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Observations of a Commercial Gym

For the past three years or so I’ve been training at a small private facility that caters mainly to powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters. It was a phenomenal place to train – packed with very strong, smart people who had forgotten more about building strength and increasing performance than most “personal trainers” will ever know. Recently, due to life circumstances, I had to transition to training at a commercial gym closer to home. The contrast has been striking.

On any given day at the training facility I just left, I was easily in the bottom 50th percentile with respect to strength (regardless of bodyweight or age). Based on what I’ve seen so far, on any given day at the commercial gym, I’m easily in the top 10% with respect to strength (in just about any lift that involves the movement of multiple joints with both feet on the ground).

It’s not personal. First, the commercial gym I belong to is very nice. It’s clean, convenient, and the people are very cordial. More than that, the people I see strength training seem very dedicated (although, in my view, misguided). I train very early in the morning (5:00AM during the week and 8:00AM on the weekend). It’s not ideal for me, but it’s the time I can create right now, so I work with what I have. I am always surprised and encouraged to see other people in the gym at this hour.

That said, here a few observations.

Nobody squats. The single most striking contrast between these two training environments is that in nearly two months at a commercial gym, I haven’t seen anyone put any serious time or effort into squatting. People are all over the leg press and hack squat sleds, but nobody loads up a barbell, puts it on their back, and squats below parallel. The training facility I came from basically had three high-end squat cages, a few additional bench/squat stations, some dumbbells and adjustable benches, deadlift platforms, lots of high-quality barbells and tons of weight. Everybody squatted at least twice per week (the Olympic lifters squatted up to six times per week – so much for overtraining). Other than the time I spend looking at myself in the mirror (because the squat rack is placed in front of a mirror, another “no, no”), I haven’t seen one legitimate squat repetition in about two months. I have seen a few people jump on the squat rack and do a few sets, but never anything over 185 pounds and never anything approaching a parallel – let alone below parallel – squat.

Nobody deadlifts. See, supra, “Nobody squats.”

Whenever possible, people lift weights while seated, lying down, or confined to a Smith Machine. At the training facility I came from, the main function of the benches was to provide a place to sit down between sets of squatting, deadlifting, overhead pressing (standing of course), rowing, or performing one of the Olympic lifts. Don’t get me wrong, the powerlifters benched – but typically after squatting and/or deadlifting. On the other hand, at the commercial gym I now use, it seems that people avoid lifting weights while standing up at all costs. Overhead presses are performed while seated; rows are performed while confined to sort of machine (either plate-loaded or cable); bench presses, squats, and everything else you can imagine are performed in Smith Machines, rather than in a manner that requires the lifter to control the weight (and his or her body). I recently asked an old friend, who has been a lift-long lifter, why so many people are doing everything in Smith Machines? “Because people are p*ssies,” he responded. I haven’t come up with a better explanation.

Nobody is intense. At the training facility I came from, it wasn’t unusual to hear people screaming, turning beat red, dropping loaded barbells like they were hot, or collapsing after grinding through a set of five. It was also fairly common for everyone in the facility to stop training and cheer on another lifter that was attempting a new personal record. None of this was gratuitous, it just happened from time to time because people were training hard. In order to train like that, you’ve got to be intense. For some people that meant verbalizing, for some it was pretty quiet and totally internal. Either way, it was required. At the commercial gym, the sound of something heavy hitting the floor is rare and even startling.

People wear weightlifting gloves. At the training facility I came from, it wasn’t unusual to see people deadlifting 500-600 pounds during competition prep. Nobody wore or owned weightlifting gloves. Chalk, however, was readily available and widely used. In the commercial gym I now utilize, nobody deadlifts (or picks anything up off the floor), yet weightlifting gloves and straps are legion. Chalking your hands is unheard of (there is likely some policy against using chalk).

Draw your own conclusions.

This guest blog was written by: The Legal Meathead

TLM's Bio

‘The Legal Meathead’ is a husband, father, son, brother, uncle, and “competitive” powerlifter (although, so far, he mostly competes with himself). He works as an attorney in a big swamp otherwise known as Washington D.C. and loves to read, write, lift heavy things (and drop them), and spend time with his family. He posts anonymously to protect the guilty, the innocent, and his ability to be frank.

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