Barbell Etiquette

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | February 10, 2021

trainee between sets in the gym

I can’t stress enough the importance of barbell etiquette. To me, it’s more important than table manners. It demonstrates that you respect the weight room and the people around you: that you respect what we are all trying to accomplish. I’ve come up with what I think are the top ten key aspects of barbell etiquette. These apply whether you’re at a hardcore lifting gym, in a commercial setting, or anywhere else where people give a fuck about their training. Tell me if you disagree. You should be: 

  • respectful 
  • approachable 
  • a good spotter 
  • community-minded 
  • knowledgeable 
  • clean 
  • responsible 
  • trustworthy 
  • efficient 
  • engaged


This one can really piss me off. It’s crucial to respect a lifter’s space, especially when they’re about to do a heavy work set or a PR. This is not the time for questions like, “What are you having for dinner?” or “What do you think about Donald Trump?” This is quiet time. Be aware of your surroundings – that way you’ll notice when a lifter is preparing. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell when someone is getting ready for an important set. Usually, lifters have obvious tells or even a full-blown ritual as they settle themselves into the right frame of mind – besides the obvious fact the barbell will probably be loaded with a substantial weight.

So if you see someone:

  • putting their headphones on
  • doing a power walk up and down near the rack
  • keeping their head down and not looking up
  • chalking their back
  • setting up their phone to film
  • surrounded by a few nearby lifters cheering them on as they prepare
  • putting on their belt or wrist wraps
  • or maybe even letting out a few yells or screams

then you need to be aware of these pattern shifts. The correct etiquette is to be quiet, to observe, even to be of some assistance or to cheer them on. One or some combination of the above. The cardinal rule, however, is to never walk directly through someone’s field of vision when they are doing a lift. Please, I’m begging you: don’t do it. It’s rude, dangerous, and undermines the whole reason we are here in the first place. This is not a Tokyo crosswalk, this is a place where people lift heavy weights. Usually you barely have to wait 60 seconds before you can rush past and do whatever it was you were doing. It’s really not going to hold you up that much, and it will make a big difference to the lifter.


This may sound a bit goofy, but actually it makes a huge difference. A small smile and a head nod is all it takes. I’m not joking – that’s all it takes. But it’s surprisingly hard to find. I remember once walking into a gym for the first time and realizing that all the dudes were looking at me like they wanted to either rape, stab, or eat me. At the time, that’s what I thought a hardcore gym was supposed to be like. I was working at a pansy gym teaching split squats and lateral lunges back then, so the aggressive tone and sawdust atmosphere felt somehow “serious.”

Now, a decade later, I realize it was just a hole in the wall with a load of roided-up bodybuilders in grubby tracksuits. They were more worried about pretending to be hard than about their training. Truth is, most real lifters don’t have the time to worry about what’s going on around them. Nor do they care. So even if you’re an experienced lifter, keep the attitude to a minimum. Remember that when you first walked into the gym, you weren’t the big, bad, sidewalk-cracking mutant you are now. You started out with humble beginnings too. Anyway, being an aggressive dick 24/7 and walking around like you own the place is so dated. Just be approachable. 

A Good Spotter

A good spot is worth its weight in gold. Many personal trainers do not know how to spot. If I had a penny for every bad spot I’ve seen in the weight room, I would have more money that Elon Musk. “Come on, yup! It's all you, Bro!!!!!” Can we at least make these dudes wear a T-shirt that says I’m a bro-spotter or something? That way I can avoid them when the need arises for an actual spot.

A lot of the problem stems from mis-education or bad examples. You see it mainly on the bench, although spotting squats can be twice as dangerous, as they are usually done with about double the weight on the bar. Unless you train at Gold’s. Then your bench is twice as heavy as your squat or you skip “leg day” entirely and preserve your set of budgie legs. If you only remember one thing from this article, let it be this: “Friends don’t let friends skip leg day.” Words spoken by some wise man in the Book of Gains, Chapter 2, Page 9. So what makes a good spotter? 

On the bench press

What are we trying to accomplish on the bench? Well, in any decent strength training program, the bench is an essential part of making the upper body stronger. Another person helping you to lift the bar during your set defeats the purpose: you might as well just decrease the weight, because that’s effectively what you’re doing anyway. In this situation, benching is no longer an individual lift. It’s a team effort.

In a proper set, the lifter should be solely responsible for lifting the weight for the entire thing – that’s the only way we can know how much they are capable of lifting. The spotter’s job is simply to ensure the lifter doesn’t get into a situation where they cannot put the barbell safely back into the rack. Basically, they’re there to keep you from dying, as I wrote in a previous article. Yet many spotters get much more involved. I’ve seen countless bros going to muscle failure, with another bro helping push him beyond more reps than he could possibly do by himself – “forced reps” it is called. This type of spotting serves no purpose.

So how should we spot the bench press? A standard part of the spotter’s job is to assist in the “lift-off.” This means helping move the bar out of and then back into the rack. During the lift-off, the lifter should have his elbows locked and straight. This is for safety reasons: the bar has to travel directly over the lifter’s face to reach the correct position over the shoulders. This is therefore the most dangerous part of the lift. It’s also quite difficult to keep your shoulder blades pinched correctly when you unrack a heavy barbell by yourself. Even in competitions at the most elite level, you’re allowed a lift-off. There is only one other situation in which a spotter should touch the barbell, and that is when the bar is moving any direction other than up. If the bar pauses halfway towards lockout or is moving really slowly, that’s ok. Don’t touch it. Until it starts moving down, it’s still the lifter’s rep. And after you hand the bar off to the lifter, get out of his face – he needs to see the ceiling without you in the way. Be close, be available, but don't be in the way.

On the squat

The main crime that occurs with the squat is when the spotter bear-hugs the lifter, like he's trying to spoon you. For many reasons, including those mentioned above regarding the bench, this is not advisable. It also looks really weird. Plus, the spotter can end up very badly hurt if the barbell falls backwards, down the lifter's back. Because squats are much heavier than the bench, incorrect spotting can lead to catastrophic results. Another schoolboy error I’ve seen is incorrect side spotting. Having two spotters on either end of the bar is usually a good idea. However, if only one spotter grabs the bar while the other does not, this will cause a huge seesaw effect on the lifter’s back. The load becomes unstable, usually just as the lifter is trying to re-rack, which can seriously injure both the spotters and the lifter. If there’s only one person spotting, he should only spot the barbell – not “spoon” the lifter. 


Teamwork is an underappreciated quality. Community-mindedness is the spark that makes a good gym great. It’s the Cheers effect: you know everybody’s name, their personality, their training style, their goals – maybe even their favorite beer. People love being part of something bigger than themselves. It’s wonderful to feel everyone celebrating with you when you succeed, like you’ve just won the Super Bowl (or whatever sporting event you can relate to). Even if you fail, a strong community will help you pick yourself back up and be ready to support you in your next attempt. Community spirit is a magical feeling that makes training at a gym much more special than just pumping out your sets at your local globo-gym or home garage.

Why is it so important to be a good training partner? Because it’s the most intimate aspect of being in the trenches and working with another lifter. It builds camaraderie and friendship in a very productive, positive and healthy way (as opposed to getting drunk and whatnot). Your training partner can become your brother-in-arms. You go to war together three times a week, walking into the gym in slow-mo. Cue audio: “Bad boys, bad boys, what you gonna do? What you gonna do when they come for you? Bad boys, bad boys!”

But on a serious note, it keeps you and your training partners highly accountable. You take each set more seriously because you don’t want to let your team down – you aren’t just training for yourself, you’re training to keep your team’s morale high. They say it takes a village to raise a child. This mantra is also true when it comes to creating a culture of great lifters in the weight room. I know there are people who achieve extraordinary things despite having no training partners or support system around them, but a bit of community spirit can prove helpful for many of us.


Having a solid knowledge base is important. Understanding the whys of your training makes the journey more meaningful and achievements more satisfying. Be a student of the game: learn about the people who have come before you. As we know, history teaches us a lot of memorable lessons. There’s plenty to learn from our mistakes as well as those of others – and trust me when I say you will make mistakes. That’s okay. It’s part of the process too, and ultimately it will make you a better lifter. We usually learn more from our mistakes than our victories. 


Hygiene: A good lifter takes pride in his appearance and respects an unspoken law: never train in dirty kit or with bad body odor. As I think we’ve all experienced from time to time, the smells that waft through the iron paradise can get pretty dank and musty – to say the least. So for everyone’s sake, including that of your own pride, keep your crevices clean, use deodorant and wear clean kit. Say no to B.O.!

Toilets: You should give the toilets at the gym the same respect you would give your own at home. Don’t be gross: leave the toilet the way you would want to use it. Clean! I’d rather not describe the terrible things I’ve seen in men’s toilets over the past 16 years, but what I will say is that my squat was not just honed through training under the barbell.

Equipment: In my opinion, repeat offenders who keep leaving their bars fully loaded with all their plates – or, worse, leave their blood smeared on the bars (usually from scraping their shins during deadlifts or power cleans) should have their memberships revoked. This is awful barbell etiquette. Not only is it very inconsiderate and unhygienic for the next person who wants to use the equipment, but it can also be a potential hazard. Weights can easily drop and fall on someone’s foot unexpectedly, and leaving your DNA on the barbell is just straight up nasty. So take pride in keeping everything clean – especially yourself and the bogs. 


Report broken equipment: Reporting damage may seem like you’re being a goody-two-shoes, but that’s far from the truth. Gym owners don’t have eyes in the back of their heads, and should be grateful to anyone who reports broken equipment. The sooner it’s reported, the sooner it can be fixed.

Remove hazards: Don’t just walk past something you could have tripped over. It’s an accident waiting to happen. I know you didn’t put it there, but that’s not the point. If you see something that shouldn’t be there – like barbell clips on the floor or plates put back incorrectly – just be a good gym citizen and sort it out. Take some pride and personal responsibility for making the weight room as tidy and hazard-free as possible for everyone, not just you. 


Ideally, you shouldn’t have to worry about leaving your valuables on display. At Physical Culture I can leave my iPhone and wallet out in the changing rooms at peak times and they will still be there when I get back. A trustworthy group of members is one of the most appealing qualities a gym can have. 


In the immortal words of Kirk Karwoski, “I don’t wanna hear how many chicks you banged at that keg party on Saturday night while I’m in here training.” Kirk was intense by anyone’s standards, but he’s got a point. This is not your local bar or a frat house. Granted, the gym can be a social place, but we can’t forget why we are there in the first place. Spending 4 hours on a single session isn’t training: it's making friends. Try to keep small talk to a minimum so you can focus on the real goal at hand: getting stronger. Stay time-efficient. That said, everyone is guilty of breaking this rule from time to time, and it’s not the worst gym crime you can commit. Just don’t lose focus – and definitely don’t distract other people from their training. 


This final one really takes the biscuit: smartphones. A common sight at the gym these days is a sea of people hunched over, heads down, scrolling and texting on their phones. There is only one feature that should be used on your phone while at the gym other than Spotify, and that’s your recording app. No selfies, no chatting to friends on a group WhatsApp, no scrolling through da gram, perving on fitness influencers. You are either setting up your phone to record your training or replaying the footage back to assess your lifts: that’s it. Ideally you should put your phone on airplane mode. You can still listen to your music and record, but you’ll have none of the distractions a phone brings into the weight room. Staying focused and engaged is a crucial piece of good barbell etiquette. 

So those are my top 10 guidelines for good barbell etiquette. Let’s make black-iron gyms great again!

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