Stimming isn’t just among Autistics. Neurotypicals may actually stim quite a bit under certain circumstances – especially one in particular.

While stimming is commonly associated with neurodivergent individuals, particularly those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, neurotypicals also exhibit stimming behaviors under certain circumstances.

Now, the one environment that I have noticed quite a bit of stimming among neurotypicals (NTs) is the GYM.

Though it’s certainly possible that on a given day, the first person I see stimming at the gym is actually autistic, we can safely assume that the vast majority of stimming being done at gyms is by non-autistic people.

This is because most people are not autistic, and – unfortunately – a much lower percentage of Autistics go to the gym for workouts, when compared to NTs.

There are, in fact, seven categories of circumstances under which NTs will stim (which I’ll describe coming up), but as far as a more common, “normal” environment, the gym may very well be in the No. 1 spot.

Stimming in the Gym by Neurotypicals

The most common repetitive behavior I have witnessed is the classic knee bounce (or “leg shake”).

One or both legs may be going while the gym enthusiast is seated in between weightlifting sets.

Nobody thinks this is weird. It’s relatively common, and this would be a great replacement stim for gym-going Autistics who are self-conscious about more stereotypical stimming, or stimming that they think would invite unwanted stares.

Next is back-and-forth pacing, and slight side to side swaying while standing. I’ve also seen a lot of head bobbing to music.

However, head-bobbing in the absence of a headset might draw unwanted attention to the gym-goer with ASD who likes to bob their head in the absence of music.

If head bobbing with no headset, around NTs, would make you self-conscious, perhaps you could consider wearing a silent headset – being that even rigorous head bobbing to what an observer assumes is a musical beat is a so-called acceptable stim.

Why do neurotypicals stim so much at a gym?

As a lifelong gym rat, I can definitely affirm that it relates to excess energy or some kind of surging force inside the NT as they anticipate the next set.

The stimming may certainly be subconscious, without them really noticing.

In fact, it’s easy to find someone stimming in between sets while using their phone. This is quite common.

Between-set stimming may also be driven by a bit of anxiety over the impending set.

The leg bounce seems to be most prevalent in between major exercises such as the bench press, incline press or dumbbell press.

The vast majority of stimming that I have observed at the gym was conducted by men.

A logical explanation is that men, far more likely than women, are more apt to engage in very heavy compound movements (for example, bench press, incline press, overhead dumbbell press, deadlift, back squat).

But I’ve also seen men bouncing that knee in between sets with the lat pull-down.

The NT stim is almost always a socially acceptable one (again, leg shaking, pacing, swaying).

They may also be seen tapping or drumming their fingers on a thigh, knee or the workout bench.

Me? I’ve de-masked a little with my stimming, post-late-life ASD diagnosis, in that I will hold a thick wad of my ponytail against my face, preceding my next deadlift set, and inhale its luxurious scent, and bask in the glory of its very unique texture! Mmmm!

Other Reasons Neurotypicals Stim

Stressful Environments

Neurotypicals often engage in stimming when exposed to stressful or overwhelming environments.

Stress triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, leading to an increase in cortisol levels.

This can actually occur while the gym-goer “psyches himself up” for a personal best or a one-rep-max in a giant move such as the deadlift or back squat.

Stimming can serve as a coping mechanism, helping individuals manage anxiety and stress by providing a repetitive and familiar action.

In high-pressure work environments, social gatherings or situations with excessive sensory input, neurotypicals may find comfort in stimming behaviors such as tapping fingers, bouncing legs or twirling hair.

They may also be seen twirling a keychain or head cap ‘round and ‘round.

Let’s not forget the very yucky stim of chewing on a pencil or pen cap. This happens far too often to attribute this repetitive biting to only Autistics.

Concentration and Focus 

Stimming can also be a way for NTs to enhance concentration and focus.

Repetitive movements or activities may create a sensory rhythm that helps individuals direct their attention and maintain mental clarity.

For instance, doodling during a meeting, tapping a pen rhythmically, or rocking back and forth in a chair can enhance cognitive engagement and promote a sense of flow.

I’ve never seen an NT, or apparent NT, rocking in a non-rocking chair, though.

Whenever I see a presumed or known NT rocking in a chair, the chair has a built-in degree of rockability.

Emotional Regulation 

NTs may stim as a means of emotional regulation, helping them manage and express their feelings.

When faced with intense emotions like excitement, frustration or even joy, engaging in repetitive movements can be a way to channel and release that emotional energy.

This can include behaviors like pacing, hand wringing or even clapping.

Stimming becomes a physical outlet for emotions, allowing individuals to process and navigate their internal states.

Social Interaction 

Stimming in social situations is not exclusive to neurodivergent individuals.

Neurotypicals may engage in repetitive behaviors as a way to navigate social interactions, reduce anxiety or communicate non-verbally.

Subtle gestures like playing with jewelry, adjusting clothing or fidgeting with objects (which may include fidget tangles or a “stress ball”) can serve as calming mechanisms during conversations or interactions.

In some cases, these behaviors may also indicate excitement or nervousness.

Boredom or Restlessness 

Stimming can be a response to boredom or restlessness, providing a source of sensory stimulation and preventing feelings of monotony.

In situations where neurotypicals find themselves waiting, such as in queues or during long commutes, stimming like tapping fingers, leg bouncing or clicking a pen may emerge spontaneously.

These actions can serve as a way to occupy the mind and maintain a sense of engagement in an otherwise unstimulating environment.

Sensory Seeking 

Just as neurodivergent individuals may engage in stimming to seek sensory input, neurotypicals may exhibit similar behaviors to satisfy their sensory needs.

This could involve seeking tactile stimulation through activities like rubbing fabric, playing with hair, repeatedly stroking a dog’s head or manipulating objects with interesting textures.

Sensory-seeking stimming can be a way for NTs to maintain a sense of alertness and engagement with their environment.

Cultural and Social Influence 

Stimming can also be influenced by cultural norms and social trends.

In some cultures, certain stimming actions may be more socially acceptable or even encouraged.

For example, rhythmic clapping or finger snapping during musical performances is a socially acceptable form of stimming that transcends neurodivergent and neurotypical distinctions.

Socially influenced stimming can be a shared and normalized experience among groups of neurotypicals.

Let’s Normalize All Harmless Stimming

©Lorra Garrick

Stimming is a diverse and universal aspect of human behavior that extends beyond neurodivergent populations.

Neurotypicals engage in stimming under various circumstances, using these behaviors as coping mechanisms, tools for concentration and means of emotional expression.

Recognizing and understanding stimming in neurotypicals contributes to a more inclusive perspective on human behavior and highlights the commonality of certain coping mechanisms across the human spectrum.

Lorra Garrick has been covering medical and fitness topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder. 


Top image: ©Lorra Garrick