VIDEO: Why Competition In The Gym Is A Double Edged Sword

Why competition in the gym is a double edge sword


Part of what makes working out fun is that it gives us a venue to push ourselves and compete.

No matter how much you dread our FBOMB Friday workouts (which is an extra demanding workout that we do most Fridays at Quantum CrossFit), part of every single one of us loves the challenge. We love the satisfaction we feel after we grit our teeth and decide to keep going when our body tells us to stop.

It may be a tad sadistic, but it's simple fun that makes us feel alive. 

For a moment, we can tell the universe: "hey you bastard, I might feel a bit dizzy, but I'm here and I'm not going anywhere anytime soon."

Add a bit of competition and we naturally strive to better ourselves. As my friend Ben likes to say when he's reminiscing about his old army days, "Steel sharpens steel." 



But competition in fitness is a double-edge sword and we'd all be better off by acknowledging this. 

The same drive that pushes us to be better also drives our ego to do stupid things. 

"My shoulder is a little sore and I didn't sleep well last night, but I know I can beat KC in this pull-up workout if I just put my head down and gun it."

"I'm afraid that I might tweak by back if I do this workout, but everyone else is doing it and I don’t want to be a wuss."

"Front squats hurt my knees, but this workout looks like a great challenge!"

If you relate to one of these statements, chances are you too have been affected by E.I.S (ego induced stupidity).

To continue to get fitter, we need to train more and train harder over time. That's the way it works. Competition helps us do this.

But what if you reach a tipping point where you're actually doing more damage than good some days? If you this applies to you, it probably does! So question what you're doing. 




So, how do we reconcile these two aspects of competition?

1. Know Your Body

...and know which events/workouts/exercises you can effectively and safely push your limits, and which you shouldn't.

Does your back act up sometimes? Maybe high repetition deadlifts aren’t the best fit for you. Perhaps deadlifts from blocks with lots of rest between sets (i.e. not done under fatigue) are a better idea.

At the same time, if all systems are go and your body is feeling good, get out there and give’r! Even if you shouldn’t do high repetition deadlifts, it doesn’t mean you can’t smash some intervals on the Assault Bike.

This brings us to a key question: how do you know when it’s time to pull back or whether you’re being a baby?

If your body is trying to tell you something or you’ve injured yourself multiple times doing a certain routine it’s time to pull back. Listening to your body is always the right call.

But if you’re pulling back on your workout because you’re grumpy at your co-worker who stole your lunch out of the communal fridge, then you’re being a baby. Don’t be a baby.

Hint: “competition style” workouts that require maximal effort should involve exercises that you are 100% proficient in technically and flexible enough to properly perform so you minimize risk of injury and can truly test yourself.

2. Have The Perspective To Check Your Ego

...before it leads you into a potentially compromising/dangerous (from an injury perspective) situation.

One nice thing about one-on-one coaching is that I get to do this for my clients. Their ego doesn't get a vote. I design the workouts just for them and give clients specific intensities to work at. As a result, this is the safest and most effective way to make progress in fitness.

If you don’t have a personal coach who can do this for you, you’ll have to monitor this yourself. To do so, you need to be able to detach from the situation and from your ego (not easy). Imagine that you’re the director of a movie watching a scene unfold. To be successful at checking your ego, you need to be able to take that critical third party view of yourself AND follow through on what you know you should do, even when it’s less fun – i.e. letting someone else dust you in a workout because you know today isn’t the day to push it.


3. Understand What Your Goals Really Are

If performance in competition is everything to you, then you'll be willing to risk a little more than your average single mom who just wants to be able to get up on water skis again. Even if that’s you, there are safer ways to accomplish this. If you find yourself getting injured all the time, etc., drop me a line and we can chat about it. I’ve customized programs for hundreds of people so they can continue to train hard, feel great and stay in amazing shape, but avoid the silly stuff that was causing problems.

If at the end of the day you work out to have fun and stay in good shape for the long haul, I'd argue that you should be very selective about what you're doing.

Not every exercise is going to be the best fit for you. Some exercises might be too simple or too advanced, while others may aggravate old injures or contribute to muscle imbalances that are holding you back. There is no rule book that says you HAVE TO squat or run or jump or wall ball. Sometimes a movement just doesn’t work well for certain people and there are better alternatives.

For example, kipping pull-ups aggravate an old injury to my shoulder. Yes, my times on certain workouts suffer, but that’s just ego. Since I don’t compete in CrossFit, it makes no difference. Therefore, kipping isn’t compatible with my long-term goals (even though I can still suffer through them on any given workout to post a better time) because they put more mechanical stress on the joint. Since I just want to be generally fit, they don’t have any clear benefits for me. I’ll stick to normal pull-ups, peg board training, etc.  

Cutting out exercises that don’t work for you doesn't mean that you can't work on new challenges and new skills. It just means picking your spots. You just might need to get over your perception that avoiding certain movements means that you’re not as cool Michelle who’s banging out butterfly kipping pull-ups like nobody’s business.  


4. Not Every Workout Should Be A Competition

To improve, you need to train hard – whatever that means for you. No one is disputing that.

But, some workouts should be easy to allow for practice and recovery. This is why we schedule a variety of workouts at Quantum CrossFit, and usually average only about 2 workouts a week which are in a "competition" format, with the remaining workouts being training intervals, “for quality” skill practice, or lowering intensity pieces.

If you look at the training of high level athletes in powerlifting, weightlifting, track and field, cross-country skiing, etc. no one goes out and blows their brains out every workout. There is always a balance of restorative work, skill practice, low intensity and high intensity pieces. There is a difference between training and testing.

You don’t test all the time.

This is probably the biggest knock on "CrossFit" - that every workout is treated as a competition. More experienced CrossFit coaches have deviated from this 100% competition-based approach for years, and even CF Headquarters are starting (very slowly) to show signs of change. In fact, just last month, posted the first workout I've ever seen that was for quality, not for time/speed.



Be smart. Take your time to master the basics. Lose the ego. Don’t do stuff that you know is probably stupid.

Decide if you're already "fit enough", or if you want to be an apex predator in the fitness world, or if you're somewhere in between.

Then have a smart approach that's appropriate for that goal and go all in.


PerformancePeter Roberts