Here’s a topic that generated some spirited discussion in our call for gym etiquette questions: When is it okay to tell someone they’re exercising wrong?
There is a simple answer to this question, which will cover about 90% of your needs: Never. We’ll discuss some exceptions below—but first, why should you keep your mouth shut when you know they’re doing it wrong?
First, you don’t know them. You can’t tell from looking if they’re using weird form because they’re new and clueless, or if they 100% know what they’re doing and have decided to do the exercise that way to rehab an injury, to learn a new technique, or whatever else might be going on in their life.
Second, maybe you don’t know the lift. Yeah, you think you’ve seen this one before, but there are many different exercises in the world. A guy once told me that I was “cheating” on my overhead press when in fact I was doing push presses and he had never heard of them. Don’t be that guy.
Third, we aren’t the know-it-alls we think we are. We’ve all been taught things that turn out not to be true. Maybe some trainer told you that you’ll ruin your knees if you squat a certain way, but maybe that trainer was wrong. The other person at the gym is paying their trainer to tell them what to do, not your trainer, much less your opinions of your memories of what your trainer said.
Or worse, you’re mansplaining. Sorry, but this happens to women a lot. Guys will walk up and say we’re lifting too much, or going to get hurt, or doing it wrong—or all of the above, only worse. So, if you’re male and you’re thinking “well, I wouldn’t mind if somebody corrected my form,” please remember that the woman you’re side-eyeing has been badly corrected by a great many jerks before you.
Okay, so what about that other 10% of the time? When is it okay to speak up?
If that person is your friend, or I’d say even a fairly good gym acquaintance, you might offer some help or feedback, but don’t begin by telling them they’re doing something wrong. Instead, ask about what they’re doing, if it looks unfamiliar to you. Or at the very least, start with something like “Would you like a tip on that lift?”
If you don’t know the person very well but feel you really must say something, try getting to know them first. Say hi, in a non-creepy way. Strike up a low-pressure conversation when they’re done for the day or when they’re clearly waiting around between sets. Maybe this is when you learn about their injury or their hobby of doing obscure lifts nobody has heard of. Then proceed with the advice above.
New people often do want feedback, but here’s the thing—they’ll often state that they’re open to it. During your friendly conversation, mention that you are also really into powerlifting (or running, or yoga, or whatever the subject is) and you’d be happy to answer questions or critique their form if they want. Plenty of folks will take you up on that.
You may intervene when there’s a safety issue, but “omg this person’s knees are going in front of their toes when they squat” does not count. If somebody is misusing equipment in a way that poses an imminent danger to them or to bystanders, that is when you can absolutely say something. If what they’re doing is against the gym’s rules, you may also say something or, better yet, get a staff member to intervene. Otherwise, if you just think they’re doing something that’s going to eventually maybe give them trouble down the road, that’s something where you, as a stranger, should butt right out.
This story was originally published in August 2019 and was updated to meet Lifehacker style guidelines.
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