Surviving the Gym: A Beginner’s Guide.
You’ve finally done it. Instead of paying lip service every time you stuff your face with pizza, you’ve actually chosen to get off your derrière, expend the energy and make the necessary sacrifices. Changes are on the way. You’re devoted to the cause. And, this time you’re actually going to stick with it longer than three weeks.
Congratulations, you’re joining a gym.
But, before you slide into spandex, there are some things which you ought to know. The gym is a different world from the one in which you live. It possesses a unique subculture and its own set of etiquette that you’d be wise to heed. Just like you’d read a Fodor’s or learn a few phrases in the local language before jetting off to an exotic foreign locale, you need to properly prepare yourself for the environment you’re about to enter. Otherwise, your chances of survival may not be high.
Welcome to the jungle.
It’s important to point out that much like bars and nightclubs, there exist various types of gyms, each catering to a different and specific segment of the populace. College campus fitness centers are much different than your local YMCA, just as a women’s-only gym stands in stark contrast to Gold’s Gym.
In the same way you might pass off one nightspot as being lame or steer clear of another for fear of getting your teeth kicked in, you’d do well to execute the most basic level of research before you start frequenting any fitness spot. Otherwise, you’ll only have yourself to blame when, after a few weeks, you haven’t seen one toned girl clad in sexy boyshorts, but have met more than your fair share of uber-friendly, over-groomed dudes always eager with a spot.
Then again, you may have a penchant for group showers.
Just like any vacation, the natives/locals play a key role in your overall experience. They can be hospitable, helpful and add an extra dimension to your adventure. Or, they can be rude, spiteful and make the whole trip completely unbearable. So often, being aware of whom you might encounter and how to deal with them can be the deciding factor in which way the pendulum will swing. The same holds true at the gym.
Though each gym may be distinctive unto itself, there do exist certain universal truths. No matter how many places you go, there are certain types of gym patrons which will pop up over and over again. There may be minor details that change with climate or geography, but the major points remain the same.
Some of the characters you can expect to come across in your Brave New World:
How to Identify: Well to over-developed muscles often showcased in tight and/or revealing athletic-specific clothing that has no place in the outside world. Some sub-species have been known to be outfitted in jean shorts and crudely altered t-shirts. Often carries a bag full of gym accessories with it, as well as an extra-large container of liquid (usually water). Prefers the free weight area, but considers the whole gym its domain. Often emits loud grunting sounds when lifting extreme weight. Not very agile, but quite dangerous. Usually of the male gender, but the rarer female variety does exist.
How to Interact: Be warned that The Meathead will view you as having trespassed onto its sacred territory. Caution is key. Eye contact should be kept to a minimum. Adopting a friendly but respectful attitude is highly advisable. Should there arise an issue over who has the right to use a machine, it is in your best interest to defer to The Meathead. Do not be fooled by their Neanderthal-like appearance; Not all are gruff or disagreeable. There are those who can string sentences together, and possess a thorough understanding of the sciences of nutrition and physiology. It is possible to mine their knowledge.
The Want-to-be Meathead
How to Identify: The younger, smaller cousin to The Meathead. Often seen sporting the same traditional Meathead clothing and accessories, but does not possess the same advanced muscular build. More often than not, it also doesn’t possess the same level of knowledge. They can often be found in the company of one or more Meatheads, in a subservient role. Desperately wants to be like its larger cousin, and for this reason, it can be dangerous. When not kept in check, a temper may be present to compensate for lack of muscle size and definition. The Want-to-be is often diagnosed with “Little Man’s Disease”.
How to Interact: Treat with respect and avoid any communication that could be construed as ‘mocking’. Eye contact is not forbidden, but could be problematic. Do not feel threatened, nor should you adopt an obsequious posture. This could falsely encourage the misbehavior of an undersized Want-to-be.
How to Identify: Often seen leading a gym-goer in exercise; encouraging, instructing or scolding its client. Often talks loud or excitedly. Uses phrases like, “Come on, give me 2 more!!”, “You can do it!”, or “Watch your form!”. The Trainer is quite a varied species. Can be found in both genders and all age ranges. Cannot be identified by appearance; some are in-shape and display excellent muscle definition, but just as many are fat and slovenly. Knowledge of physiology and nutrition is also just as diverse. Some are respectful of non-clients, others are completely oblivious to gym etiquette. Research shows that the only true distinguishing mark of an effective trainer is the results shown by its clients.
How to Interact: Unless you become a client, you should treat a Trainer like you would any other gym patron. Just because they may be wise in the ways of the gym (or simply pretend to), you should not be intimidated or kowtow to them. Many of the species will attempt to occupy as much territory as possible by marking different stations with clipboards, water bottles and other accessories. If they are using another station, feel free to use any open equipment, regardless of their paraphernalia. Until you become a client, the trainer should not be feared.
The Want-to-be Trainer
How to Identify: There exist two distinct sub-species: The Apprentice and the Know-It-All. The Apprentice can be found in the immediate company of a Trainer, following Trainer and Client around in hopes of gaining knowledge in its quest to evolve into a full-grown Trainer. This breed is as diverse as its elder cousin, often learning good or poor manners directly from its master. Is generally not dangerous, as it will not develop a full ego until achieving full Trainer certification.
The Know-It-All is different because of its lack of intent of becoming a Trainer. Some were previously Trainers, but have since devolved. This lot is generally a greater burden because it will approach you without warning, criticizing your form and/or offering unsolicited advice. Some of this advice may be poisonous, some may be helpful. To a beginner, though, there is no way to discern between the two.
How to Interact: The Apprentice is probably more scared of you than you are of it. Do not fear it. Infact, it should be treated as a non-entity. Dealing with the Know-It-All can prove tougher. It approached by one, do not panic. Calmly listen to what it has to say but do not verbally respond or curtail your workout to accommodate its speech. Simply nod, say “Thanks”, then turn your attention elsewhere. This should suffice in discouraging it any further. In more serious cases, you may need to quickly put some distance between you and the Know-It-All. The most aggressive of the pedigree has been known to stalk its victims from station to station. Should such an emergency arise, immediately excuse yourself to the safety of a restroom stall. After five minutes, return to the gym floor and avoid both eye contact and close proximity with the Know-It-All.
The Social Butterfly (aka The Talker)
How to Identify: Can be identified by the over-developed vocal chords, characterized by its constant chatter with other gym-goers. Displays a general lack of actual athletic effort. Considered the loudest of all the those in the Gym genus. Often operates within a group, but will move from individual host to host when on its own. The cardio area, with its side-by-side Stairmasters and Elipicals, is a natural breeding ground, but the Social Butterfly can be found all over the gym floor. Moves very slowly from station to station, oblivious to the world around it as it carries on its constant conversation.
How to Interact: It is best to steer clear of the Social Butterfly, lest you get trapped by its siren’s song. Avoiding propinquity will lower the chances of being immersed in time-wasting conversation. Should you be ambushed, limit both eye contact and verbal response. Feign disinterest. Once you’ve demonstrated a repeated aloofness, you will blend into the background environment and become invisible to the Social Butterfly. A good preventative measure against the Social Butterfly is the use of personal headphones, which only the most determined of the species is equipped to deal with.
How to Identify: While many assume the World of the Gym is for the young, this simply isn’t true. Traditionally a rare species, their numbers have been increasing over the past few years. Markings include advanced age, wrinkles, grey hair, crotchetiness and air of confusion. Often found shuffling between Cybex machines or napping on equipment between sets. Has an aversion to lifting measurable weight due to general frailness. Fondness for ‘working out’ in casual clothing. Has a natural friendship with the Social Butterfly.
How to Interact: Avoiding the Elderly is easy due to their general slowness. However, their lack of speed does pose a problem: they tend to make a station or a piece of equipment their own for an extended period of time. Should you see an Elderly intending to use the same station you wish to choose, double-time it and make your best effort to beat them to it. Once an Elderly makes a station their own, time comes to grinding halt. ‘Working in’ may prove difficult due to their lack of understanding of the concept.
…and some of the other species also known to inhabit the gym…
The Morbidly Obese, The Unhealthy Skeleton, The Pick-up Artist, The Fit Mom (aka The MILF), The Make-Up Wearer (aka The Mary Kay)
The Show-Off (aka The Peacock), There are some issues that need to be addressed before you embark on that initial workout…
What are you going to wear?
Keep in mind, this isn’t a fashion show. You will be witness to plenty of fashion crimes. Some people put too much consideration into their appearances; others, not enough. You should, though, put at least a minimal amount of thought into your choice of wardrobe.
The gym is a shallow, shallow place. As the maxim goes: if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Sculpted biceps, ripped abs, succulent breasts, and tight rear ends are all assets commonly displayed proudly by their owners. Usually, it’s as simple as showing skin, but just as often it’s tight clothing utilized to showcase the body part in question.
Conversely, but just as importantly; if you don’t have it, cover it the f–k up. For those whose anatomy might be described as ‘gross’, the only environmentally-friendly option is to hide it. Think loose fitting. Think comfortable. Think modest. Don’t be tempted to attempt to dress it up and make it look better. Spandex is not your friend.
Apparel choices which you would be wise to avoid…
*Anything see-through, translucent or mesh. As to why, this should be obvious enough. Such a shirt is tacky enough, but shorts or pants? Nobody wants to see your Underoos. That is, unless you’re an incredibly attractive women. Then you can wear whatever you damn well please. Seriously. Even the jealous soccer moms will quietly appreciate it between catty remarks to their friends.
*Casual wear. Everybody can appreciate that you only have an hour lunch break which you’ve chosen to spend pumping iron. It’s commendable, really. We understand you don’t want to waste time changing in and out of your work clothes. But, quite frankly, working out in a polo, khakis, and dock shoes is unacceptable. If time really is that much of an issue, wear some shorts and a tee underneath. At least that will give your co-workers another added layer of protection once you rush back to the salt mine without showering.
*Wifebeaters/A-shirts/tank-tops. Ladies, you look marvelous. This really only applies to the guys. Unless you’re ripped to shreds, you’ll look like you’re trying too hard. You may, however, cut the sleeves off a tee at the seams. It’s a fair compromise. In the same vein, really skinny guys should steer away from any and all tight clothing. A 120-pound dude strutting around in a skin-tight UnderArmour top is the perfect recipe for utter mockery.
*Sandals. You must wear a closed-toe shoe. Your gym will probably have a rule about this, though they may not actually enforce it. I love flip-flops, and while they’re a great idea for the gym shower, they have absolutely no place on the gym floor. Besides proper decorum, why should you cover up those corns, bunions and fungus? Simply put, nobody should have to clean up the mess created after you drop a 45-pound weight on your big toe. Just ask any high-school gym teacher for the horror stories.
*Bluetooth/Wireless Headset. It’s one thing to look like a moron out in the everyday world, it’s quite another when you’re at the gym. Unless you’re on-call medical professional, an attorney awaiting a verdict, or have a wife who might go into labor at any moment, there is no reason you need that bug in your ear. You look like a complete jackass.
*Zubaz pants. Please. Not unless you’re traveling back in time to the 1990’s to attend a NFL game or WWF match. SHOP PANTS
Should you insist on wearing something you really shouldn’t, or if you choose to wear the same article of clothing day-in and day-out, know that you will be identified by this wardrobe choice by fellow gym goers. The same goes for any distinguishing characteristics you display or actions you constantly repeat. Because of the often limited social interaction, and the lack of name tags, gym-goers will quickly latch onto these defining idiosyncrasies like blood-thirsty wolves on injured prey.
“Did you see Purple Leggings bust her ass on the treadmill today? She was yakking away to Unibrow, tripped on her shoelace and completely ate shit!”
“Stained Headband used the bench next to me today. He repped 400 pounds, like, four times, easy!”
“You know Notre Dame Sweatshirt Guy? Did you know his daughter is Hot Pigtails?”
Lastly, the Do’s and Don’ts of gym etiquette…
DO ask for a spot should you think you’ll need one. If you’re unsure if you’ll need one, you probably do. DON’T ask for a spot when you’re using the Smith machine. The Smith Machine is the one whose bar locks in place with a simple turn of your wrists, therefore eliminating the need for a spot. Sadly, some people don’t take the time to understand how a simple device works.
DO feel free to use the weights you need if nobody else is using them. DON’T take them off a machine while somebody is in the middle of a set. This is rude and a great affront. A Meathead is liable to take the weight from you and use it to give you a deserved beating.
DO make use of empty space for your free weight exercises. DON’T use the area directly in front of the free weight stands. People should not have to wait for you to finish a set before they retrieve a weight off the rack. This is akin to loading up your plate at a buffet and then just eating it right there at the salad bar. In a related note, you shouldn’t be eating at any buffet.
DO offer to leave weight-plates on a machine if you somebody has indicated to you that they’ll be using it after you’re done. DON’T otherwise leave weight-plates on any machine. If you’re that lazy, you shouldn’t be at the gym. And, when you do strip the machine, put the plates back where they belong. Most pegs are labeled so you know what goes where. Hence, 10’s don’t go with 5’s, and 25’s don’t go with 45’s. ‘Identifying numbers’, ‘Grouping like things’ and ‘Cleaning up after yourself’ are all skills you should have mastered in Kindergarten.
DO enjoy your surroundings. There are well-sculpted bodies in abundance and it’s human to appreciate this.
DON’T get caught staring. Be discreet. That’s what all the mirrors are for. Learn to use them.
DO interact with your fellow gym-goers in a friendly manner. Although it’s not Social Hour, friendships can be forged in at the gym. DON’T use the gym as a singles bar/meat market. Not that it can’t be done, but most patrons (especially women, with the exception of the Mary Kay) are not there to facilitate a hook-up. Despite the half-nakedness, it’s a difficult environment in which to chat somebody up. Usually, you’re just infringing upon somebody’s workout and wasting their time. Plus, if your ‘game’ is that good, take it to the supermarket.
DO emulate other fit patrons or adopt a new exercise you’ve seen them use. DON’T mimic or mock another gym patron. Adrenaline is a dangerous thing. You do not want to be on the business end of a parking lot beat down.
DO maximze your time by cutting down on rest between sets and performing alternating exercises back-to-back. DON’T try to multi-task between two or more stations if the gym isn’t empty. You have no claim to a machine once you leave it and go to work on another. An old trick is to leave your gym bag by the machine you intend to return to, but if a particularly vindictive person catches on, you’ll have no argument after they ‘accidently’ drop a weight on your belongings.
DO remember to breathe properly when you’re working out, especially when you’re lifting heavy weight. DON’T be obnoxious about it. Every gym has an ‘Orgasmer’; the person who sounds like they’re achieving climax with each and every rep. Don’t be that guy/girl.
DO feel free to carry along a bag of necessary items with you from station to station. DON’T carry your phone/PDA from station to station. If you actually have a job or situation that truly warrants it, so be it. When and if you need to talk, step outside or into the locker room. Otherwise, somebody will be perfectly within their rights when a 50-pound dumbbell rolls on top of your precious Blackberry.
DO use the locker room facilities to shower and keep a tidy appearance. DON’T walk around the locker room naked for more than the time it takes to get out of the shower and retrieve your towel. Nobody wants to see your saggy balls for the next ten minutes as you clip your toenails. And trust me, your new gym name will then become ‘Saggy Balls Guy’.
Armed with this knowledge, you should now be properly prepared to enter a gym, and not only survive, but thrive. As G.I. Joe used to say, “Knowing is half the battle!”
As you spend more time working out, you’ll learn the more advanced rules and etiquette. After you’ve become an established gym patron, you should feel free to help enforce the (previously) unwritten laws of the land. In no time, you’ll be a buff veteran, scowling at the newbies each January as they unknowingly walk between you and the mirror you’re using. Give ‘em hell.
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