The Trouble With Competitive Exercise

STACK Expert Ryan Hoover opines on how and why competitive exercise programs can be irresponsible and even dangerous. Should a penguin race a hawk?

Competitive Exercise

The fitness industry is always looking for "the next big thing," and the past decade or so has brought a lot of good things: Insanity, CrossFit, P90X, Zumba, Flywheel, boot camps, mud runs, BodyPump and Prancercise, to name a few. OK, so I threw that last one in just to see if you were paying attention.

It's pretty easy to see why these (and many other) programs have attracted a lot of attention and legions of followers, even if it is just as easy to question why, in some cases. I am not writing to disparage any program or organization, but I do hope to shed some light on what I feel is a real problem in the industry: competitive exercise.

What Is Competitive Exercise?

Conceptually, competitive exercise uses the performance of others, in a group setting, to motivate you to scale new fitness summits (commonly referred to as Personal Records, or PRs). On the surface, it certainly doesn't seem nefarious. In fact, on a peripheral level, it's a great idea.  So, where does it go wrong?

The Problem

People can certainly gain emotional strength from each other when training together. But when the group dynamic becomes competitive, the "tone" changes.  It is no longer about bringing others along with you. It is about beating them and not being beaten. This leads to an environment, which, simply put, is dangerous. It pits the pedestrian against the athlete, encourages irresponsible gym etiquette and sacrifices form and function in favor of number chasing.

Exercise and training (not the same thing, but I'll save that for another article) are very personal. Everyone has his or her own goals and experience level, and each person is at a different "place" physically, mentally and emotionally when class begins. This cannot be denied, so if we acknowledge it, how can it possibly seem reasonable to have a group of people different in so many ways compete against each other?  It defies logic.

Prevalence of Injury

It's like trying to have a penguin (pedestrian) race a hawk (athlete) across the Sierra Nevadas. Yes, both are birds, but. Besides the environment being terribly discouraging and dispiriting for the penguin, it is dangerous. The penguin is led to believe he can win, and so he pushes above and beyond his capacity (at least his capacity at that moment.) Quite often, this leads to injury—sometimes very serious injury—and the number of injuries is often substantial. Most of us start an exercise or training program to become more fit and healthy. A high probability or rate of injury is antithetical to this goal.

We are not all the same; therefore, as a trainer, I want to impress upon my clients that true competition exists within. I want them to strive to be better than they were yesterday or last week, not better than the guy or girl next to them, because that has zero relevance to their personal growth and development. I want to recognize the attributes of the penguin compared to the penguin, not compared to the hawk.

Gym Etiquette

Another and perhaps more hazardous aspect of competitive exercise is that the overall culture often leads to irresponsible gym etiquette. The following video is an extreme example, but I believe it to be indicative of the type of dangerous behavior that can be cultivated in a highly competitive environment. If we witnessed anything like this in one of our centers (theoretically of course, because this would never happen), the person attempting the "feat" and the person filming it would be stopped immediately and harshly. Unfortunately, the opposite happens in this video. The woman is encouraged to continue, even after expressing her own uncertainty.

WARNING:  this video is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach:

Lest you think I scoured the Internet for days, to discover this solitary example, I give you this:

Nearly everything in that video displays what is wrong with competitive exercise and the almost inevitable pernicious atmosphere it creates.

Need for Speed

Finally, and at the risk of further alienating a large portion of the industry and watching myself burning in effigy on a barbell planted in my front yard, I want to address another disturbing facet that too often results from competitive training: sacrificing form, body and personal growth in order to "win." Here's the thing. I do not want to be the best at doing it wrong, and I certainly do not want to encourage this in my clients.

A shining example of this are kipping and/or Butterfly Pull-Ups. The sole purpose for doing the exercise this way is for speed. It's about doing more reps in less time. It cannot be competently argued that kipping Pull-Ups will develop more strength than standard Pull-Ups, which actually use a pulling motion as a result of muscle contraction, not momentum.

In a video I found online while looking for instructions on the kipping Pull-Up, the coach (who seems like a very knowledgeable and personable guy) says, "The main goal here is to use our hips to gain momentum to get up and over the bar."

Well, that sounds like a great way to initiate a Muscle-Up, but not a Pull-Up. When it comes to performing Pull-Ups, this is cheating—sacrificing strict form and strength development for the sake of speed. Now, I am not saying it is wrong, only that I prefer it to be acknowledged and not masked with a clever moniker and promises that make it seem something other than what it is. If—purely for the sake of beating the guy or girl next to you, or of gaining the top spot on the white board—speed  takes precedence, so be it. Own it.

Just to be clear, kipping is only one example, and it's not the worst thing in world. But the attitude that competitiveness encourages leads to dangerous behavior that would otherwise be considered irresponsible and stupid.

Good Coaches Make a Difference

There are many very good coaches out there, some of whom operate within competitive atmospheres while engendering safe environments. Generally, these coaches have dedicated a lifetime to learning about strength and conditioning and anatomy/physiology. They understand that competent coaching of complicated lifts cannot be learned in a weekend certification course. I know some of them, and I hope to steer clear of their ire, because I believe they are doing good things.  Unfortunately, however, I believe such coaches are the exception, and the majority are the inevitable result of mass proliferation of a business model. If the "product" happened to be notebook paper, it would not warrant attention; no one would be injured or discouraged. However, it is not notebook paper, and many people are injured and discouraged, while a culture dismisses or even reveres something like rhabdomyolysis. It does not have to be that way.

I hope coaches will remember why they became coaches, then evaluate whether their methodology matches their aspirations.

Self-evaluation is an uncomfortable process. I know because I have done it many times and will continue to do it. Nevertheless, growth comes with discomfort, and if we require it of our clients, we should lead from the front.

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