Don’t Let Your Training Become a Circus Act

Your ego-fueled lifts are more like the freak show than the strongman, and are setting you up for big problems.

The gym is one of the most interesting cross-sections of society to observe; a veritable circus of feats, tricks, and optical illusions. Scenes of average-sized lifters hoisting massive amounts of weight overhead, heaving stacks of iron on machines, and practically reinventing the wheel when it comes to tactics for increasing strength and muscle mass. To add to these often hilarious and horrendous images are the grunts, groans, and howls that accompany them.

Many lifters get caught up in the mundane habit of doing what they’ve always done. This practice of going through the motions is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, consistency is a must in any physical endeavor. On the other, small, undesired shifts in technique can sneak into your routine without you noticing, and set you up for problems. Some of that is ego. The desire to move huge weight leads to shortened ranges of motion and compromised technique, because you feel the need to demonstrate your progress even if you haven’t made the changes required to get you there.

Take a step back and ask yourself some serious questions. Why do you train? What is it that you want to get out of your program? What truly motivates you? Is your ego driving your actions in the gym? Are you too aware of those around you, so you feel the need to impress? Who are you there for?

Below are a few key principles worth revisiting. It’s time to do a little housecleaning of your training. These are quality fixes to be used as a foundation for all that you do in the gym. Set the ego aside, try to incorporate these suggestions, and leave the circus behind.

Find Your Best ROM

We seem to be inundated with range of motion junkies who wear their ability to squat to the floor as a badge of honor. If you’re not squatting all the way all the time, you’re just not getting all you can out of the exercise, they say.

Full range of motion for most exercises is a must for full development, but certain movements may require a closer look regarding what is optimal for you. Not everyone is built to squat hamstring-to-calf. Hip mobility, length of both upper and lower legs, ankle mobility, and knee health (just to name a few) all have a say in what constitutes optimal range of motion. Find your own unique groove for every exercise. Most exercises will call for a full range while other, more complex moves may require a slight adjustment.

Pay Attention to the Bench

Most lifters waltz into the gym, set up shop at the bench press station and just lift the bar from point A to point B without much thought. For experienced lifters, it’s more like moving the bar from point A to point Z, and all points between. There are many nuances to the bench press that so many simply pass over because they are only concerned with the weight.

Elbow placement and motion, body contact, tension, and ribcage setup all need your attention. For more strength-minded lifters, an angle of around 45 degrees for the upper arms to torso will cultivate more power and strength, not to mention safety. Shift your shoulders down and back and keep your ribcage high, while maintaining an arch in your lumbar. Your head, upper back, butt and both feet should be in contact with the bench and floor, and tensed to generate a more stable foundation.

Kill the Moth

I often describe the execution of certain exercises, such as dumbbell lateral raises, dumbbell curls, and press-downs, as that of a dying moth. Flailing arms, no stable body position, and more body English than, well, a dying moth. This is also apparent during many unilateral exercises, where one side of the body has to do the work while the other side is left soft and inattentive.

Whether you’re performing a squat or a one-arm concentration curl, whole-body stability is a must. Just like the larger, compound movements, unilateral and even light supportive work will benefit from slightly bent knees, a tight core, and proper shoulder and spinal alignment. You’ll not only lift more effectively, but also stave off injury.

Don’t Be a Machine Hero

Another priceless scene found in many gyms is the machine warrior. He’ll jam the pin at the bottom of the weight stack and proceed to contort, disfigure, and abuse his body just for the sake of impressing onlookers. If only any of them were actually impressed.

Machine work, for the most part, should only be performed for a few reasons: working around injury, rehab, finishing a muscle group, or injecting a little variety into your routine. Whatever your reasons, you still need to use textbook form, proper body positioning, and avoid maxing out or going excessively heavy. Just because a machine removes the requirement for your body to provide balance and stability, doesn’t give you a green light to go nuts.

Fight for the Right Position

Another common mistake is to change your body angle for the sake of lifting more weight. The biggest culprit is the bent-over row. As the weight increases, so does the angle of the upper torso. This turns a bent row into an upright row, working more of the upper back, shoulders, and traps. In keeping with the row example, bend over until your body is parallel with the floor. If you tend to hit the floor with the weight in the extended position, step up on a low box for more range of motion. Pull the bar up to your stomach while maintaining the same parallel position.

Leave the Squad

Training partners are wonderful things. They motivate you, keep you accountable, and assist you with some risky lifts, but too much help can be a hindrance. Too much assistance during lifts, delivering dumbbells for presses, and constantly pulling or pushing levers of machines will never let you learn real independence.

Instead of asking for help, make things harder. For example, if you’re overhead pressing, lift the bar from the ground into the front rack position, manage dumbbells and kettlebells on your own, and practice lowering weights to the ground before re-racking them. This will develop more grit overall.

Stay Out of the Circus

Take stock of your training and honestly answer the tough questions at the beginning of this article. Regular, honest self-assessment is a practice that should become a habit for both newbies and experienced lifters alike. Just because you’ve been training since the new guy was in diapers doesn’t grant you the right to never question your own techniques. Think of performing an assessment like taking your car in for a diagnostic every so often. You’ll be glad you did, so you can become a spectator of the circus instead of a fledgling member.