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Why a gym is the perfect place to practice your Dutch skills

By Ruud Hisgen, written for IamExpat in June 2024


A fitness centre (sportschool) is not only good for your health, but it is also an excellent way to meet Dutch people and practise your fluency. Ruud Hisgen of Direct Dutch has selected several idioms that will help you understand what to do during your next visit to the gym.

Going to the gym is a great way to stay in shape and meet new people. It might feel scary at first, but there is no reason to be afraid. Join that Circuit Training, Body Shape or Body Pump lesson at your local gym and sweat it all out. Afterwards, you’ll enjoy that delicious post-sport cappuccino in gezellig Dutch company.

1. Fitness doen (To work out)

The Dutch doen fitness, whereas English-speaking gym-goers “work out”. Ik doe fitness can also mean “I go to the gym” or “I go to a fitness centre”. Don’t be surprised if de fitness – or as the Dutch also like to call it a “fitness centre” or “health club” – looks and sounds very similar to the place where you work out in your home country.

Most lessons and instructions use English idioms and words, so you’ll almost feel at home. However, not everything is English and some English is actually Dunglish (A combination of both Dutch and English). Further, when the Dutch speak amongst each other, you might feel left out because many expressions will sound Doubly Dutch to you.

2. Peentjes zweten (To be in a cold sweat)

The very first time you’ll go to de fitness, you’ll probably be so nervous that you’ll zweet peentjes or “sweat carrots”. When you sweat a lot, whether it be out of fear or because you’re using your muscles a lot, the Dutch say Ik zweet peentjes (I am sweating carrots).

But why peentjes of all things? In former centuries, the Dutch and the Flemish also measured their fluids (especially beer) in pints and pinten. The diminutive of pinten is pintjes (small pints) and this was later interpreted as peentjes. This is quite apt because when you’re sweating, the colour of your skin will turn carrot-like.

3. Rug recht, trotse houding (Straight back, proud pose)

Don’t slouch when you’re doing your exercises – and don’t forget to smile. A smile (een glimlach) on your face will keep aching muscles at bay. This piece of conventional wisdom is nonsense of course, but you’ll probably hear this advice a lot when you’re wearing yourself out.

4. Met je staart tussen je benen (With one’s tail between one’s legs)

You shouldn’t take this expression literally but it is often used by my instructor when we’re doing lunges. She repeatedly says: Uitstappen met je staart tussen je benen!. The Dutch word for “lunge” is uitstap and when you’re stepping out, you should avoid looking as if you’re slinking off with your tail between your legs.

No, your attitude should be as straight and proud as can be. You can only achieve this proud pose when your imaginary tail is positioned between your legs. In doing this, you won’t lose your balance when lunging forward or backward.

5. Opdrukken (Push-ups) en planken (Planking)

Exercise in Dutch is oefening. My least favourite oefening is opdrukken (push-ups). Another one is planken. The word plank in Dutch looks like the English plank (board). The difference is the pronunciation of the vowel /a/.

While supporting yourself on your toes and elbows, you keep your entire body as straight as a plank. Planking mainly strengthens your abdominal muscles (de buikspieren) and back muscles (de rugspieren). Other exercises that you’ll have to endure are squats and crunches (but those words are the same in Dutch).

7. Inademen en uitademen (Breathing in and breathing out)

Before you know it, the lesson is over, and the instructor invites you to do some exercises to cool down. The cool-down is the reverse of the warm-up at the start of the lesson. Cooling down prepares your body to rest again and improves recovery. The instructor’s words you’ll most likely hear are: adem in en adem uit (breathe in and breathe out). The final words of the instructor will be: applaus voor jezelf (applause for yourself).

Achieve your fitness and Dutch language goals at the same time

After having done all the oefeningen (exercises) in de fitness, you can feel proud of yourself. Every time you go to de fitness, you improve somewhat. Once you’re finished with your workout, don’t immediately run home afterwards. Mingle with the locals, have a coffee with them and speak Dutch.

This way, het mes snijdt aan twee kanten (literally: the knife cuts on two sides), which can be compared to the English idiom “killing two birds with one stone”. You’ve not only exercised your body, but you are also practising your fluency in Dutch. If the Dutch try to speak English with you, tell them that you want to speak Dutch. You can also wear a button on your shirt that says, “Spreek Nederlands met mij!” to really get the message across.