A few days ago, I ran into a friend at the gym. He’s an executive in his mid-50’s, a guy in good shape who takes fitness seriously. When I saw him, he had 315 pounds racked for a back squat. But, he told me, his knees had recently been acting up on heavy squat days. Could I watch the next set, he asked.
I did. And sure enough, my friend’s form was atrocious. Valgus knees and ankles, forward weight shift over his toes, depth about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way to parallel.
“That was a disaster,” I told him.
“Oh, I know,” he replied. “But if I squat with good form, I can’t lift nearly as much weight.”
He was willing to humor me for the sake of his knees, however, so we went back to the basics. Beginning with a 45 pound dumbbell goblet squat, drilling until it looked perfect. Then we went back to an empty barbell, until that looked perfect, too. And then we added weight, ten pounds at a time.
At 135 pounds, his squat looked great.
At 145, it was back to disaster.
“If you want to fix your knee issue,” I told him, “then squat with 135 pounds next time, and only add weight in subsequent sessions, no more than ten pounds from one session to the next, if your squat form still looks this pretty.”
At which point he balked.
“I can’t do that!” he exclaimed. “The guys here will think I can only squat 135 pounds.”
“And they’d be correct,” I told him. “That’s how much you can squat right.”
Still, I understood my friend’s concern. Six months ago, I tweaked my shoulder while bench pressing. For two weeks after, it hurt every time I lifted my arm above my head. And just when I thought it was getting better, concluded I could just power through, I benched again and tweaked it a second time.
So, taking my own medicine, I went back to ground zero. I worked face-pulls, bottom-up kettlebell presses, scapular drills, perfect bench press reps with just the empty bar. And then I slowly built back up, in ten-pound jumps, one workout to the next.
At the end of those six months, I’m now back to using more weight than I was before, and my shoulder feels great. But for the first few months, I dreaded seeing anyone I knew at the gym when I was building back up. Members and trainers I was friendly with would walk past, and I had a nearly irrepressible urge to explain, disclaim.
“Rehab,” I would tell them, gesturing sheepishly at my nearly empty bar.
It’s a hard impulse to fight, and one I see people struggle with all the time. Most people training in any gym are, first and foremost, trying to look cool while they’re training. But there’s a difference between developing a skill, and demonstrating it. Almost by definition, when you’re learning something new, or building strength or endurance, you make progress only you’re right at your limit, out of your depth, looking terrible and incompetent but challenging yourself enough to grow.
Which leads to a fundamental choice: you can either impress your buddies in< the gym with your performance, or you can impress the rest of the world later with your results. Put differently, you can look good while you’re working out, or you can look good from your working out.
So choose. Because, in my experience, you can’t really have both.