Having a partner makes those regular workouts more fun and challenging, and can make them a great bonding experience as well. But that can all backfire if you only rely on the other person to step up. If you're buddying up, you need to pull your own weight too, and here's how. Images by stoermchen, Fort Rucker and taberandrew.
Over the years, I've worked out with a variety of training buddies in different settings: School teams, sports leagues, community running groups, big commercial gyms and tight-knit, very competitive "barbell clubs". I've found that the most effective workout partners are consistently able to inspire you to be better and work harder, keep you accountable and constantly make you feel like you really can achieve big things. To be able to do those things for your own workout buddy, the first thing you need to do is show up. Regularly.
You Make Realistic Commitments You Can Keep
You need to be reliable, period. That means you are realistic with the commitments and appointments that you make with your buddy. Be upfront about your individual goals, how many days you are willing to work out and how much time you have to exercise. When you're realistic about your plans, you can both figure out if your schedules even match up to begin with. Things aren't going to be perfect, but as long as you're both aware of these differences, you could work it out.
And while having someone depend on you to show up so he or she can't wiggle out of a workout is the whole point of the tag-team, adult life can always spring surprises (it always does). So if you have to cancel a workout, establish a clear "bailout agreement", where you agree beforehand on what constitutes a valid reason for cancelling, or being really late. Maybe it's a deadline at work, or taking care of a sick family member. "I'm really tired and sore" just doesn't cut it (unless you've been working out too much) on a buddy who's relying on you for motivation and support.
If you're not sure how much time to commit, don't be afraid to start with half the number of hours or days you want to commit to and ramp it up as needed. Keep in mind that gym workouts with a partner tend to take longer than solo ones, so plan for that.
You Inspire Your Partner By Doing, Not Just By Offering Encouragement
It's not like you have to yell "You can do this!" over and over again. That's not the only (or even the best) way to motivate your partner. You need to put in a real, honest effort toward your workouts.
When people are partnered up, they tend to go harder and longer than they would normally. This is called the Köhler effect, when feelings of weakness make people push themselves more when they're with someone who's a bit better. It's why working out with someone else can be so effective. That said, you don't have to be far and away more fit than your buddy, but you should at least put in your all.
What's more, behaviour is contagious. In his landmark study published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, economist Bruce Sacerdote illustrated how good and bad habits can infect others. Specifically, he observed how poor-performing students can pull their grades up by rooming with high-performing students. While this study isn't exactly related to fitness, other studies (like this one in the Journal of Applied Physiology) have found that we tend to catch our partner's mood and behaviours, which affect our own performance, for better or for worse.
In other words, to inspire and keep your workout buddy motivated, your work ethic, your attitude and the effort you put into your workout and relationship all matter more than any verbal cheerleading. If you're dragging your feet and seeming uninterested, it will show and negatively affect your partner and your workout. If you need a little help getting in the mood to work out, listen to your favourite workout music or induce the 20-second rule, where you just focus on the step that takes you 20 seconds or less to do, and the rest will come easier.
You Know How to 'Spot' Your Buddy in the Gym
A good workout buddy doesn't just motivate the other person to challenge himself; a good workout buddy helps make it happen. When I know there's a familiar face who's got my back at the gym, I'd be more willing to add more weight than I otherwise would if I were by myself, simply because I'd trust my workout partner to bail me out if I run into trouble, or "spot me".
To be a good spotter (and therefore a helpful workout partner), you need to know the do's and don't's with spotting someone. Typically, a spot is useful only in a handful of exercises, such as bench press, squat and overhead press. The important thing to remember is that you're not helping someone lift the weight (unless your buddy says so). That means not touching the bar or weight when you don't need to. At the same time, you should know your partner's limitations enough to let him try to battle it out on his own, and then swoop in if really needed (a sure-fire sign is when your buddy's lifting form is badly breaking down).
Check out this video for how to be properly spot someone. Remember, the most important thing is to clearly communicate when the spot is needed.
You Cultivate the Relationship Outside of the Gym
A workout takes only an hour or so in the gym, but as we all know, the struggle to keep that fitness momentum gets tricky when we're outside of the gym. We could all use someone to lean on when the going gets tough or to celebrate victories with, so you shouldn't have to restrict your relationship to just inside the gym. For example, I love being able to freely text and talk to my workout partners about everything and anything about fitness, especially since all my talk of macros and fitness lingo would probably scare my non-fitness friends away.
I recall texting a buddy one time after overindulging on fried chicken and beer and feeling really guilty. I was really beating myself up about it, but after going back and forth with him, he helped me realise that everything was not going to go up in flames like they'd initially felt they would. The point is, you can still motivate and support the other person, even when you're not in the gym together. You'd be surprised by how simply texting someone, "Don't worry, it's a lot worse in your head," or "We all go through those days. Tell me more about yours." can go a long way.
Of course, these aren't all of the traits an awesome workout buddy should have, but these are some important ones. At the end of the day, fitness is as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one. In these instances, what you do or say (or sometimes not do or say) can have subtle, far-reaching impacts on someone else's psyche and motivation. This support can often mean the difference between blowing fitness off or bucking up and showing up at the gym, day in and day out.