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Finding the Perfect Training Partner

Ashleigh Atkinson, MHK

Finding your ideal match in the gym for the ultimate support system

Committing to a training partner is the most important relationship decision you’ll ever make. Okay … maybe not, but it ranks pretty high on the list. If you want to make considerable progress in the gym, the person you pick to train with can either push you forward or keep you stagnant. When picking the ideal training partner, you need to consider a few factors—and it goes beyond someone’s physique or their deadlift numbers.

Is There Power in Numbers?

Looking around your gym, you probably see various training approaches. There are the people who are more than happy to train solo, and have been doing so for their whole fitness experience. If their goal is focused on maintaining their level of fitness, and they’re able to safely lift the weight they want, training alone may work just fine. Many people see it as a good mental escape in their day and quality alone time for themselves.

Then are those who train in groups of three or four. They cycle through an exercise one by one, while the others chat or scroll through their phones, making each set take longer than it should. In a typical gym setting, training in a group like this can hinder the workout—not only for those in the group but also everyone else wanting to use the equipment being monopolized. There’s usually too much down time between sets, allowing the intensity to drop and people’s minds to wander away from the task. It’s doubtful that everyone is able to lift the same amount of weight, requiring a lot of shifting to happen between sets, further drawing out the workout. Not an ideal option if you’re looking to maximize your time in the gym.

Finally, there are the groups of two: the training partners who consistently show up at the gym together and make their way through their workout, rotating efficiently back and forth for their sets. With two people, the time between your sets can be the perfect amount of recovery time, which keeps a stable level of intensity. The other person is there to spot, watch your technique, and push you to get a couple more reps. This seamless dynamic can be difficult to find, but if you’re lucky enough to get it, it can pay dividends for your progress.

Dyadic Effect

An item that consists of two elements is known as a dyad, derived from the Greek work dyas, meaning the number two. In this case, the elements are people working in an interactional manner. Two is the smallest social group possible, making each person’s contribution to the group equally important—meaning that neither person can slack!

Keeping a partnership working smoothly requires a balance between giving and taking from both people. Communication, especially at the start, is critical to ensure both sides understand their roles and the commitment required. Some of the ins and outs may develop over time and go unspoken, but being upfront early on is the best way to avoid a breakup down the road.

Partner Up for Progress

If you’ve always hit the gym solo, it can be tough to transition to training with someone else. You might anticipate some awkward conversation, feel insecure about someone judging your strength, or fear the challenge of someone pushing you outside of your comfort zone. There might be an adjustment phase, but if you click with a training partner, it’ll be short lived. Sooner rather than later, you’ll be reaping the many rewards a strong partnership can bring.

Often, athletes involved in sports such as bodybuilding and powerlifting can feel isolated. Spending hours upon hours in the gym each week is a hard sell to most people as a social event. So, they end up logging a lot of time alone. Not only can a training partner fill this void, but they can help in a number of other ways:

Increase Your Lifts. When working to increase your strength, there will come a point where you may hesitate to add more weight to the bar. However, when you have a training partner, you’ll feel more confident doing so. They’ll be there to help with the liftoff, spotting, and safely re-racking the weight. Beyond the physical support, sometimes just the simple aspect of having someone watching is enough to give you the mental boost to lift more—without even needing their help.

Safely Execute Heavy Lifts. When it comes to the big compound lifts, you likely often seek out a spotter for safety reasons, especially if you’re pushing your intensity. A training partner is a built-in spotter. From an injury perspective, some exercises are riskier than others, such as bench press and squats. Having a reliable partner who knows how to spot properly can help you feel more confident in pushing yourself on these lifts.

Hold You Accountable. Consider having a training partner like having an appointment at the gym—you don’t skip out on a booked appointment without penalty. When you know someone expects you to be there, and is waiting for you, you show up. Consider this built-in accountability a benefit on those days when your energy is low and you feel less than motivated to get to the gym.

Push You Harder. On those days that you’re having a tough workout, where the energy and drive just isn’t there, a good training partner can provide the push you need. Likewise, when you’re having a solid workout, your partner can keep the energy up and push you even harder—take advantage when you’ve got it.

Apply Advanced Techniques. Some training techniques require another person to execute, and having someone with you through every workout will make it easier to include them. Techniques such as forced reps and negatives can only be done with someone’s help, and can add a different stress to the muscle. While drop sets can be done without a partner, having someone help strip plates will speed up the transition, keeping the intensity of the set high.

Friendly Competition. There’s no doubting the effect competition can have on your performance. If you’re able to find a partner who is closely matched to you in terms of strength, you can both use it to your advantage. A little friendly competition never hurts, especially when it benefits both parties!

Traits of a Good Partner

Now that we’ve sold you on the idea of a training partner by laying out all the ways you can benefit, the challenge is finding someone who fits the bill. You may need to “interview” a handful of people before you find the right person.

So, what makes for a good partner? While you may be inclined to have your closest friend meet you at the gym, that might not be your smartest move. Also, the resident powerlifter, CrossFitter, strongman, or bodybuilder from your gym may also not be your best match, even if their physique or strength is enviable. When you’re looking for a training partner, there are some requirements that should be weighted heavily.

Personality. While you don’t need to be best friends, or even hang out outside the gym, it does help if the two of you have complementary personalities. If you’re the type who thrives on loud, verbal motivation, a very reserved partner may not suit your needs. Or, if you like to work in reasonable silence, someone chatty might make you dread training sessions. If nothing else, you need to at least be able to get along and enjoy each other’s company for the time you spend at the gym together.

Matching Goals. If one person is seriously focused on building muscle and the other goes to the gym for the general health benefits, it will likely be hard to find the right balance in intensity and programming. Similarly, if one person follows a powerlifting program and the other likes to do lots of giant sets with minimal rest, you’ll probably be a poor match.

While your goals don’t need to be perfectly aligned, there should be similarities in your approaches to training—both in style and workout split. In the best-case scenario, nearly all your workouts will match during the week. It’s common to have a muscle group or two that needs extra attention, which may mean you have one session that’s different, but if you can time your sessions right, there should be enough overlap to train together most of the week.

Perfect Spotting Skills. Spotting someone may seem pretty straightforward, but there’s a degree of finesse that needs to be used. No one wants a training partner who takes too much of the work off their reps, or who doesn’t catch the cues to step in and help. Everyone has different preferences when it comes to spotting, with some people expecting their partner to help early in the set and others only wanting help on the last couple of reps if they’re really struggling.

Likewise, from the spotter’s perspective, everyone is very different in their need for help. Some people will gradually show signs of fatigue through the last half of their set, while others may suddenly hit a wall and need help. In a good partnership, the spotter knows what to expect from their training partner, and what to watch for as a cue for support. It can take time for both people to learn the right touch and to read their partner’s cues as they work. In the case of a strong partnership, this shouldn’t take too long to develop.

Reliability.  There’s one critical component to being a good training partner: physically being there. When you agree to be at the gym at a certain time, your partner obviously expects you to show up on time, ready to work. Whether you’re running five minutes late or are unable to make a session, let your partner know with as much warning as possible. With advance notice, they may be able to shift their schedule, or can get started without you. If you consistently leave your partner waiting, wondering if you’ll be there, you might not have a training partner for long.

Similar Schedules. You could find the most ideal training partner who meets all your criteria, but if this one element doesn’t match up, the relationship is doomed from the start. Incompatible schedules, like working opposite shifts, will make it challenging to find the time to meet at the gym. Consider your work schedules and family obligations when looking for a training partner, ensuring they allow you both enough free time, at the same time of day, to get your training sessions in together.

Motivational Skills. No, we don’t want your partnership to be based on consistent flattery and compliments. Motivating someone isn’t always done through positivity. Rather, it should be a balance between positive feedback and constructive criticism. When you’re slacking on your workout, your partner should be the person to call you out and hold you accountable to step up the effort—and you should do the same for them.

Knowledge. For someone who is seriously trying to improve, a partner who has the knowledge to correct your technique is beneficial. If your partner is unsure of what muscle group an exercise is targeting, or how to properly perform an exercise, they won’t be able to give you critical feedback on your execution. Your bench press is uneven? Your squat is too shallow? Your shoulders are taking over your biceps work? Someone with a critical eye can see these things and flag them for you, preventing you from developing muscle imbalances or even suffering an injury.

In searching for a training partner, you need to assess how crucial some of these factors are for you. You may be willing to overlook one or two of them for someone who meets all the others. As with any other relationship, compatibility hinges on how well you both respect the relationship and behave toward each other, which is something only you will learn over time.

It’s Not You, It’s Me ... Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Just like friendships and romantic relationships, sometimes gym partnerships just don’t work. You may come to this realization quickly if the two of you don’t jive well after a couple of workouts. On the other hand, what was a solid training partnership for years could stop functioning or no longer serve your needs. Perhaps your goal changes or your personal schedule shifts. No matter the reason, sometimes a breakup is unavoidable.

Another factor to consider is that you’ve outgrown each other. If you’re serious about making changes to your physique, causing a shift in your training style, your current training partner may not be the best match for you anymore. Perhaps their behaviour has shifted too—they’ve been late more frequently, are distracted during training, or don’t push you in the same way as before. From either side, there are a number of reasons a training partnership comes to an end.

No matter the reason, if the partnership isn’t working for you, try talking it out first to find a solution. Perhaps your partner is dealing with life stress that’s keeping them distracted and unmotivated. Once the conversation is open, you may reach a solution that saves the partnership, or you both may come to the realization that the partnership is, in fact, over. No matter what, by being open, honest, and up-front, you can make sure it ends on civilized terms.

When it comes to interactional relationships, you can’t judge someone without truly working with them. Yes, you may be able to rule someone out quickly, but finding a person you’re compatible with will likely take a couple of sessions at a minimum. It’s not a paper-and-pencil checklist or a swipe-right situation based on a superficial impression. Any partnership needs to be mutually beneficial for the people engaged in the activity at hand, and the gym is no different.

Look past your doubts or preconceived notions about training with someone else and give it a shot. It may be the key to reaching a new level with your training and physique—or you may just gain a new friend in the process.

CROSSFIT … The Ultimate Fan Club

Even if CrossFit isn’t your cup of tea, you have to give it to them for having a supportive, family environment. In a regular gym, it’s rare to see a large group of people training with intensity, pushing each other, and giving verbal support. It’s more common to see a group with one person working and the others splitting duties between spotting, checking social media, and chatting. But in a CrossFit gym, the entire atmosphere is one of motivation and celebration. Instead of wearing headphones or wasting time on phones, everyone is focused on one another’s workouts and cheering them on. CrossFit gyms win top points for an unmatched sense of camaraderie and support – truly a different experience than a group in a traditional gym would have.

Couples That Train Together…

If you’re lucky enough to share a passion for fitness with your significant other, it may seem like the perfect training partnership. Although you may be incredibly compatible outside the gym, does it transfer over to this world? Before you take your romantic relationship to a sweaty level (of a different sort), consider some important training and love-life aspects.

In male-female partnerships, there’s usually a large difference in strength. When it comes time to switch weights on plate-loaded machines, needing to move a lot of weight back and forth can add substantial time between sets. Not only can this slow the workout down, but it can cause people to lose their focus and lower the intensity of the workout. Likely, someone will get frustrated with the process, which can cause tension during the session—and not the kind your relationship needs.

Secondly, both people need to clearly outline their goals and how they want to train in the gym. Just like in any training partnership, if one person wants to train in a very different way than the other, trying to work together is probably futile.

One more aspect you might want to consider is if training together is going to strengthen your relationship. Some couples thrive on pushing each other and can accept some helpful criticism and feeling slightly vulnerable at the gym. If pushing your partner in the gym isn’t something they’re interested in, frustration can build and cause arguments. If either you or your partner take things very personally and can’t separate the relationship from the workout, it may be best to go your own way when you get to the gym … for the sake of your relationship.

If you and your spouse are focused on similar goals, have the same work ethic and training style, and are able to push each other without causing tension, it could work to work out together. But, if training in the gym together doesn’t work for your relationship, you should find another hobby or activity to do together on a regular basis. Often, the person who doesn’t live for the gym can get resentful of the time their partner spends away. Consider making a point to prioritize time together, so there are no issues around the time you spend training.

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