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Attention, Stronger People at the Gym: You Have to Help the Newbies

When gym equipment is limited and someone who lifts way less than you wants to share your squat rack, be a good sport about it.

by Casey Johnston
Oct 16 2019, 5:25pm

Elnora Turner

Ask A Swole Woman is an advice column for people who are sick of clean eating, perfect gym outfits, and chiseled abs. Casey Johnston, who is not a doctor or personal trainer but isn't afraid to tell gym bros to get the hell away from her squat rack, is here to answer all your fitness questions, and wants you to be healthy, enjoy carbs, and get jacked.
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So a frequent complaint of gym-goers is people who hog the squat rack, right? And a frequent response is that you can always ask to work in, right? But what about when whatever you want to do would require substantial unloading and reloading of plates? I’m writing to you, Swole Woman, because this has to be a conundrum faced by lots of lady lifters. Heretofore I’ve restricted myself to asking bros how many lifts they have left with an admittedly passive-aggressive attitude but I’m legit tempted to start asking to work in (with a slightly more aggressive passive-aggressive attitude expressed via said unloading/reloading). — Megan

This is a tough one, but to catch everyone up to the situation here: oftentimes, gyms don’t have that many squat racks, the stands with pegs from which you can rack and unrack a barbell loaded with plates. So if multiple people are in a hurry, one possible workaround is to “work in,” or take turns on the rack so that one person can be doing their sets of squats while another person or people are resting.

One potential problem that arises here is when the people who want to share a rack are at vastly different places in their strength journeys. If one person is squatting 315lbs (three 45lb plates on each side) and another is squatting 95lbs (two 25lb plates on each side), that means every time they trade off, the six 45lb plates have to be removed, and 25lb plates put on, and then taken off, and the 45lb plates put back on, and so on until everyone’s sets are done. This is, obviously, not only super time- and effort-intensive, but uses up some of the energy that might otherwise be put into squatting, which is why you are reasonably expecting some resistance.

Incredibly, no one has come up with a better system for having more people than squat racks, except buying more squat racks. For instance, my gym, which is powerlifting- and Olympic weightlifting-oriented, has conservatively something like 15 individual racks, and possibly as many as 20 if people are getting really creative. But even with this abundance of racks, times have come up when people have had to work in with each other.

Another wrinkle here is that, oftentimes when people work in, they share the workload of loading and unloading plates. But it’s really tough for someone relatively inexperienced who can only squat 95lbs to help someone unload their 315lbs of plates (been there). Almost all of us start out being so weak that even trying to pick up a 45lb plate, let alone maneuver it onto a barbell that may be above chest height, is prohibitively difficult. When you’re only dealing with your own weights, you don’t generally don’t get to a point that you can, say, squat 45lb plates before you are able to competently handle one of those plates; strength builds on itself this way.

Unfortunately, this problem is also compounded by matters of privilege and unlevel playing fields. Sure, that dude squatting 315 couldn’t have gotten there any other way than by putting in the work, but he may have been vastly helped by other, stronger men willing to take a fellow bro under their wing and take on the work of loading and unloading their own plates to smooth the groove for him. This would help him feel like he belongs and has a place in the weight room.

So there is a lot of complexity here, but that’s okay! The world is full of knotty etiquette issues—somehow things continue to change and evolve and we are supposed to stay on top of it—and the gym is no different.

You may have noticed I haven’t given you, the letter writer, any advice at all yet, but I’m trying to frame up a mindset for you: no one should feel Entitled to anything, but I think you can approach someone and ask to share their squat rack with a reasonable expectation they will be polite and accommodating. That won’t mean these people won’t roll their eyes as they load and unload, but I’m making a call: unless they happen to be maxing (attempting a heavy single-rep quat for the first time in many months) that day, they should accommodate you.

The much stronger guy may not love to hear it (as I’m writing it, I’m surprising myself and not loving to hear it), but I think he has a higher cultural duty in this situation. If someone comes up to him and wants to work in on his rack, even if they are too weak to help him remove all the 315lb plates, he should bite the bullet and do it himself. You should help as much as you are able, which may mean struggling with only a plate or two, but this is an important show of good-faith effort to your fellow bro.

While I do think that way, way more strong people are excited to be kind to newbies and help them get stronger than many people judge them to be just by looking at their muscles, in some places, weight rooms can remain unfriendly to non-white, non-cis, non-straight dudes. What is important to remember is that this is the case virtually everywhere, so many of the cultural developments we’ve painfully undergone in the last decade can be reasonably applied in the gym, too.

This is tough because many people just want to go to the gym and get in and get out, but just as in life, we can’t live with blinders on as to what we can do to help people who don’t have as much capital as we do. The world needs more strong, healthy people who aren’t afraid or feel unwelcome in the gym. This is a super simple way that established weightlifters can not only help others, but also create support for their hobby such that [gasp] the gym might see there is substantial interest in this equipment, and eventually set up even more squat racks to alleviate the issue!!

If that goes awry and you encounter some resistance from the rack occupier (it might happen! It’s not about you), the next thing you would do is engage the gym’s staff on this. Ask them if their gym rules allow or even prioritize working in (as in, unless you are continually using a piece of equipment, you are required to share it), and if so, let them know you’ve encountered some resistance from other members. The staff might be willing to speak to this particular person for you (awkward, I know) or do something a little more passive-aggressive, like put up signs near the relevant equipment that you could at least point to when you ask to be like “see, that’s the policy here.”

You might also say to the staff, “seems like the squat racks are in high demand! I love this gym, but the time I have to wait to use the only one you have makes me stronger reconsider my membership here. Any chance you’re planning on expanding the weight area to add more?” They might be annoyed with this feedback, but it’s a provable fact that free-weight strength training is growing fast in popularity, and gym owners are not necessarily aware of what people wish they were doing that they aren’t able to, due to lack of equipment. There’s a possibility that just alerting them to your interest—even you, a non-steroidal normal person, wants to use a squat rack!—may change their perception of what a gym that attracts and retains it members should have.

This isn’t an option for everyone, but if you encounter resistance at all fronts, it might be worth it to look for a different, more weight-friendly gym with more equipment. Chain gyms are often pretty bare bones on the free-weights front, but in various locales, especially in the last couple of years, I’ve had a lot of success finding more strength-focused independent gyms. There are even some gyms opening that are designed to be inclusive of people who don’t come from a strength-training background, which is very encouraging. (If you've somehow gotten trapped in a long-term gym contract, literally not being able to use the provided equipment due to other members' hostility is a strong argument that you should be let out.)

You’re doing fine as you are, and as with the above etiquette scenario, just asking how many sets someone has left should light a fire under their ass so they finish up relatively quickly—like within 20ish minutes, if they’re doing their sets already. (If you get in your ask before you change and start warming up, that means they’ll be almost done when you are.) When there is only one rack, no one has any right to hog it for an hour or more. But as we’ve established, you have a reasonable expectation that if you ask to work in, even if you’re lifting vastly different weight, you will be received politely.

So approach the squat rack user with a generous open heart and mind, prepared for the possibility that he may be mad that you asked, or he may say no. But if you get him to let you work in, even if he is mad, know you’ll be taking an important step in normalizing the presence of strong people on the come-up, like yourself, and acclimatizing this kinda selfish person to the idea that squat racks are not a meritocracy.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Tagged:
gym
strength
etiquette
weight lifting
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