The Unspoken Rules of Belonging to a Gym

M.A., Health Writer

It's said the group fitness and open gym phenomenon began with the start of the 2008 recession. People still wanted to get fit, but when budgets shrank, the expense of personal trainers became a stretch for even the most avid fitness aficionado.

Enter group fitness. The general sociological concept of "group" means more than one person in a designated space. This can also apply to ten people, side by side, running on treadmills while immersed in the TVs in front of them. Whether you do Zumba, SoulCycle or CrossFit — or a class that incorporates similar movements but has a different name — chances are you’ve seen and heard a few things you wish you hadn't.

Meet two experts who've seen it all, and weigh in on those unspoken rules of belonging to a gym that you may not say, but you've definitely thought.

Let's all be nice

Before you head to your next class or indoor running session, consider these suggestions from Nick Clayton, M.B.A., M.S., exercise science and personal training manager at the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Also bringing sound advice from 20+ years of experience and a formidable class schedule of teaching up to six weekly classes is Carolyn Coleman, group fitness director at the top-notch Renaissance ClubSport in Aliso Viejo, California.

1. Dress the part: The club rules usually say: "appropriate attire, not overly revealing," but everything is subject to interpretation. Clayton remembers watching an older male client train in short running shorts that had a malfunctioning underwear liner.

"Other gym members saw more than his stretching technique," he says. "If you'll be doing crunches on your back with legs in the air, please wear shorts that fit snugly around your upper thigh. Always check in the mirror first."

2. Welcome newcomers: Maybe you remember how nervous you were in your first gym class of (fill in the blank). "Everyone can use a smile and welcoming word," Coleman says. "I also encourage instructors to say 'Hi' to that new face in the back row and to say 'Thanks for coming.' This helps them make a real connection if that's you."

3. Pick your place politely: Be aware of your space and don't impose on anybody else's, says Coleman. "When you come in to a fitness class, make eye contact with people and ask: 'Am I OK here in this spot?' Maybe everyone needs to adjust equipment to make room for everyone else."

"This is not a one-on-one training session," says Clayton. "Members want to get better at what they're doing, so ideally, they help each other. Take only as much space as you really need."

4. Tidy up: Your mom wouldn't let you have a messy room, and your club hopes you won't do that either, both experts say. Bring your water bottle, towel, and workout gloves — not your backpack or purse, work file folders, or a snack. Put all of your equipment neatly away in the correct spot. Please don't expect someone to do that for you. Think manners.

5. Watch your clock: "Sure, we're all busy and maybe can't help running late," says Coleman. "We don't want you to enter a fitness class more than 10 minutes late — you need to warm up those muscles. If you are late, use the back of the studio to minimize interruption of the class and take responsibility for your own warm-up."

6. Don't 'fume': Perfume really can affect someone nearby with a highly sensitive sense of smell. "Lots of us don't know how strong perfume can be," Coleman says.

7. Follow the leader: That's your highly trained instructor, so do what they are doing — not your own thing, both trainers say. It's a matter of respect. Experienced instructors will show you modifications for most movements, giving a choice of a, b, c, and so on in terms of challenge.

"If something is too hard to do, it makes people feel bad, which is the opposite of what good instructors want," says Clayton.

8. Silence that phone: You do yourself a disservice if you're not focused on what you came to do, Coleman says. Again, it's also disrespectful to your instructor, your classmates, or those around you on equipment if you take a call or text. If you accidentally leave the ringer on, apologize and move on.

Oh, and please, requests Clayton, don't occupy a machine for 10 minutes while you're on the phone engaged in lengthy conversation.

9. Stay the course: Please don't just leave a class without notice, Coleman says. "An instructor might worry that you're mad or even sick or injured. If you must leave early, please tell us in advance."

10. Speak up: "We trainers wonder why, when class members don't get it, they just won't ask questions," says Clayton. "We're here to help. Maybe they're intimidated and don't want to 'be the one' who asks the question. Go ahead and raise your hand and ask: 'How did this look?' 'Am I getting it?' or 'Is there an easier version of this movement?' Remember: If one person has a question, chances are other people in the class are asking that same question."

11. Stare with care: Be mindful of where you look, says Clayton. "Especially in yoga, attire can be tight and there's a lot of bending over. Be judicious about it, and don't be 'creepy,' staring at other people. Use the mirrors and watch yourself to pick up cues about how you're doing something."

12. Tame the animal sounds: Clayton recalls a female client sporting large diamonds and eye-catching attire. She also perfected moans while lifting an easy 5-pound weight that were more appropriate for an X-rated movie. It made everyone uncomfortable.

And gentlemen, the ladies who share gym space with you have noted your occasional propensity to grunt audibly and then slam a heavy barbell down on the floor. "It's natural exertion, caveman style," says Clayton, who suggests you try to tame the savage beast within to cause less consternation.

13. Get what you pay for: In general, the more costly the facility, the higher quality the instructors and staff, Clayton says. Levels of amenities, cleanliness, equipment quality, diversity of class offerings, and general vibe will also be higher. These unspoken issues that irritate you now at your current facility may not be a factor if you decide to spend more to get more, and to upgrade where you work out to a more boutique-type environment, perhaps.

Conversely, maybe you'd prefer something with a more low-key, informal feel — and budget to match. Take time to research and visit facilities in your area, to find the right fit for your workout and your expectations.

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