Coaching Etiquette: The Grey Area of the Commercial Gym Setting

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I’m lucky that I live in a strength and conditioning bubble that allows me the ability (and luxury) to control pretty much everything around me.  With the exception of the music – which is a never ending battle of techno vs. rap vs. country vs. metal vs. Katy Perry my ears are bleeding – as a coach and part-owner of my own facility I have a large say in the everyday shenanigans (for lack of a better term) that goes down.

Between myself, the other two coaches (Eric Cressey and Chris Howard), and our interns, every warm-up drill, every sprint drill, every exercise, every set and rep, EVERY PROGRAM is supervised – meticulously. While I don’t want to sound like I’m blowing sunshine up our own ass – although that’s exactly what I’m doing – seemingly, we’re doing something right, and I like to think we’re doing our part in cementing proper exercise habits and techniques along the way.

One of the best compliments we can receive as a staff is when other fitness professionals stop by to observe and they go out of their way to commend us on how well coached our athletes and clients are.

It happens all the time.  And I’m proud of that fact.

People squat to proper depth; their deadlifts don’t make my spine start hyperventilating; they know how to perform a push-up correctly; they know that a chin-up really means sternum-up; there’s absolutely no cell phones allowed on the gym floor; and there’s certainly no curling in the squat rack.  Unless your last name rhymes with Smeshshmentilore. In that case, it’s totally pimp.

Like I said, I live in a pretty sweet bubble where I can control things, and people, more often than not, do things right….and get strong and swole to boot.

And then, I go to a commercial gym, and I’m immediately reminded how much I want to throw an ax into my face.

Now, before I continue, let me just say that I’ve been trying to make more of a concerted effort to stop drinking the haterade.

Busting on commercial gyms is easy, and in a lot of ways played out. It serves no purpose than to feed the fire and make me come across as kind of douchey.  Besides, not all commercial gyms are created equal, and I know of plenty who do it right (ahem, Dean Somerset), actually take some pride in their craft, and go out of their way to actually help their members and demonstrate that they care for their well-being.  In my experience, however, those are few and far between.

Because I live in the city, I have easy access to numerous commercial gyms.  As such, on the off chance that I don’t go into CP on any given day – like this past Tuesday for instance – it makes it convenient to still get a lift in.

It’s inevitable that I’m going to see stupid stuff while I’m there.  I’m prepared for that.  There’s the woman who hangs upside down off the bars and then proceeds to perform some sort of core training/circus act. There’s the guy performing 1-legged DB lateral raises – off a BOSU ball.  And there’s the two meat-heads performing 57 variations of chest presses.

As a coach I can’t help myself but observe. It’s ingrained in me. Still, I realize that (most) people don’t know any better, and in any event, at least they’re doing something. I just shrug it off, turn up my iPod, and move on with my life.

It’s when I watch some of the trainers in action that I get furious. Half the time, I feel as if the client would be better off taking their money and flushing it down the toilet.

Almost always, technique is just AWFUL! I don’t care who you are, or how many letters you have next to your name, if your client is deadlifting with a rounded back, and you don’t correct it,  you lose all credibility in my eyes.

I watched one trainer actually demonstrate with a rounded back, and then proceed to allow his client to do the same. Encouraging him along the way.

Moreover, I watched a female trainer take her female client through an entire session using nothing heavier than a ten lb dumbbell. Jesus, I’m willing ot bet the woman’s purse is heavier than ten lbs!

Really?  10 lbs?

I don’t know, maybe they were training for the National Paper Weight Carrying championship.  Specificity, right?

Or what about this exchange I overhead from a female TRAINER getting trained from her male counterpart.

Dude Trainer (putting her on the Smith Machine to perform RDLs):  Okay, so now we’re going to target the medial hamstring.

***I have no idea how performing RDLs in the Smith Machine somehow targets the medial hamstring. Whatever.

Female Trainer:  okay, so what are we going to do after this?

Dude Trainer:  Walking lunges

Female Trainer:  You mean, with weight?

Unbelievable. I wanted nothing more than to turn around and scream…….”YES, with weight!!”

But I didn’t, of course.  It wasn’t my place to do so.

When I got home that afternoon, I posted a ‘status’ update on my Facebook Wall describing the above exchange, and someone responded with:

How do you feel about critiquing people? Especially because of your expertise in the field?

To which I replied:

I don’t offer ANY unsolicited advice when I train at commercial gyms. I get asked questions all the time, and when that happens, I’m all for giving my opinion. Of course, as a coach, I can’t help but observe (and shake my head sometimes), but I’d NEVER go out of my way to openly chastise someone. Especially another trainer.

This isn’t to say I’ve never helped someone out. On numerous occasions I’ve been approached by other patrons, and was more than willing to offer some insight or words of encouragement.  Several times, I’ve actually coached people through their deadlifts or squats.  But then again, they asked.  It’s not like I walked up to them with an “holier than thou” attitude and started drilling them.

Sure, there’s ways to be subtle, especially if it looks like someone is going to break their back in half……

But it brings up an interesting conversation:  what’s crossing the line?

When is it acceptable to step in and offer unsolicited advice?  For me, it’s a VERY grey area, and something that’s more or less a case-by-case scenario.

What are you thoughts?  I’d be interested in hearing them.

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  • If you ain’t getting paid to coach the client or the trainer, leave them to it I say. Unsolicited advice is seldom well received, because most people think they know better. Especially other trainers.

  • Donnie

    My biggest peeve is not just seeing others squat poorly, but seeing people teaching others how to squat poorly. Most of the trainers I see like to teach the back squat to their clients who can’t even sit down in a chair properly and think it’s a good idea to put a loaded barbell on their back! In some cases where it is obvious that someone is going to get hurt is the only time I step in and say something to the other trainers. Though there was this one time some bro was teaching his bro in training how to squat and the bro actually wrapped his arms around bro in training and hugged him as he tried to squat… the teddy bear hug squat was born

  • Kyle

    Tony, I would like to add on to your commercial gym experience, I work in a commercial gym and It’s unbelievable the things you see… Just yesterday, a new trainer took his client through a session (about an hour long) First, he takes her on treadmill 25 MINUTES WALKING BACKWARDS, then proceeds to take her through 25 more minutes of machine work! As a trainer myself, I really wanted to gouge my eyes out with a steak knife..He does no coaching or cues when he trains, he uses all machines, and no actually assessment beforehand.. I try to be calm and collected but, I see this and this gives personal trainers and coaches bad names when they see shit like this done..

  • Lars Krogstad

    If someone is doing something harmful, like deadlifting with a rounded back, I think you have an obligation to let that person know that they are hurting themselves.

    Think of it this way: if someone was swimming in shark infested waters, and they didn’t know it, wouldn’t you feel obligated to warn them, not as a swimming coach, but as a human being? You don’t have to get all Angry Coach, just make them aware that they are fucking up their spine, and that there is a safer way to do it.

    I wouldn’t break into someones session with a coach though, but maybe I would come over to someone who I heard get shitty instructions or advice from their trainer when said trainer is somewhere else.

    • Jay

      I always find this situation tricky. There is a guy I often see at my gym doing rounded back deadlifts with 4+ plates, and I always wonder how to inform him that it isn’t safe. I’m no coach, I just stay informed with sites like Tony’s. So how do you start that conversation when you aren’t an expert?

      • Miguel A

        You ask them, “How does your back feel after that? I know my back hurts when my form isn’t great.” Self-awareness is created not by confrontation, but by empathy for how others feel. In this case how YOUR back feels when form goes awry, and then if everything goes right, the next question to pop in his head should be “Should my back feel like this…?”

  • Rcbrokaw

    I always approach it in conversation. If I know the person I feel more suitable to making the suggestion, If I don”t I simply take that opportunity to get to know the person. I think a big reason that places like EC have such a great flowing system, where information is passed un-asshole like is that they all know eachother. Get to know the person, take a genuine interest and help them out. Info comming from someone you know takes more than that of some prick comming out of the woodwork. This should not be hard if you are a trainer, we are people people.

  • Eric

    Only interject if you see serious harm possible if you do not do so. That being said you were right on to stay out of it for the most part.
    Unfortunately even at a non-commerical gym I attend some of this goes on. Owner/ head trainer constantly will interject while someone else is coaching an athlete, even mid sentence and instruct the athlete in his own words or re-hash what exactly was being coached. Exactly why I do not purchase training from that facility.

  • Brandon

    It’s funny that you posted this today. I’ve been receiving text messages from my girlfriend for the past hour of all the stupid thing that the trainers are doing at gym she trains at. (I know, I need to talk to her about having her phone with her while she’s working out, but in this case it gives me some added entertainment at work). In regards to approaching people, if it is any of the trainers that I supervise I sit them down after the session and have them explain to me exactly what they are thinking and then teach them what should have been done. Luckily this doesn’t happen often as for the most part they get it. If it is at a gym other than the gym I work at I keep my mouth shut if somebody is with a trainer. It’s not my place, unless it’s extremely unsafe. If I’m spotting somebody I’ll give them my two cents and it’s their decision whether or not they want to listen. Now, if I saw what Kyle saw, I would probably quit right away for fear of being associated with that douche. I think any good trainer will wrestle with this issue every time they step into a commercial gym. Great post, as usual.

  • Just Me

    I’m not a trainer, but I do look on with horror at times at what other people are doing in the gym. Take today, for instance. A trainer had some woman doing barbell squats on an upside down bosu ball. Really? And this particular place won’t let you use kettlebells without a trainer because they are “too dangerous”. Really?

    On rare occasions, I’ve muttered some advice to someone. When I do, it is usually someone on the younger side that has never been taught the right way to do things, and isn’t stomping around all full of themselves. Most times, though, I keep my mouth shut, stick to my program, and laugh about it later.

    • Barath

      Barbell squats on a BOSU ball? Really? Wow!

  • Brian

    The other day I intervened before someone began their set of squats. I had to make sure she was aware that there was 40 more lbs on one side than the other.

  • John

    Nice Knocked Up reference. What is the brand of whole fat yogurt you get at Whole Foods you mentioned a few articles ago?

  • I have a trainer at my gym and I’d like to smash his face into the leg-press (see? good use for the leg-press!) when I see how he treats his clients. He tells them what to do shortly and then walks away without checking his clients form, which is bad most of the times. Also, the weights his clients are using are ridiculously light. Then he just puts everyone on a cardio machine for at least 45 minutes, while he’s taking care of something else. I know I cannot intervene. He’s a trainer, I’m a client of the gym. It takes all the strength in the world to keep my mouth shut. I do have a big mouth, mostly because I wanna help people skip a few of the mistakes I made and save their time for something better.

    I feel ok to intervene when there’s a client new to the gym, too shy to approach a trainer and ask for guidance, so they prefer to do something with the weights, even if they don’t particularly know what. I try to explain the correct move as much as I can and then walk away. If they have questions, they can come to me.

  • BC

    First let me state that I am not a trainer/coach so I guess I don’t have any “credibility” as it is. That said, like all of you I’ve seen the atrocities in a commercial gym, and have stepped in only once. That was when two young guys who were (horribly) squatting had the pins set for the taller guy. The shorter dude was literally jumping the weight off of/onto the pins. At that point, before I saw him kill himself, I figured it was time to interject. Outside of total safety issues though, I am all for the stay-away approach. It sure is sad to see the stuff that happens in the commercial gyms, but it’s also good for a nice laugh once in a while!

  • Jacob – Winfit Consulting

    I was just asked this question myself earlier today by one of my athletes. “You must see alot of stupid stuff in the gym huh? to which I replied “Yeah.. Way too much..”. Sad but true.

    So where to draw the line? How about when your intrusiveness can prevent immediate bodily harm to the trainee or people around him(/her?) seem like a fairly good place to draw the line.
    Then again, how do you know that the guy doing rounded back deadlifts is going to blow a disc right now? You don’t. So don’t jump too quickly.

    Generally I also try to keep my head down, with an occasional chuckle or cringe at the worst sillyness I see around me. But I’m always open to answering questions, which happens from time to time. I suspect we are more introvert here in Sweden, so it’s not that common.

  • Will

    These days I just zone out and do my own thing. If I’m in a commercial gym, I’ve already prepared myself to be surrounded by stupidity.
    Once upon a time, I was the training manager of a commercial gym. There, I would readily offer advice to members even if not my clients, as most knew who I was or had at least seen me around a lot, plus I had a uniform, so I pretty comfortable throwing out a quick coaching cue or three while walking through the gym floor, and it was almost always well received.
    But in another gym where I’m a nobody, or now in a studio where other members are all clients of another trainer, I’ll never say a word unless asked.

  • Mike A.

    Personally, I interject if I think someone is putting themselves at immediate risk for injury; and I mean acute, not chronic. Other than that, people are free to do all the stupid stuff they want. Being that I train mainly at the gym I work in, I get asked a lot of questions when I’m on my “me time”. I’ll always take the time to stop and answer some questions or even coach form…for a few minutes. I won’t blow half of my workout time to show someone a bunch of exercises.

  • Chris A.

    As a trainer trying to fight the good fight in a commercial gym I always come across this grey area with both fellow trainers and patrons. Most of the trainers don’t train like Tony or anyone else that frequents this network and thats fine. Their clients like them and they claim they get them results. great. But it seems like people are slowly taking notice of the way I train clients and are starting to ask more questions. Heck my manager even lets me run a roundtable with newer trainers so I can brainwash them to be little Tony’s running around the gym. Im not sure how much of what I tell them actually gets used but its nice to be able to try and teach fellow trainers that actually want to learn this style of training.
    Anyway, I think it really boils down to being able to read people. Its an actual skill to be able to judge whether or not a person would respond well to what we want to teach them, unsolicited or not. So just like in every other fitness question the answer seems to be “it depends.”

  • Gaurav Kapil

    Good info. By the way I just want to ask that are you in Stuart McGill’s DVD’s on lower back? Specifically in back positioning during Squat???

  • I think this is one of those questions that will prevail until the end of time. My gym itself is amazing in regards to sheer size and equipment offered, but unfortunately it is generally being utilized by much as you described. I’m no coach and still have a long ways to learn so I just keep my mouth shut, however, I have been tempted on the odd occasion to say something if it looks genuinely dangerous.

    There is an exercise physiology professor/strength coach at a nearby university that trains in my gym and always talks shop with me when we’re both there. He is ALWAYS offering advice to me and others but he somehow manages to do it in the nicest way possible and I’ve not once been offended by he relates his knowledge. I think it’s because generally only offers it to those who care a lot and he does it in a “this is just what i’ve noticed” manner instead of “THIS IS RIGHT AND YOURE AN IDIOT”

  • Brett

    I remember a while back seeing a guy who had the most rediculous kyphosis I’ve seen, load up a lat pulldown and do one rep in the front and one behind the neck, while doing what was basically the equivalent of a full hyperextension. I honestly wouldnt know how to approach something like this, where the guy had obviously been training for a while but has things so backasswards.

  • I saw someone who couldn’t do a full ROM, regular push up, being coached to do feet elevated decline pushups by a trainer, at which point I angrily moved away. As a soon to be Physical Therapist, I tell my patients who want to begin a gym program exactly what questions to ask the trainer. I also tell them when someone pulls out a BOSU outside of rehab, they should probably runnnnnnnn!!!

  • Domenic

    I have a hard time not giving advice to someone in commerical gym settings when I feel like they could hurt themselves as a result. In those instances I just look at it as hey, if anyone has the right to get upset here its me, if this person gets annoyed at me trying to prevent them pain and suffering, its their problem, and a risk I take if they get pissed so sometimes I say hell with it and go for it.

    One time a guy was squatting at the Landsdowne St. Golds with nothing but knee flexion. He had 275 on the bar and I go over to him and say, “hey man, mind if I give you some advice on the squat?” The kid being slightly annoyed by the inquiry said sure. After seeing his level of interest and thinking about everything that goes into doing a squat properly, I just said, go google back squat and look at the images, make your squat look like that and use 135.

    It was stupid, I realized in hindsight because what does doing a proper squat entail, and how much work do most people need?

    What I needed to say to fix the kids squat is, “ok we are going to have to spend alot of time stretching out your quads and hip flexors, working on glute activation, teaching some abdominal bracing and grooving the hip hinge.”

    If you think about it, the same reason people like you and I have careers in the fitness industry is the same reason giving advice in the gym is just not a feasable thing to do. There is so much cueing, detail, focus and knowledge repeatedly given to our clients in order to get them to improve, if you try to do the same in 5-10 minutes during your workout, it is basically worthless, aside from opening the individuals eyes to how uninformed they are about everything, whatever that may be worth.

  • As a trainer I am ALWAYS open to anyone with more experience than me to chime in as long as its not some kind of attack on me and what I am doing. I am pretty good at coaching technique but I know I am not perfect so I love taking advice from others. On the other end of things, I dont put my 2 cents in unless I see someone is in danger of getting injured and I dont attack anyone over it, I just mention what I have noticed. It makes me want to punch that person in the face when they come off as condescending and “know-it-all” while trying to tell me how to do my job. It’s all about the approach

  • Matt

    ive seen people get coached to get their coach degree…and exercises that they ve been made to do and form with which they were teached was…worse than terrible…they have been all thought WRONG WAY, 20 PEOPLE!…this may be the reason why typicall gym goer has got lifte treating form. I used to tell people when i saw they doing something wrong in the gym, but i stopped. Im young coach, people usually do not take my advice anyway, people approach me ONLY when they see me doing heavy lifts (lol for them heavy, im still not as strong as i would like) . Once even i was coached to do deadlift with rounded back and BIG hyperextension at the end of the lift, i just said thanks and upped volume in my player…

  • Jeffthetrainer

    There was this kid at my local powerhouse where I go and train sometimes. I was doing squats and pull ups and he was behind me doing what seemed like an Olympic lifting workout. You should have seen him he had a little case of chalk and brand new blue lifting shoes, but he had no idea what he was doing. My heart went out to him but I kept my mouth shut and continued to do my own training. He eventually came over to where I was and asked to work in on pull ups, I said sure. I complimented him on his shoes and began to give pointers on his lifts. Then I suggested that check out a Olympic lifting gym in Queens where that’s all they do. Normally I keep to myself at other gyms but when it came to this situation seeing some trying to perform highly skilled moves with out the guidance of a trained coach I just had to intervene. It’s a sticky situations giving advice to someone at the gym. I always said that in fitness everyone is an expert. Just because I could add doesn’t mean I should do my own taxes!!

  • mike chevalier

    I work at a commercial gym, and I have to shake my head and try to ignore some of the insanity going on around me. I used to try to be helpful and give advice, but it is almost NEVER greeted with anything but disdain. Now I try to keep my mouth shut unless I think injury is imminent. The last unsolicited advice I gave was to a kid who was doing ‘seated shoulder presses’, he had 65lbs total weight on the bar (too much for him), as he pressed the bar his ass came so far out of the seat he was really doing a bench press. When I approached him with some advice, he got all pissed off and told me he knew what he was doing. Well, OK then best of luck to you.

  • Tony,

    Great entry. I totally agree with you on everything you said. I think it is a very very grey area. My opinion ….don’t offer any advice or opinion unless someone is about to blow their spine out of their back or their patella across the weight room. I really only say something about deadlifts, bad squats, or on occasion, excessive shoulder abduction on bench or other pressing motions. If a guy wants to do 456 reps of chest flys….knock yourself out!

    Keep up the good work….love the material