The History and Etiquette of the Gymnasium

After the release of the docudrama Pumping Iron in 1977, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno in the midst of their preparation for the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition, going to the gym to “work out” became a part of popular American culture—like going to the movies or going to church or walking the dog or having a therapist. By the 1990s, the gym had almost replaced the night club as the place to find dates and sex-partners. (Alcohol may unveil the soul, but Spandex exposes the body. Besides, unlike at a bar, finding a date at a gym costs a gentleman nothing: He does not have to pay for drinks!)

But the history of exercising predates Pumping Iron by 2,500 years. Human strength has always fascinated humans. In harsher times, when brute strength enhanced one’s chances of survival, the strongman caveman was esteemed. But it was ancient Greek culture that established the notion that beauty and strength could merge, each enhancing the other. The word “gymnasium” derives from “gymnázein,” a place to train in the nude. But the Greek concept of the gym was different to today’s; it looked more like an open-air athletic field, where men participated in the classic sports of running, wrestling, discus, and javelin. There was no fixed equipment, and the objective of the gymnasium was fourfold: sports, military training, cultivation of the mind, and achieving physical beauty. Two of the best-known gymnasiums of the ancient world are “Academy,” associated with the philosopher Plato, and “Lyceum,” associated with Aristotle. The Greeks believed in the honing of mind and body. Even today, throughout the world, educational institutions are called “academies” and typically have gymnasiums. And in some countries, what Americans call “high school” is called “gymnasium.”

But with the decline of the Greco-Roman world went the concept of the gymnasium; it had faded into oblivion during the medieval period. During the Renaissance, with its admiration of things classical, scholars rediscovered texts describing ancient gymnasia; but for 15th -century scholars, their interest in the ancient institution was more for intellectual exercise than for physical. The historical record suggests that the well-muscled male forms used as inspiration and models for Michelangelo’s paintings and sculpture were not men who perfected their physiques at 15th – and 16th -century gyms, but instead laborers whom the artist allegedly would encounter at men’s saunas.

According to a March 31, 2015 article by Amanda Smith titled “The 3,000-Year History of Working Out,” perhaps the turning point in the evolution of the gymnasium as it known today occurred in 1811 when Prussian schoolmaster Jahn Friedrich opened “Turnplatz,” which means “exercise field,” in Hasenheide, a suburb of Berlin. Inspired by the humiliating 1806 defeat of the venerated Prussian army by Napoleon, Friedrich established his open-air gym as a place for physical training, his aim being to prepare Prussian soldiers to avenge the French defeat. Friedrich’s gym was a fusion of sorts: It combined the ancient Greek sports of running, discus, and javelin with equipment that he designed himself. It is Friedrich’s equipment that would become the backbone of the present-day sport of gymnastics: parallel bars, vaulting, and the high bar. And it is Turnplatz that would become the template for later school- and state-run gyms where standards of physical fitness were, and still are, implemented.

The first commercial gyms appeared in the 1840s. Hippolyte Triat, a French vaudeville strongman, is credited with opening, in Brussels, the first commercial gym. The name of the gym was “Grand Gymnase,” a vast, enclosed space constructed like a 19th-century railway station, with cast iron and glass. At Grand Gymnase, Triat taught callisthenics and light weight-training using dumbbells, barbells, and Indian clubs—all done to the rhythmic beat of drums, followed by a rubdown by Triat himself. Triat’s aim was to sculpt beautiful bodies, his inspiration being the ancient Greeks.

Near the end of the 19th century, another commercial gym was established, this one by Eugen Sandow, also a strongman. His gym was augustly named “London’s Institute of Physical Culture,” and its ambiance was consistent with its appellation: wood-paneled rooms, Persian rugs to designate exercise stations, the look and feel of an exclusive gentleman’s club. According to Amanda Smith, who cites Eric Chaline, author of The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym, Sandow was an early advocate of the concept of progressive weight-training, and his system involved the use of free-weights, barbells, and dumbbells, all administered under the watchful eyes of Sandow and his trainers. Sandow, then, could be credited as the creator of the profession called “personal trainer.”

Despite their early beginnings, both Triat’s and Sandow’s gyms admitted women, though most women used the facilities to lose and maintain weight and form, rather than for bodybuilding.

Both Triat and Sandow were also known for their beautifully sculpted physiques, so much so that they caused the proliferation of “fantasy gyms,” facilities that cultivated uber-muscled clients. Gold’s Gym of Venice, California is the legacy of such fantasy gyms.

Real gyms” were the antitheses to fantasy gyms. Men and women who were not bodybuilders, yet recognized the benefits of exercise, comprised the clientele of real gyms. The legacy of the real gym are present-day corporate health clubs, hotel gyms, and neighborhood gyms.

But regardless of the type of gym or its founding philosophy, there is gym etiquette:

-Shower slippers should always be used in public showers. And designated shower slippers should be used only when showering and engaged in the activities related thereto. (Slippers that are used for walking about the street should be never be used in public shower rooms since the germs from the soles of such slippers could contaminate the shower stalls, wreaking havoc on subsequent users—especially those who, unwisely, shower bare-feet).

-Nudity should be avoided in the public areas of the gym, including the locker room. Though it is common practice for men to walk about a locker room or shower room in the nude, it is not considered to be in the best form as it may be offensive to some people. Towels should be used to cover one’s private areas while in public areas! Slipping into and out of underpants should be conducted while the loin area is wrapped in a towel.

-In the interest of public hygiene, before and after showering, a gentleman should never sit naked or “bare-butt” on the facility’s benches. He should always cover his loins with a towel prior to sitting. Alternatively, he may sit on a spread or folded towel, making sure to take note of the particular side of the towel that has been designated for direct contact with the bench. (A man would be unwise, for example, to sit on a towel then, upon rising, use the side of the towel that was in direct contact with the public bench to dry his face!)

-Despite the temptation to display hard-earned muscles, whenever using public exercise facilities, a gentleman should wear garments such that his skin does not come into direct contact with the surfaces of the exercise equipment. Long-sleeved T-shirts and full-length sweatpants are more appropriate, as well as more hygienic, than shorts and tank tops. (And overly revealing garments are inappropriate as well as distracting). Alternatively, a workout towel may be spread onto the workout benches and other body-accommodating equipment so as to absorb the gentleman’s perspiration while protecting him from any bacteria or residue that may have been left on the equipment by previous users. And as indicated above, the same side of the workout towel should always be in direct contact with the equipment.

-Many well-equipped gyms provide industrial-grade paper towel and disinfectant spray-cleaners so that clients can clean the body-accommodating surfaces of the exercise equipment before and after use. A gentleman should make use of those provisions. In cases where the establishment does not provide cleaning supplies, a gentleman should carry his own. Ethyl/Isopropyl alcohol (transferred to a generic, plastic spray-bottle) is an effective, quick-drying, non-residue-leaving cleaner. And basic paper towel is priced economically. Personal cleaning supplies should be kept in a simple, handy, easy-to-carry-around bag (drawstring or knapsack, for example). A plastic wastepaper bag should also be enclosed in the cleaning-supply bag as a convenience when trash receptacles within the facility are not conveniently situated. Many clients, especially those clad in skin-exposed garments such as tank tops and shorts, tend to cause sweat droplets to fall onto the floor, especially in the immediate vicinity of their exercise stations. Such sweat deposits are not only unbecoming, but also can cause slippage, potentially resulting in bodily injury. No one has interest in another man’s sweat deposits. A gentleman should clean up his sweat. Besides, it makes for a little extra exercise at the same time!

-A gentleman should shower before going to the gym or upon arrival. And he should apply deodorant prior to beginning his exercises. (Cologne and other fragrances, however, should be avoided as they may sometimes cause nausea in others). Offensive body odor—even at the gym—is unacceptable. And wearing fresh, clean, gym clothing on each occasion at the gym is absolutely necessary. Today’s perspiration and body odor need not be compounded by yesterday’s or last week’s!

-Gyms oftentimes attract persons of varying degrees of expertise. A gentleman should offer to help less-experienced persons who are clearly in need of assistance.

-Public gyms are shared spaces, not private, VIP exercise rooms. A gentleman should ask politely to share equipment that is being used by someone else. Refusals of the request, though uncommon, should be graciously accepted.

-A gentleman should offer to “spot” another person whenever appropriate. Likewise, a gentleman should feel free to ask a person to “spot” him. “Spotting” is a matter of safety; a request should never be refused. “Spotting” is a clear case of “Do unto others….”

-Free-weights should be returned to their neutral positions after use. No one needs to have to remove the previous lifter’s weights before putting on his own. Likewise, machines should be returned to their neutral settings.

-People tend to be sociable at gyms, and friendships are oftentimes forged there. Basic greetings such as “Good evening, have a good workout” will usually start conversation and, sometimes, friendships. A business card may be offered as an efficient way of exchanging information. And a gentleman should make an effort to remember the names of those whom he meets at the gym so that he can greet them by name on subsequent occasions. Gymnasiums engender a certain degree of camaraderie, and a gentleman should be sociable—but with reserve since the operative term in “workout” is “work.” Conversations beyond basic greetings—unless clearly mutually welcomed—are better left for the locker room or parking lot. And “cruising” should be incidental to, not the reason for, one’s use of the gym.

-The ITF has, unfortunately, allowed tennis players to grunt and yell when hitting the ball—the legacy of tennis great Monica Seles. But yelling and screaming at the gym is both in poor taste and exceedingly distracting. Everyone knows that weight-lifting is an arduous undertaking. No one needs to be audibly reminded of that fact with each repetition.

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