woman standing surrounded by exercise equipment
Photo by Danielle Cerullo

The unspoken rules of the gym: your complete guide

So you want to go to the gym again – seriously. But it can be awkward if you don’t know the rules of this “civil society,” as Aristotle coined it. Maybe Aristotle wasn’t curling 20s, but he had a point. Part of the awkwardness people feel about going to the gym is not understanding all the social norms. Especially the unwritten ones. So here is your complete guide to feeling like a boss at the gym.

Why care about gym etiquette?

A gym is actually a great networking opportunity. I am constanly runing into people I used to work with, meeting new people, and making new friends. You end up seeing a lot of the people at the gym all the time, so think of it like your kids’ school or the office – you want to have a good reputation. Even if people don’t know your name, the staff, trainers, and regulars will generaly know who you are. And they will talk sh*t about you if you don’t act right.

Two friends chitchatting while working out together – totally cool. Blocking the mirror and weight rack while being unaware of surroundings: not cool.

The weight rack/mirror rules 

Every gym has one. And usually there is a mirror right there. But that does not mean you should stand right in front of the mirror behind the weight rack. By doing this, you are blocking the reach of people who may need to grab weights in front of you. 

Stand about 5 or 6 feet back, so you can check your form. If you see someone using the mirrors and standing a reasonable distance behind the weight rack, try to walk behind them.

Put the weights back in the right spot – like not putting the 20s where the 50s go. 

The put your equipment away rule

Worse than not wiping sweat almost is the person who leaves 100 pounds of plates on a press. Sure sometimes people forget and sure sometimes you are in a rush but we are all pressed for time, so take 20 seconds and do this. If you are doing supersets, i.e., switching back and forth then you can leave as is but be mindful of how much time you are spending switching and try to make the sets consecutive – and generally, don’t tie up multiple pieces of equipment when the gym is busy (see busy window unspoken rules)

woman in gray tank top and gray leggings doing yoga
Stagger your mats in yoga class so you everyone has space. Photo by Alex Shaw

The space rule

Give people their personal space. Do not unnecessarily crowd people using equipment, in the locker rooms, people in yoga classes, or on cardio machines. If there are five treadmills and one is occupied while the other four are available, do not choose the one right next to the occupied machine.

Similar space rules also apply to locker rooms. If you are changing, totally set your stuff on the bench, but don’t spread all your personal stuff on the entire bench like you own the place. It’s a locker room, not your own personal dressing room!

Also, don’t talk on the phone – it is annoying to everyone, trust me. Exception to the rule is if you are on a large team call and you don’t have an active speaking role – then Zoomwalking is totally ok (see my guide here:)

The sweat rules 

Much of the sweating you see can be avoided. Buy sweat wicking athletic clothing and always grab a towel even if you think you won’t need one. Always use the wet wipes after you use equipment, even if you don’t see visible sweat, there are your germs all over! Wipe the wet residue with a regular towel that you have with you at all times.

The front row rule

The front row is not just good for status – it makes you concentrate because it feels likea private class. Work your way up there.

If you are new to any type of fitness class, don’t go in the front row. The second or third row in the center is a good spot so you can clearly see the instructor and the people in the front row who know what they are doing.

If you feel good upgrading to the front row, go for it. But don’t come through to the front row if you are late for a class, or you may have to leave early. Which leads to the next rule.

Don’t be late. Don’t leave early.

Every time I take a SoulCycle class, I can predict with the accuracy of the sun rising that there will be a mass exodus of half the class when it is time to stretch. You made the time, you paid the money, and nothing you have to do is that important that shaving off 5 minutes is going to help.

Of course things cannot be helped – traffic, getting off a call late, etc. If you are going to be more than five minutes late, skip it. You are putting yourself in danger by missing the critical warm up. If you have to leave early, don’t make it a regular thing, and let the instructor know beforehand. Place yourself in the back row and quietly leave during a transition in the class. If it’s your trainer, text them to let them know you are running late.

For trainers, or for workout classes. It sends a clear message that you don’t respect other people’s time, especially the trainers and instructors who often have day jobs themselves plus the workouts they teach. A lot of them are friends of mind – they hate it and they really can’t say anything, but they deserve respect! Literally all you have to do is show up – that’s the point of a class.

With trainers, it’s your money and they will not discount the session by the amount of minutes you missed. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a trainer looking like they got stood up on a date. It’s not cool.

The best way to avoid being late? Try to be 10 minutes early. As if that was the real start time. That way you build in that natural buffer and then 5 minutes of being late is really 5 minutes early.

The stretch mat rules

Respect other people’s space on the stretch mat. Think of it like parking spots, when you approach, try to park next to someone in the parking spot. Don’t “double park,” i.e, sit right in front of them.

Also don’t use the stretch mats to do workout vidoes – do that on your own time at home! It’s distracting and annoying when someone comes through with a big iPad and dumbbells to do a cheerleader-style HIIT workout in a place that’s meant for STRETCHING and foam rolling. Abs and leglifts – totally fine If you happen to be doing leg lifts, watch the space in front of you so you don’t kick someone in the head.

Eventually, you will be able to handle yourself with ease! Especially if you are the only woman in a room full of weight room bros.

The busy time equipment rule

First, save yourself a headache, especially if you are newer to the gym, and go at off-peak times.  The morning window between 10-12 and the afternoon window between 3-5 are the best for least bust times. On weekends, be an early bird – it feels so awesome to get your workout out of the way on Saturday morning! The worst times? Between 4:30-6:30 during the week, and between 10-12 on the weekends.

If you do go at an expected or unexpected busy time, make sure you note if a piece of equipment you want to use has a towel or water bottle nearby. In that case, someone may be using it. It may be appropriate to ask someone to work in, but given the need to usually restack weights it often is better to ask the person how many sets they have left and then if they offer for you to work in, take it. But important – ask how many sets they have left when they finish a set, NOT mid-set. Don’t ever, ever, unless there is a fire, talk to anyone mid-set! 

In the same vein, don’t hot multiple sets of dumbbells when the gym is busy, especially popular ones like the 15s or 20s. 

If you see a machine you haven’t used before, you can ask the staff how to use it or if you have social anxiety, you can watch a video or an article on how to use the machine.

The Anti-Squatting rule

Don’t sit on one machine or especially a highly coveted bench for 45 minutes scrolling on Instagram. Chances are if the gym is at least half full,  people are waiting for you to finish – and if the gym is busy, you should look up every so often to make sure. 

For example, don’t do this:

Love the pants though.

The selfie rule 

A quick selfie while you rest, where people are fading into he background, is totes legit. Gyms are a public place and therefore there is no legal expectation of privacy (except in locker rooms), but there is a common denominator of personal courtesy most people follow when it comes to pics and vids.

Hey, we all do it. Read this article to get more tips. This isn’t just about vanity posting. Sometimes you want to capture a moment when you have all the feels of turning a corner and ascending into a new fitness level. This is like capturing a memory you want to keep and recall when you need an emotional boost (at least, this is how I use them! I don’t have Insta).

The main takeaway is don’t do these in the locker room when people are changing, and crop other people out of the background when you post. Also, don’t be obsessed with taking the perfect one – you will compromise the integrity of your workout! 

Special occasion pic: At the glam and glitzy Hudson Yards gym in NYC. Photo credit: Nice guy on the squat rack.

The asking someone to take pic or video rule

Hey we have all done it – we are feeling # likeaboss and wanna post on our Insta when we hit a deadlift PR. Taking pics of strangers in the gym is kind of like an unwritten camraderie – most times people are happy to do this within limits. Here are my criteria for asking this favor:

  • Make sure the person is not in the middle of a set or super into their music – I normally do not ask people wearing Beatz headphones
  • I make eye contact and smile first
  • Even if the pics are crappy, no retakes. Usually vertical posture for the phone is good one and ask them to just take one after another for a few secs so you can pick out the good one.
  • If someone is with a trainer, don’t ask – that’s like taking their money!

The body odor rule 

Note this isn’t just about using deodorant! It’s more times than I can count that some dude is bathed in cologne on the bench next to me. To the point I can taste it. Same goes for perfume, hair sprays, etc. – it is fine if it is left over from the morning, but if you are working out first thing in the am, you don’t need to put any aftershave/cologne/perfume on until after you shower. 

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