The Best Way To Handle Unsolicited Fitness Advice

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
I actually enjoy going to my gym in the morning, except when I see my nemesis. Everyday at around 6:30 a.m., this person is there, in everyone's face, going out of their way to talk to people. Normally, I roll my eyes as they troll around the weight section of the gym, but one time they had the audacity to come up to me and mansplain the arm exercise I was doing, while I was mid-rep. Can you believe?
I know I'm not the only person who has been on the receiving end of irritating, uninvited workout advice. Fitness bloggers often post clapbacks to jerks who approach them in the gym. Recently, a friend of mine tweeted that getting corrections in yoga class is "humiliating." And in rock climbing there's something called "unsolicited beta," whereby strangers just give advice to whomever is on the wall. Most of the time corrections, cues, and pointers from a trainer are completely necessary and even welcome. But when they come out of nowhere from a fellow gym-goer, it can feel super patronizing.
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Advice can often sound like criticism, especially when it's unsolicited, explains Jennifer Shannon, LMFT, co-founder of the Santa Rosa Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. "Advice is pointing out what is wrong, and it often feels this way even if it's done with the intention to be helpful," she says.
At the gym, you may feel extra-sensitive or vulnerable, because you're already putting yourself out there and doing something that can make you uncomfortable, Shannon says. As fun as working out with other people can be, the gym environment tends to lead some people to compare themselves to others, she says. "If we get advice of how we could be doing something differently or better, again it can feel like criticism and make us feel hurt, ashamed, or angry," she says. So, it's natural to feel defensive when someone unqualified hurls their critiques at you.

Advice is pointing out what is wrong, and it often feels this way even if it's done with the intention to be helpful.

Jennifer Shannon, LMFT, co-founder of the Santa Rosa Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Now, if the advice is coming from someone knowledgeable, like a certified trainer or physical therapist, it's worth it to listen, says Alex Silver-Fagan, an ACE-certified personal trainer, Nike Master Trainer, and creator of the yoga program, Flow Into Strong. "Corrections are necessary because everyone needs a coach," she says. "Even trainers ask each other for advice, and you can never stop learning." That said, many people give advice without being asked, to try to show others how smart they are, which is an unfortunate part of human nature, she says.
So, what should you do if someone tries to give you pointers at the gym when you didn't ask for them? Silver-Fagan suggests just saying, "Thank you, but I'm fine," and then putting your headphones back in and getting back to work. But often being assertive is more effective, which can make some people feel anxious, Shannon says. (Hey, I wouldn't want to approach my gym nemesis, even though they get in my way.) "Women in particular are taught not to hurt other people's feelings, and assertiveness is not taught in school," she says. There are certainly ways to try to become more assertive, but it takes practice.
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The best way to be assertive when someone tries to give you unsolicited advice is to first be empathetic, then express yourself honestly and state what you want or don't want, Shannon says. For example, you might say, "I appreciate that you're trying to be helpful. Unless I ask for it, I don't need suggestions," or just, "Thanks. I'm fine doing this my own way," she says.
If they really don't get the hint, or if their advice is completely wrong, then you should feel empowered to let them know. Silver-Fagan often posts videos of herself working out on her Instagram page, and gets a slew of comments from hate-followers. "I’ve worked a long time to learn as much about fitness as possible and usually just ignore or delete the comments," she says. "But sometimes I’m driven to respond — or even blast their comment out to my followers via Instagram story — because the advice is so ridiculous." For example, one guy told her not to squat below parallel because it was bad for her knees and spine. "I responded by posting a photo of a baby doing a primal squat," she says.
Moral of the story? Doling out advice to random people at the gym isn't cool — unless, of course, you're a certified trainer whose job it is to correct people's form and teach them the safest ways to work out. But even that can be annoying if you haven't signed up for a training session. And if you absolutely cannot help yourself, then remember that it's more effective to praise the positive than to give advice to people, Shannon says. "We are more receptive to praise and we usually change behavior more with this kind of guidance," she says.
So, a little piece of advice to my gym nemesis: You're doing a great job being very annoying, now please stop.

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