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

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

by Erika Nicole Kendall

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!

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Kyle August 1, 2012 - 1:06 PM

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.

Megan August 1, 2012 - 1:18 PM

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 - 1:24 PM

I hate to do this, but…

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

Denise August 1, 2012 - 1:28 PM

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!

Aisha August 1, 2012 - 1:35 PM

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!

Tyj247 August 1, 2012 - 1:35 PM

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 ;).

Che August 1, 2012 - 1:38 PM

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 - 1:41 PM

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

xaria August 1, 2012 - 2:49 PM

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 - 12:32 PM

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 - 8:00 PM

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.

Charlotte August 1, 2012 - 2:58 PM

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.

Jennifer August 1, 2012 - 3:39 PM

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.

Jennifer August 1, 2012 - 3:45 PM

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

Meighan August 1, 2012 - 6:08 PM

I had an experience similar to that when I was 19 or 20. I have always enjoyed lifting weights and have been able to lift more than people expect of me. I had a man come up to me and tell me I needed to do different exercises, not because I was doing anything wrong but because I was “obviously at the gym to lose weight” and not to put on muscle. When I told him I didn’t object to muscle he continued to bother me, telling me I didn’t need to look more bulky. I am ashamed to say my response was just to leave and not go back. I was near my weight goal, and I wanted to continue at the gym, but I just felt so embarrassed. I felt like this was confirmation that everyone at the gym was looking at me and thinking about how large I was. A few years ago I took up bicycling and instantly loved it. I am more secure on my bike than I am in everyday. If someone critiques my riding for no reason I just speed up and pass them, or explain why their information isn’t correct. For me, finding something I loved helped. I’ve started going to the gym again. If someone questions what I’m doing, I explain how it is going to make me faster on a bike. If they disagree, which they usually don’t, I thank them for their info but tell them “I can’t really talk now; I need to concentrate.”

Miranda @ Biting Life August 1, 2012 - 11:17 PM

Oh my god… that’s SO UNACCEPTABLE! I can’t believe somebody would do that. That’s so inappropriate. Sometimes the way people act just completely baffles me. Stand up for yourself and tell him to leave you alone because you know what you’re doing!

Lavern August 2, 2012 - 6:47 AM

People exhibit this behavior in other phases of my life…like work. Yes, like in comments above, they are “controlling”, “bullies”. And yes, this ‘alpha dog’ behavior demonstrates their “fear”.

I’ve tried to deal with this in everyway possible over the years. Like “Xaria” if I complain successfully, I’m excluded. They eventually group together with other fearful insecure people, cook up a lie, and use their same tactics to pressure whoever is in charge (who usually doesn’t understand their behavior) into firing me even though I’m very successful.

Oh yes! True story. I’m trying to figure out how to stay off the radar of these ‘alpha dogs’ in the first place. Sadly, that seems to mean hiding my ability?

I’ve tried all the coping methods above, and they backfire. So Erika if you or anyone can help me, I’d be grateful.

Erika Nicole Kendall August 2, 2012 - 9:36 AM

Hmm…people are targeting you just because you’re so awesome? How often are you defending your awesomeness?

Corporate America is mind boggling to me. Like… I am interested in seeing the other responses to this, because I feel like corporate America encourages that kind of behavior. Y’all have to work together, but you’re all vying for the same one or two spots that open up ABOVE you, often not for commensurate pay, and then you’re expected to work for the same person who ust got promoted above you. I feel like that creates that kind of dog eat dog environment.

…and, when money’s involved, I feel like it’s time to just become an Alpha dog yourself. There’s a reason why they say “every female boss is a ‘bitch’.” It’s not because she’s actually this awful person… it’s because she’s not letting the Alpha dogs stomp all over her.

Allie August 2, 2012 - 8:33 AM

Original poster here. Thanks everyone for your overwhelming support! I know that if this ever happens again, I will have all of your voices in my head helping me defend myself instead of cowering like I did this time around. I think the biggest help for me is knowing that this was an isolated incident, that it’s not MY fault, and that other people are just as shocked and appalled as I was. Thanks again and thank you Erika for always covering issues that I can relate to and learn from.

Erika Nicole Kendall August 2, 2012 - 9:32 AM

Absolutely, mama. It felt like you might’ve thought you were doing something wrong, and that’s why he picked you as opposed to, say, someone else to bully… but that’s not it.

Also: I’m not entirely opposed to road tripping if he does it again. Just sayin’.

NotSureReally August 2, 2012 - 11:55 PM

I think that a polite “Thanks for the advice, I’ll think about it/run it past my trainer and maybe next time” might do the the trick if you’re a non-confrontational person like me.

It also occurred to me that maybe he actually was looking for an excuse to chat to you …

Erika Nicole Kendall August 2, 2012 - 11:58 PM

This is true, but we as women need to be prepared to define the terms under which people can talk to us… and be able to say to someone that their speech is wildly unacceptable when necessary.

I completely understand being non-confrontational, but that’s not to be confused with passive. Handling matters in a non-confrontational fashion makes sense to me, but accepting rudeness as being “a conversation starter” is like.. the worst. LOL

NotSureReally August 3, 2012 - 12:54 AM

Thanks for the considered reply. I’ve never really thought of it that way. You’ve given this non-confrontational softie food for thought – just as well it’s calorie-free because it was Birthday Cake Friday at work this morning!

Erika Nicole Kendall August 3, 2012 - 9:48 AM

I understand completely! And LOL @ ‘calorie-free!’

Elizabeth S September 12, 2012 - 1:16 PM

Wow…I’m so glad to hear that it’s not just me. For me, though, most rudeness I’ve come across has been because of my size. I’ve got alot to lose, and in the past I’ve either gotten people who either: 1) know more than I do so they feel the need to come up and give me unsolicited advice, or 2) make some rude comment about my size that makes me want to leave. And I’m like…okay, if you caught me stuffing my face at the Krispy Kreme, then maybe I could understand the rude comments…but at the gym??? Do you know how many times I have given up, and how much effort it takes for me to drag my butt in there just to keep getting knocked down?!?!

Just last month, I went to LA Fitness one evening for a swim. The pool was olympic-sized, and was roped off into 5 sections, with enough room for 2 people in each lane. When I got there, there was one person in each lane already; I waited and waited, but no one left. So finally I walked up to one of them and asked if he minded sharing his lane. You would have thought from the look on his face that I asked him for $20! He stares at me and says, “Well…it’s just that the lanes are so narrow…”. I was so embarrassed I just wanted out of there – and of course someone (who was very thin, btw) came right behind me and asked if he could share the rude a-hole’s lane, and he said yes. I left feeling like why did I even bother trying to work out that day.

Shani Nicole October 4, 2012 - 12:32 PM

My jaw fell to the floor as well, I was imagining how I would have not so nicely told him to get lost. The nerve of some people.
don’t allow people to destroy your mission, go back and continue to do what you are doing, let him and whoever else know that you wont be scared off and you have confidence in your own ability.

christine March 5, 2013 - 10:40 AM

I actually had somone tell me I had a mean look on my face..like I was on a mission (insert deer look) Umm yeah I’m at the gym not a social club! The regular guys know to leave me alone, but ya get the new ones coming in strutting around like a bunch of roosters..doing 2 reps with weights they have no business trying to lift..then looking at me like I should be impressed..Yeah right, ok..Or the ones who get on the treadmill next to me and keep glancing over like I’m suppose to be impressed cuz they’re still on it..ok..see ya in an hour

Bex March 13, 2013 - 11:23 PM

i was already imagining (before i finished the story) the way i wouldve looked at him like I don’t understand why he is near me or talking to me, and how firmly and assertively I wouldve said ‘if i want you’re advice ill ask for it. please leave this area and dont talk to me again. THANKS’ lol. unbelievable. if someone seems genuinely concerned im going to hurt myself thats one thing, but i pay just as much as that douche to use the same space and equipment so he can just gtfo lol wow. i wouldve struggled to not be rude as hell lol. and if he didnt leave, or ‘or else what?”ed me i wouldve replied ‘or else i will find a staff member who will make you, your choice how this goes.’ LOL smh

Lee March 13, 2013 - 11:39 PM

My mom ran into one of those alpha guys the other day. She called him a bully who never grew into his “bleeps” lol. (yes to his face). But she was minding her own business when the bully tried to “correct” her about something she was doing right. She pretty much cut him down to size very quickly.
Some gyms do remind me of those HS days where there are the supposed “cool kids” and the “others”. *rolls eyes* While the little cool kids pointed and laughed as I did my work out I felt great at the end of my time at the gym anyways. Just funny how they would do ten minutes on a machine and look like they were about to die smh lol. tsk tsk.

Melissa June 9, 2014 - 11:41 AM

I started going to the gym and working with a trainer. My legs were sore, which is obvious as I am over weight and never exercised before now. Well this young, fit couple walked by mocking me. The guy limped up the stairs grunting like a mule. I was so embarrassed and pissed off! I felt like freaking on the guy. As if someone could be so rude when I am here trying to better myself. I ignored it. Now I’m strong, not sore anymore. It’s been over 2 months. That rude little couple don’t pay attention to me anymore. Thank god. I guess they didn’t succeed, whatever they were trying to accomplish. Jerks. I am working on my gym swag. I have my routine and I rock it. Always working on it though. 🙂

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