Gym Etiquette: Attack of the Space Invaders!

by Charlotte on March 5, 2012 · 22 comments

Stretching out my middle splits can be a little, well, intimate. It’s not that I intend to flash my crotch at the gym but accidents happen – running shorts or see-through tights are repeat offenders – and so to prevent any accidental uncomfortable moments I generally face the Gym Buddies (I don’t have anything they haven’t seen) or if they’re not available, a wall. (Side note: Gym Buddy Allison’s solution to this problem is to tuck her bright orange towel into the front of her pants like a twee little loin cloth. I love her for this.) So there I was today, all spread eagled on the floor when I sense someone settle down right behind me – and I do mean right behind me. I scooted forward to give him some more room. But he scooted with me. So I scooted again. As did he. By this point I was so uncomfortable – and not just because I was waaay into the straddle splits – I finally peeked over my shoulder. Only to discover it was my husband punking me. He had the day off work today and decided to spend it popping my personal bubble.

My boundary bubble is a source of much entertainment for my friends as it’s generally a bit larger than most people’s. While I’m getting better about people bumping into me, people standing too close to me when they talk and children that did not spring from my loins patting my bum, I still have a hard time sometimes with the close quarters gyms often require.

For example:

- A random elderly man laying down right in my lap at the gym. For those of you who don’t remember – it turned out I was in his “spot” and we played a lovely game of chicken until I got tired of staring at his ear hair and moved.

- The time I kicked Gym Buddy Dennis in our no-contact kickboxing class.

- Sweaty hugging.

- Awkward yoga adjustments.

All true stories but the one I need your help with today is how to politely tell someone to get out of your space. While the Gym Buddies and I generally work out at a time of day when the gym isn’t too crowded, occasionally there are days like today when it’s packed and people are stepping all over each other. We couldn’t get through a whole set of P90X 2 (which is getting better by the way – I’m liking Phase II much better than Phase I) without half a dozen “I’m sorry”s and “excuse me”s.  It was crowded. I get it. But there was one person who seemed to always end up within 12 inches of me*. I don’t think he was hitting on me or purposely trying to bother me – honestly it was like he didn’t even see me – but by the tenth time of having to step over his outstretched leg to get to my weights I started feeling anxious and boxed-in.

My instinct in this type of situation is to just get out of the way and give people more space but that wasn’t working this morning. Neither did some very pointed glares. And so I ended up very firmly… doing nothing. I just finished my weights as quickly as I could so I could move on to more open pastures (so that I could get sat on by my husband).

For most of my life I have thought it was polite to let other people set the boundaries for our interactions and if I did end up saying something I always felt embarrassed like I was wrong for being uncomfortable when they weren’t. (This is one of the primary reasons I believe I ended up in a position to be sexually assaulted back when I was dating my ex.) But one of the things my therapist has helped me see is that what I feel is what I feel and it isn’t wrong. It just is. And I have as much right to be comfortable as does the other person. Ideally people would recognize when they are invading someone’s space and stop – as is so well illustrated by this post on Jezebel “How to be a good guy on the sidewalk“. But everyone’s comfort level and awareness level is different. Which means that I have to actually do something to let people know where I stand – literally and figuratively. This does not come easily to me. Not with friends and not with strangers.

So help me out – how big is your personal bubble? Have you ever had a problem at the gym with someone being in your space (not your spot)? How do you set physical boundaries without seeming like a jerk??

*And because I know someone will ask, he didn’t seem to be from a culture that has different personal-space norms.


{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy March 6, 2012 at 12:05 am

Most people in my gym give each other the space needed. I also, however, workout during a very not busy time, so it’s usually not an issue.

That being said, my pet peeve is class crowding. Our class space is long instead of wide, and the classes I attend are usually only about 15 people. Three people across makes about 5 rows of people that can very easily see and hear the instructor. However, there are always people who try to create a row in between rows (spacing themselves in between people so they can see) or those who try to do four people to a row. If the class was packed or crowded, of course, that’s one thing. But when there are only 10-15 people, it’s soooo not necessary and it is super annoying when you feel like you’re the only person having to accommodate others.


Kate March 6, 2012 at 5:45 am


I suggest you smile politely and say, “Excuse me, but could you give me some more space?” If you smile and state your boundaries politely the overwhelming majority of people will comply. The ones who don’t are usually creepy. Be saying it in a polite way you will not be a jerk. I do think it is ok to upgrade to jerk with some people, though. Typically I will upgrade to jerk if I feel the person is a threat in some way.

Good luck with standing up for yourself more. I love your blog and am rooting for you!



Naomi/Dragonmamma March 6, 2012 at 6:33 am

It depends on the specific circumstances. If I perceive that the other person is being a bully and a jerk, I will not only stand my ground, but I will use my Gym Staff Authority. If the person is merely clueless, I’ll be a bit nicer and give them a lecture, but I’ll still stand my ground. As a confident person, I feel like it’s my responsibility to “train” these folks for the benefit of the people who are unable to stand up for themselves.

Side-note: Interesting tie-in with the issue about yesterday’s blog post. Remember, this blog is most definitely YOUR space!


Shelly March 6, 2012 at 7:11 am

I handled situations like that (a too close yoga mat placement comes to mind) by smiling and saying “Let me scoot over a little bit- I don’t want to accidentally wack you.” It lets them know that I think we’re too close together but (I think) doesn’t make them feel like they’ve been inadvertently being rude. (Even if they were. grr!!)


Jennifer March 6, 2012 at 7:46 am

Totally had a space invader last night in my kickboxing class. I always go to the front, left hand corner of the studio (right in line with the instructor) because it’s the easiest place for me to check my form and no one else wants to be that close to the front.

Someone came in 15 minutes after class had started and went right behind me. Luckily, I was able to move over because there was no one was on the right-hand side of me. I did give her the stink-eye because she made me and the girl she went in front of move over so we wouldn’t kick her.


Emma March 6, 2012 at 7:51 am

You should try living in London and getting the tube at rush hour. Your personal space will be temporarily host to elbows, newspapers, books, and bad body odour (if you’re unlucky). And there’s not much you can do about it.

My own personal space pet peeve is people standing too close behind you in queues. It’s really irritating and I’ve never understood it. It’s not going to get you quicker to the front!


Abby March 6, 2012 at 9:15 am

I hate being touched by strangers, makes me so anxious! It’s very obvious how uncomfortable it makes me, I’ve had friends move me to a different position in the group to make me feel better. The worst ever was riding the subway in Beijing. Ugh.

It happens to me at the gym all the time. I pick a spot in a class where I have a little extra space around me and then someone comes in late and stands next to me, very close. I get it but it drives me insane. I want to tell them that I picked that spot for a reason. I’ve only said something once when it was extremely bad though and from the woman’s accent when she responded I think it was a cultural thing. She was very nice about it but it’s an awkward thing, I understand.


Nicole March 6, 2012 at 9:30 am

Hmm. I can’t remember a time when I felt uncomfortable because someone was in my space in the gym. In fact, the only times I can remember, would be on trips to the field with work, where two guys and me are sandwiched into the front of a truck…and it wasn’t so much uncomfortable because they were in my space, but because I was worried I was in THEIRS, and so I squished up as much as possible…so I guess I have zero personal space bubble??

I am aware of other people’s though- although I’ve never been uncomfortable for myself at the gym, I’ve had days where it is crowded and I am wondering if I might be annoying the person I ended up next to, except there is no other room…which makes me say you should speak up Charlotte. Just because other people’s bubble is smaller than yours doesn’t mean they aren’t aware some people have bigger bubbles- but in a crowded gym, they might just be taking whatever space they can get, and hoping you don’t mind. I know if someone spoke up to me, I’d get it. I might be annoyed because the gym was so crowded I couldn’t find a spot, but I wouldn’t be angry at the person for wanting more space- because I’d probably know I was close enough some people wouldn’t like it.


Amy N. March 6, 2012 at 9:34 am

I have a giant personal space bubble. Even though I’m smaller than a lot of people I have a bigger bubble than most. I don’t like people getting too close. I don’t it when I’m sitting and someone is brushing up near me (including my family) and I don’t like to stand close to people in lines. I don’t like theaters that don’t have a lot of leg room. I just don’t like it.

Unfortunately people see someone small and think they can steal my extra space. I usually end up in the middle on a flight, without any arm rests.


Nicole March 6, 2012 at 9:42 am

I have a huge issue with people and personal space. I feel people should stand at least arms length away unless I know them. The gym was the worst place for me, machines that were too close, people who decide to stretch too close, or get too close in classes. For the most part I usually move over to give the other person space, but that doesn’t always work. The only time I ever said something about space to the other person was when I dealt with a close talker. He kept coming closer, and I backed up, this repeated until I ran into one of the machines and was out of room. I finally said “could you back up a little, you’re making me uncomfortable”… but I think that offended him.

I just recently signed up for krav maga classes and that is forcing me to deal with my issues of how close I am to some sweaty stranger… it’s better but not completely.


geosomin March 6, 2012 at 10:28 am

I’m one of those odd people where I sort of zone out when I exercise and I don’t like people in my “flapping range” because I might accidentally whack them with stuff. It takes me out of my zone when I’m constantly looking for people. Usually I’ll lay out my mat and weights on either side and sort of mark out my few feet I need for my workout and we all stay separate.
Only once or twice I’ve had to say “excuse me” or “would you mind moving over a bit”…there’s usually enough space (other than the january crazy gym time). Usually when it’s a “regular” comes in and thinks I’m in their space and wants to be a jerk about it…thankfully that’s rare.


Gillian March 6, 2012 at 10:34 am

Charlotte, I am so like you. I have a rather large space around me that I prefer to keep free and clear of others. I am introverted and sometimes get annoyed with people, but that most often happens when they disregard this personal space. I had one guy, behind me in a cashier line-up, who leaned his hand on the counter, in between me and the cashier! And, when I actually go the guts up to say something, he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong and refused to move! That gets me riled up and I stay ruffled for far too long over something like this. Now, I have a friend who insists that I speak up for what I want and how I feel and, while I get all red and stressed doing so, it does help me to carve out my space in this crowded world.


Helene @healthyfrenchie March 6, 2012 at 10:48 am

I agree with Shelly, saying something along the lines of “do you mind backing up a bit, I don’t want to end up putting my foot in your face” is a good way to tell them to move..
I had to laugh about your husband though!
And I related with how you found yourself in a position to be attacked. I tend to get all shy when people, especially men get too close and invade my space. I stopped going boxing for that reason. My instructor thought it was ok to give me hugs and pinch my cheeks! Even when I said “No” he did not listen to me.. My counselor was proud of me though haha


Alyssa (Azusmom) March 6, 2012 at 11:18 am

I, too, have a larger bubble. Like Emma, I HATE when people stand RIGHT behind me in line. Once I was standing in a ticket line at a theater in New York on a windy night, and the guy behind me started yelling at me because my hair was getting in his face. (Gotta love New Yorkers, lol!) And, yeah, the subway at rush hour = UGH!
I would have probably “accidentally” tripped over him multiple times until he go the message. If that didn’t work, there’s always “accidentally” dropping a weight on him. But I’m passive-aggressive (and, apparently, violent) that way.
I DO think, as women, we need to stop being so damn polite.
Oh, and your husband rocks!


Nicky March 6, 2012 at 11:51 am

I have a fairly large personal space and tend to void crowds, like at Boxing Day sales (kind of like American Black Friday) and the opening night of movies–that kind of stuff. I do my shopping and movie watching at times when I think there will be the fewest people in the stores/movie theatres. I was once on a totally empty bus when an older Chinese gentleman got on and sat RIGHT NEXT TO ME. It was weird. And uncomfortable. In fitness/yoga classes, I usually have a spot, but if someone takes it, I try to look at it as an opportunity to get a fresh perspective on things by trying a new spot.


Abigail Nastase March 6, 2012 at 1:41 pm

This is so appropriate for me to read today…for I left my gym this morning in a near fit of rage & irritation from the lack of personal space. Even worse, staring.

I, like you, tend to keep quiet on these issues. I’m there to get my workout on and get OUT. However, this morning a man was unquestionably staring. Finally by the 3rd set of my circuit, I had to put my weights down, turn around, and say, “I came here to get a workout, hopefully just like you – and I don’t want an audience. Please be respectful and stop staring.”

I resumed my workout, and creep-o found a different area to work out in.


Lauren March 6, 2012 at 5:06 pm

I always tell people that they are breathing my air, and that usually get the point across and a laugh. If that doesn’t work I will just tell them that they are much too close to me.


katspeakz March 6, 2012 at 5:16 pm

Let me get my funny kid story out of the way. We had a Christmas party this year and we have more friends than house. So halfway through my three year old came looking for me with a year strained face. In her itty bitty voice she said, “momma! There are too many people in my room and it’s FREAKING ME OUT!!!”.

I don’t like people too close to me either, and I need a big bubble. I’d probably try to play it off and make a joke about how I keep getting in his way. But if it kept happening, I’d either tell him that I get claustrophobic and go into too much detail or I’d leave. Because sometimes I’m brave like that.

In classes it doesn’t bother me quite as much when people crowd me out because although I *totally* have a spot, I don’t want to *be* that person who has a spot. The same thing applies at church. :)


Jody - Fit at 54 March 6, 2012 at 7:47 pm

You are so funny Charlotte!

I am really aware of this not only in the gym but out & about. It is funny how some people just seem clueless of this… even when sitting out & about & there are a million other places to sit & they will plot right next to you. I even have had people park so close to my car at the gym when the lot was basically empty AND I park back away from the front spots – so weird.

I do work out when few are there so I don’t get this too much BUT I have had it happen when there are so many other places to be…..

I tend to ignore or move away and if I am a bit irked, I may give my ugly gym stare! ;-)


KC March 6, 2012 at 9:11 pm

I, too, tend to visit the gym when it’s less crowded, so there’s plenty of room in the stretching mat/free weights area and I don’t have to worry about people in my Body Buffer Zone. The problem I have is the handful of people at my gym who set themselves up right in front of the weight rack (which is right beside the kettle bells and medicine balls, too), so I feel like I’m stepping all over them every time I want to change weights. I get it, the mirrors are over there, too, but would it kill you to take two steps back so that the rest of us can get to the equipment without feeling like space invaders?


z-chan March 22, 2012 at 12:17 pm

I don’t know about working out but in general I have a decent-sized bubble with strangers (crowded places being an exception – you get over that *real* fast taking a train during Tokyo rush hour) but once I’ve determined we’re friends I pretty much lose all bubble space. I try to be respectful of others’ bubble since, you know, good manners, but I can win at Awkward Chicken every time. :P


Lucille March 29, 2012 at 8:52 am

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