From the Head Tap to the HRM: Fitness Shorthands You Need To Know (And a few you don’t)

by Charlotte on January 8, 2013 · 36 comments

This is the universal symbol for “your yoga teacher is a perv.”

Grabbing your throat with both hands is the universally recognized symbol for choking. Likewise, a palm facing out means “stop” (“in the name of the love” optional). And now, thanks to The Bachelor, handing anyone a flower translates to “I love you at least as much as six other people.” (There is more use for this one than you’d think.)

I got to thinking about ways we wordlessly communicate with others when I accidentally leaned on my horn at a stoplight several days ago, scaring the bejeebies out of me, my kids and all the other cars at the intersection. One man across the intersection from me seemed particularly affected by my errant blast, looking wildly in my direction. It was at that moment I realized that sadly there is no universal gesture for “oops.” I did my best – shrugging my shoulders, holding my hands up and making a goofy face – to indicate it was just an accident and I didn’t mean it. After a few tense seconds, he burst out laughing and pointed at me. My 6-year-old observed dryly, “He thinks you’re an idiot, mom.” So while I hadn’t figured out how to apologize from a distance, apparently I’d discovered the universal symbol for “moron.” Feel free to write that down for future reference. You know, just in case.

These kinds of gestures are everywhere but nowhere are they as entertaining as in the gym. Due to the twin evils of loud music and headphones, to thrive in a fitness environment it is necessary to familiarize yourself with these signals. Some, like the one-finger salute, are pretty easily understood (it means “I’m a jerk and refuse to re-rack my weights because I think I’m the king of the chest press”) but others need some explaining.

The head pat was one of those for me. Any of you who have taken a cardio class like step, Zumba, Turbokick or some other incarnation of dance aerobics have probably seen the head pat. Midway through a class, just when you’ve got your groove thang going, the instructor pats his or her head and – this is the weird part – the whole class starts over from the beginning of the routine!

Let me back up. See, I have this weird affliction that whenever I start to heat up and break a sweat my scalp gets realllllly itchy. I don’t know why. I try to suppress the urge to itch, knowing that it will pass as my muscles get warm and also I don’t want to freak out anyone aerobicizing next to me. So I just figured that all my cardio instructors had the same sweaty scalp issues that I do. (Side note: never shave your eyebrows. You think now that they’re just good for Groucho Marx impressions but really they’re nature’s sweatbands. Don’t ask me how I know this.) It turns out that they were trying to tell me something. It took me years to figure out that the head pat wasn’t just a form of lice that only affected group fit instructors but was actually a signal that means “from the top.” Head = top, get it??

You can’t see me but right now I’m making the “I’m an idiot” gesture.

Likewise, fit people like to use a lot of funny acronyms. Part of it is just for efficiency – how many times can you say “as many reps as possible” before it starts sounding like a tongue twister. (Reminds me of the time my preschooler came home super proud of the new rhyme he’d learned that day: “Peter Piper picked a pack of pickled peckers!” Still makes me snicker every time I think about it.) Hence “as many reps as possible” becomes AMRAP. I won’t even tell you how many Crossfit workouts I had to go through before I figured that one out. But – and this is just my personal theory – I think they also like to speak alphabet soup because it makes them sound hardcore. I mean, how amazing do you sound when you say, “So I PR’d on the WOD today except I then I saw my VO2 and my VPL and my friend was all YBF but still. WTF?” (10 points for Gryffindor if you can translate what I just said!)

So, in honor of it being a new year and helping out the new people (or those of us who aren’t new but are tired of just nodding our heads and pretending we understand), here are my top 5 fave fitness acronymns:


Turns out there’s a reason your gym has “Heart Rate Zone” charts plastered about like wallpaper and it’s not just because they’re hiding water stains. Knowing your heart rate, measured in BPM or beats per minute, is a useful tool for knowing how hard your body is actually working and calculating things like how many calories you’ve burned in your workout, how many of those came from fat and so forth. Your heart rate is calculated either from an electronic gadget like a HRM (heart rate monitor) on a watch or cardio machine or by the age-old method of pressing your fingers to your jugular and counting the beats in ten seconds then multiplying by six (because cutting off blood flow to your head is always a good idea when you’ve just been working out hard, right?). Metabolic testing can tell you most accurately what your BPM should be at given points in your workout or for a more general calculation you can use one of the Zone charts.


Lactic acid, despite what you may have heard, is not the source of all evil (i.e. soreness) in exercise. (Also note: it cannot be “worked out” by stretching or light cardio.) It turns out this misunderstood acid is a byproduct produced by our bodies as they switch from making energy aerobically (with oxygen) to making energy anaerobically (without oxygen). As we increase our exercise intensity, our bodies become less able to use oxygen efficiently and so switch to this secondary pathway. It’s this point, measured in BPM (beats per minute), that defines your AT, or aerobic threshold, also sometimes referred to as your LT or lactate threshold. Your AT is important to know because after you’ve reached that point, say 160 BPM, then you can only sustain that level of exertion for a very limited amount of time. If you don’t have a HRM (heart rate monitor) your approximate AT is still pretty easy to recognize – it’s that point where your legs feel like they’re on fire, your lungs want to explode and you know you can’t run much farther. Fun!


Remember those little smiley face charts the doctor used when you were a kid so you could tell him how bad your head hurt after your brother hit you in the head with his Transformer? Well fitness has something similar to assess how much pain you’re in while you’re exercising. While it isn’t illustrated with smiley-to-frowny faces (although it should!), your RPE, or rate of perceived exertion, is generally measured on a level of 1 to 10. One is you laying in corpse pose in yoga. Ten is you being chased by zombies in your dreams after that Walking Dead marathon. Since it’s all based on your own perception of how hard you are working it can help you decide if you feel like you need to push harder or take it down a notch in kickboxing. (Want a fun experiment? See how much of a wuss you are – or aren’t – by ranking your RPE and then correlating it with the BPM given to you by your HRM!)


This is a big freaking deal. When someone talks about a PR, or personal record, (also sometimes referred to as PB or personal best), it means they’ve run their fastest race, lifted their heaviest weight or otherwise topped their previous best effort in an activity (the sit-n-reach?). If there ever was an occasion for giving knuckles in the gym, it’s a PR!


Just like neon argyle compression socks and the phrase “beast mode”, WOD, or workout of the day , originally started with CrossFit and has since spread to the greater fitness population. A WOD (pronounced “wad” – saying W-O-D makes you sound like a dork) is just a list of the exercises you’re supposed to do for that day’s workout. Generally gyms or sites that use WODs put up a new one every day so you get a concise directive and variety. But if you don’t like it, just don’t get your panties in a WOD. (Dork humor, right there. You’re welcome.)

How about you? Have you ever encountered a gym gesture that you didn’t understand (or just wished you didn’t)? Do you have a fave fitness acronymn or one you don’t understand? (I’ll do my best to find out for you!)

*YBF = you’ll be fine. Yes you will. I promise, no one’s ever died sprinting on a treadmill. No I don’t have hard data for that. Yes, I suppose you could have a heart attack. But you’re not! So shut up. YBF.

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue January 9, 2013 at 1:05 am

Thanks a lot for the short list! A few of those were new to me, even after reading fitness blogs for years. And also thanks for the Walking Dead reference! ;)


Charlotte January 10, 2013 at 6:51 am

Well I’m coming out with a longer list for Shape and I’ll be sure to let you all know when that one goes live!


addisonmario January 9, 2013 at 3:23 am

hi guys thanks for posting new tactics on fitness.which are never i heard about this fitness rules from day on wards i follow fitness short hand rules


Bek @ Crave January 9, 2013 at 4:47 am

Haha, I’ve definitely had moments where I’m like wtf did they just say! I’ve never used that head tap- from the top thing, and I’m a bloomin’ fitness instructor..I might do it tomorrow- I wonder what the members will do hahaha!


Charlotte January 10, 2013 at 10:17 am

Haha – maybe the head tap is just a regional thing? Let me know how it goes over if you try it!


etejoie January 9, 2013 at 6:09 am

That picture really disturbs me. Like makes me so uncomfortable. And your horn story made me lol.


Charlotte January 10, 2013 at 10:47 am

I know, that picture is… *shudder*


Naomi/Dragonmamma January 9, 2013 at 6:48 am

“You’ll be having DOMs this weekend from today’s workout.”
DOMS: Delayed onset muscle soreness. That means that although you feel fine right now and you might even feel fine tomorrow, in two or three days you’re going to feel like you got hit by a truck. Very common any time you try out a new routine and work out your muscles in new ways.


Charlotte January 10, 2013 at 11:01 am

OOOH good one! DOMS definitely needs to be on the list! And your definition is spot on:)


JavaChick January 9, 2013 at 7:18 am

You may be a workout geek if….

“From the top” and AMRAP I knew right away, but you had me at YBF. :)


Kim January 9, 2013 at 8:04 am

I love doing a WOD!!!!
I think you could probably come up with 100s of fun acronyms – I’m sure if you start using them they will spread!!!
My favorite part of your post was the fact that your 6 year-old said “He thinks your an idiot, mom.” Love it!!! (heard it here many times!!!)


Charlotte January 10, 2013 at 11:10 am

Ha – I totally should start making some up and just throwing it out there to see if I can make it catch on!! Love it!


Geosomin January 9, 2013 at 9:08 am

But I am a dork :)


Charlotte January 10, 2013 at 11:10 am

As am I, my friend:))


Alyssa (azusmom) January 9, 2013 at 9:32 am

Sometimes walking into the gym feels like stepping into that bar in “Star Wars.” I desperately need a translator! Thank you!
(and when I accidentally honk the horn, which is often, I also make wavy hand gestures & apologetic faces to those in my immediate vicinity. We REALLY need a universal gesture for that!)


Charlotte January 10, 2013 at 11:11 am

We do!! And also, this is another reason why we need to be neighbors;)


Jill G January 9, 2013 at 9:57 am

When I first started working out with a trainer, some of the abbreviations for actual exercises were what threw me. While most people understand what abs are; what on earth was that lat press thing I was supposed to do? I didn’t know what MP (military press) nor DB (dumbbell). And my poor trainer would frequently get the “Uh, what was that?” follow up to his notes.

And btw, I use the “Home Alone” scream with both hands on my face as a universal “Oh no!” or “I’m sorry” or “Did that just happen?” face when I’m driving. Not that I need it a lot. . .


Charlotte January 10, 2013 at 11:12 am

Good point about abbreviations for workout moves! DL for deadlift used to really throw me. Esp if it was combined as in SLDL (is that straight-leg deadlift or single-leg deadlift??).


Meghan@themeghamix January 9, 2013 at 10:54 am

Yay Harry Potter reference! My poor mom has been CrossFitting for about 6 months and still gets confused about what term = which movement. Fitness is brain work, too!


Charlotte January 10, 2013 at 11:13 am

It is! And it’s even funnier because when you’re working that hard, it makes even more difficult to think, lol!


deb roby January 9, 2013 at 11:43 am

“Work In”… a kind way of saying: quit hogging this equipment while all you’re doing is takin a 5 minute rest! Very proper gym etiquette for sharing…


Charlotte January 10, 2013 at 11:14 am

Love this on! And your definition is perfect:)


Cindy Fatchick January 9, 2013 at 12:32 pm

I think I’m a lost cause! I still get confused after years of weight lifting when my trainer says we are doing this many reps and sets.


pensive pumpkin January 9, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Except for the part where you assume I’m not in Slytherin (and really, Alan Rickman is a great reason to make requests of the sorting hat, y’all) I love this post. Of course, I just started CrossFit. So I’m making up acronyms about Affliction T shirts.


Charlotte January 10, 2013 at 11:17 am

Hahah good point! Or Ravenclaw – those blokes were sorely undersold. You must send me a pic of your t-shirt(s) if you get it made!!


Di January 9, 2013 at 6:48 pm

hahaha OMG this is so me! I’m the queen on hand gestures. I actually wasn’t always this way but back around 1998 I taught bums & tums/step etc and had 2 deaf women in my class so I was always aware of hand signals for them so they weren’t behind or totally lost! However I’m still like it 15 years later… some things just stick!


Charlotte January 10, 2013 at 11:18 am

Sounds like you’re the queen with good reason! I kinda want to take your class now just to see them all!


Jody - Fit at 55 January 9, 2013 at 9:00 pm

I turn away from gestures I don’t understand or don’t want to understand! ;) I am so lame when it comes to all the new lingo out there – I have to ask all the time… us old people! ;)


Jess January 10, 2013 at 5:00 am

I had no clue about the “from the top” head tap!!! Hahaha all these years, I thought their hair was annoying or itchy too. And YBF, AMRAP also clueless about.


Colleen January 10, 2013 at 11:10 am

Okay, I’ll show my dorkiness….VPL? “panty”?


Charlotte January 10, 2013 at 11:19 am

You got it!! Had to throw visible panty line in there somewhere. What is this blog without some sort of anatomical humor? ;)


Sylvie @ StruggleswithaFatA January 10, 2013 at 11:11 am

Just love reading your blog. I really think there should be an “I’m sorry” gesture that doesn’t come off as “I’m a moron.” I worry when people think I say sorry to them out loud in my car they think I’m probably just gloating to myself about how I successfully (but totally accidentally, to them) cut them off.


Charlotte January 10, 2013 at 11:20 am

Haha thanks! Yeah, when you figure the appropriate gesture out, let me know!


Sylvie @ StruggleswithaFatA January 10, 2013 at 11:32 am

Oops I have to clarify, totally accidentally to me **and not to them. :)


Hannah January 10, 2013 at 12:55 pm

My friend and I always said we should have an automated horn in the car that had different messages… “Oops sorry about that-my bad” “quit texting and drive!” kind of things… then the oatmeal came up with this comic:


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