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Grow Solo: The Pros and Cons of Training Alone

Despite the attractiveness of modern fitness centers, a great many people still prefer to do their training alone, typically at home.

The past two decades have witnessed an explosion of fitness facilities of all types across the country. Even hamlets and small farming communities can boast of having fully equipped training centers, complete with racquetball courts, aerobics and dance rooms, plus an extensive exercise area stocked with tons of free weights and rows of machines. As a result, millions of erstwhile slugs have been encouraged to turn off their TVs, pry themselves out of their recliners and become part of the fitness movement.

Yet despite the attractiveness of modern fitness centers, a great many people still prefer to do their training alone, typically at home. In fact, a recent survey noted that just as many people train on their own as join a fitness center.

Nor is it only those interested in general fitness who train alone. Serious strength athletes and top-ranked bodybuilders often shun the gyms and work out at home. I believe everyone who’s lifted a barbell has spent time training by himself, each for his own reasons. Even though the majority of the members of the York Barbell Olympic lifting team wanted to train as a group, some came in early or late so they could lift by themselves’Tony Garcy, Gary Glenney, Homer Brannum and, on occasion, Bill March among them. When the great Bill Pearl ran his gym in Pasadena, he would train early, before his customers arrived. Between sets he’d clean the gym’an idea that Tommy Suggs copied when he had his gym in Lake Jackson, Texas. Before they moved to York, John Grimek and Steve Stanko also trained in solitude.

When I was in graduate school in Chicago and lifting in the early ’60s, I hated the idea of lifting by myself. One of the genuine treats of my busy life was to go to the Irving Park YMCA and train with Clyde Emrich, Fred Schutz and Chuck Nootens. Part of my job at the Park Ridge Y, though, was to lock up the building several nights a week, which meant that if I wanted to train, I had to do so at 11 p.m. in our downstairs gym. Since missing a workout was out of the question, that’s what I did.

Whereas I was forced to train alone, quite a few others choose to do so. Why? Finances are a major factor for many. Some of the modern fitness clubs have become just that, clubs, with dress codes and strict rules of conduct. Overhead lifting isn’t permitted, and chalk is taboo. The membership fees to these high-tech facilities are prohibitive for those on a tight budget. Students, young married couples and people with large families simply cannot justify such an expense.

To many it makes more sense to spend what would amount to a year’s membership on equipment they can use at home for a lifetime. They view it as a smart investment, and it is.

Another reason so many make the decision to train at home rather than at a gym is the time factor. They just can’t find enough extra time during the week to travel to and from a gym three or four times a week. Some hold two jobs or put in long hours at work. They also share the myriad responsibilities of raising a family and taking care of a home. Mowing lawns, shopping, cooking, cleaning and hustling kids to sports, school and social functions all eat up leisure time. Adding an hour for gym travel time is very inconvenient. For the ultrabusy it’s more practical to walk into their home gym and do a quick workout.

Then there are those who actually prefer training alone to training in a crowded gym. They detest the thought of exercising with a large group and hate having to wait in line for a station. Most of all they abhor the spandex mullets milling around in the country-club atmosphere, obviously much more interested in socializing than training. People who loathe these lah-di-dah facilities wouldn’t train in one even if they were given a free membership and had all the extra time in the world.

Advantages of Training at Home

One of the biggest advantages of training at home is that you can exercise at your own pace and do whatever program you want when you want to do it. If you happen to be in a rush, you can set up several stations and move through a fast circuit’simply not possible in a crowded gym. On the other hand, should you have lots of extra time, you can linger at one exercise just as long as you desire and not annoy another soul.

Training at home affords you a huge amount of freedom that’s just not available in a commercial facility. My longtime friend Tommy Suggs has trained at home ever since he sold his gym in the ’70s. He’s a tax accountant, and when things get hectic in late March and early April, he slips in sessions whenever he can. Some days he trains before the sun comes up. Other days will find him moving through a quick circuit at noon. On occasion he joins his wife, Karen, for a late workout after he closes his office.

That kind of flexibility is not feasible at a commercial gym even if it’s open 24 hours a day. If Tommy had to drive back and forth to a facility and had to wait for any length of time for a certain station, he’d skip that workout entirely. In his garage, though, he can set up his stations the night before and move through his workout rapidly without any interference. When April 15 approaches, he can allot himself only 30 minutes for training, three times a week. By training at home, he’s able to stay consistent, one of the most important variables in strength training. ALL One thing I like about training alone is it enables me to experiment. When I’m in a commercial gym or a university weight room, that isn’t easy to do because there are always others to consider. Like most people, I also don’t feel comfortable trying out a new exercise in front of others. If I’m going to be a fool, I at least want to do it in private.

Alone, I can try a new movement, test new angles on old exercises, try different stances and grips and toy with variations on set and rep sequences as well as pace. Also, when I’m alone, I tend to pay closer attention to my technique. In a packed gym, lifters are talking, the music is blaring, and I’m bombarded with questions, which make it difficult to concentrate fully. In contrast, when I’m by myself in a gym, I can take the time to check out my form. I do shrugs on Fridays. During one spring break I trained at Fielder’s Shed alone. On my third set I realized that I was letting my elbows turn back much too soon. I hadn’t noticed that before because I was more concerned with dealing with my athletes. Once I corrected the mistake, I felt the weights jumping much more dynamically. The next day my traps were more sore than they’d been in months, and I was delighted.

High on the list of reasons that people prefer to train at home is that they feel much more comfortable in their own friendly environment. They’re not forced to listen to music they despise, such as rap noise. They can select a radio station they enjoy, play it as loudly as they want and, best of all, turn it off completely when there are 10 continuous minutes of commercials.

At home they can wander into the kitchen and grab a cold or hot drink whenever they want. Or use their own bathroom. No need to pack a gym bag, since everything is close at hand. They can wear old grubby sweats or practically nothing at all; no one is going to see them but maybe the cat or dog’good company, by the way, during training. Many, especially if they’re just getting started on a routine, are not yet happy with their body, so they’re more content to lift alone.

Many use the time between sets to do odd jobs around the house. If I’m working on a story or an article, I edit and make notes. I know others who do some light housekeeping, water plants or get everything in order for the evening meal. At the conclusion of the session, vitamins and minerals and perhaps a protein milk shake can be had quickly and easily. These are all good things about training alone at home. There are, of course, two sides to every coin.

Disadvantages of Training at Home

The number-one negative about training alone at home is motivation or, stated more correctly, the lack of motivation. You need a different sort of mind-set to be consistent about training alone. You always have dozens of things to do around a house, and it’s very easy to let them get in the way of training.

When you go to a gym, you have only one purpose, other than socializing. At home, however, the list of chores is endless, which makes it easier to miss workouts. In addition, there’s the temptation of a comfortable couch and a favorite show on TV. After a tiring day at work a few cold brews in front of the tube or a short nap make much more sense than a workout in a hot garage.

Even so, anyone who’s serious about strength training can usually condition himself to go to the gym regularly. A larger problem is convincing yourself that you need to do those extra sets or that one exercise you really don’t like, despite knowing how useful it is’heavy good mornings, for instance. Forcing yourself to load the bar for a max attempt is tough. When there are several others around during a session in a commercial gym, they help provide that needed motivation, but without peer support all the motivation and encouragement must come from within. Keep in mind that self-motivation is a learned skill and can be improved through practice.

If you train alone, you need to set definite goals. If you don’t have clear objectives, both short and long-term, you’ll start being negligent about your lifting and end up missing workouts. That generally leads to a stoppage in training altogether. I believe it’s best to set short-range goals and change them periodically. Switching programs to flow with the changes of the seasons works well. During the colder months aim at improving overall strength in several big-muscle exercises, such as deadlifts or front or back squats. It’s also an ideal time to pack on some bodyweight. As spring approaches, change over to higher reps and shed some of the unwanted pounds. And so on. It really doesn’t matter what type of alterations you make, but the changes help keep your interest high, and that’s critical for continued progress.

A major problem facing anyone attempting max poundages alone is the lack of spotters. Deadlifts are no trouble, nor are squats, for that matter. If I’m lifting alone and want to go after a heavy squat, I put rubber mats under the plates so I won’t damage the floor. I’m not worried about unloading it. If I fail, I punch the bar off my back. That’s an instinctive move.

Getting stuck with a bench press is a different kettle of fish. I’d guess that everyone who trains alone has, at least once, gotten pinned with a heavy weight, and not always with a heavy single. Quite often the weight is moderate or light, and the lifter gets stuck when he tries to grind out that one extra rep. The trick, if you can call it that, of getting out of such a predicament is to react instantly. That I learned through sad experience. What most people do when they find themselves stuck under a heavy bar is to hesitate before trying to unload it. They lie there cursing their bad luck, but the longer the weight sits on your chest, the more difficult it is to dump it. As soon as you know you’re not going to get the bar back to the racks, make your move. Either heave the bar forward and get it to your waist so you can sit up and tip it sideways, or twist to one side and unload the plates. Of course, you’re not going to get away totally unscathed, but you’ll suffer less if you react quickly.

The same advice applies to getting pinned on an incline bench. In most cases, you should be able to stand up and flip the bar to your waist, but if the angle is steep and you can’t sit up, then drive the bar to one side and let the weights crash to the floor.

If getting stuck on benches or inclines happens a lot, I have a couple of suggestions. Use dumbbells for those two exercises. They’re safe and can be just as productive as the barbell. Or invest in a power rack. You can place the lower set of pins in the rack so that if you do get stuck, you can still slide out from under the bar.

Setting Up Your Gym

That brings me to equipping a home gym. Here’s what I’d like to have available: Olympic bar with a sufficient number of plates, power rack, a combination flat and incline bench, ab station, dip and chinning bar and dumbbells. If you plan to compete in Olympic lifting or powerlifting, you’ll want to purchase a high-quality bar. If your goal is general strength fitness, however, a low-budget bar is fine. If you can afford an ab machine, by all means get one, but if it’s beyond your means, at least buy a basic slant board. Since dumbbells aren’t cheap, I recommend a pair of Olympic dumbbells, which enable you to use from 20 to 150 pounds on a variety of exercises.

Those are the basics. If you can spend more, that’s even better, and you can add new equipment each year.

A final point concerning equipment for a home gym. Before buying a new piece, try it out first. Go to a gym or a store and determine whether it fits you and works the muscles you want worked. The simpler the design, the better. Be wary of any machines that have chains or cables. Eventually they’ll break, and finding replacement parts can often be a genuine pain.

I believe it’s smart for the person who trains alone at home to have one workout to do in case there’s an unexpected interruption in a planned schedule. Since that’s bound to happen, be prepared. Have one routine that you can do quickly. A 20-minute session is better than no training at all. Not only is it beneficial physically, but it’s also helpful mentally because it ensures that you’ve maintained the discipline of consistency, one of the keys to success in strength training. So if you work out alone, be certain to stick to your schedule. With a gym in walking distance, you don’t really have any valid excuses for missing a workout.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. IM

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