You know the rules as well as I do. You carry a towel and wipe off your bench when you’re finished. You take the equipment you need when you need it, and you put it back when you’re finished. We all agree on that.
Most of us understand the finer points as well. We don’t block equipment we aren’t using, or set our towel or clipboard down on a bench we don’t need.
But in the past couple of years, I’ve noticed some oddly persistent violations of basic gym etiquette. It’s like people know the rules so well that nobody knows how to explain them to someone who isn’t clued in. What happened in my gym the other day is a perfect example not just of poor behavior, but of a poor approach to training. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the two problems were really one problem: a young, ambitious musclehead doesn’t know enough about muscles or manners to get what he wants out of his program.
Here’s what happened:
I went to the gym with my usual agenda: some basic, heavy lifts at the beginning, followed by some combinations that are considerably more flexible. I’m looking for an effect—a level of exhaustion or muscle engagement—that I can achieve with lots of different exercises. But it’s also the part of the workout where I try out new ones, and on this day I wanted to work on in. It required a low cable.
Problem: My gym has one dual-cable machine, with high-low settings on each pulley. And one young guy tied up both sides of the cable for the entire time I was in the gym. He did one exercise, cable crossovers, for at least a half-hour.
At one point he walked off, and I went over to the machine to set up one side of it for my exercise. A trainer, working with a client, went to the other side. The kid ran back across the gym to tell us that he was still using the machine. “I have two more sets,” he said.
So I watched. At the end of his second set I went over and asked if I could use the machine now. “No,” he said. “I still have more sets.”
“You said you were going to do two more sets. I counted your sets. One, followed by two. So you understand my confusion. I thought ‘two sets’ meant two sets.”
He insisted he was still using the machine. Both sides.
The biggest guy in our gym, a former pro football lineman, decided to try his luck. (I’ve never seen him use the machine, probably because the weight stacks don’t go to 500.) He asked the kid if he could work in. No, the kid repeated, but he added that next he was going to “do tris,” and for that he only needed one side of the machine.
We had a good laugh, but the kid never got our point. Which is: When a trainer, a grizzled gym veteran, and a lifter the size of an F-150 all ask for the equipment you’ve been hogging, the only acceptable answer is, “Sure, go ahead and work in.”
But as I said earlier, the gym-etiquette violation is only a symptom. The disease is a fundamental misunderstanding of how to train. Very few lifters need to work on a single exercise for more than a handful of sets. When they do, it’s because the lift has a technical aspect that requires a lot of practice, or because it’s crucial to their sport. Nobody competes in the cable crossover. It’s an accessory exercise. If you’re serious about bodybuilding, you do a couple sets after bench presses or dips or another heavy, exhausting lift. And if somebody else wants to work in on the equipment, you let them.
Whatever your goal is—strength, size, low body fat, general fitness—the effort you put into the basic exercises is going to get you most of the way there. The rest is important, yes, but there’s no such thing as an accessory exercise that’s worth making enemies over.
Because let’s face it: If you don’t know how to train, you need friends who do.