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Caroline Gick

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Working Out: Solo or Social?

Posted: 04/29/2012 11:36 am

My sister and I are alike in many ways, but not when it comes to how we approach the gym. A few months ago, she asked me to put together a weight training program. She fared well for awhile, but soon got bored, not because of the activity, but because she was doing it by herself. Working out alone, day after day, she felt as though she was just running through the motions. She called to confess that she was stopping my program in favor of the group weight training class offered at her gym.

I like to train alone. I don't care for classes or working out with others. I prefer to do my own thing and rely on the kindness of others if I need help with a spot. I have taken classes and worked out in groups -- bootcamps, lifting with friends, running groups, Pilates, yoga. With the exception of Pilates and yoga, I'd rather train solo.

I conducted an informal poll of my Facebook friends, many of whom are athletes and regular gym-goers, to determine if more people like to train solo or if there is a stronger bent toward what I call "social" training, or working with one or more other people in a partnered or class setting. The results were about 70/30, in favor of social training.

Of those that prefer to train solo, the reasons are focus and time. One friend said, "I don't like to $%^ around. Get in, get work done, get out. I can't do that when I have someone with me, and classes don't give me the workout I need."

Of those who prefer to train with other people, it is primarily about motivation. Having a training partner(s), personal trainer, or attending a class pushes many people to work harder than they feel they would on their own. There is also a built in structure for competition and accountability.

Does this mean that solo trainers lack the desire for motivation and competition? Are social trainers lacking in focus and not worried about the clock?

K. Anders Ericsson from Florida State University writes about "deliberate practice" -- training conducted in solitude -- and purports that it is the key to achieving transcendent skill. One premise of the study is that deliberate practice is not enjoyable and is done primarily for the benefit it provides in terms of performance. Individuals must be interested in succeeding in a particular activity and motivated to do whatever it takes to succeed. In my small, unscientific poll, those who trained alone were competitors, personal trainers, or super serious about their training for other reasons. Personally, I am motivated to "practice" every day because it gives me a better chance of winning, whether that means in competition or meeting a physical goal I set myself. But I do enjoy the activity and I am not solely dependent on myself to perform well. While I don't train with anyone, I do need an audience and energy in the gym -- that is my competition and motivation.

Many people like to work with a trainer or with training partners, particularly one who is more advanced than themselves. "Push me," "push harder," "try new things" -- these are oft-repeated phrases, as is "accountability." This doesn't appear to be limited to real people. A 2011 study from Michigan State University found increased motivation in individuals who employed a virtual training partner that was programmed to perform at a superior level.

Similar to having a training partner -- real or virtual -- group exercise provides many people the motivation and accountability needed to exercise regularly. Group training programs such as Crossfit and Zumba have almost cult followings, and gyms across the globe offer and replicate these programs. Millions of people are coming to gyms, parks, community centers to participate in group exercises like spin classes, martial arts, and bootcamps. In 2009, Oxford University published research that found an increased rush in endorphin levels in people training in a group setting as opposed to those training alone. While I'm not a fan of Crossfit (an entirely different post altogether), and despite my personal distaste for classes, I would certainly never argue against the value of group exercise as a positive factor in getting people to be active.

Goals, personality, intention, endorphins... does it matter how we get there and push ourselves (or have others push us)? Or is it simply more important that we do?

Which approach do you prefer?

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