In the comments section of the “how losing weight turned me into a feminist” post, I received this little nugget of WTF:

Erika, long time reader, first time commenter here. Could you elaborate on this topic some day? I would love to hear your advice on dealing with unsolicitated “help” or comments at the gym. Yesterday I was halfway through my benchpress sets (1 set of 8 with barbell no weight for warm up, 3 sets of 8 with barbell with 5 lbs on each side) when a muscular man came up and grabbed the barbell out of my hands and placed it on the rack. He told me I was going to hurt myself because I couldn’t handle the weight on the bar. I have done this same weight with a trainer many times – with no weight on the barbell I can do over 25 reps, so I need about five lbs on each side for a workout. He looked condescendingly at my arms (which are small – that’s why I’m at the gym!) and said “look, you’re too weak to have weights on the bar, sweetheart.” He wouldn’t leave my side until I, humiliated, removed the plates from the bar.

I always try to tell myself no one’s looking at me at the gym, but what happens when you realize they are actually looking at you? I ended up leaving without finishing my workout because I was so frustrated and embarassed. I know I am letting him win by letting him get to me. How do I get enough gym “swag” that I don’t care about people like this anymore? I need confidence in my form and workout knowledge, ASAP. Also, what do I tell this guy to make him leave if I don’t want his advice? I know I can’t be the only one dealing with these gym jerks.

Firstly, I’m going to need assistance in picking my jaw up off the floor. Not my desk… the floor. I actually sat back in my chair as I read this… because I’m just that appalled.

That Super-Rude Alpha Dog? This is who he is on the inside.. the guy who got pushed around the locker room in gym class.

Second… if there’s anything I hate more, it’s when gym “Alpha Dogs” do things like this that give credence to the idea that every Alpha Dog or every muscular person is a scumbag. It results in certain gyms believing the answer to these kinds of problems is to create discriminatory environments … or sound alarms to make muscular types feel embarrassed for their abilities.

Before I get into this, I have to admit that I’m a little uneasy answering this question. It almost implies that it’s your fault, for not having “gym swag,” that this guy approached you and played you the way he did. It doesn’t matter if you were struggling with your weights. You don’t talk to people that way, and you certainly don’t paternalistic-ish-ly lord over them, seemingly to create an aura of fear or threat of more action, until they do what they say. Just like there are people in the world who are a special kind of evil that we don’t understand – nor should we, there are people in the world who are a special kind of coc– um, jerk.. yeah… jerk… that we don’t understand. No matter how timid you are, you don’t treat people that way. You certainly don’t “talk” to them that way. And you certainly shouldn’t feel like it’s your fault when they do.

I know that some people feel like having more “gym swag” can make you impervious to this kind of behavior, but the reality is… that kind of coc– um… jerk would treat you that way simply because you’re a woman. And, unless you were a woman lifting 3lb weights in a sports bra and tight pants that he could hit on, you’re simply in the way… and should be relegated to the cardio warrior section of the gym. So no, I genuinely don’t believe that having “gym swag” is the answer to preventing things like this… but I do think it can help you handle it better.

“Gym swag,” to me, is what you get when you’re comfortable and confident in your workout routine. I didn’t have gym swag for a long time, and it took me at least a year or two to develop it. To be painfully honest, I didn’t know how to identify it, but I went to the gym at 11 at night just to avoid having to compete with people who had way more of it than me. Having no “gym swag” and being pent up in a box with a lot of strange equipment  next to someone who has mad gym swag will quickly make you feel like you’re unwanted, out of place, and in the way. It really taps into our deepest insecurities.

Yes. For some of us, it gets that deep.

So…how do you build gym swag? How can you get to a place where you feel comfortable? A place where you feel like you belong, even, at the gym?

First and foremost, you have to know your stuff. Period. Know yourself and know your body. Research the specific exercises you do, and brush up on proper form. Not because you may need the refresher course – which, there’s nothing wrong with… many people could use refresher courses and often do – but because knowing that you’ve done the research will have you feeling confident about your ability to safely perform the exercise without injury and with maximal benefit. It’ll help you claim that space as your own which, though you can’t predict every asshole that’ll come infringe on that space, will help you reclaim it once he does.

Secondly, know your environment. It’s not a coincidence that I refer to the more prominent, more active, more regular members of the gym as “Alpha Dogs.” Gyms can be a dog-eat-dog world simply because, for a lot of people, it’s the only outside-of-work interaction they frequently commit to… which means it’s the same guys competing for the same “top dog” spot, the same guys competing for the same girls, the same girls competing for the attention of the same guys, and the same girls trying to out-dominate one another – not with actual physical strength – with who can wear the cutest outfit and get the instructor’s attention. You don’t have to get caught up in that cycle, but you have to be able to spot it like a funnel cloud, and prepare yourself when it tries to swirl in your direction.

My next tip… is know your body. Were you ready for the weights you added to your set? I ask this, not because old Jerky Boy might’ve been right. I ask this because, if your body is ready, you absolutely should’ve felt confident in your choices to add them to your routine. There is nothing wrong with choosing to challenge yourself, but if you’re not confident in your ability to take on the challenge, you – and this is in the interest of your satefy – should step back. Confidence comes from knowing your abilities, giving yourself a challenge and then taking pride in rising to the occasion… and there’s nothing wrong with starting at the beginning of that cycle.

After that, know yourself. You pay your membership fee just like anyone else. You come in there to work… just like everyone else. You deserve respect… just like everyone else. Does he call everyone else “sweetheart?” Racking your weights for you? Humiliating you? You are a human being. If you need to remind him, you should. You know what you are doing, you know how to handle yourself and, though you appreciate his desire to be an asshole, you can get along quite fine without him standing over you like he needs someone to act out his paternalistic fantasies. As for anyone else looking at you… well, people will always look… it doesn’t mean you’ll always know why. They could be marveling at the fact that you come every day, dedicated to “getting that weight off.” Or, they could be one of those jerks who wonders why you’re there, since “it obviously isn’t working.” Your job is to concern yourself with the things that have a direct effect on you… and “people who stare” shouldn’t be included in that list. People who yank your weights from you, however? A-whole-nother story.

What would I have done? There’s only been three times in all my time working out where I’ve been thoroughly checked on a workout I was doing, and two of those times were absolutely legit. None of those times, was it done by a regular at the gym – they all came from gym staff, who are often trained in how to talk to people about their form or whether or not “their eyes are bigger than their arms.” I would’ve made it very clear to him that I know what I’m doing and don’t need his help, and went back to my routine. Had he interfered again, I would’ve told him to “Back off,” and loud enough so that it would’ve caused a scene. My personal hope would’ve been that it received the attention of a gym staffer, so that they would simply come over without me having to leave my bench. I would’ve stared the guy right in the face, to let him know he doesn’t evoke a feeling of fear in me. (And, though there’s often the fear of “what if he says ‘or else?'” but then I stand firm. “There is no ‘or else.’ BACK. OFF.”) Had that not worked, I would’ve simply went straight to the gym staff and filed a complaint. Had the gym’s staff not assisted me, I would’ve gone right on up the chain and, had it still not made a difference in the environment, I would’ve had to consider joining another gym.

Alas, since most people aren’t as “angry” and “aggressive” as I am about my personal space being rudely infringed upon, I just recommend filing the complaint. [insert polite smile]

Someone out there have some advice for our dear friend, here, that doesn’t involve her potentially having to go upside someone’s head with a lock? Help your girl out!