Q&A Wednesday: “Gym Swag,” and Handling Rudeness At The Gym

Q&A Wednesday: “Gym Swag,” and Handling Rudeness At The Gym

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!

By | 2015-03-11T22:08:32+00:00 March 11th, 2015|Q&A Wednesday|30 Comments

About the Author:

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes food and fitness, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She is also certified in sports nutrition by Precision Nutrition. She now lives in New York with her husband and children, and is working on her 6th and 7th certifications because she likes having alphabet soup at the end of her name.


  1. Kyle August 1, 2012 at 1:06 PM - Reply

    My mother and I are new to the gym but we’re developing our “gym swag”, but the gym rats seem to think we want unsolicited help. This is happened on 3 separate occasions without so much as an “Excuse me, may I suggest something” or something along those lines. I believe in treating these circumstances like the Heimlich; please ask permission to assist me before invading my space. You don’t know what my reaction might be. I’m considering switching gyms. I’m paying $10 at Planet Fitness, but I would gladly pay more for my health, sanity, confidence, and peace of mind.

    And what’s worse than a gym rat? A gym peacock. AGH.

  2. Megan August 1, 2012 at 1:18 PM - Reply

    I think that your advice is perfect. I recently lost 40 pounds working with a Personal Trainer twice per week and exercising on my own 4 additional days per week. Anyway, during one of my personal training sessions I was doing squats while lifting weights. This man who had been hitting on me for weeks (to no avail) moves directly behind me so he could stare at my booty (I don’t have a dunk at all). My trainer asked him to move and reprimanded him for his behavior. It was nice to have my trainer stick up for me, but if he hadn’t been there I would’ve made a scene. I tend to be trill though 🙁

    • Erika Nicole Kendall August 1, 2012 at 1:24 PM - Reply

      I hate to do this, but…

      …when it comes to the weight room? I am in full support of trill. ROFL

  3. Denise August 1, 2012 at 1:28 PM - Reply

    Wow! I agree with your advise Erika. But I would have stomped right to a staff member IMMEDIATELY! Who the hell is this guy – the gym police?! He had no right to impose himself in her personal space. I think he is someone that needs a talking to from the staff. I guarantee he treats most of the females this way at the gym.

    I don’t have any gym swag whatsoever, and that’s why I only do cardio at the Y and my free weights and yoga at home. My hubby said to me about my lack of ‘gym swag’, “no one is looking at you.” Hmmmm, mmmmm, yes, they are!

  4. Aisha August 1, 2012 at 1:35 PM - Reply

    Yea this is annoying. I was never really big but since hitting the gym hard I maybe, dare I say petite. o_0 I wear what I think are regular clothes to the gym (yoga pants/capris, tank or tshirt). I’m not the girl with the sports bra and booty shorts on. However, I still get what I call eye raped consistently. You know, when a guy is staring at you so hard and long you know he has to be mentally undressing you and dreaming up some 50 shades of grey fantasy. It’s extra creepy. I go to a predominately male gym, and since I weight train, there are mostly males in my general vicinity during workouts. Most of the time I don’t notice but some guys aren’t shy about staring. One of the great things about being stronger is that when some creepy dude is staring at me while struggling with his bicep curls on 10lb dumbbells, I can go pick up my 15s and breeze through my sets. Gets them every time!

  5. Tyj247 August 1, 2012 at 1:35 PM - Reply

    Ummm, so I had to re-read that story several times, and each time I got so unbelievably pissed off. I wish I had some really good advice because the whole time I was thinking in my head how I would have cussed him out for sure and tried to hit him with that bar and then played innocent when a staffer came over and told them I felt threatened (insert not-so-innocent smile here). For me, my workouts are for releasing all my pent-up aggression for the day, so someone being mean or rude to me during that time better watch out.

    I think what you said Erika was right, just know your stuff and yourself and politely tell him to leave you alone (or shove it, whatever you feel better doing). Luckily I have NEVER had an experience like this but I have noticed people staring at me so I just pretend they’re jealous of my skills and let it be ;).

  6. Che August 1, 2012 at 1:38 PM - Reply

    Wow this post hit home for me. I joined a small gym about a month ago and I’ve been dealing with a ton of rudeness — to the point where I would really like to switch to a new gym. The “alpha dog” scenario is real: in my gym, I feel like I’m back in high school with the regulars being the popular clique. They are super loud and boisterous, hang out for hours just chatting, and — worst of all — “reserve” weight machines, benches, cardio equip etc for their friends who don’t arrive until an hour later so people like me don’t even have a chance. It’s frustrating and I agree that it makes me feel “unwanted, out of place, and in the way.”

    • Erika Nicole Kendall August 1, 2012 at 1:41 PM - Reply

      WTF? You’re playing! I would’ve been Snitchy McGee all OVER the place. You can’t prevent me from using equipment that’s not being used. You can’t “reserve” stuff for people that aren’t even here. I’d report ALL that, and DEMAND to get what I paid for, or I’d stop paying. It’s as simple as that.

      Listen. I don’t support “No snitching.” I’m ALL SNITCH EVERYTHING. ROFL

  7. xaria August 1, 2012 at 2:49 PM - Reply

    wow…i bet he is that controlling outside of the gym, too. who does he think he is??? WTF??

    let me take a minute….

    next time, make a scene. be the loud, aggressive black woman. he may back off. then, get his name and report him. I have had to do that a couple of times to men in the gym who offer unsolicited help. once, i was doing lunges while doing some bicep curls w/15lb weights. this man comes over, TOUCHES my waist and says in my ear that he’s here to “correct my form” and hovers over me. like it was some sick gym fantasy he had. i immediately dropped the weights, loudly asked why he was invading my personal space and touching me when i didn’t ask to be touched. he started to back off, but called me a b*tch. at that point, i walked over to the desk and demanded to speak to the manager and filed a complaint against him. he was removed from the gym. now, no one talks to me at the gym but i prefer it that way.

    • lisa clinton January 9, 2013 at 12:32 PM - Reply

      wow …I cant believe this happens. When Im inport i work out at the gyms on base …Saliors are notoriously rude in the gym. I am always really uncomfortable when it comes to weight training but what i do is crank my music up really loud get in the zone and dont make eye contact with anyone and go hard !!!! I use there WTF looks as motivation to lift heavier and run faster.

    • Brooklyn PeeWee March 1, 2013 at 8:00 PM - Reply

      JMO but the ‘the loud, aggressive black woman’ needs to be left out in the weeds unless she is being physically attacked. There are other ways to deal with a hinie-wipe. One way to handle the situation is to go still, look him in the eye, and calmly state that he has until I count to 3 to remove himself from my vicinity. If he doesn’t move, get up, and snitch on him. I also think that ear buds help create a space around people. You don’t even have to have a player attached to it, just pin the jack to the inside of a shirt, armband, etc., and put the buds in. Then go about your business. In any case, I’ve found that a steady gaze and silence makes people uncomfortable.

  8. Charlotte August 1, 2012 at 2:58 PM - Reply

    Man, what a heathen.

    I like to think what I would have done, because I’m a kill ’em with politeness type, was to thank him for his *opinion* and go on my merry way, but I probably would have slinked right out of the gym, upset and mad.

    The hell. My heart goes out to the original poster – it sucks that bullies think they can just knock people down. That’s exactly what he was.

  9. Jennifer August 1, 2012 at 3:39 PM - Reply

    Girl, Girl, Girl! I am so mad that this happened to you. And I am mad because I know that it is REAL. I have been training with my coach for two years and some change. When I train at the gym I fly solo based on what she and I have determined are goals. My coach has a competitive fitness background so when we started she broke that three pound dumbbell/ 50 hours of cardio mindset I had real quick and let me know that if men were not in the section where I was lifting I needed to go to the other side of the gym. When I ventured over there I felt like a guppy surrounded by piranha. You could see and feel the contempt, like 1960’s lunch counter sit-in type contempt. I don’t believe in letting them see you sweat so I went about my business learning about lifting weights and my body with my “you can come over here if you want to” face on ALL THE TIME. I would leave and tell my husband or my coach or my mom or any supporter… you just don’t know how mean these people are. My husband said you’re a woman in male dominated space, be consistent and they will respect you after a while and he was right. My Coach said they are jealous that your lifts are dynamic and they have been doing the same sorry lift since ’82, they will get over it and they did.
    Even though it worked out for me it makes me mad to think how hard I had to fight myself to get up and go to the gym and then have to deal with people projecting their beliefs about my inabilities once I got there? To the writer, be encouraged. It is sad that it happened that way but now that you have identified it you can grow from it and make the right decisions just like we have to do with triggers, sabotage, enablers, and other obstacles that we face through this journey.

  10. Jennifer August 1, 2012 at 3:45 PM - Reply

    Sorry, Erika-
    Great advice as always…did i mention I was mad?!? LOL

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