I am a scared person in the best of circumstances. I used to find mall food courts almost prohibitively intimidating. So when it came time to go to a gym and use the big-girl weights, I was scared. When that gym was filled with seemingly very strong people all joyously yelling at each other while they benched 300 pounds, it became even more terrifying.
While I believe very strongly you can and should start going to the gym at any old time, at this time of year, many are nonetheless pulling up to the gym and sitting in the parking lot, staring at the front door as their turned-off car slowly cools, watching people come and go, trying for what feels like the millionth time to work up the nerve to go inside for the very first time.
At least part of my issue was that, having no experience with the gym, I didn’t know what constitutes a “normal” gym interaction. (Ideally gyms would have doulas who guide you through every step, but not yet.) Are you allowed to ask people if they are done with equipment, or are there telling signs you are supposed to interpret? How do you know where to stand when doing dumbbell squats? If someone tells you you’re doing something wrong, are you required by some sort of social hierarchy and/or gym decorum to listen?
So in the spirit of trying to making going to the gym and using heavy weights a Normal activity instead of a specialized-seeming one where you need to know a secret handshake or be able to individually flex your pecs, here is a brief guide. To mix metaphors, this is Gym Court, with your Gym Doula, Casey Johnston.
Asking to “work in” is allowed, though has some limitations.
In gym parlance, “working in” means two, or even more, people share a piece of equipment. One person uses it while the other person rests, and then they swap. There is no real reason you shouldn’t be allowed to work in on with someone else, or they you, particularly if we are talking about any fixed weight, like a pair of dumbbells, or any machine involving an easily-changeable weight setting. (It is generally nice manners, if you are the work-in-ee, to reset the weight to what the first person was using when you finish your set).
This interaction goes like this: you go up to the person and say “Can I work in?” They’ll say yes. If they say no, they are probably being a bit of a jerk, but not a court-of-law jerk; just a rude jerk. I think I’ve only had a person refuse me once or twice in my life, so don’t live in fear of this.
The exception to working in, in my opinion, is with barbells. I’ve had guys ask to work in on the squat rack, resulting in both of us having to load the bar from my 95lbs to their 315bs, then back down to my 95lbs, on and on every set. This is unreasonable for everyone involved. If someone asks to work in on your squat rack, part of their calculation should be whether you are both lifting roughly the same amount of weight, so that’s a fair first question to ask them. If it’s a wildly different amount of weight, tell them how many sets/how many minutes roughly that you need to finish. Asking them to wait a few minutes in this scenario so you don’t have to load and unload multiple 45lb plates is fair.
You are: Innocent
You can, and should, request “next” on a piece of equipment.
The first time you ask someone if you may use the squat rack next can feel like you’re asking to take their son’s hand in marriage. This is, in fact, not the actual dynamic at play. But when I did it for the first time (asking for the squat rack, not the son’s hand in marriage) it FELT that way, and my feelings were valid.
However, requesting next: highly normal gym interaction. Usually the high-demand stuff will be the first items you want to use when you get to the gym (squat rack, deadlift platform/space), so the best way to do it is to assess the situation right when you get to the gym, even before you warm up. Ask the person using it, “How many sets do you have left?” they will tell you, and you can probably count on them needing 2-5 minutes per set. Then you let them know where you will be warming up (ideally within sight of them), and it’s reasonable to expect they will at least attempt to signal you from across the room that they are done, to preserve order.
You are: Innocent
You will probably stand in the wrong spot. It’s ok.
A lot of gym-going is like going anywhere new for the first time. It’s not always clear where people sit or stand or walk or do certain things vs. others. In your first few visits, you will inevitably stand where people normally walk, or sit somewhere you are not supposed to. It may not even make sense that things are done this way. This is the kind of thing you watch and learn, so don’t have any higher expectation of yourself than that.
You are: Guilty, but it’s ok
It will probably happen a couple of times in your life that someone will try to correct you. This is also ok.
Nothing feels worse than being mid-set of some exercise you already feel awkward about, only for some dude to come up to you and give you advice about it, thus seemingly revealing that not only were you doing it wrong, but EVERYONE could see and it was VERY OBVIOUS.
At the risk of sounding like a bit of a jerk: People are doing things imperfectly in the gym all the time. I see it constantly. The polite and restrained among us do not make even a peep about it. This is good manners.
Barring someone being in mortal danger (almost never the case) The guy who does say something about it either has a God complex is or is trying to sell you his personal training services. Whatever the case, you may nod silently and noncommittally through this interaction, and if he offers you some sort of service, say “I will think about it!” or maybe even “I already have a coach, thanks!" which may be a lie, but you don’t owe this person the truth.
You are: Innocent
It’s never going to be really, perfectly clear if someone was using that thing or not.
Normally, if a piece of equipment is put away (dumbbells in racks, plates on pegs, empty barbell in a squat rack) no one is using it. But one gym I used to go to was total chaos. No one ever put anything away. The floor was more 25-pound plates lying around than floor. Dumbbells absolutely everywhere. Dudes constantly walking straight out the door, leaving barbells with six plates loaded on each side. This made it impossible to determine with full confidence who was using what at any time, so everyone was always winging it, but no one ever came to blows.
My point is: Even in the worst of circumstances, the negotiations of who was using what happen often. Asking if someone is using something, and asking to work in if they are: totally normal gym interaction.
If you have to leave a set of equipment for a while to go to the bathroom or something, try to leave a water bottle or towel or, if allowed, your gym bag visibly near it. This is usually an accepted sign someone is using the thing. If you come back and someone is using your thing, you can say “oh, did you want to work in?” (if it’s shareable) and “oh, I was using that, but I only have X sets left if you want next!” (if it’s not).
You and everyone else is: Acquitted on all charges, except the person who wordlessly grabs dumbbells you are using while you are sitting right next to them between sets; jail for this person
What subscribers will be getting this week: an advice column answering a beginner who did not realize she would be sore all of the time! This poor girl, I have many, many notes, and they will be signed “person who spent years and years doing one-off days of ‘core work’ and then not being able to laugh because it hurt my abs too much.” You shouldn’t be sore like this, but it’s ok; we’re gonna figure it out.
So many of you asked me if I saw Encanto with the big strong daughter. As of last night, I did, and I love her! Crying because she is detrained and can’t pick up the donkeys: Relatable icon! Singing a song about the pressures of taking on everyone else’s burdens because they perceive her to be strong, a fact of her existence that is never interrogated again: Relatable icon!
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Legendary gym bro Dave Draper died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 79. Some choice quotes from his obit:
He loved lifting weights for its physical and spiritual benefits. But he disliked the preening and posing required of bodybuilders at competitions and exhibitions.
“Dave trained harder than anybody else and always wore jeans to the gym,” Frank Zane, a three-time Mr. Olympia, said in a phone interview.
“I learned his heart was as big as his pecs,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said.
Here is a lovely The Ringer feature on how drastically the fitness influencer landscape has changed in the last two years, quoting in part from yours truly.
I was also on the A Hot Dog Is A Sandwich podcast talking about whether diets really work!
It’s so interesting to me how many, many people are aware that weight loss as a concept is bad and doesn’t work, yet they keep doing it, seemingly at least in part because they don’t have any other tools for addressing feeling alienated from their body. What if—hear me out—everything could be different?
Is “pursuing a healthy lifestyle” just code for going on a diet? I mean yeah, probably; marketing and the weight loss industry seek to destroy everything I hold dear. I feel like it will somehow find a way to come for strength training eventually.
If you’re ever feeling frustrated about your personal progress, reminder that humans first came about 2.8 million years ago, and then 1.8 million years later, invented fire. I no longer feel like a year was a long time to write LIFTOFF.
I’m not much for listicles, and I feel like society hasn’t come THAT far on this point, but it’s truly wild to remember how intense the body-shaming was 10+ years ago.
I’m honestly not sure where I come down on the specific execution of the sobriety startup Tempest; however, I do think we are suffering for a lack of alternatives for dealing with addiction other than the AA model.
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Here is a really cool browsable online archive of strong-people stuff throughout history from the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports, a place I hope to visit in 2022, corona providing!!
This is just a really excellent piece on the wildfire situation in California; very well written and strangely hopeful despite also being realistic and frank.
I just stumbled on this Instagram account that’s a wonderful salve for anyone who is sick of “arbitrary symptoms” memtle helth narcissist empath social media. The hate for “pastel memes” is particularly good.
I’d been in California for the last week or so so have barely watched any TV or movies; rare and unusual for me. But this gives me an opportunity to recommend active recovery, such as some light hiking or walking. At the risk of sounding controversial, going outside is really good. Thinking of my mid-girl walks as cold plunges with clothes on really helps takes a lot of pain out of doing it in the winter.
So that’s all for now! I hope you’re treating yourself right and, if you’re checking out Couch to Barbell, already feeling yourself growing strong like an ox or jungle cat; I’d love to hear from you, if you are. So many of you have written to me about it, and I’m VERY excited for you.
This also feels like a good time to remind everyone that I do offer a limited number of free subscriptions to the newsletter (now with a 50% off code for LIFTOFF!), so if you’d like one, email me.
Love you, thank you for reading, let’s go—
Social image by Danielle Cerulo.