When I go to the gym to work out, my goal is to get in, toss weights around, run a little bit, maybe hit the bike machine if I’ve got the gas for it, and get the hell home. I’m not there for Pizza Thursday. I’m definitely not there to hang around the water fountain and ask you how your workout is going. I’m not there to make new friends, join your workout group or go out for drinks with you after we get done in the gym. This isn’t a sewing circle – it’s a goddamn gym.
That might sound harsh, but it’s the truth. Working out, to me, is something personal. Yet it seems like every day that companies, brands, gyms, and even individuals, are trying to create new ways to turn working out and getting fit into a social function.
While I understand the appeal of a motivational group of people encouraging one another to push the envelop and work toward personal bests, I’m a firm believer that real growth on the outside comes from an unwavering ability to motivate oneself on the inside. I find inspiration to go to the gym because every day, when I look in the mirror, I see progress; not because Chad texted good morning to the group chat and asked us what our daily weigh-in was.
But let me also say that Chad isn’t the enemy. Stay motivated to keep working out any way you can. I’m all about a good Tough Mudder and I don’t even balk at you CrossFit weirdos out there. Whether you need a group to stay motivated or can do it on your own, so long as you’re in the gym and doing your thing, I’m happy for you.
What is alarming, however, is the rise of apps and programs with goals to turn fitness into this kind of social experience, a way to meet new people, make new friends and even network. I don’t give a shit what you do for a living or what your favorite low calorie beer is – if you want to be social, that’s fine, but please keep it out of the squat rack.
The Culprits of Social Fitness
Just a few short weeks ago, Fitbit announced a new feature geared toward getting people out and moving – all in the name of fun-spirited competition. The feature, called Adventure Races allows you to invite up to 3- – yes, thirty – friends to join you in head-to-head racing to virtually explore scenes from both The New York City Marathon and Yosemite National Park. You don’t walk/run those races yourself, you just walk and, as you do so, you unlock maps that allow you to do some “virtual exploring.” There’s an interactive map that shows you where you are on the “trail” versus where your friends are.
So, FitBit basically created an entire world around allowing people to pretend they’re somewhere they're not, racing people they’re not, and accomplishing goals they’re not. In the end, users are just walking, but are doing every damn thing they can to convince themselves that they’re not just exercising. That’s not fitness; it’s escapism.
Or worse, apps like Gymder, which sounds a lot like Tinder because it’s literally billed as “Tinder for athletes” (although the app does note in its FAQ section that it’s an app for fitness, not dating), are giving people – complete strangers – a reason to meet up at the gym and work out together. The preview video is equally cringe-worthy, where a bunch of partners – many of whom are attractive men and women partners and smiling and doing squats, taking party selfies, etc. The overall message may not be sex, but the underlying tempo is clear. And even so, even if it weren’t an app geared toward getting gym rats into bed with each other, I honestly can’t imagine how awkward it would be to have a first meeting with someone at my local gym.
Christ, I don’t even make eye contact with the strangers already in the gym because I treat people going through their last set on the chest press the same way I treat a guy taking a piss in a public restroom – we all know what’s happening, but looking is a blasphemous and humiliating faux pas. Let the man do his thing and carry on about your business.
But Remember: Don’t Blame Chad
Not all social fitness apps are bad. The whole goal of going to the gym should be to get in better shape, feel better about oneself, and make legitimate progress. Sometimes, finding the motivation to get up and go hit the weights can be tough, and that’s totally understandable. When I talk about social fitness apps, I mean apps that butcher the goal of why we go to the gym in the first place. I mean apps that try to turn fitness into a dating space, or a place to meet new bros or turn fitness into some kind of gimmick. I shit-talked GymChums above, but aside from the awkward name and a few nauseating features (Build your fitness network? OK, Instagram fitness model!), it is a good way to meet people striving for the same self-improvement goals as you. So, I partly take my rude comments back. But only partly.
In fact, when it comes to calorie counting apps, or apps that allow you to log workouts and share with friends, I’m all for it. Studies suggest that doing cardio (and other exercises) with a partner does improve personal performance and gains, and I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the science behind it despite my own personal dispositions.
But when we start turning gym sessions into networking and support groups, like dumbbell curl sewing circles, that's when I put my foot down. Oh, and by the way, shame on anyone who’s trying to fuck people they meet at the gym. You’re the creepiest of the creepy!
Working Out Alone Is Good for You
While I won’t deny the benefits of working out with a partner or using a group to stay motivated, there’s also no denying that the benefits of a solitary workout session are clear.
For starters, groups and partners can often bring with them distraction. I don’t care how many CrossFit or Soul Cycle classes you toss my way, working out in groups means taking turns in between sets, acclimating to the paces and physical limitations of others, or dragging what could have been a tough and rewarding workout through the mud because of small talk and pleasantries. Staying with the pace of a group or trading off sets with a partner is a guaranteed way to make your work out twice as long as it needed to be.
When I go to the gym, there’s no one holding me back except my physical limitations and the changing of a song. Oh, and speaking of which, there’s also a significant amount of research that suggests listening to music – something you don’t get to do when working out with a partner or in a group – reduces perceived exertion during hard workouts. So there’s that, too.
Working out alone also means you’re doing it for yourself, and not for the approval of (or fear of reprehension from) someone else. Every pound I put up, every mile I smash, every goal I make is because I put it there, and that’s liberating. Every single ounce of progress I make is because I sat down and said, “All right, this is what we’re doing, because these are the results we want.”
Working out alone also means tailoring your workout to meet your body’s specific needs. The truth is, every single person at the gym, at any given moment, is at another level of their fitness “journey” (sorry, but I’m cringing at my use of the word “journey”). If you’re on a bench with a partner and he’s putting up two plates more than you, per set, that means that in between every single set, you have to take those plates off the bar, then put them back on. If you’re working on a machine, even though it takes less time to switch weight, the concept is still the same. What could have been a one- or two-minute break between sets has now turned into a three-, four-, or even five-minute break. Since the ideal rest between sets is between one and three minutes, that means you’re actually losing from your workout.
Staying motivated in the gym and using a partner to do it is one thing. I get it, and we’ve all been there. But using the gym to get laid or meet new bros or do anything other than work out is just way too much.
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