Personally, I love commercial gyms. Your first and last conversation with an employee could be the day you sign up. After that, you’re a barcode, a key fob, and card scan, and… anonymous. Some days my favorite thing is to throw on a hat, a hood, a pair of headphones, and disappear into the squat rack.
Professionally, I hate commercial gyms. The environment is stark, and rarely conducive to success. Walking into a commercial gym for the first time is like walking into a garage and expecting to swap out motors on day one. You’re not Dominic Toretto.
All too often we’re set up to fail in this scenario. We see tracks of treadmills or rows of rowers, often more simple than the squat rack, we default to the ease of pressing the “Go” button, and fall into the tedium of the treadmill. Maybe we’re physically moving, but we’re still not meeting our basic needs.
In self-determination theory, we consider how conditions support our experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When these are supported, we feel high levels of motivation and engagement, and when they’re not, even our best intentions are thwarted. The end game is self-efficacy, that is, our confidence in our ability to control our actions. Simply put, our current physical education system doesn’t prepare us for our adult lives, and the card-swiping commercial gym doesn’t address what we know, don’t know, or don’t know what we don’t know. It’s a bit of a shit show.
We’ve all sat down in a car seat before, which is what makes this German Shepherd* that more enjoyable:
That dog didn’t receive instructions on how to use that chair. The behavior wasn’t modeled for him; nobody demonstrated, explained, or coached. He just figured it out. Fortunately, he’s adorable and I doubt anyone minds, but when we experience that genuine experience of, “Wait, how do I use this” quickly followed by “Crap, I give up” remember that it’s not your fault.
We weren’t taught how to do this, but we can figure it out now.
If there’s one thing I believe an exercise program should do, it’s address the conditions of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. If we can address these psychological needs through exercise, we’ll have far more engagement and enjoyment than if we simply focused on the physiological changes.
There are multiple ways to lose weight. You can build muscle through a variety of training systems. Many jobs can get the physical job done. The mental game is different. Does your program make you feel better? Does your program build confidence? Can you do your program on your own?
I’m the most interested in the last question, and as a coach, I love when folks ‘test’ what they’ve learned in a training session or on a program. Often when Ninjas from MFF travel, I like to find out how they exercised while away. When I’m coaching, I like to encourage the occasional off-program workout. There’s a simple reason why:
We shouldn’t be tied down to a single program. We shouldn’t be tied down to a single gym. We should have the autonomy to do it on our own, the freedom from a program or a coach. The freedom from running on autopilot. It’s a crutch.
That autonomy is supported with competence, the ability to successfully and effectively perform tasks. It could be setting up for an exercise, it could be completing a number of sets and reps, it could be choosing appropriate weights, and progressing when appropriate.
Our feelings of competency and autonomy support relatedness, and when we build high-quality relationships with those we’re training with, we create a network to share with, to learn from, and to hold us accountable. Those relationships may be the least supported aspect of the plug-and-play commercial gym environment.
Exercise is an essential part of our lives, and for far more than the physical change. The personal change is just as important, and understanding that can change your approach. Some of us feel comfortable reading, watching, and trying on our own. Others fare far better with a coach online or even in person to help build a movement vocabulary and confidence as they learn. Where you go next is entirely up to you, and I encourage you to ask yourself:
How comfortable are you in your training? When are you successful in your training? Who is in your support network to ensure success? Lastly, away from any program, gym, or trainer… can you do it on your own?
* That German Shepherd? One day, he will be mine!