Do you work out at a public gym? If so, I bet this sounds familiar.
You have you planned workout ready to go. You know what exercises you’re going to do, what order you’re going to do them in, and what weights, machines, benches, squat racks, and other gym equipment you’re going to need to do them.
But then… it happens. Someone is using the equipment you need!
Son of a bitch.
What should you do now? Wait for them to finish? Skip that exercise and come back to it later in the workout? Replace it with another exercise?
I think the best way to answer this question is by giving you a breakdown of how I approach this super common scenario myself.
Ask How Many Sets They Have Left
The first thing I always do is ask the person how many sets they have left.
If you’re going to do this, here are 2 tips:
- Tip #1: Always wait until the person finishes a set before asking. Never ask during a set. That’s the worst.
- Tip #2: After asking, give the person some space to do their next set(s). Try not to hover around them or make them feel rushed. That’s annoying AF.
What happens next depends on how many sets the person says they have left…
- If they say they have 1 or 2 sets left…
I’ll wait for them to finish. I’m resting a couple of minutes between exercises anyway, so it’s not a problem. Sometimes I’ll wait even if they have more sets than that but appear to be moving through them quickly. This way, I end up using the equipment I need, to perform the exercise I want, in the order I intended to do it. That’s my preferred outcome in this situation, even if it means waiting a few extra minutes.
- If they say they have 3 or more sets left…
I’ll sometimes ask if I can work in (or they’ll be nice enough to ask me first). Whether I do depends on how big of a pain in the ass it will be (for both of us). For example, if it’s plate-loaded and looks like we’ll be using very different amounts of weight… nope, no thanks. But if it looks doable without too much adjusting involved, I’ll gladly work in and go out of my way to do as much of that adjusting part as possible so they don’t have to. Also, if it’s 2 or more people using the equipment and they have 3+ sets left each, no thanks. I won’t even ask.
- If they say something that isn’t a specific number of sets, which gives me no real indication of how much longer they’ll be (common examples include: “A few.” and “I just started.” and “Not too many.”)…
I’ll proceed to give them my Death Stare of Doom for a few seconds and then slowly turn away while muttering profanity to myself.
I’d say 90% of the time, I end up waiting for the person to finish (Plan A) or working in with them (Plan B).
Do The Exercise Later, Or Replace It
The other 10% of the time, I move on to Plan C or Plan D.
That would either be:
- Skip it and come back to it later.
This means moving on to some other exercise in my planned workout and coming back to this one afterwards.
- Replace it.
This means doing some other similar exercise in place of what I was supposed to do, and keeping the order of everything intact.
This part can get a bit complicated, as it depends on what the exercise is and what else is being done in the workout.
For example, if it’s an exercise I really want to do and would really prefer not to replace, I’ll consider adjusting the order so I can get it done somewhere.
This might be because it’s an exercise I’m extra focused on improving at the time, or because I have issues with the potential replacements (e.g. maybe similar exercises cause pain but this one doesn’t), or some other good reason.
You’ll notice I said “consider” adjusting the order, as it may not always be the best idea.
Certain exercises are less conducive to being moved to a later point in the workout (e.g. heavy squats and deadlifts), or simply won’t fit as well when being done after certain other exercises (e.g. bench pressing after cable flies).
So, if it’s an exercise I really want to do AND I don’t have any issues with moving it to a later point in the workout… that’s what I’ll do.
On the other hand, if there are issues with moving it, or if it’s an exercise I don’t mind replacing… I’ll replace it with something similar. This is as simple as replacing a row with some other row, an incline press with some other incline press, a biceps curl with some other biceps curl, and so on.
The Problem With Plan C and Plan D
Now, assuming you’re training to build muscle and/or get stronger, the downside to both of these options is that they’re throwing off some aspect of your intended workout…
Which throws off the consistency of what you’re doing week-to-week…
Which can potentially throw off your progress in the short term to some degree.
What I mean is, by doing the exercise later in the workout than you normally would, it will probably cause a small hit to your performance on that exercise that week.
And by doing some other exercise altogether, it will probably affect your progression with the originally planned exercise (temporarily).
It’s Not A Problem If…
Luckily, this isn’t the end of the world. Especially if these options are only being used once in a while.
In that case, it’s not a big deal. You’ll be fine.
It Is A Problem If…
But, if you’re regularly having to rearrange the order of exercises in your workout, or regularly doing a different exercise than you planned to do, that’s when the effects on progression (plus your ability to accurately track progression) will be more significant.
Think about it.
This wouldn’t be much different than a mild version of the myth-based concept of “muscle confusion” where you unnecessarily change your workout every week to “shock your body” or some such nonsense.
Granted, the reasoning is much more sound in this case, but the negative effects on your progress would be similar.
For the reasons mentioned above, and as much as it pains me to initiate any sort of human interaction at the gym, I go with Plan A (wait) or Plan B (work in) as often as I realistically can.
I then save Plan C (coming back to it later) and Plan D (replacing it) for the occasional times when those preferred options aren’t doable.