Swole Woman Classic: Can a personal trainer touch you without permission?

Gym etiquette, and the men who want to correct your form.

Swole Woman Classic: Can a personal trainer touch you without permission?
Image: Daniele Devoti

Dear Swole Woman,
Your first few columns inspired me to give powerlifting a try, and lo and behold, it’s the only workout that I look forward to doing and see results from. It’s changed my relationship with fitness and how I think about my body for the better. Since I’ve been lifting, I’ve tried probably 5 new gyms and within the first or second visits to each I’ve had (crazy, unbelievable, am-I-wearing-a-sign-on-my-back-or-something?) negative interactions with dudes in the weight room.
These experiences range from general hovering, huffing and eye rolling about my even having the nerve to take up space, to a man walking up behind me while I was standing on a scale and bumping the counterweight all the way to the heavy side.
At one fancy boutique gym, a TRAINER came up behind me mid-squat, while I had headphones on and couldn’t hear or see him approach me, and startled me by grabbing the (not super heavy) bar to force me to re-rack it. When I turned around and asked him if I was doing something wrong that concerned him, he explained that he “was a safety freak” and it was just a “heavy weight.” For the record, I was warming up, and had barely broken a sweat. Thanks for humiliating me in front of all these other people, though!
I’ve since found a awesome non-profit fitness org that does pay what you can community strength training once a week, so I’ve had some coaching and I’m feeling confident in my form and technique. It’s time to be brave and get back to a gym with a more flexible schedule so I can follow a program and see some progress. How do I cultivate the additional emotional energy to carve out uncompromising space for myself in the weight room?
Thanks for your advice! — Marissa

I’m so happy for you that you love powerlifting! Honestly I would have been surprised to change even one person’s mind with this column and it genuinely warms my heart to hear this. (Like most people I can never get enough validation so please always email me about how I have changed your life).

All that said, I’m so sorry others in the gym have been treating you this way. It blows! First, to validate your concerns: none of this behavior is appropriate, and while I like to think it’s overall rare, at least in most gyms, that doesn’t change how damaging and intimidating a few interactions can be.

For the people huffing about you taking up space: ignore them as best you can. This will take some practice, but put yourself in this mental space: You pay a membership fee like everyone else, and unless there is some higher organization scheme you’re unaware of about the equipment you’re using (sign-up sheets for time slots or something), it’s first-come first-serve and people can relax. There are ~some~ practical limits to this: e.g., The guy who takes several sets of dumbbells to one little corner so he can do some kind of circuit and doesn’t let anyone else touch them, or he sets up inside a squat rack to do a circuit of everything but squats — he should not do that, no one should do that. But if you’re using a squat rack, you’re using a squat rack, and everyone else can have a seat (figuratively, literally) for a few minutes. If you sense someone on your case and you are feeling alpha that day, ask them loudly if you can help them.

As for the two specific cases you cited — both those people deserve to be reported to your gym staff, the trainer in particular, and especially if he is employed by the gym (some trainers are allowed to sort of “freelance” within a gym, which is a looser relationship, but they still generally need to follow the gym’s rules and limits set by management).

Many trainers of both kinds tend to try and drum up business with unsolicited advice. Sometimes this unsolicited advice extends into a weird and specific form of negging that is meant to catch you off-guard and make you feel like you don’t know what you thought you did. This is exactly what this trainer was doing, but the way he did it was the opposite of safe. It is unforgivably rude to touch anyone (or their equipment!) for any reason while they are performing a set without their express advance permission unless they are putting themselves or someone else in actual immediate mortal danger, and even then, involving yourself in many cases just adds to the injured list. Even bumping them accidentally, you owe a serious apology; people injure themselves and others this way, all the time. To do it intentionally is just fucking beyond. The amount of weight involved is immaterial. He could have hurt himself or you or someone nearby, and however unlikely it was, it’s not worth whatever “risk” he perceived. Unless you were unconscious or screaming for help it was completely inappropriate to interrupt you.

What to do (or not do) when you see someone doing something “wrong” at the gym is a frequent topic of debate among all gym-goers. Some people think it’s okay to, say, approach someone between sets — BETWEEN sets — and try to give them advice. Having been on both sides of this exchange and never really having seen it bear fruit for anyone, I tend to think people should leave each other alone, except for the immediate-mortal-danger clause above. However, I think everyone on the planet would agree that they would never, in a million years, go up and tap someone *mid-set* on the shoulder and start in like, “a few things…”

What really gets me steamed about guys like this — the guy’s stupid condescending tone aside — is they do these things very likely knowing it dangerous, but they take the calculated risk of doing it to try to put you in your “place” and get your business. There may even be specific rules against it in your gym! But they are betting you won’t know any better, and also that you will be too ashamed to report them for it.

Which is why I think, if you go back and that trainer is still there, you should absolutely still report him. Even if the gym staff doesn’t act on what you say, it’s important to create a record of behaviors like this. Even if they wouldn’t act on that isolated interaction, you may be adding to an already existing pattern they’ve noticed. I don’t run this gym and I’m not this guy’s boss, and while I wouldn’t fire anyone just because someone said something, he’d absolutely get a talking-to and be told to cut that shit out. If the staff doesn’t grasp the badness of it, put it in very concrete business terms for them: it was inappropriate (you don’t have to justify that any further) and it specifically led to THEIR loss of months of YOUR business (I’m assuming here you didn’t continue paying — I hope you didn’t). How do they know you’re the only one who was sent running by this douchebag? You didn’t tell them at the time, and there was a solid chance you never would have come back! They are lucky you are so brave, and you can promise them everyone who has had their lives touched by this asshat is not. I would plant all these little thoughts in their heads if they try to shrug you off.

An ideal gym customer is one who pays and never goes, sure, but an even more ideal customer is one who brings in more customers. You can’t advocate for a gym and bring your friends if the staff is going to accost them and make them feel unsafe.

But this is the really important thing to keep in mind with gym assholes in general: you are almost certainly not alone in being their target. If they are making you feel bad, it’s a virtual certainty you are not the first, and you are all paying customers of a business with a staff that is employed in part to manage its environment. I’ve said before that gym staffs I’ve encountered are only too happy to have something to do like investigate a bad guy; not everywhere will be the same but it

is appropriate in these cases to get them involved, and to expect them to do something about it. I’m sorry you have to bear the burden of these people being shitty, but do it for everyone else who may also be suffering and is not yet jacked of heart and tan of soul enough to speak up yet.