Why Gym Equipment Rusts And How To Prevent It


Gym equipment is expensive and we expect it to last for a long time. Sometimes corrosion touches it though and that certainly doesn’t extend the lifespan of your equipment. What causes rust on different types of gym equipment and what can you do about it?

To prevent corrosion on gym equipment regular cleaning, wiping down sweat and keeping humidity down are necessary. The knurling on barbells and dumbbell handles should be cleaned with a plastic bristle brush after which 3 in 1 oil can be applied an wiped off to provide a protective layer.

Find out what all the factors for gym equipment rusting are and what you can do to prevent this from happening to your equipment.

Causes of gym equipment rusting

Obviously corrosion is only an issue for metal. But unfortunately most gym equipment is made from metal in a large part. For metal to corrode you need a few things;

  • Exposed metal
  • Oxygen
  • Moisture

How quickly corrosion occurs with all those things present depends on environmental factors like temperature, pollution, etc.

Exposed metal is pretty easy to understand. Oxygen is pretty much everywhere but what about moisture? You think you never get anything in your gym wet but you might be wrong there. There are two places moisture can come from: Humidity in the air and sweat. And of course the two play into each other.

In pure environments even humidity up to 99% isn’t going to cause corrosion by itself. However, environmental pollution with things like Sulphur dioxide and charcoal can cause corrosion at humidity levels as low as 45% depending on the level of pollution. Completely pure air is very rare so in most gym corrosion can occur at somewhere between 45% and 99% humidity. Other factors like temperature can also have a small impact.

Sweat is another issue. Gym equipment is meant to be used for a workout which is going to make you sweat. That sweat gets on surfaces you touch for sure but can also get to other places because drops can fly. Sweat is even more corrosive than plain water because of the salt and other minerals you can find in sweat. Even when sweat evaporates it’ll still leave those minerals behind to make the metal more susceptible for other moisture.

Holding things with sweaty hands doesn’t only make them wet but often also leaves skin cells. Especially on barbells and dumbbells the knurling can hold on to this residue. This residue keeps hold of all the sweat longer and makes it more difficult to evaporate. This can also cause things like mildew and mold growth.

Once the metal is exposed, the other two aren’t hard to come by. Of course the type of metal impacts how fast corrosion occurs. Stainless steel obviously is much harder to start corroding if it does at all. However, many parts of gym equipment aren’t made from stainless steel.

Vulnerable gym equipment

Which pieces of gym equipment are most likely to rust?

Most of the metal on gym equipment is covered by some kind of coating, usually powder coating. As long as those covered parts stay covered there is no problem. You can make it wet all you want and it won’t rust.

However, that coating can start wearing off and then it will be exposes. The inside of frames usually isn’t well protected either and if moisture gets in it can start corrosion from the inside out. However, usually frames are pretty well closed off so as long as you don’t have a flood or extreme humidity this is not generally a huge problem.

Besides the frames of gym equipment, there are some other common things that are exposed;

  • Dumbbell handles
  • Barbells
  • Pulley slide rail
  • Cable stack guide rods

The pulley slide rail and guide rods are almost always chromed. It’s very unlikely that corrosion will form on those. If there is any, it’ll probably wipe off pretty quickly and regular lubrication will help prevent any from taking place at all. The chrome is just on the outside of those rods and rails so regular lubrication will prevent any scratching as well.

Dumbbels and barbells can often corrode because they consist of mainly exposed metal, especially the parts you grab. High quality barbells and dumbbell handles are made from stainless steel which is the best option. On barbells, ceramic coating is also getting more common which does a very good protecting against corrosion.

Cheaper barbells and dumbbells often have iron shafts and handles coated by something like zinc oxide. This is a coating that works OK to protect against corrosion but it wears off quite quickly.

General gym equipment corrosion prevention

There are a few things you can do to lower the chances of your gym equipment getting rusty. Most are pretty simple although in some situations it can cost some money but it’ll probably be cheaper than replacing all the equipment prematurely.

As you can read above, exposed metal, oxygen and moisture are necessary to create corrosion and pollution makes it worse. Here are some basic strategies you can implement almost anywhere;

  • Prevent moisture getting in: Many home gyms are built in the garage or basement. Those are often the spaces that have moisture issues. Fixing those issues is going to be essential. All the things below aren’t going to do much if a lot of water is just seeping in.
  • Regular cleaning: Clean the whole home gym and all the equipment regularly. Just a damp cloth and some mild detergent is good. Regular cleaning gets rid of dust that can contain pollutants, it gets rid of dried sweat and any residues that can hold on to moisture. Because you’ll use water to clean, opening a window and turning on a fan will help dry things faster.  
  • Wipe down sweat: After every workout just take a little cloth or tissues and wipe down everything you touched. Leaving sweat is extra corrosive and also contributes to higher humidity.
  • Control humidity: As you can see above, in some situations the humidity can be quite low and still cause corrosion. Keeping the humidity under control is essential to preventing corrosion. Keeping a window open during a workout will help keep humidity down but only if it’s better outside. In climates with high temperature and high humidity, an A/C is the best solution. Cold and humid calls for a dehumidifier.
  • Keep things lubricated: Greased and well lubricated parts don’t corrode easily. The lubrication forms a layer on the metal that prevents oxygen and moisture from getting to it. So any part that can be greased or lubricated should be.
  • Keep coatings intact: Pay attention when coatings start peeling off. This can be caused by corrosion underneath it but often is just wear and tear. Stopping the peeling and fixing the coating is a good idea.
  • Air filter: If you live in an area with a lot of pollution, that’s going to accelerate corrosion. Cleaning more often is a good idea but a good HEPA air filter will also dramatically reduce the amount of pollutants in the air. Of course this only works with closed windows.

Check out this article on improving the air quality in a home gym.

How to prevent barbells and dumbbells from rusting

Afraid your barbells or dumbbells are starting to corrode a little? Here’s what you can do to prevent rust on them. Of course all the strategies mentioned above are a great start but many bars and dumbbells require a bit more attention.

  • Clean and brush: Get the bar damp (not wet) with a cloth with some mild detergent. Use a plastic(!) bristle brush (Amazon link) to clean off all the debris and residue and old oils. Especially focus on getting everything out of the knurling because that’s where debris gets stuck. After cleaning wipe any debris that got dislodged off and dry the bar. Other parts of the bar or dumbbell handle that are smooth don’t need to be brushed.
  • Apply 3 in 1 oil (Amazon link): After the bar/handle is clean and dry, apply some 3 in 1 oil This helps create a layer that keeps oxygen and moisture away. After applying, let it sit for five to ten minutes to give the oil a good chance to adhere to the metal.
  • Wipe off excess: After a few minutes wipe off the excess oil with a dry cloth. There should be a miniscule layer of oil but not enough to make it really greasy. The knurling will help provide grip and if you don’t like the feel, wearing some weightlifting gloves is a good option.

Barbells and dumbbell handles will almost always develop some patina over time. This is to be expected and as long as you don’t see actual corrosion there is no cause for alarm.

Any other metal parts that are gripped as much as barbells and dumbbells can be treated in the same way. Metal cable attachments for example.

How to prevent guide rods and slide rails from rusting

Weight stack guide rods and slide rails on pulley machines, rowing machines and more should be made from stainless steel or be chromed. So in most cases these parts won’t rust at all. In most cases these parts will need a tiny bit of lubrication anyways so if you do that right, it certainly won’t rust.

Clean the exposed metal parts just like barbells but without the brush. Then apply a dry silicone or PTFE spray lubricant and wipe off the excess after it sets up. Read more about that process here. I’ll go into detail of the why and how of lubricating guide rods and rails. It focuses on cable machines but the same principles apply for any gym machines with slide rails.

How to prevent gym equipment frames from rusting

It’s quite rare for the metal frames of gym equipment to start rusting unless there are some serious moisture issues in your gym. Because the frame parts are almost always powder coated or painted, they won’t rust.

But if the coating were to come off, check why it came off. There might be corrosion underneath the paint and that will have to be addressed. Otherwise, stop the paint or coating from peeling (you might have to sand it down a bit) and apply a new coat. Often this won’t look good unless you do the whole frame in the same paint but it’s better than it rusting away.

Also check out this article on preventing rust on outdoor gym equipment.

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