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Do You Train or Compete in the Gym?

When I travel, I visit gyms in the destination locations so I can continue my program of training. Some people go to gyms to train, others to compete. Which choice you make will greatly determine the results you see.

By "compete," I mean the irrational behavior of using excess weight and improper form out of some mistaken notion that it matters how much or how little others in the gym see you lift. The problem is primarily among guys, though some women exhibit the behavior as well.

This behavior necessarily sacrifices intensity, meaning it about defeats your presumed purpose in working out in the first place. Without intensity, you don't get the adaptive response that leads to a leaner, more muscular body.

Let's look at the bench press as an example of where this behavior plays out. The typical guy has no clue as to how to bench press properly. If you watch, you will see several mistakes. Correct just one mistake, for example, the shoulder pronation that recruits the front deltoids into the exercise, and the person performing the exercise must use less weight. For this specific error, it's typically 50% less.

Combine that error with the typical high-rep, fast-tempo bench pressing routine, and you have a "workout" that produces more bad results than good. Someone who "works out" this way is at high risk for rotator cuff injury. A person doing the exercise correctly reduces that risk. While the risk-reducing person doesn't look as impressive in terms of plates on the bar, over time that person will look much more impressive in the mirror.

Some gym competitors like to use the back squat as their injury-inducing exercise of choice. This exercise can result in long-term damage to your back even when done correctly, and experts like Frank Zane say not to do it at all.

Because the back squat is easier than the front squat, gym competitors favor this exercise. They can load a lot more weight onto the bar, and they can cheat on their form much more to amplify the amount they can lift. Younger men who fancy themselves "real weight lifters" start ratcheting up the back squat weights, and then find they've got hemorrhoids due to the excess pelvic pressure they've generated over a few months of improper technique with far too much weight on the bar.

Why are you there?

When I use a public gym, I don't care at all what anyone else is lifting or what anyone else thinks of my program. If someone starts with the passive aggressive behavior and alpha dog posturing, I just take off my shirt and strike a few poses. With my vascularity and definition, that ends any ideas of competing with me. Then I return to my workout.

But not everyone has this luxury. If you don't have it, just keep working out properly and you will have it. For now, remember that your program is your program. Stick to it.

If someone at the gym sincerely offers training advice, that's a different matter. Engage that person, and show both respect and gratitude. Try out what they are suggesting, and ask them to watch and ensure that's what they mean. But don't give in to the mindless "I can lift more than you can lift" competition.

It doesn't bother me at all that another person is so insecure she or he feels compelled to try to "one up" me. I am not there to compete with that person. I am there to train. If you are at the gym for any other reason, it's probably not a good reason. Many people treat the gym as a singles bar, which is, in my opinion, a bit pathetic. A guy hitting on every woman at the gym will probably be seen as pathetic, too. A guy who is there to train will look confident. If he is also polite, chances are good the single women there will notice him and some kind of "accidental" arrangement will take place.


Stay focused

When you go to the gym, you are there to work a specific muscle group (if you know what you're doing, that is). Stay focused on that mission. You aren't going to the gym to compete with other people to see who can do the least effective workout. You are going there to work on having the kind of body you want. To do that:

  • Focus on form. This is how you isolate a muscle or set of muscles to really work them, and it's how you avoid injury. You can't do correct form if you're adding too much weight.
  • Focus on contraction. This is how you get intensity. Do slow reps, and mentally connect with the muscle under tension to contract it as hard as possible. You can't do slow reps with excess weight.
  • Focus on results. Be thinking of your purpose, each time you start a set.
  • Keep it short but brutal. A workout can be long, or it can be intense. These are mutually exclusive.

Because I use public gyms only when traveling, I don't avail myself of a technique that works very well for a friend of mine. He goes to a public gym for all of his workouts. He's made a point of befriending others, and putting them at ease. This gets them out of the mode of the mindless competition and helps them focus.

Be polite

Here are some rules to help everyone get along at any gym:

  • Don't grunt. Grunting doesn't help you move the weight. If you "need" to grunt, then use less weight and focus on the technique and the contraction.
  • Put weights away. When you've completed a routine, put the weights back. In some cases, this will mean putting dumbbells back on the rack. In other cases, it will mean putting plates back on the weight tree or other device. In many cases, it will mean putting away weights someone else left out.
  • Be clean. If there's a chance you will perspire on the equipment (especially a bench), use a towel.
  • Let others concentrate. Don't chat with people who are in the middle of a set. Don't chat with people when you are in the middle of a set. While many don't see a problem with multitasking, it is a problem for anyone serious about building a great body.
  • Offer to help. If someone is struggling with the bench or squats, get in the spotter position. Give that person just enough help to complete the rep, but no more. Ask, "Do you want help with the rest of this routine?"
  • Don't judge. If someone wants your advice, let that person ask for it. Coming up to someone and saying, "You're doing this wrong, let me show you what I know" doesn't go over very well unless your last name is Schwarzenegger, Yates, or Haney.

Finally, share but don't jump in. If someone is doing a set on the only available (fill in the blank), ask if you can do your sets between theirs. If they say no, you probably won't have to wait long. People who don't know what they are doing will typically do 3 sets of 8 reps, while someone with an intensity-based workout is more likely to do 8 sets of 3 reps.


Article Authorship

The articles on this site are authoritative, because:

  • Every contributor is an expert in his or her field.
  • The articles comply with the accepted principles of the bodybuilder literature.
  • The articles comply with the teachings of such luminaries as 8-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney.

 Where an article is not bylined with a specific author's name, it was written by Mark Lamendola (see photos on home page and elsewhere on this site). Mark is a 4th degree blackbelt, has not been sick since 1971, and has not missed a workout since 1977. Just an example of how Mark knows what he's talking about: In his early 50s, Mark demonstrated a biceps curl using half his body weight. That's a Jack LaLanne level stunt. Few people can even come close. If you want to know how to build a strong, beautiful body, read the articles here.

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