As a coach who writes programs for athletes across the country, one of the most common questions I get from potential clients is, “can I powerlift in a commercial gym?” My answer—absolutely. I trained in commercial gyms for the first four years I powerlifted and was able to achieve an elite total. It wasn’t until summer 2019 that I started lifting at a powerlifting gym, and even then, I am only able to travel there once a week because it is a 45-minute drive. Training in powerlifting gym with the specialty equipment definitely helps, but it is also possible to get stronger and even compete while training in a commercial gym. So how do you become a successful powerlifter training in a commercial gym? I have created a list of seven tips.
Research potential gyms to find the most powerlifting-friendly. In my hometown, there are gyms like Planet Fitness which have restrictions on noise level while lifting and don’t even allow you to deadlift. But, there are also commercial gyms that are more heavy-lifting friendly. I ended up joining a local gym that had numerous local bodybuilders and a few powerlifters. Now I couldn’t go yell and blast music there like at some powerlifting gyms, but I wasn’t asked to leave for deadlifting and occasionally grunting. Talk to your local lifters, read reviews, and do a guest pass if you can to make sure it’s the best environment
Know the gym rules and be respectful. You want to have a good relationship with the gym staff. Don’t go spilling chalk everywhere if it isn’t allowed (even if it is, be clean!). There are a few alternatives to using chalk if it is prohibited: use straps, use grip tapes like Wodndone, or discreetly use liquid chalk (less messy) and make sure to wipe it up when you’re done. Don’t give the gym the idea that powerlifters are messy and disrespectful; it will ruin the gym for all future lifters.
Lift efficiently if you are utilizing the gym childcare. One of the primary reasons lifters get stuck at commercial gyms is that they offer childcare and many powerlifting gyms do not. I know that for me, personally, this has been a huge factor. Most childcarers have a limit of two hours. Some powerlifters can be known to spend more time than this, so if that’s you, you may have to make some adjustments. Focus on your main lifts. You can also warm-up and cool down at home if need be. Sometimes I will do my foam rolling, stretching, and bodyweight work at home and then head straight to the gym. If you can invest in bands and mobility tools to have at home, this will help. In addition, you should time rests when you are lifting so that you stay on schedule.
Be your own hype man. When you go to a good powerlifting gym, the energy is infectious. People cheer you on for max attempts, spot you without question, have extra ammonia, and don’t bat an eye when you need a back slap. At a commercial gym, you’re often lifting alone among people who might find some of these techniques scary. It takes far more self-motivation and discipline to get through rough days. I have always been very motivated on my own, so this hasn’t been an issue for me. But if you need some external help, hire a coach to keep you accountable, find a workout buddy to lift with you, and/or create a bomb playlist to push you through.
Ignore the noise. One of the downfalls of lifting at a commercial gym can be the awkward staring and unsolicited advice. I’ve heard it all—“you’re a woman, you shouldn’t lift heavy,” “you shouldn’t lock out your arms benching,” “you’re going to hurt your back”… Just check out the Instagram page @youlooklikeaman for tons of examples of comments female powerlifters have received. But don’t be dismayed by these remarks. Ignore them, use them as fuel, but don’t let them deter you from lifting. You may also encounter gym bros who spot you without you asking, or they steal reps. I have had to get snippy with some, yelling, “don’t touch the bar” when I’m doing paused lifts or grinding out a rep. Sometimes, this has taken me out of my introvert comfort zone. But it has developed me into a more confident lifter and person.
Get creative. Lifting in a commercial gym usually means you are limited equipment-wise. It wasn’t until four years into powerlifting that I finally used a belt squat or actual hip thrust machine. For almost any exercise, there is an alternative. You can google most things and find backup exercises or ways to escalate the difficulty level.Don’t be afraid to use the power rack for things other than squats. I talk with a lot of lifters that say they feel bad for using the power rack. Now, I’m not saying be a jerk and take it up for hours without anyone ever work in; but, you pay a membership and have just as much of a right to it as anyone else. In commercial gyms, I can never reach the bar to unrack on the bench with my short arms. So, I set up in a power rack, which is much safer. I also use this rack for rack pulls, pin presses, and a variety of other exercises. If someone gives you side-eye for not squatting in it, ignore them. Do what you need to do to get your lifts done safely.
While there are definitely advantages to lifting at a powerlifting gym, it is completely possible to make gains in the sport in a commercial one. If you are unsure where to start or how to adapt a template to exercising with limited equipment, contact a knowledgeable powerlifting coach. If you want to be a powerlifter, don’t let gym scarcity in your area discourage you. Find a barbell, set goals, and go lift.