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What’s the Best Way to Ask a Stranger at the Gym If You Can ‘Work In’ With Them?

When you’re short on time, here’s the most reasonable and respectful way to approach that guy who just won’t seem to leave that machine you really need

It’s a classic gym horror story: You only need one last machine to complete your workout, but that machine is currently occupied by another human being you’ve never seen on the premises before who is taking their sweet-ass time to wrap things up. 

You could bail and call it a day a bit earlier than you anticipated. But you could also do the unthinkable, and ask this total stranger if you could “work in” with them. Yes, it will probably be awkward, but you’ll also accomplish everything you’d hoped for when you originally stepped foot in the gym — and maybe even learn some new people skills along the way.

Where do I even start with my approach?

By my very unscientific calculations, I’d venture to guess that 80 percent of my cold approaches of other gym members have either involved asking if I could work in with them, asking them if they had concluded their use of whatever piece of fitness equipment they were using or asking them how many more sets they had remaining. Most people have a small time window in which to squeeze in all of their training. So anyone who frequents gyms or is well-versed in gym protocols — especially if they’re used to working out during the pre- and post-work stampedes of the morning and evening — has some experience negotiating over benches, weight stations, barbells, dumbbells and/or mats

If you have a legitimate need for something in the gym that’s in short supply, don’t be afraid to approach the person using it to ask how much longer they plan to use it so that you can plan the remainder of your training around them. However, if you’re approaching the person using the cable station, lat pulldown, pull-up bar, dip stand or any other apparatus that can’t be transported to another area of the gym, don’t be shy about asking if you can work in with them. Also, if you ask them how much longer they have on the device, don’t be surprised if they end up taking the initiative to invite you to work in with them.

So that’s it? All I have to do is ask?

Yes, but there is a certain etiquette to the whole thing.

First of all, you’ve got to be respectful of the other person’s workout. If they’re leaving a one-minute resting gap between their sets, you should be prepared to squeeze your workout into that one-minute window. Second, you should have a towel handy to wipe down the equipment between each use so that your workout doesn’t leave any unwelcome traces of your presence behind.

Going too far in your efforts to reconfigure the workout station is something you shouldn’t do in these settings either. If you have to change the height of the cable attachment, that’s fine, as long as you change it back to the height your new training buddy was initially working from. Along those lines, it’s understandable that you would change the training weight — either by shifting a selector pin or by adding or removing weight plates; again, just be sure that the weight returns to what the original user had it at.

On the other hand, if you’re at the cable-crossover station and you need to change the weight, the cable height and the attachment variety — and then you decide you also need to shove a weight bench in the middle of the proceedings while demanding to chain together different movements into an overelaborate superset that takes two full minutes before you swap everything back — that’s several steps beyond the scope of what working in is intended to accommodate. Keep the equipment changeover to a respectable amount, and factor everything you do into what seems like an appropriate rest time for the person you’re now training with. If your workout is too complex for a reasonable person to make concessions for all that it entails, you should just wait for the station or device to become fully available.

Working in is all about being reasonable and respectful. Don’t compromise the workout quality of the person you’re training alongside, and if possible, identify someone who would least have to change what they’re doing in order to accommodate you. In other words, don’t approach a fellow gym goer under the cover of politeness knowing that you intend to change around everything in their workout space like you’re a member of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant remodeling team. If you do, your request to work in is unlikely to work out.