approximate reading time: 9 minutes

In truth, I came to this realization a few years ago, but a recent experience amid the COVID-19 pandemonium and gym life rekindled it as an area of my thoughts that deserves more written content.

I was recently at the gym, training as usual. Of course, strictures to safely train without compromising the health and wellbeing of others are firmly in place. Where I train, there’s a ceiling on how many lifters are allowed in the gym at a given time, a preliminary temperature check, and a policy that masks must be work between sets of exercise.  I agree with all of this – even if it’s considered overkill.

Partway through my workout, I received a phone call. It was my best friend.

I never take calls during workouts, but I figured this would be quick. What the heck, I answered the phone using my earbuds. What started out as a couple of minutes turned into a longer call, and definitely sidetracked my workout. I was doing my shoulder presses with my friend on the line. “Meh”, I thought. “I’ll just ramp up the intensity tomorrow.” As I continued my (now lame) workout while trying to uphold a full conversation, I got interrupted. A man who was significantly older than me approached me with his brows furrowed. I recognized this man. He’d been coming to this gym for years – just like me. Never have he and I had a conversation or even exchanged hellos, but we had certainly seen each other literally hundreds of times. He addressed me using a tone that sounded much more like he was trying to make a public announcement to the members of the gym floor than talk to me directly:

“If you’re going to go around the gym talking on the phone, you should probably be wearing your mask!”.

Suffice to say – he was absolutely right. And I was absolutely in the wrong. In all that time, I’d forgotten to throw my mask on to continue my phone conversation, and proceeded with my workout as though nothing was the problem.

With that being acknowledged, I’ll add this: The man had no business talking to me – or anyone – the way he did. To be honest, it was much less about the choice of words and much more about the confrontational delivery of them.  It was clear that his purpose was to create a bigger problem than was present.  Now it was my turn to speak.

My response wasn’t what he expected. I smiled at him, made full eye contact, told him he was absolutely right, and gave sincere apology for forgetting to put it on, while warmly thanking him for the reminder.  Now clearly caught off guard, the man wasn’t sure to maintain his angry disposition, but he remained firm, probably thinking that I was being sarcastic with him.  As I put my mask on, I decided I’d continue with him. I asked him how he was, and if he was having a good day.  He gave a brusque reply to each, and I finally asked the question that usually shakes angry people up: “What’s your name?”.

Hesitantly, he told me.

I introduced myself, and told him it was nice to meet him. I thanked him again and continued my conversation with my friend.

Whether or not this encounter “diffused” the tension is actually the thing I cared about less at the time.  At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, I know that leaving the gym that day, the first impression that guy had about me ended up being largely different from the first impression I had about that guy. And for many, first impressions are very difficult to erase.

The kicker was this: Unbeknownst to me, my interaction with this person ended up being watched and noticed by another older member at the gym, who was also a longtime patron, like us.  Immediately after we finished our interaction, he came up to both of us and praised me – albeit in an intentionally “public” fashion – for being a “real gentleman” and taking a classy road of handling the situation.  It was clear to him that the way I felt about being approached like that was similar to the way he felt about it too. As he was giving me his kind words, the first man certainly felt like shrinking away, especially as I took the liberty to elaborate on why I generally choose to respond to confrontation with kindness.

This all led to a long conversation with the second man about interactions, manners, morals, and judgement.

And completely derailed what was left of my workout.  But it was worth it, because it also inspired this article.

Why I’m Saying This

I understand that tensions may be a bit pent up due to COVID-19. I also understand people are going a bit stir crazy and are quick to police others if they’re not “following the rules” – intentionally or unintentionally.  But I don’t think there should be many occasions where unprovoked rudeness toward strangers is warranted.  The real question I had after this went down was, what was it that incentivized his approach to be what it was?

Maybe it was a bad day. I don’t know what was going on in his life.  Likewise, he didn’t know what was going on in mine. And I’m sure that within the next 10 guys he approaches in a similar manner, one will come back at him looking to throw hands. But maybe – just maybe – it was also the setting. This experience was a small snapshot in what I believe represents a bigger problem that’s especially specific to two things: Men, and the gym.

It probably doesn’t need to get to this. And outside those walls, it likely wouldn’t.

When did it become wrong to be Big, Strong, and Pleasant, all at the Same Time?

You see it everywhere you go. At most gyms in my neck of the woods, there’s a massive dichotomy between gym members who are experienced, strong, and have the development to show for their results, compared to the ones who are just getting started, weak, and have the development to show for the lack of theirs. It’s something that runs rampant among men in the gym – much more so than women in the gym. To be clear, I’m not saying women are off the hook here, but I am saying it’s hard to argue that it’s not a much more noticeable problem among us men. So I’ll remain focused on my own species for today.

Yes, it’s a generalization, but the mean-mugging, unapproachable “tough guy” demeanor far too often goes hand-in-hand with being a big, strong guy with a bunch of muscle where fitness life is concerned.  To men, the idea of being ‘bad’ and ‘dangerous’ has become so seemingly fetishized in this culture that it starts overstepping its confines of loose entertainment value and becomes an unwelcome character on full display in many places – the gym unfailingly being one of them.  If that’s not your actual personality, it would be worthwhile in realizing just what effects this can have on the rest of fitness culture around you. And if it is, I can only feel sorry for you and your lot in life.

Copycats

For one, it can inspire more people to be the same way. Young up-and-comers to the weight training game who have plenty of potential to become big and strong may end up adopting exactly the same disposition for no real reason other than monkey-see, monkey-do. This situation will endlessly continue to repeat itself without changing, until the amount of big strong guys with approachable dispositions outnumber those with unapproachable ones.

“Excuse me, mind if I work in with you?”

I get it. We’re animals. Animals full of testosterone and in some cases, a number of other hormones. And weight training is among the most primitive exhibits of such truths possible.

But if we’re making the decision to go through life thinking there’s a problem to be had with anyone and everyone we encounter, the real problem is most likely with us, and we’re not helping anyone with anything. What are we really trying to accomplish here? Is the goal to be “feared”? To be somehow viewed as more “impressive”?  Is that the same disposition and goal we have when going through life outside the gym?

Fear Factor

Simply put – for the most part, this stuff intimidates other people. Novice women and men alike. It’s really hard to feel comfortable in the gym if the people you should be looking up to for advice also happen to come across as jerks.  If you’re developed, remembering where you started, and reminding yourself of any good people who took you under their wing to encourage you is a great way to let your ego deflate itself and bring you back down to earth.

We really need to remember that if we want fitness to be accessible and inviting to as many people as possible, it’s going to be important to make the environment – and the people in that environment – just as inviting. It doesn’t mean everyone needs to be walking around grinning from ear to ear and having one-up courtesy contests. But it does throw the “dangerous bad boy” resting persona out the window.

Yeah, men. I’m talking to you.

Consider this: We all know about women and their frustrations with getting ogled or picked up by men at the gym while they’re just trying to work out, causing them to stay away from the gym. That aside, one of the likely untold reasons many women may be afraid of training in gyms that contain big, strong men lifting heavy isn’t the sole fact that they’re not nearly as strong. It’s probably because they’re not nearly as strong and also aren’t feeling welcome. When the energy in a space gives a person the feeling of being an outsider, there are very few times a person will want to stick around.

To many, this is just training, but for some, it could be the scariest thing they’ve seen all day.

Now, consider this: I’ve trained a number of hesitant, novice, female clients for their first workout session in gyms that check all of the above boxes – Mostly male, mostly big, strong dudes, and rampant with their share of mean-mug syndrome. What made them comfortable in a very short time (and usually turned them into long term clients) was the fact that they had someone welcoming and encouraging them – and that person was me, their trainer. If you’re a trainer reading this, you’ve probably experienced it too. The thing is, it shouldn’t take an arrangement like this to warm someone up to the idea of working out. And that calls for a culture change. It’s an energy that doesn’t only make someone feel intimidated. It’s one that makes someone feel judged, also. That’s not a good combination for a first timer.

Let me spin things a different way. The dude in the story I told at the beginning was half my size, but that still demonstrates part of the problem. Maybe he thought that he needed to get his dukes up in order to approach me, with the thinking that since I’m big, strong, and haven’t communicated with him before, I surely wouldn’t respond in a reasonable way. It’s a stereotype I’m sad has been perpetuated by big guys in the gym, and one that I, for my part, am eager to quash through my own actions. In truth, there’s a chance his behavior came out of his own version of intimidation. If you think about it, that brings the conversation to a bigger picture and talks to a demographic that doesn’t only include women. Now it includes young men, seniors, and even the disabled.

Responsibility

As mentioned earlier, I’m cracking down on dudes here, because, let’s face it – we’re way more at fault with this stuff than women in the gym are. But regardless of gender, if we’re advanced lifters who can walk the talk, we have a responsibility to ourselves and everyone else not only to be advertisements of good health and fitness, but also to be advertisements of good fitness culture. I know that sounds preachy, but think about that. If we’re really interested in making the gym a truly public space, there are certain things that will need to stop dead in their tracks:

When a strong dude who’s attempting a 680 pound deadlift steps up to the bar, most people around him stop, leave some space, and allow him to focus. When a weak dude whose deadlift max is only 155 does the same thing, people will damn near step over his bar as he’s pulling.  Respect should be all-inclusive.

When a lifter without a clue is training with lousy form and risking injury, snickering with your lifting partner while surreptitiously filming it to put in your IG story isn’t helping anyone. It just makes you look worse than the lifter.

And, as I’ve fleshed out here, taking a shot at a pleasant attitude can go a long way, for a whole lot of reasons. It also just feels better. If you have problems ditching the curmudgeon disposition the second you walk in the gym, try changing the genre of music in your headphones to something way outside the norm. You’d be surprised how well that can work.  Don’t forget – when you started out, you were likely in a similarly ambivalent, intimidated frame of mind, concerned that you don’t fit into your surroundings.

At the end of the day, healthy living shouldn’t really have a “culture”. But since it does, let’s make it a good one.  It can benefit everyone, build more people up, and bring more people together to remove the stigma gym life has sadly earned.

Don’t worry, you won’t lose any of your gains by smiling every one in a while.

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