From the Head Tap to the HRM: Fitness Shorthands You Need To Know (And a few you don’t) Featured

Authors: TheGreatFitnessExperiment

From the Head Tap to the HRM: Fitness Shorthands You Need To Know (And a few you don’t)This is the universal symbol for “your yoga teacher is a perv.”

Grabbing your throat with both hands is the universally recognized symbol for choking. Likewise, a palm facing out means “stop” (“in the name of the love” optional). And now, thanks to The Bachelor, handing anyone a flower translates to “I love you at least as much as six other people.” (There is more use for this one than you’d think.)

I got to thinking about ways we wordlessly communicate with others when I accidentally leaned on my horn at a stoplight several days ago, scaring the bejeebies out of me, my kids and all the other cars at the intersection. One man across the intersection from me seemed particularly affected by my errant blast, looking wildly in my direction. It was at that moment I realized that sadly there is no universal gesture for “oops.” I did my best – shrugging my shoulders, holding my hands up and making a goofy face – to indicate it was just an accident and I didn’t mean it. After a few tense seconds, he burst out laughing and pointed at me. My 6-year-old observed dryly, “He thinks you’re an idiot, mom.” So while I hadn’t figured out how to apologize from a distance, apparently I’d discovered the universal symbol for “moron.” Feel free to write that down for future reference. You know, just in case.

These kinds of gestures are everywhere but nowhere are they as entertaining as in the gym. Due to the twin evils of loud music and headphones, to thrive in a fitness environment it is necessary to familiarize yourself with these signals. Some, like the one-finger salute, are pretty easily understood (it means “I’m a jerk and refuse to re-rack my weights because I think I’m the king of the chest press”) but others need some explaining.

The head pat was one of those for me. Any of you who have taken a cardio class like step, Zumba, Turbokick or some other incarnation of dance aerobics have probably seen the head pat. Midway through a class, just when you’ve got your groove thang going, the instructor pats his or her head and – this is the weird part – the whole class starts over from the beginning of the routine!

Let me back up. See, I have this weird affliction that whenever I start to heat up and break a sweat my scalp gets realllllly itchy. I don’t know why. I try to suppress the urge to itch, knowing that it will pass as my muscles get warm and also I don’t want to freak out anyone aerobicizing next to me. So I just figured that all my cardio instructors had the same sweaty scalp issues that I do. (Side note: never shave your eyebrows. You think now that they’re just good for Groucho Marx impressions but really they’re nature’s sweatbands. Don’t ask me how I know this.) It turns out that they were trying to tell me something. It took me years to figure out that the head pat wasn’t just a form of lice that only affected group fit instructors but was actually a signal that means “from the top.” Head = top, get it??

You can’t see me but right now I’m making the “I’m an idiot” gesture.

Likewise, fit people like to use a lot of funny acronyms. Part of it is just for efficiency – how many times can you say “as many reps as possible” before it starts sounding like a tongue twister. (Reminds me of the time my preschooler came home super proud of the new rhyme he’d learned that day: “Peter Piper picked a pack of pickled peckers!” Still makes me snicker every time I think about it.) Hence “as many reps as possible” becomes AMRAP. I won’t even tell you how many Crossfit workouts I had to go through before I figured that one out. But – and this is just my personal theory – I think they also like to speak alphabet soup because it makes them sound hardcore. I mean, how amazing do you sound when you say, “So I PR’d on the WOD today except I then I saw my VO2 and my VPL and my friend was all YBF but still. WTF?” (10 points for Gryffindor if you can translate what I just said!)

So, in honor of it being a new year and helping out the new people (or those of us who aren’t new but are tired of just nodding our heads and pretending we understand), here are my top 5 fave fitness acronymns:


Turns out there’s a reason your gym has “Heart Rate Zone” charts plastered about like wallpaper and it’s not just because they’re hiding water stains. Knowing your heart rate, measured in BPM or beats per minute, is a useful tool for knowing how hard your body is actually working and calculating things like how many calories you’ve burned in your workout, how many of those came from fat and so forth. Your heart rate is calculated either from an electronic gadget like a HRM (heart rate monitor) on a watch or cardio machine or by the age-old method of pressing your fingers to your jugular and counting the beats in ten seconds then multiplying by six (because cutting off blood flow to your head is always a good idea when you’ve just been working out hard, right?). Metabolic testing can tell you most accurately what your BPM should be at given points in your workout or for a more general calculation you can use one of the Zone charts.


Lactic acid, despite what you may have heard, is not the source of all evil (i.e. soreness) in exercise. (Also note: it cannot be “worked out” by stretching or light cardio.) It turns out this misunderstood acid is a byproduct produced by our bodies as they switch from making energy aerobically (with oxygen) to making energy anaerobically (without oxygen). As we increase our exercise intensity, our bodies become less able to use oxygen efficiently and so switch to this secondary pathway. It’s this point, measured in BPM (beats per minute), that defines your AT, or aerobic threshold, also sometimes referred to as your LT or lactate threshold. Your AT is important to know because after you’ve reached that point, say 160 BPM, then you can only sustain that level of exertion for a very limited amount of time. If you don’t have a HRM (heart rate monitor) your approximate AT is still pretty easy to recognize – it’s that point where your legs feel like they’re on fire, your lungs want to explode and you know you can’t run much farther. Fun!


Remember those little smiley face charts the doctor used when you were a kid so you could tell him how bad your head hurt after your brother hit you in the head with his Transformer? Well fitness has something similar to assess how much pain you’re in while you’re exercising. While it isn’t illustrated with smiley-to-frowny faces (although it should!), your RPE, or rate of perceived exertion, is generally measured on a level of 1 to 10. One is you laying in corpse pose in yoga. Ten is you being chased by zombies in your dreams after that Walking Dead marathon. Since it’s all based on your own perception of how hard you are working it can help you decide if you feel like you need to push harder or take it down a notch in kickboxing. (Want a fun experiment? See how much of a wuss you are – or aren’t – by ranking your RPE and then correlating it with the BPM given to you by your HRM!)


This is a big freaking deal. When someone talks about a PR, or personal record, (also sometimes referred to as PB or personal best), it means they’ve run their fastest race, lifted their heaviest weight or otherwise topped their previous best effort in an activity (the sit-n-reach?). If there ever was an occasion for giving knuckles in the gym, it’s a PR!


Just like neon argyle compression socks and the phrase “beast mode”, WOD, or workout of the day , originally started with CrossFit and has since spread to the greater fitness population. A WOD (pronounced “wad” – saying W-O-D makes you sound like a dork) is just a list of the exercises you’re supposed to do for that day’s workout. Generally gyms or sites that use WODs put up a new one every day so you get a concise directive and variety. But if you don’t like it, just don’t get your panties in a WOD. (Dork humor, right there. You’re welcome.)

How about you? Have you ever encountered a gym gesture that you didn’t understand (or just wished you didn’t)? Do you have a fave fitness acronymn or one you don’t understand? (I’ll do my best to find out for you!)

*YBF = you’ll be fine. Yes you will. I promise, no one’s ever died sprinting on a treadmill. No I don’t have hard data for that. Yes, I suppose you could have a heart attack. But you’re not! So shut up. YBF.

Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2011. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying EverythingFrom the Head Tap to the HRM: Fitness Shorthands You Need To Know (And a few you don’t) for more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!

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