This article is back by popular demand: Since it first appeared in our July/August 2005 issue, it has generated notes of thanks, requests for reprints — and a steady stream of newly unveiled faux pas and pet peeves. Among the most common complaints: mobile phones left switched on inside lockers, audible swearing, excessive locker-room exposure, sloppy swim-lane technique and unsolicited advice. Since etiquette missteps take on special significance (and annoyance) in the health-club environment, we thought it would be worthwhile to run this article a second time. We’ve also posted it here to make it easier to forward to your fellow gym-goers. To share your own gym-etiquette pointers, seek advice, or even just vent a little, visit our Health Club Etiquette forum. — Eds.
When we recently asked readers of Experience Life to share their health-club-etiquette complaints, we thought we’d get a few comments about discarded locker-room towels. But, obviously, we struck a deeper nerve: The letters and emails poured in.
It seems everyone has a favorite pet peeve: sweat-soaked weight benches, treadmill hogs, cell phones that break into techno versions of “La Bamba” in yoga class, smelly people. Etiquette offenders are everywhere.
While you might think most adults should know better, in our haste we often toss basic manners aside. “In today’s society we’re asked to do more with less time,” says Colleen Rickenbacher, a Dallas etiquette expert and author of Be On Your Best Business Behavior (Brown Books, 2004). “So when people get to the gym with their limited time, they go in with a get-out-of-my-way attitude.”
Society has also become more informal, sometimes making it tough to decide when etiquette rules apply, notes Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute and author of Essential Manners for Men (HarperResource, 2003). “People need to be more conscious about what they’re doing,” he says.
That goes for all of us. While you undoubtedly have your own gym-based pet peeves, you may not be aware of everyone else’s or realize when you’re straying into foul territory.
It’s quite possible, in fact, that unbeknownst to you, some of your regular behaviors are on someone else’s “can’t stand” list. That’s why we’ve asked the etiquette experts to lay down the health-club law – from the weight room to the locker room and places in between.
Around the Gym
Every club has implicit etiquette guidelines. Some clubs even post them. Still, whether or not those commonsense rules are posted, certain people tend to disregard them. That’s why it’s up to you to set an example. You might start with the following …
Hang up and sweat. Ask health-club members to name their biggest etiquette complaint and the cell phone wins, hands down. “It’s rude to talk on the phone at full volume while others are working out around you,” says fitness enthusiast Karen Binder, of Scottsdale, Ariz. “It’s even worse when someone’s having a long conversation while sitting on a machine and not using it.” And if you’re chatting while exercising, you’re obviously not tuned in to your workout.
Cell phones became a hot topic last year when some ill-mannered shutterbugs used their camera phones in the locker room. As a result, the International Health, Racquet & Sports Club Association issued a recommendation that its members prohibit cell phones and camera phones in locker rooms. Check with your club about specific restrictions.
If you must carry a cell phone, keep it on vibrate – it’s less likely to be disturbing if it goes off during your yoga session or some other class. If you must take a call, step far away from the workout area or class so you won’t disturb others. And keep your voice down. While stretching out, Laura O’Daniel of Fort Wayne, Ind., was once forced to listen to a nearby guy tell his buddy about his recent divorce and his game plan to get back into dating. Blech.
Reduce fumes. Your sweat might smell at times, but if you arrive somewhat clean, you’ll keep your workout aroma to a minimum. Make sure to apply deodorant beforehand, and don’t wear clothes that have simmered in your gym bag or car since your last workout. And remember that you’re at a health club, not a cocktail party, so lay off the perfume and cologne. Some people are sensitive to fragrances, and your odiferous presence could send them home with a headache.
Dress appropriately. Clothing is designed to keep you cool and to wick sweat away, not expose your assets (even if you have been working hard to attain them). There’s nothing wrong with dressing in a way that gives you confidence and makes you feel good about yourself. But there’s also no need to put on a show. “By wearing too little, you can distract some people and intimidate others,” says Rickenbacher. Follow your club’s dress-code guidelines and make sure your clothing provides appropriate cover for your activity. Men, wear shirts that cover both chest and stomach (no half shirts); women, avoid skimpy shorts and tops not designed for stretching and bending.
No pickups. Trying to score a date at the gym is a big no-no in Post’s book. Of course, the gym can be a great place to meet people who share your fitness interests, but most people are there to sweat, not flirt. See someone interesting? Wait until that person is at the juice bar or walking out the door to strike up a conversation.
Colds are not cool. Exercise probably won’t hurt your cold if your symptoms are above the neck, but you can easily spread your germs and do some real damage to others. Do everyone a favor and avoid the club when you’re infectious.
In the Studio
Group fitness classes tend to be a hot spot for rudeness. Not only are people vying for space and equipment, but there’s also a competitive vibe that tends to ignite bad manners. Avoid problems by steering clear of the following:
Make room. Maren Stewart’s No. 1 pet peeve is when people stake a territory in class. “They act as if a certain portion of the floor is reserved for them and they shoot you dirty looks if you stand there,” says the Fort Wayne, Ind., resident. While it’s natural to want to use a particular space or machine, don’t get upset if someone else gets there first. Just find another location and enjoy the change of scenery. Also, if space is limited, don’t lug all of your personal belongings into the studio; store them in a locker.
Show up on time. You might not think anything about walking in five or 10 minutes late, but if you have to scramble to the front or make other students move their equipment for you, you’re a disruption, says Ellen Barrett, owner of the Studio @ Buff Girl Fitness in New Haven, Conn. Her rule: If you can slip in unseen, no problem. But if you’re going to create a stir, skip the class and opt for a different workout.
Respect your instructor. Do you have to leave class 10 minutes early? Let the instructor know beforehand so she doesn’t worry that something’s wrong with you (or her).
Follow the leader. It’s one thing to modify certain moves to suit your fitness level or avoid exacerbating an injury. It’s an entirely different thing when the class has moved on to pushups and you’re doing your hundredth crunch. “The energy of the group gets severed when you veer so far from what the instructor’s doing,” Barrett says. There’s nothing wrong with trying out a tougher-than-usual class to challenge yourself, and nothing wrong with taking an easier-than-usual class because you like it and it fits with your schedule. But it’s best to avoid any group class where you’re tempted to mostly do your own thing.
In the Locker Room
If there’s one area that inspires the most “yuck” reactions, it’s the locker room. From overexposed flesh to dirty towels littering the floor, the locker room is a breeding ground for awkward encounters.
Naked truth. You may be proud of your rock-hard glutes, but that doesn’t mean everyone wants to see them. Wrap a towel around yourself, even if the shower is just steps from your locker. And please, no naked sitting. Drape a towel over a bench (and yourself) before taking a seat.
Pick up after yourself. Even the best round-the-clock cleaning staff will have trouble keeping up with a thousand determined mess makers, so out of courtesy to your fellow club members, throw away used paper towels and tissues. Before you toss your towel in the laundry bin, use it to wipe any puddles out of the bottom of your locker. Strive to make the areas you’ve used as clean as when you arrived. (This goes for the parking lot, too: Bottles, cans and paper cups should never end up on the ground.)
Don’t set up shop. Space is usually limited, so refrain from setting up camp on an entire bench or counter. Use only the space you need, take care of your business, clean up and then move on out.
In the Cardio/Strength Room
Cardio centers and strength-training areas are among the most popular in the gym, which means more opportunities for etiquette faux pas. Reduce your risk of offending your neighbors with the following strategies.
Leave no trace. “Touching other people’s excretions is gross,” Post says. So get a towel and wipe down that bench, cardio machine, stretching mat, dumbbell or whatever you’ve just used. Most clubs provide spray and towels near workout areas. If yours doesn’t, insist that it does – or bring your own little sweat rag along for the ride.
Don’t mark your territory. If you’re not using a machine, don’t leave your towel, water bottle or headphones in hopes of saving it. You might have walked away for only a few minutes, but for people watching the clock, that’s an eternity.
Don’t be a hog. Some clubs have policies about how long you can stay on certain cardio machines, especially when the club is crowded. If you’re allotted only 30 minutes and people are waiting, honor that limit. If you’re using a strength-training machine that somebody else wants to use, ask if he or she wants to “work in” and alternate sets.
Chill the chatter. When Dawn Talbot lifts weights at her gym in New Orleans, she finds people who insist on making small talk a regular and unwelcome interruption. “Unfortunately, the only way I’ve discovered to end the conversation is to ignore the person,” she says. “I don’t like to be rude, but I don’t have three hours to do an hour’s worth of weightlifting.”
Respect people’s time and work ethic. If you see a friend you want to catch up with, give a quick hello and arrange to meet after your workout. And if you and a pal do decide to gab, make sure your conversation isn’t disturbing other people’s peace. That goes double for cell-phone conversations. There’s nothing more distracting than listening to an hour of “uh huhs” and “so then she saids.”
Rerack the weights. How many times have you headed to the weight stack only to find your dumbbell missing? Or maybe you have to remove extra weight from a piece of equipment before you can use it. That’s not only frustrating, it wastes time. Be courteous and return weights to their proper places, reset weight machines to a low setting and empty the bench-press bar when you’re finished. After all, it’s just one more curl to put the weight away. Oh, and please don’t drop bars and free-weights – the noise is alarming to others and it damages the equipment.
Give up the grunting and spitting. Trying to win extra attention by showing off how much you can lift? Do it by flexing your muscles, not your vocal cords. Breathe, exhale, do what you must. But spare your fellow gym-goers any unnecessary drama.
By observing these simple guidelines and by being aware of the sensitivities of your fellow gym-goers, you can make the health-club experience more pleasant for everyone. Of course, there will always be people who bend the rules of behavior and violate club etiquette. But if you polish your own good manners, the next time there’s a breach of etiquette at your club, you can be sure that fingers won’t be pointing at you.
Freelance journalist Karen Asp is the fitness columnist for Allure and writes frequently about health, fitness and active travel for Fitness, Men's Fitness, Prevention, Real Simple, Self, Woman's Day and Women's Health.