Tell me if this story sounds familiar: You’re minding your own business in the gym, doing your usual workout, when a stranger walks up and tells you you’re doing it wrong. In some cases, the stranger is a random nobody; in other cases, they have the look of an accomplished athlete or they introduce themselves as a trainer. Should you listen to them?
We’ve talked about this situation from the other side, about when it’s okay to correct someone’s form in the gym. The answer there is “almost never.” Maybe they have a good reason for doing what they’re doing; it’s unlikely that you, a random stranger, are more of an expert on someone’s exercise routine than they are. If you’d like to make friends with that person and have a respectful conversation and see if they’re open to feedback, we have some tips on that in our earlier post. Otherwise, butt out.
But what about when you’re the target of unsolicited advice?
When you should definitely listen
The one time you need to listen is when you’re being approached by a staff member about gym rules or equipment use. If they want you to keep the yoga mats in the yoga room, or to do rack pulls with these barbells instead of those ones, those are just the rules you have to follow. Be polite and respectful about being called out, even if you don’t agree; they’re within their rights to enforce their rules.
In theory, you should also listen if somebody is warning you about an immediate safety risk. But people are sometimes obsessed about thinking normal exercises are injuries waiting to happen, so use your judgment. If they’re reminding you that you overlooked an important safety feature on a machine, thank them and set the safeties properly. But if they act like your knees are about to explode because they’re going forward of your toes, that is not an emergency.
When you should question the advice
Let’s consider the situation in which somebody has some advice on what you’re doing wrong, or how you could do it better. They want you to use lighter weight, or go slower, or angle your feet in a different direction, or lock out your elbows, or not lock out your elbows. That kind of thing.
Before you worry about what comes out of that person’s mouth, think about who they are and whether they are a person whose expertise you value. If you wouldn’t have sought out Joe Q. Random’s advice on your overhead press, why would you take that advice just because it was forced on you?
Now, on the flip side, if I’m at a powerlifting gym and a coach I respect offers a tip for my deadlift, I’m probably going to listen.
At some gyms, personal trainers try to drum up business by giving free advice to people who are working out. Just because a person is certified as a trainer doesn’t mean their way of doing things is better than yours, especially if they don’t have any clue what your goals are or where you are in your workout program. Bottom line: Be as choosy about free advice as you would be about advice you pay for.