Why did you first decide to join a gym? I am willing to wager that it wasn’t to stand around and gossip with the guy next to you while you waited in line to use the next available elliptical. Unfortunately, all too often, that is the mentality that creeps in to even the most reputable training facilities.
When you join a gym, the reason should always be to improve the physical quality of your life. Whether it be through training as an elite athlete or simply increasing the longevity and improved output of daily life, performing at a higher, more efficient level of functionality from when you first entered should not only be your focus, it should be what you expect and demand of the gym from which you train. The only way to better your physical performance is through hard work, purposeful training, and a willingness to commit.
The purpose of training is to make you better. Your improvement should be specific, measurable, and repeatable. Make no conditions; if you are stronger, faster, and can accomplish tasks better, you are improving. Henry Rollins wrote it best in “The Iron.” In his own objective measure of truth, he explains that truth is performance, and performance is truth.
“There is no better way to fight weaknesses than with strength. Once the mind and body have been awakened to their true potential, it’s impossible to turn back.”
Many people focus on mental, emotional, or environmental factors as primary motivators for training. These are important, but they should be used to correlate with improving performance – not made out to be the cause of it. In training, there are hard factors and soft factors. Hard factors consist of increased strength, endurance, and performance, while the soft factors are comprised of the need for change, the ability to change, the willingness to change, and how you feel as a result.
When one gets stronger or performs better, the soft factors improve also. Soft factors affect performance, but many times when an individual focuses on performing a task and accomplishing it, their mental state improves too. Many studies demonstrate the positive effect that exercise has on one’s mood (see “The Exercise Effect,” by Kirsten Weir). If chasing performance is one’s cause, feeling better becomes the effect.
“Do the thing and you shall have the power,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said.
The reason to train is to develop physical skills and abilities so you may do something else with them. Strength and conditioning developed far before the Spartans had the Agoge. Soldiers were physically trained to perform their tasks on a battlefield so their tribe could survive to pass on their genes, hence the true definition of “fitness.” Training equated to survival in the ancient eras. Today, strength and conditioning is used to enhance sports performance and to a lesser extent, the health and fitness of regular folks.
How do we measure performance? Metrics is the key. There needs to be specific metrics that relate to one’s training effect and performance. Training should be objectively measurable – squatting more, pushing more, running faster, and additional range of motion are all objective standards for measuring performance. Heart chakras, chi, and auras are very subjective measurements. Feelings, improved self-identification, and feeling supported by “the group” can only be measurable if you have a physiologist, prescription, and statistician to make heads and tails of it. Performance is concrete. Do you lift more, run faster, or perform better on the field? Performance is irrefutable truth.
Where People Get Lost
People get lost when anything other than performance becomes more important. When they lose focus on why they started going to the gym in the first place and what their goals were originally, there within begins the problem. Unless a person is training alone in his or her garage, training is a social function. The social dynamics of training as a group can either positively or negatively affect one’s performance. Only the athlete can decide and actively choose which he or she will accept as life at the gym. If the individual allows social status, what’s happening next weekend, or individual ego to dominate training, everyone loses. When one allows social bonds to positively impact the level and commitment to his/her performance, social bonds aid in the productivity of the individual and of the group.
In personal training, there is an inherent bond between the trainer and client. The relationship begins because the client hires the trainer to achieve a specific goal or goals. The client hires the trainer to create a physical result. As such, the client pays the trainer to get that result. People pay for performance. The relationship is clearly defined. Over time, a bond forms between the two as they both work together to obtain a specific goal. Just as the client has the responsibility to maintain focus, it is also the responsibility of the trainer to keep him or her focused and guide in creating new goals as they approach and conquer old ones.
Trainees that join a gym for group sessions come in with a lower price point in mind. That lower price point buys them a shared experience. The relationship is that clients hire the gym to provide classes and training that get them the results they want. This type of relationship is less clearly defined, but systemically, the gym provides a class schedule, competent instruction, and programming to meet the client’s goals. People still pay for performance. Group exercisers’ interaction with the instructor and the other members creates a social environment. Those people share a common experience – training and emotional release – and as a result, they bond. Here is where things get messy:
Emotional Fragility and Performance
People have needs. People identify with groups. People need to identify with groups. You see this in political parties, tribes, nations, races, branding, and any other way one chooses to identify himself. When people work out together, they form bonds of common experience; the more acute the experience, the greater the bond.
Think of that group of guys that have met up at 5:30 a.m. at the gym for the last 20 years to bench and get their bro session on. It becomes a routine that supports training. Routine: Chest and biceps, back and triceps, then leg day. They push each other to get better. They form an emotional attachment to each other. They become friends.
Personal training can become an emotionally charged experience. The relationship begins by the trainer coaching the client to get results. The client is the focus of that trainer for an hour at a time. They work hard together and get the results they desire. The close work fosters a bond between the two. One of the aspects of the relationship is that the client gets an hour of undivided attention (assuming the trainer is professional and is not texting or talking on the phone during that session). The individual attention makes the client feel they are a top priority. This is unfortunately a unique experience for most, as people are rarely the sole attention of anyone. In today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world, cellphones and the Internet are always a distractor. The relationship between client and trainer is a positional power relationship; the client does what the trainer asks them to do, so the trainer has to respect that relationship for what it is – a professional one.
The group exercisers meet: The 6 a.m. crew bonds, socializes and hangs out together first in the gym and then outside. The upside of this is group accountability and adherence to positive norms. The downside is the group cliques that can take the focus away from performance and into social recognitions. If the focus becomes the group itself and detracts from the purpose of training, which is to achieve performance, then what was once a positive aspect of group training becomes the very thing that can bring it down. The group becomes an identity apart from the training. There is nothing wrong with strictly social groupings, but if that is what you are looking for, then you should adhere to the social norms of a country club and not confuse social branding with physical training and performance.
The way we humans became the apex predator of the planet is our ability to operate in groups. Adherence to norms, codes of behavior, and customs are positive attributes of our species, but these same assets are also our undoing: think Gustav Le Bon and The Crowd. He explains how a group, in its composition, will merge into collective thought patterns, which robs the individual of their personal opinions, values, and beliefs. Groupthink and the appeal to emotion are the antithesis of reason. Gyms are no different.
Getting Back On Track
If you have lost your way, focus on performance. Focusing on performance sets a ship back on course. Focusing on performance is how you right wrongs. Focusing on performance is what gives you internal strength. Focusing on performance is how you know when you are better. To quote Henry Rollins, “200 pounds is always 200 pounds.”
Doug Chapman is the owner of HyperFit USA, home of CrossFit Ann Arbor. CrossFit Ann Arbor is a ten year affiliate and one of the first in the world. Doug leads classes, training camps and online programming. He has coached athletes to nearly 30 appearances at the CrossFit Games including individuals, masters and several teams producing 5 podium finishers. Doug’s interests are in philosophy, history and physics.