diversity · fitness · inclusiveness · strength training

The New Gym Rules

Feature photo credit: Alora Griffiths via Unsplash

As gyms around the world are slowly reopening this year, I welcome them to take this opportunity to restart with some new ground rules and expectations for their patrons in order to make it a more welcoming space.  As they existed pre-COVID, most gym cultures that I experienced were sometimes fine and sometimes extraordinarily problematic. They were deeply gendered spaces with unspoken rules about who belonged where. Uncomfortable exchanges as men stared or leered at me, ignored me and took my equipment, or talked down at me to “explain” something or “help,” were common. I’ve heard stories of men recording women while they lift. Of people with physical disabilities and older people being ignored or belittled. These experiences keep people from returning for the next workout.

So, I ask gym-owners take an active role in creating new, more positive and inclusive environments at their gyms. Post these expectations and then draw a hard line–folks who fail to comply will not be welcome to remain lifting there.  Commit to building a sustainable community for everyone!

  1. Do not give advice or feedback unless requested
  2. Do not stare at or watch others lift for extended periods of time. 
  3. Absolutely no sexualized comments about other people’s bodies or their lifts
  4. Pay attention to who is using the equipment.  Make sure it is actually available before you take it/use it.  Equipment unavailable?  Ask to work in.
  5. Recording other people’s lifts will immediately get you removed.
  6. Racist, homophobic, sexist, ablist or other disparaging comments about groups of people will not be tolerated. 

Post these expectations right alongside the usual “wipe down the equipment” and “rerack your weights.”  Then, follow through.  If a patron tells you they were stared at, given unsolicited advice, or overheard a disparaging comment, take it seriously and address the person who made the unwelcome behavior.  Make it clear that you won’t tolerate behaviors that alienate members of the community.  

I get it that sometimes it’s about education and not willful harm to others.  It’s on you as the gym owner or employee to make clear boundaries and enforce them.  You’re going to need to use your best judgement.  There’s going to be grey areas.  Stating your rules up front will make these ambiguous situations better–everyone will be on the same page about what you expect.  

The rules will probably have to evolve as you learn more about what is problematic and how to reinforce norms that help everyone feel welcome.  That’s ok.  Update your poster every once in a while, keep learning, and show your members that you have their back.  Consistent enforcement of behavior norms will do more for the health of your business than ignoring problematic behaviors, which leave so many of our communities alienated from the gym.

I’m a queer, White woman with some physical limitations looking for a comfortable and accepting place to lift.  I’m less familiar with what other marginalized populations need in order to feel welcome in a space.  If I left something important out, please include it in the comments below!  

I look forward to lifting with all of you again!

Photo description: An adjustable incline bench and a rack of dumbbells. Photo credit: Brett Jordan via Unsplash

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher.  She can be found wondering if her neighborhood gym has survived being closed for over a year, picking up heavy things and putting them down again (in her garage for now) in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .