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The 7 Rules for Success, Survival, and a Good Workout in a Public Gym

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I can only imagine that one of the many benefits of being wealthy would be to have a sweet state-of-the-art gym set up in the comforts of my home. At such a gym, I could work out in my underwear, blast my favorite workout music at 10:00pm, grunt and throw my weights around, and leave the space a complete mess if my heart desired.

While a home gym is a reality for some, many more of us use a public gym by default or by choice. A public gym might not have the same privacy, but there are also many benefits to working out with and around others.

Group exercise is shown to enhance motivation through support and competition. Public gyms also offer class schedules and more equipment than a typical home gym. Furthermore, public gyms offer the expertise of fitness professionals to help you stay motivated and gain proper insight and instruction relating to your fitness goals.

That said, there is one critical distinction when it comes to a public gym versus a home gym — and that is the word public. The word means “open to all persons.” Another definition is “relating to, or being in the service of a community.” Granted, the majority of gyms refer to themselves as having “private” memberships, but that “privacy” simply means you’re interacting with hundreds, if not thousands of fellow paying members.

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Simply put, a public gym or private club is not solely yours. With that in mind there are rules when it comes to working out in public that help make it a more successful and enjoyable experience for all involved.

Here are my seven rules to live by when working out at a public gym.

(Note: you might want to print this out a few times and strategically leave it around your gym.)

1. Cleanliness Is Godliness

The first rule of health club is everyone must keep it clean.

In any wellness setting, from a hospital to a gym, sanitation is job number one. According to studies conducted by Fitrated, there is more bacteria present in common places at the gym (like the treadmill and weight rack) than on your toilet seat. Suffice to say, for health reasons alone it’s important to wipe down equipment before and after you use it and to always clean your area.

But there’s another reason cleanliness is important at the gym — the gym is not yours. Respect for your environment is critical if you aspire to climb the mountain of self-respect that is the journey in fitness. That means re-racking your weights, putting away your gym towel (not throwing it on the floor), and picking up trash (water bottles, etc.) that you encounter along your way.

2. Proper Attire Is Required

Obviously, working out at a gym is a leisure-time activity and therefore qualifies as a casual environment. Some take this a bit too far, though. A good rule of thumb is if you wouldn’t let your twelve-year-old son or daughter (or niece, nephew, etc.) wear an outfit to the gym, then why should you? Look, we get it — you’re proud of your washboard abs and J. Lo booty and you want to show off your hard work. But do us all a favor and keep it classy.

The 7 Rules for Success, Survival, and a Good Workout in a Public Gym

Another note as it relates to attire is keeping your clothing (especially your shoes) up to date, and I am not talking about in the fashion sense. Shoes that are worn thin are a sure-fire path to incurring an overuse injury and torn or ripped clothing can also potentially cause injury. Like a proper oil change for your car, running shoes should be replaced every 300 to 500 miles or approximately every six months, no matter how cool they still look.

3. Sharing Is Caring

When we’re in the zone, our fitness can become a selfish endeavor – your goals, your treadmill, your weight machine, and your dumbbells. Here’s the thing, though: with the exception of your goals, those other things aren’t yours, they belong to the gym, which means they belong to everyone who uses the gym.

“Working in” seems to be a lost art in gyms these days. The idea of working in is that after you are done with an exercise set, you stand up, make eye contact with others in the vicinity and/or offer to those waiting to “work in” and do a set of their own. Why should you be able monopolize a bench press for twenty minutes during peak gym hours? That bench press is not yours, it’s ours.

4. Hygiene Is a Must

I tried to use one of those natural deodorants for a while because, apparently, aluminum in your bloodstream is not optimal for you. But as much as I valiantly tried, I couldn’t find a natural deodorant that properly eliminated body odor. Sucks for me, but I’m back to the leaded stuff.

Joking and health implications aside, hygiene is a must if you are working out in a public setting. If you can smell yourself, odds are someone else can as well. If you plan to use a public gym, you should bathe every day and wear deodorant. If you can’t adhere to those two prerequisites, then stay home.

Note: Perfume or cologne is a big gym no-no. It’s not Night at the Roxbury, it’s a gym.

5. The Locker Room Is Sacred Ground

The gym is a place of vulnerability, especially for the new exerciser. It’s hard enough for some of us to workout out in a hall of mirrors while young, hard-bodied individuals strut their stuff. But that behavior also comes with the territory — at the gym people are inevitably going to prance around in tight clothing.

But one place should be reserved for dignity and privacy — the locker room. The locker room is not a place for showing off, nor is it a place for overt and loud socializing. The function of the locker room is to change, use the restroom, and bathe in relative privacy.

The 7 Rules for Success, Survival, and a Good Workout in a Public Gym

And I shouldn’t have to say this, but it turns out I do: photos and social media posts in/from a locker room are absolutely forbidden both ethically and legally speaking.

6. No Drugs Ever

I had a trainer who worked for me that I had to write up for having alcohol on her breath and another trainer I had to reprimand for smelling like marijuana. While both substances are increasingly acceptable for adult consumption, the gym is a place of health and wellness. It’s not okay to drink or take drugs prior to or while working out — ever.

Most importantly, the use of drugs is a safety issue (both yours and others). What you do on your own personal time is your business, but when you operate heavy machinery (like a car or a treadmill) or move your body in an intense fashion (like almost everything you do at the gym), you present the opportunity for your body or someone else’s body to be in danger. It’s of utmost importance that you are sober, prepared, and present for your exercise at the gym.

7. Play Nicely

It’s amazing how many people seemingly didn’t get this memo from their parents or peers, but being nice tends to make life easier for everyone, especially you. There are plenty of downsides to being angry and negative, and none whatsoever to being genuinely nice. So, do yourself (and everyone else) a favor — smile and be polite, courteous, and friendly.

The 7 Rules for Success, Survival, and a Good Workout in a Public Gym

A Public Gym Is About “Us”

All these gym rules can be summed up with one primary rule many of us are familiar with — The Golden Rule. Treat the gym (and those in the gym) like you would like to be treated.

Respect is the king of all virtues in a public gym. You simply cannot have self-respect without respect for others and/or respect for your environment. If you can’t or won’t adhere to the basic rules of respect, you have no business participating in a public fitness program.

Gyms are public and are about us more than they are about you. If you want a fitness platform that is only about you, build yourself a personal gym or hire a private trainer with private space.

Otherwise, play nice and treat the gym like you like to be treated.

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Eric Stevens
For the past seventeen years, Eric Stevens has established himself as a leading fitness professional, consultant, writer, presenter, and television personality. Currently, Eric is the Fitness and Membership Director for the Allegria Spa & Club at Park Hyatt in Avon, Colorado.

In addition to his extensive fitness experience, having managed, coached, and trained in the private health club and non-profit industries, Eric has been a long-time instructor of Western boxing, most recently as boxing coach for the Denver Athletic Club. In 2011, Eric was selected to serve as a trainer in the nationally televised series I Used to Be Fat on MTV. Eric is also a published author and regular contributor to Breaking Muscle, Muscle & Performance, and Whole Life Challenge.

Eric is originally from Portland, Oregon and is a graduate of the University of San Diego. Since 2003, Eric has been a nationally certified personal trainer with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).