your establishment has a posted no-video rule, and in the locker room. Honestly, you should even be careful about texting too much in the locker room, lest people think you’re using your phone to surreptitiously take creep shots.

5. Don’t show up late for class.

Arriving on time to a group workout is important for a lot of reasons: You’ll want to set up your space, gather your equipment, and let the instructor know if you need any modifications. Ideally, you’ll be getting there 10 to 15 minutes early. If you come in late, not only do you miss all that, but you’ll also disrupt the people who did get there on time. If you have to enter after things are already under way, know that you only get a few minutes of wiggle room—anything more than five, and the actual class (not just the warm-up) has already likely begun. So come up with a workout plan B, and scrap the class for that day.

6. Leave your phone in the locker room during classes.

Phones can be a huge distraction—to your classmates and to your own focus—especially during chill classes like yoga. Even if the ringer isn’t on, “silent” vibration is still audible, and your screen will keep lighting up as you get notifications. (As will your smartwatch, if you’re wearing one.) Do everyone a favor and just put it in your locker (with the sound off, please).

7. And never take calls on the gym floor.

Even if you have headphones in, this is a big nope.

8. Put things back…where they belong.

Everyone laments the gym-goer who leaves their free weights on the floor or plates on the barbell, but to me, re-racking your equipment but putting it in the wrong spot is barely any better. There’s a precision to the gym that’s soothing to a lot of us: dumbbells neatly arranged left to right in ascending order, weight plates placed vertically from lightest on top to heaviest on the bottom. Putting your stuff back any random place messes with that vibe and makes it hard for the next person to find what they need.

9. Wipe down everything you’ve used.

Gyms traditionally have had either disposable wipes or spray cleaner and paper towels available to disinfect benches and cardio machines—and signs reminding you to do so. Since COVID, my gym has upped the ante with them, and I’m all for it: Take a moment to wipe down everything you’ve touched, including free weights, machine handles, and other attachments. Sharing a bench with someone’s sweat is gross, but so many illnesses are spread from face-to-hand/hand-to-face contact, and we’re all here exercising to be healthier, right? So when you’re wiping down your bench, take the extra 10 seconds to hit your touch surfaces too.

10. Give people space…

If you’re setting up to lift weights somewhere that’s not fixed (say, on a movable bench or even just a spot on the floor), make sure you’re not directly in front of someone else and blocking their mirror view. This isn’t a vanity thing—relying on the mirror to check form is super important (especially if you’re lifting heavy or doing a more technical exercise), and impeding that can throw someone off at best, and leave them open to injury at worst. Same space rule applies if you’re picking a cardio machine. If there are five open treadmills and one in use, leave at least one empty buffer between yourself and the other exerciser. (Believe me: If you’re going hard, sweat travels.)

11. …and equipment too.

Yes, dumbbells and kettlebells are heavy. No, that doesn’t mean you should do your exercises with them an inch away from their rack. While it might take some elbow grease to haul them to a different location, please take the time to do this. It’s really, really annoying to try to return your weights to their spot, only to have to hold them awkwardly for a while longer while you wait for someone to finish their set of rows basically standing on top of the rack. Think of moving your weights to your new locale as a warm-up—or a bonus set of farmer carries.

12. Repeat after us: The gym is not your personal dating site.

Stop hitting on people who are trying to work out. Even if you think you’re respecting boundaries and “just being friendly,” the gym is simply not the place for it. So many people go to the gym to decompress and unwind, and fielding unwanted proposals really, really tanks that. I can tell you from personal experience: If you make it weird once, that interaction is going to be weighing heavily on your target every single subsequent time they’re working out there. Chill vibes, gone.

13. Don’t be weird to people with larger bodies.

Stop trying to “encourage” fat athletes you see exercising. Don’t tell them they’re an inspiration or that they’re brave, and don’t assume they’re a beginner. Treat them as you do everyone else on the floor: friendly, politely, and that’s it.

14. And act normal around gender-nonconforming folks too, please.

This is a huge one, particularly in locker rooms. Operate under the assumption that everyone’s using the correct spaces, and no one needs you to stare at them intensely or, worse, step in because you don’t think they “belong” where they are. So mind your own business and keep it movin’ and ultimately just…be cool, guys.

15. Stop futzing with a cage while another person is working.

If someone’s doing heavy back squats, bench presses, rows, or whatever, wait until they’re done with their set to return or remove any plates from their cage. Seeing someone out of the corner of your eye when you’re doing a heavy or technical lift can be distracting, and if they actually unconsciously swivel their head to check it out, it can mess with their balance or alignment (possibly leading to injury). It also breaks concentration, which sucks.

16. Don’t lurk.

If you’re waiting for a machine, open communication is going to be key—and always the better choice than the creepy hover. When the person is done with their set, go ahead and politely ask them how many they have left, or if you can “work in” with them. That’ll let them know that you’re waiting for that equipment and aren’t just lurking around them for some other reason.

17. Resign from the form police.

I really don’t recommend approaching a stranger at the gym to tell them what they’re doing wrong. This holds true whether you’re a fitness professional (unlikely) or a self-appointed “expert” (way more likely). Unless you’re that person’s trainer and are being paid to teach and observe them, keep your suggestions to yourself. If you genuinely think they’re at risk of getting seriously hurt, sure, you can tell someone at the front desk, but I’d also urge you to double-check your intentions first: Do you really want to keep them safe, or do just want to seem like you’ve got the clout to be the final say there?

18. Stop monopolizing equipment.

Common sense—and common courtesy—prevails here. If your gym has one squat rack and loads of hopeful squatters, then it’s not cool to set up camp for four different squat variations in a row. Same applies to cardio equipment: If there’s one stair climber, it’s a dick move to hog it for an hour. For gyms that have tons of empty equipment, go ahead and use your choice to your heart’s content, but during busy hours or spaces where things are at a premium…sorry, but you’re going to have to share.

19. Take appropriate rest, but don’t overdo it.

Equipment should be used for working and for recovering briefly—not for doing one set and then returning an email, watching a YouTube video, and voice memo’ing your mom. If you’re going to, say, check your texts for an amount of time that stretches beyond your rest period, take a break and head off the floor to do so. (On the flip side, don’t feel pressured to cut your rest short to get your sets done quicker if you feel like someone’s waiting on you. If they are, they’ll simply ask you to work in, like above!)

20. Don’t “save” stations, machines, or anything else.

This might be an unpopular opinion, especially for fans of supersets (two exercises back to back without rest) or circuits (same, but with more moves), but doing this creates a backlog at the gym and introduces a whole lot of unnecessary confusion. If you’re supersetting a lat pull-down on the cable machine with a bench press on the flat bench station, you’re taking up two prime pieces of real estate. It’s not fair to expect them to stay open and available when you’re not currently using them, and, in my opinion, bad form to “claim” them with your water bottle, towel, or sweatshirt while you’re off doing your other exercise.

21. Don’t be an asshole.

Proper gym etiquette can, at its very essence, be distilled into this simple imperative: Don’t be an asshole. Remember you’re in a public space, so behaviors that would be annoying, eye-roll-y, off-putting, or flat-out disgusting in any area where you’re sharing close quarters is likely going to apply here as well.

And a softer, related plea too: While you certainly shouldn’t be a full-fledged asshole, why not take it a step further and be…a pleasant human being? A lot of the gym faux pas we talked about could be alleviated with communication—and that’s only possible if you’re open to actually interacting with your fellow exercisers. That doesn’t mean you have to start random conversations with them (and, again, definitely don’t hit on them), but instead simply acknowledge their existence and belonging in that shared space. That means making eye contact, smiling, giving a hello nod, handing them the spray bottle if they’re next in line, etc. If everyone on the floor made themselves just a tiny bit more approachable, the gym could be a way more welcoming place for all of us.


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