The Crowded Gym: Pivoting and Timing Gym Workouts To Avoid Problems

Yesterday I wrote about my 20 minute strength training protocol. I hinted in there that sometimes the areas I need to use are crowded and I have to switch and do something else.

I’m not hard and fast locked into my exercises. I do have Plan B, Plan C and other exercises in mind just in case my main exercise is not an option.

First of all, I do my best to mitigate this by going to the gym at times when it’s not so crowded.

The worst time for crowds at the gym are:

  • Weeknights Monday through Thursday, from about 4-5pm until 8pm. These are peak hours for desk jockeys who like to get their swole on after work. Mondays and Tuesdays tend to be the most crowded, as most aspiring gym-goers try to start their week on the right foot… even if they tend to drop off because life/habits get in the way and they don’t cycle back to their workouts on Wednesday-Friday as planned.
  • Saturday and Sunday mornings from about 8am until mid-afternoon. Again, with desk jockeys off from work, many want to get an early start on their day… but for them “early” is a little later than the crack of dawn they usually awake for work, as many go and party in some way on Friday or Saturday night. So they generally show up mid/late morning and early afternoon in droves.

The least crowded times to go, incidentally, tend to be Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

On Friday and Saturday people are going out after work and don’t want to hit the gym. Most bros will make Friday/Saturday off-days for their training. You may still see crowds on a Friday night sometimes, but often it will be far less busy than you see on a Monday or Tuesday. But Saturday evening’s crowd tends to be far diminished. The weekend morning crowds you tend to see tend to peter out in mid-afternoon by 3-4pm, as bros and bees transition into their Saturday night party plans.

Sundays tend to be empty across the board most of the day. Sunday nights in particular are probably the slowest, deadest normal-human time you will see in a gym all week.

  • People go to church, and their beliefs teach them to take the Sabbath Day (Sunday) as a day off. They’re not going to work out at all. They’re going to rest.
  • The aforementioned partying bros and bees are often hungover on Sunday. Even if they have no church plans, they typically sleep in and/or go to brunch, drink mimosas, watch football, etc. You’re not going to see them at the gym either.

I have the good fortune of working an odd 2nd shift type schedule with my days off being in midweek. So typically for me on workdays I can only go on the weekday mid/late mornings, or during a mid-afternoon lunch break from work. During these times many of the gyms I frequent are sparse crowded and it’s easy to get to the equipment you need.

While many who work odd Vegas-style jobs or service industry jobs also experience this… many others are not as fortunate. If you work a desk job, your available training times typically are the popular times I mentioned above.

When I worked that regular schedule in Chicago, I would focus on cardio workouts during the week, and then do my swolework on the weekend evenings when it was less crowded.

So, first off (unless you’re very lucky and go to a sustainable/profitable gym that is always empty), you want to do everything you can to build your gym plans around times at the gym where it won’t be crowded.

When the gym is crowded, the equipment you want to use will often be taken, and that can derail your plans. You don’t want to waste time at the gym standing and waiting. Don’t put yourself in that position.

But, sometimes, it happens. You go to the gym and there’s a lot of people there, or a lot of people on the equipment you would have used.

Don’t get mad. Pivot. Have a Plan B and C. That’s what I always do. I’ve never had a workout completely ruined because of crowds. I find other ways to get my desired training in.

For example, the Lat Pulldown machine may be taken and the cable machines may be too crowded to pivot the workout there. At every Planet Fitness location they have a 360 rack, where you have all sorts of random pull-up/cable options, including the circular weighted rope. For the rope, you just pull and pull and pull on it, and it works the same back muscles. It’s kind of a row, kind of a pulldown.

I could very well do that in 30 second increments with 30 second rests for 4 sets if I could not do Lat Pulldowns. I could make lame attempts at half pull ups on the pullup bars. If their one negative assisted pullup machine was available (sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t), I could suck it up and do sets on that.

I picked the Lat Pulldown as an illustrative example because it’s one where the Plan B is not obvious to most. There are many ways to do chest presses, bicep curls, lower bodyweight exercises, etc. Those exercises are obviously easy to pivot to something else if I can’t incline bench or do dumbbell curls, or I need to find a leg exercise and equipment’s taken. The Lat Pulldown is tough as it requires a specific major muscle group movement, one muscle group for which I have specific long term goals. Thus it’s one whose work I really want to get in, yet one where there’s not as clear of an alternative.

You have to get creative sometimes, and at least have a Plan B or Plan C in mind for your desired exercises if you get to the gym and you’re facing a wait for the machines you want.

What I don’t want to do is just wait in line at the machines for whoever to finish. Never mind that you don’t know how long the current user is going to take, or if anyone else has pulled a number so to speak to use that machine ahead of you.

I want to get in and out after a 20 minute workout, not turn the workout into a 45-60 minute workout with longer rest breaks between exercise blocks, because others are on the equipment I would have used or others try to work in, etc.

For every exercise it makes sense to find B and C exercises for each planned exercise that you can do elsewhere in a pinch. Obviously, you want to be competent at any of the exercises chosen, so you can just step in and do them, knowing what weight you can comfortably use, etc. This way you still get your workout in for the needed muscles, even if you couldn’t make further progress on your normal exercise.

It helps if the A, B and C option exercises are not all similar or done on similar equipment. If you pick all 3 options on the cable rack, and then the cable rack sections are all crowded, all your options are shot. You want to have an option for a machine, or one you can do with dumbbells if possible, or one you can with bodyweight, or one that can be done on the 360 rack, or a Smith rack, etc. If possible, you can even come up with more than 3 options, one for every part of the gym, but at least come up with 3.

I like to do hammer curls with dumbbells for bicep exercises, but it’s no problem if I have to use a machine, or go to the cable rack, or even grab kettlebells at the 360 rack and modify a version there. You can even do bodyweight bicep curls using the dip rack.

And if say I’m doing a push workout, but my only option for tricep work is a pull exercise, then I’ll do it. Making sure the triceps are exercised as planned is most important. They’re not going to get out of whack from doing something different for one workout.

If in doubt on doing an exercise and no reasonable option seems available, err towards doing some extra core work. Often at gyms the weighted core exercise machines, like the back extension machine, are the least used in the weights section. You could even grab a mat and just do planks. Give it a go and give yourself some extra core work. You can treat it as a semi-rest day for the designated muscle groups by only doing 2-3 blocks of exercises instead of 4, and your core gets some extra work… which probably won’t hurt your fitness.

Last and certainly not least, you will want to plan your strength training days around days that are not so crowded that your plans get derailed. It’s a bad idea to book upper body workouts on a Monday or Tuesday, because every bro on earth will be at the gym that evening. Don’t compete for rack or bench time with a crowd.

Again, in Chicago, I could only train on evenings and weekends, so I always booked my strength training on Friday through Sunday nights because the gym was less crowded at those times and I could get to the needed equipment then. It helped of course that I was more running focused then and I could just run outside or do cardio on the busier Mondays through Thursdays.

Book your strength workouts later in the week, earlier in the day when it’s less crowded, etc. If you like to do gym cardio, those Mondays through Thursdays are the best evenings to do those, even if those machines are crowded: Gyms tend to overload their space with treadmills and cardio machines. There should usually be a place to do cardio.

But again, I can and do pick good times to go to the gym, so I don’t have to pivot off planned exercises very often. The gym’s usually not that crowded when I go. But I have trained (especially in Chicago) in crowded gyms and had to put these principles to use. Hopefully, they can help you.

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2 thoughts on “The Crowded Gym: Pivoting and Timing Gym Workouts To Avoid Problems

  1. […] But, in general, there are approaches to working around a gym’s busy periods, which I discussed here. […]

  2. […] that many other 8 to 5’ers are working out many weeknights, so most nights the gym may not practically allow you to finish a timely strength workout. This […]

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