Tell me if this story sounds familiar: You’re minding your own business in the gym, doing your usual workout, when a stranger walks up and tells you you’re doing it wrong. In some cases, the stranger is a random nobody; in other cases, they have the look of an accomplished athlete or they introduce themselves as a trainer. Should you listen to them?
We’ve talked about this situation from the other side, about when it’s ok to correct someone’s form in the gym. The answer there is “almost never.” Maybe they have a good reason for doing what they’re doing; it’s unlikely that you, a random stranger, are more of an expert on someone’s exercise routine than they are. If you’d like to make friends with that person and have a respectful conversation and see if they’re open to feedback, we have some tips on that in our earlier post. Otherwise, butt out.
But what about when you’re the target of unsolicited advice?
When you should definitely listen
The one time you need to listen is when you’re being approached by a staff member about gym rules or equipment use. If they want you to keep the yoga mats in the yoga room, or to do rack pulls with these barbells instead of those ones, those are just the rules you have to follow. Be polite and respectful about being called out, even if you don’t agree; they’re within their rights to enforce their rules.
In theory, you should also listen if somebody is warning you about an immediate safety risk. But people are sometimes obsessed about thinking normal exercises are injuries waiting to happen, so use your judgment. If they’re reminding you that you overlooked an important safety feature on a machine, thank them and set the safeties properly. But if they act like your knees are about to explode because they’re going forward of your toes, that is not an emergency.
When you should question the advice
Let’s consider the situation in which somebody has some advice on what you’re doing wrong, or how you could do it better. They want you to use lighter weight, or go slower, or angle your feet in a different direction, or lock out your elbows, or not lock out your elbows. That kind of thing.
Before you worry about what comes out of that person’s mouth, think about who they are and whether they are a person whose expertise you value. If you wouldn’t have sought out Joe Q. Random’s advice on your overhead press, why would you take that advice just because it was forced on you?
Now, on the flip side, if I’m at a powerlifting gym and a coach I respect offers a tip for my deadlift, I’m probably going to listen.
At some gyms, personal trainers try to drum up business by giving free advice to people who are working out. Just because a person is certified as a trainer doesn’t mean their way of doing things is better than yours, especially if they don’t have any clue what your goals are or where you are in your workout program. Bottom line: Be as choosy about free advice as you would be about advice you pay for.
What to say if you’re not interested
If you want to get this interaction over with quickly, reply with any of the following, and then visibly shift your focus away from the person (put your earbuds back in, check your phone, start your next set).
- “I’ll consider that.”
- *head nod*
You don’t have to actually take their advice. You’re just giving a non-confrontational response and then getting back to your own thing. It’s the gym equivalent of the “fog” or “grey rock” strategy for dealing with overly critical people.
What to say if you think they might be on to something
On the other hand, maybe you’re curious about what they’re recommending. Remember, just because they say you’re doing something wrong doesn’t mean you’re actually doing it wrong. But they may have some valuable insight to share, especially if you know they’re an accomplished athlete or coach. So you could dig further with follow-up questions like these:
- “Now, why do you recommend that? How is it different from what I’m doing?”
- “Oh, interesting. Is that the way you do it?” (And then segue into asking about other parts of their training or experience that you find more interesting.)
- “So, I’m doing something different for X reason, but I’m curious about why you do it your way…”
In the same way the person should have gotten to know you and your goals before asking if you’d like some advice, these responses help to start a conversation and establish rapport. I’d recommend doing this if you want to be on good terms with the person who approached you, or if you’re genuinely curious about their advice.
Remember as the conversation proceeds that there are many ways to get strong, and even if they’ve gotten good results themselves, that doesn’t mean their advice is always good. You can have this conversation and still decide to keep doing things your way, or to gather more information on the topic after you leave the gym.
What to say if you’re just sick of this shit
In a bad mood? Get approached with bad advice all the time? Know for sure that the person is full of shit? You don’t have to take the high road.
- “I know what I’m doing, thanks.”
- “I pay a coach for advice on my lifts. You’re not my coach.”
- Hold eye contact while doing the exact opposite of their advice.
And a bonus, if they are a trainer at that gym: After you’re done with your workout, complain to the gym manager about the unprofessional behaviour of their staff.