Here’s a topic that generated some spirited discussion in our call for gym etiquette questions: when is it ok to tell someone they’re exercising wrong?
There is a simple answer to this question, which will cover about 90 per cent 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?
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 per cent 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.
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.
You aren’t the know-it-all you think you 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.
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, etc etc— basically 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.
OK, so what about that other 10 per cent of the time? When is it ok to speak up?
When you know them
If that person is your friend, or I’d say even a fairly good gym acquaintance, you may offer some help or feedback. And 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.
When they ask
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.
When they are actually literally about to die
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 may 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. But 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.