Gym Etiquette for Beginners

Let’s face it—the gym can be an intimidating place for the neophyte lifter. But it needn’t be. The gym is the great equalizer: whether you are a corporate CEO or entry level service worker, all of us are made equal in the gym. We can’t buy our physiques; we have to earn them.

Yet that first day can often be the start of a pattern and a lifetime of good. My first introduction to the gym came by way of nautilus (remember them?) machines. A maze of machines with predetermined pathways of motion and a pin to change resistance was my first foray into a world in which we have the power to change our bodies. I didn’t know where to begin, but I did know that the gym was an absolute good place. A place of improvement. A place to work on oneself. And I felt as a then-beginner than I had as much right to be there as anyone else.

It certainly didn’t hurt that the best built guy in the place saw my budding interest in bettering myself, and took to offering me some words of encouragement and tips from the beginning. But it isn’t like that for everybody. Often, some are so intimidated by the gym, that they skip resistance training altogether and keep to the cardio area where they won’t have to interact with anyone and can listen to their music, check text messages and watch the latest TV offerings. If this describes you, then aside from not taking full advantage of all the wonderful toys most gyms have to offer, you may have limited your full potential—until now.

This article will explore how to get the most from your gym experience. The first key is to be yourself. If you’re feeling confident, great; if not, then who cares? Believe me, most people are too busy checking themselves out and seeing how they stack up against everyone else in the gym to pick apart your flaws. The gym is a place of work, of bettering “you,” and that goes for each and every one of us. Walk in, check in and get to work. Before you know it, you’ll be too busy to think or care what anyone else might be wondering about you.

Second, support yourself—in any way that feels natural or organic. I once trained an individual who used to wear skin tight shirts that were definitely not complementary to his body. He was aware of this, but he did so because he was determined to one day look good in those shirts. And he did. I am not suggesting you wear clothing that doesn’t enhance the current you, but I am suggesting you wear something that is comfortable and allows you to perform without restrictions. You’ve got to love yourself to improve yourself.

The next tip is, of course, to have a plan. Know where you’re going or want to go. If you drive just to drive, you never know where you may wind up. But if you follow a map and know where your point B is, you stand a far greater chance of getting there from point A. Blindly going from machine to machine is definitely not the most linear path toward results. (Don’t feel overwhelmed; Complete Physique is your ultimate plan.)

Always be kind. You never know who you may meet (in between sets, of course) in the gym. If someone is on a piece of equipment you wish to use, always ask them politely how many sets they have left. If it’s one or two, wait. If more, ask to work in. If they won’t let you, move on and be the person to allow others to work in when the time comes. For you may need them and vice versa to spot you one day while under a heavy barbell load.

Proper gym etiquette is to re-rack your weights at the end of a set or to unload the plates from the machines when you’re done. Leaving an army of 45’s on the leg press for someone else to to take off is simply rude. If you took the time to lift it, then you can take the time to re-rack it.

No sweat angels. Some of us sweat more than others, but should your head leave behind a giant wet-mark after your bench press, take a moment to spray and/or wipe it up. Would you want to lay in someone else’s sweat?

Keep your valuables on your person. Almost every gym I’ve ever been in has at one time or another had a break-in or theft. If you can’t afford to lose it, keep it on you and be mindful of where you place your phone and belongings.

Always, always, always respect the gym equipment in front of you. Not only will the equipment last longer, and your favorite machine will have less of a chance of wearing an out-of-order sign, but you can actually prevent injuries by placing and not throwing weights around. Believe me, a dumbbell dropping on your foot is not a good time. Always lift with care. A little targeted aggression in the gym is good; complete anarchy is not.

And lastly, keep to a path of closest resistance. That is, your workout should take place in relative proximity as you move from exercise to exercise. Let’s say you just finished the incline press for chest. It would make little sense to walk to the other side of the gym to do a machine flat press and then all the way back to the free weight area for flat flyes, and then off again elsewhere for cable crossovers. Don’t zig and zag across the gym; keep it all in proximity as you methodically make your way through your workout.

Remember, the gym is a safe and fun place. It is your time to better you. Enjoy doing so by being safe, and stay reminded of why you are there in the first place: to better the image in the mirror.


HOLLIS LANCE LIEBMAN, prior to his career as an author and personal trainer, has been a fitness magazine editor, national bodybuilding champion and published physique photographer. Hollis has also served as a bodybuilding and fitness competition judge. He is the author of Complete Physique. His previous books include Peak Physique, From Slight to Might, Exercise in Action: Core, and more. He currently lives in Los Angeles and works as a personal trainer. Visit to keep up with all of his things social, including fitness tips and complete training programs.