Surviving Commercial Gyms As A Powerlifter

Thanks to the influx of chain gyms popping up around the world, lifting has become more accessible to us all. Membership prices have been brought down, gains can now be made 24/7 365 days a year, and there is a shiny new gym on every street corner. However this also means that these gyms cater primarily to the masses. This is less than ideal for powerlifters. Rows upon rows of step machines and a one-size-fits-all user friendly approach to training await those that venture inside.  They’re everywhere, they’re convenient, and they’re cheap. Often these glittery play centres are the only choice for many people. If you do find yourself as the only powerlifter in a sea of ‘T-shirt trainers’; here are 5 handy survival tips.

  1. Learn to hold your tongue

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By the mere virtue of undertaking powerlifting training, we as powerlifters have seized the moral high ground of the gym. We graft on the righteous path of strength whilst others saunter down vanity lane. We push our limits in the squat rack whilst others pose in the mirrors. As the kings and queens of the gym, it is important to acknowledge the foibles of those around us, whilst still dominating humbly.

Be prepared to see sacrilegious attempts to carry out barbell work, get ready for bicep curls in the squat rack, and brace yourself to witness the queues of ‘lifters’ eager to use the Smith Machine. You’ll have to hold your tongue, you’re in their house now and you’ll have to respect the house rules. Everything that you know to be good and true will be torn down in front of your very eyes, that’s just how things work here. You’ll have to get used to it. If the masses want to quarter squat – let them. Just keep your head down and continue the real work.

  1. Be ready for the spotlight

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It won’t take long for people to take note of the fact that your nipples don’t poke out from under your vest. Sooner or later you are going to start to stand out from the crowd. People will notice your avoidance of the treadmills, your form will seem alien and strange; you will be exposed. With time, people will start to watch you. Whatever you do, wherever you go – there’ll be eyes on you. Most gym goers will have never seen 100kg on the bar before :O, let alone be able to comprehend an U52kg subjunior throw it around for reps. Like it or not, you’re probably going to have an audience when you lift. Don’t let this distract you. You’ll start to get a reputation as ‘the one who lifts heavy’ – even if you’re a novice. Try to block out the spectators stealing sideways glances in the mirrors and concentrate on the work that needs to get done.

  1. Ignore the hate

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We’ve established that powerlifters stand out in commercial gyms. You established long ago that you’re here to move some serious weight. What comes next is your establishment as an outcast. People will naturally start to resent your lifting. You make them look bad. The gym is a hotbed of egotism and naturally is populated by some of the most egotistical people around. It’s not okay that you’re showing them up.

Powerlifters on the whole don’t look as strong as they really are. In the world of powerlifting there’s nothing odd about a skinny teenager pulling 150kg; but to the average person this is quite a feat. The big guys in gyms aren’t really ‘competing against themselves’, they’re competing against everyone else. Nobody likes to be dethroned. Naturally, if they’re being out-lifted by small children or people with half of their muscle mass, resentment will start to grow. “As a gym hater you have two options, get bigger or make everyone else smaller”; the same thing applies to strength. Expect a fair amount of negativity. There will be plenty of dirty looks and potentially even ostracisation.

Even the gym staff in some commercial gyms may start to throw shade in your direction. A personal trainer that actually needs a personal trainer could have remained undetected until you turned up, warming up with their max. You’re not good for business. The sad truth is that this all comes with the territory of lifting seriously and is not likely to change. As long as you keep training with barbells whilst everyone else is training on the calf machine, the strength gap between you and the mortals will only increase. Rise above the negativity for the good of the rise in your Wilks.

  1. Don’t become complacent

You’ve cemented your place as the leader of the pride, you’ve scared off all contenders; you’re the Bonica Lough of your ‘Totally Pure Florescent 24/7 Fitness Gym’. Make sure that you don’t let that go to your head.

Let’s face it, you may be at the top, but the bar is very low. They say that “If you’re the biggest fish in your pond, you need to find a new pond”. Unfortunately, for whatever reason you can’t (because if you could train at a real gym there’s no way you’d be amongst all of this plastic). The task is to not become complacent. You’re already at a disadvantage to the lifters in hardcore gyms who do have access to competition spec. equipment, and who do have support from people who actually know what they’re doing. The people in the real gyms are progressing; make sure that you don’t fall behind.

You’ll need to be your own motivator, you’ll need to be your own wise old gym buddy, and you’ll have to provide your own lifting environment; because no one else there can. No one in the elliptical section is going to challenge you, so you have to challenge yourself. If those sets of 4×8 turn into 3x7s then eventually you’ll become like everybody else there – human.

  1. Don’t let yourself be tamed

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While it is important to adapt to your new surroundings you should never lose any of your powerlifting instincts. It’s important to respect the house rules (this author spent 6 months in a small Swiss gym literally mopping up chalk after each deadlift session) but you should never let your new surroundings affect your lifting performance.

  • Stop the ‘library deadlifts’. Weights make noise when they hit the floor, that’s how it goes. It just so happens that you have a lot of weight on the bar. You shouldn’t be punished for being strong. Gently lowering a heavy deadlift to the ground to appease the locals by the dumbbells will unnecessarily sap you of strength and gradually detract from your workout.
  • Slap on the chalk. 200kg sliding off of your back while squatting will certainly cause more problems for you and the gym than the inconvenience that may come from getting a bit of chalk on the bar. If you feel more secure and assured from some moderate chalk application whilst benching, then your sets will run more smoothly and you’ll reduce the likelihood of failure.
  • If you need to rest- rest. Hitting high percentages and RPEs with heavy compound movements is going to tax you greatly. This means you’ll undoubtedly need substantial rest periods between sets. It’s all well and good only taking a 30 second break between sets of bicep curls but that just doesn’t suffice for powerlifting. Don’t be pressured into thinking that you’re hogging equipment – the ‘Etiquette’ section of the Prep10 guide will show you how to deal with this.

Just don’t do yourself a disservice. Give 100%, get the most out of your training sessions and don’t sacrifice any potential kilos on the platform.

In sum, though it may not be ideal to train in the midst of Jazzercise and ‘EveryDayIsArmDay’, it does not mean that successful training cannot take place. 20kg is 20kg no matter which gym you use. As long as you keep your goals in mind and keep up the hard work, you can succeed anywhere.

To our comrades around the world that can’t make it down to powerlifting gyms – we salute you.