Flying solo in the gym can kind of be a drag, especially if you're going through something in your life outside of the gym. Partner up & make serious gains!
Lifting alone has quite a few benefits.
When lifting solo, you have complete control of program choice, load, exercise variation, starting time, etc.
Training alone affords you the opportunity to get lost in the “suck” of a session and deeply focus on each movement and muscle fiber involved without the distraction of human interaction.
There is no substitute for getting into this type of zone during a session.
Problem is, you can’t predict when it will happen. You can’t predict when life will happen.
Good luck trying to find this mindset when your father is going through cancer treatments or your 1 year old hasn’t been sleeping at night.
The perfect mental environment for lifting is tough to find on a consistent basis, life is distracting, and we allow these distractions to show up in the gym in the form of lack of focus and intensity.
While there is no stopping life and its many ways of getting you off track in the gym, one method can help you get the most out of your training regardless of your current mental state:
Training with a solid partner.
The theory that exercise motivation, performance, and adherence increase with a partner of equal or superior levels of fitness is not something new and has been well documented. In a study published in The Annals of Behavioral Medicine1, exercise motivation was tested using 3 separate groups on exercise bikes over the span of 6 separate sessions.
Each group was instructed to ride the bike for as long as they could at a given % of max HR. Group 1 rode alone, the 2nd group had a partner, and the 3rd group had a partner in (perceived) better condition.
Group 1 rode the bike for an average of 10 minutes, group 2 rode for 19 minutes and group 3 rode for 21 minutes. Group 3 more than doubled training volume simply because they were trying to keep up with their partner.
For all the bros who can’t apply this phenomenon to the weight room, think about that last time you saw your boy throw the 100lb dumbbells up 10x on a set of dumbbell bench press. When it was your set, would you be happy with 5 reps? 8? Hell no!
Chances are you aren’t stopping until you either pass out or get those 10 reps. Now think if you were challenged in this way every set for every time you train, the increase in results are not debatable.
More than for providing friendly competition, a quality partner is good at picking you up on days when you aren’t 100%. Maybe you got zero sleep the night before a training session and your partner rolls into the gym fresh off 10 hours of sleep.
In the beginning of that session, you may be dragging but eventually you are going to push harder to match their intensity. Even if you can’t quite reach their level, you can be sure you’ll be getting a lot closer than you would if you were solo - if you even made it to the gym in the first place.
Which brings me to accountability, the fact that you are meeting a fellow lifter who is counting on you to show up and bring your hard hat to train ensures you are less likely to blow off the session for Call of Duty and cheese puffs.
Simply getting to the gym more often and making those days when you aren’t “feeling it” more productive under the bar can produce tangible results when you add it up over time.
Choosing a lifting partner isn’t easy. It would be great if it was as easy as texting your best friend to meet you at the gym and then a few months later heading to the Arnold Classic with IFBB pro cards in hand, but it doesn’t work that way.
You are looking for someone that is on par with you in terms of work ethic and strength. While it’s not necessary to be carbon copies of each other, if you are way off in either of these areas, the motivation isn’t the same.
If you have 135 on the bar and your lifting buddy has 400, seeing him lift that weight can be more discouraging than motivating, it may even make you throw in the towel and call it a day. If the roles are reversed, the stronger lifter may not continue to progress to either avoid discouraging the partner or because he feels like he doesn’t really need to.
In the end we tend to gravitate to the people around us, starting out at similar levels of strength is a winning formula2.
Once you find someone that meets the strength and work ethic requirements, there are a few other characteristics that make a training partner more effective:
Matching schedules: If you can’t meet up, what’s the point?
A decent spotter: Make sure they know not to grab the bar while it’s still moving against gravity, regardless of how slow it’s moving. If there is a long stalemate give it a bump, if it’s going backwards, grab it. It’s simple as that.
Someone who cares: Just like any relationship, there needs to be reciprocal behavior. If you are dialed in during their set and providing the proper cues and spots when necessary, they should do the same for you. Someone that cares whether you get better or not will be more likely to pay attention to your lift. A friend or relative should fit the bill.
A coach who doesn’t overcoach: During a challenging set, one of the first things to go is lifting form. A partner who can eyeball it and give the appropriate cue to get you back on track is invaluable. However, a partner who assumes that yelling at the top of their lungs will help motivate you to perform better should be disposed of, quickly.
Semi-similar goals: While the goal of your training partner doesn’t have to be identical to yours, it should at least be in the same wheelhouse. Obviously, problems will arise if you are a triathlete and your partner is a powerlifter. For most fitness enthusiasts however, a semi-similar goal will work.
If your partner wants to get stronger and you want to get bigger, both of you will see the benefits of increased focus and intensity regardless of the specific program. Compromising and spending time on both strength and hypertrophy style programs would benefit both parties in the long run anyways. If one of you is prepping for a competition on stage or on the platform, all bets are off, find someone else or go alone.
A positive attitude: This can’t be overstated. A quality training partner must leave the negativity in their locker. Someone who constantly complains about training (or life in general) is not someone you want in the squat rack with you during situations that are stressful enough.
Nothing is more demotivating than showing up for leg day and your partner complaining about how much they hate training legs. That type of negativity rubs off, don’t involve yourself with it if you want to improve.
While cliché, the old saying “iron sharpens iron” can’t be better observed than in the weight room.
I can’t begin to count how many reps I would have missed out on without my training partner, especially on compound movements when there are dire consequences if you miss the lift.
When you reach failure on a squat and rack the weight before you hit the prescribed rep count, having someone tell you to “get your ass back in there and finish that damn set” and proceed to spot you so you can finish the set with your lower back intact is a beautiful thing.