Opinion: Gym Etiquette Is Ruining My Life

Barf. I groan as I sit up after another set of dumbbell bench presses, casting the weights down to the floor with as much nonchalance as I can muster: Like I hadn’t just pushed myself to the brink of failure, and then almost a little further than that.

A Rorschach test of back sweat coats the bench like fresh paint. As I haul my dumbbells back to their place on the rack, I ponder the journey to the “sanitation station” on the exact opposite end of the weight room. 

In years past, I might’ve just let it go and trudged on to my next exercise. Sam watched me perform that set, though. The implicit peer pressure pulls me to the paper towels and spray bottle instead of my next exercise — wouldn’t want to look like a jerk in front of Mr. Sam Whatever; he’s a damn-good spotter.

So I lubricate a cardboard-colored scrap of paper towel and haul ass back to my bench to wipe it clean. In the interim, somebody has claimed the pec deck station, my next destination. Now I have to ask to work in. Gym etiquette is ruining my workout routine, and if you aren’t careful, it’ll ruin yours too.

Is Wiping Down Gym Equipment Forced Labor? 

I mourn the demise of real gyms. Dirty, dingy, disgusting — more Pumping Iron than Pilates. The kind of cavernous place that compels you to go for a tetanus shot if you tear a callus on a rusty barbell.

Admittedly, it’s been a lesson hard learned to realize that my workouts can be filthy without the gym itself needing to be. That’s off the back of the many collective behavior shifts we’ve all adopted post-COVID, including a renewed enthusiasm for wiping down one’s exercise station after use.

I timed it: My walk from the weight bench with the illustration of my parent’s divorce to the sanitation station and back took about 75 seconds, or 150 steps. Repeating that process for all 8 exercises during my chest workout added 1,200 steps to my daily tally

Credit: Guajillo studio / Shutterstock

Despite my best efforts and nostalgic yearning for grimy bodybuilding gyms, I can’t turn down the extra 50-ish calories I burn by cleaning up after myself. Plus, it feels like I’ve gotten sick less often in the last two or three years, which means more time at work. My boss is over the moon about that. 

A study from 2008 declared poor gym hygiene to be a problem of “epidemic proportions”, especially for athletes. (1)

A meta-analysis from 2022 on daily step count showed a positive influence on all-cause mortality of up to around 10,000 per day. (2) If you can sneak your steps in at the gym and sanitize equipment at the same time, do so. 

The Disastrous Consequences of Sharing

As the Main Character of the weight room, I’ve grown accustomed to using what I want, when I want, for as long as I need. A few weeks back, with the punchy wops of “Not Like Us” trading blows between my ears as I rested up for my second set of lat pulldowns, I felt Sam’s palm clasp my shoulder.

“Hey man, how many more sets do you have?” he asked me. The nerve. After a failed mental mission of subtracting two from two, I took a shortcut: “A couple.” Sam asked if he could kill my vibe and derail my entire bodybuilding workout plan by working in. A minor pain, but I obliged him, and we got to talking. 

Credit: Riley Stefan

Sam ended up telling me his name — Sam, believe it or not — and we traded trivia about our exercise habits. Then he spotted my last set of pulldowns, offering some verbal encouragement and assisting with a few forced reps to finish things off

Admittedly, learning to share was a less-painful experience than I remembered it being during pre-K. Sam and I now exchange polite nods or fist bumps when we see each other in the gym and often take turns spotting each other on compound exercises.

Studies have shown that adding an element of social observation, such as lifting with a spotter you trust, can improve self-efficacy and even make weights feel lighter. (3)

Advanced intensity techniques have been shown to be effective at stimulating additional muscle growth. (4) Some, such as forced reps, are only practical to incorporate with a spotter or workout partner present. 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love One Piece of Equipment at a Time

Perhaps chief among the annoyances of so-called gym “etiquette” is the notion that one gymgoer should utilize precisely one piece of equipment at a time. Hogwash, if you ask me — I pack three individual water bottles (all filled with pre-workout) and two full-size beach towels in my gym bag so I can mark my territory in the weight room before my workout even starts.

Slowly but surely, however, it has dawned on me that I may in fact not be entitled to the racks, cables, and machines that populate my gym. After confirming with the staff that my membership dues are equal to every other patron’s, I realized that the gym I patronize might not be my personal playground. 

Credit: NDAB Creativity / Shutterstock

As such, I’ve started taking things more in stride with regard to how I navigate my bodybuilding routine, not fretting as much about whether my next station is available or not. I’m more focused on the task at hand, putting in more effort, and am less high-strung overall

A recent meta-analysis of exercise order in strength training routines determined that the sequencing of movements in a workout doesn’t affect muscle growth very much. (5) You needn’t worry about “reserving” equipment in the gym. 

However, the authors also argued that you should begin your sessions with whatever exercise you’re trying to increase strength on.

Manners Maketh Muscle

The gym is a bizarre nexus of civilized society and, frankly, primitive labor. Boil it down and you’ll realize we’re all just hauling oddly-shaped rocks around. But in addition to the gym being a place for individual betterment, it’s also a communal environment. 

I’ll probably never see Sam outside of the walls of the weight room, and that’s okay. By acknowledging that I should, in fact, treat this public space with the same respect I’d show my own home gym, I’ve recruited a spotter to push my intensity during my sessions, contributed to public health and hygiene, and learned that sharing is, in fact, caring. Minding my manners in the weight room might not be a big deal after all.

Editor’s Note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of BarBend or Pillar4 Media. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

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Almasri D, Noor A, Diri R. Behavioral Changes in Gym Attending Due to COVID-19 Pandemic: A Descriptive Survey. J Microsc Ultrastruct. 2020 Dec 10;8(4):165-167. doi: 10.4103/JMAU.JMAU_64_20. PMID: 33623742; PMCID: PMC7883492.

Paluch, A. E., Bajpai, S., Bassett, D. R., Carnethon, M. R., Ekelund, U., Evenson, K. R., Galuska, D. A., Jefferis, B. J., Kraus, W. E., Lee, I. M., Matthews, C. E., Omura, J. D., Patel, A. V., Pieper, C. F., Rees-Punia, E., Dallmeier, D., Klenk, J., Whincup, P. H., Dooley, E. E., Pettee Gabriel, K., … Steps for Health Collaborative (2022). Daily steps and all-cause mortality: a meta-analysis of 15 international cohorts. The Lancet. Public health7(3), e219–e228.

Sheridan, A., Marchant, D. C., Williams, E. L., Jones, H. S., Hewitt, P. A., & Sparks, A. (2019). Presence of Spotters Improves Bench Press Performance: A Deception Study. Journal of strength and conditioning research33(7), 1755–1761.

Krzysztofik M, Wilk M, Wojdała G, Gołaś A. Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Dec 4;16(24):4897. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16244897. PMID: 31817252; PMCID: PMC6950543.

Nunes, J. P., Grgic, J., Cunha, P. M., Ribeiro, A. S., Schoenfeld, B. J., de Salles, B. F., & Cyrino, E. S. (2021). What influence does resistance exercise order have on muscular strength gains and muscle hypertrophy? A systematic review and meta-analysis. European journal of sport science21(2), 149–157.

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