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How one couple partnered up to get in shape for the ultimate motivator: their wedding
The first time I joined a gym, I was 24 and scrawny. The ripped guy at the front desk said all new members received a T-shirt and asked me for my size. Small, I said. He threw me a package over the counter. “This is a large,” he replied. “It’s all we have. Once you start lifting, you’ll fill it out.”
Hardly. I lasted eight months. But then I proposed to Jen, a sometimes runner and yoga nut who had largely abandoned those pursuits to sit around with me. With our upcoming nuptials, the threat of shame finally loomed large: if we didn’t shape up and sharpen our softening bodies, we’d be gathering our loved ones together for a display of our shortcomings. So we made a pact to clear our calendars and hit the gym together – and to lay on the guilt if one of us slacked off.
We were on to something: people who work out with a partner they feel comfortable with are more energetic and happier than those who work out alone, report Santa Clara University scientists. Our trainer, Derek Peruo, sees it all the time: “by working out as a couple, you can face the challenge together through positive reinforcement.”
Peruo created a full-body program and sent us off to follow it at our local gym. We had the chance to either become a fitter, stronger couple… or not. Here’s how we made it work.
SECRET 1 Do everything together
Until I was on a mat stretching for the first time in years, I’d forgotten what I hated most about the gym: other people. I’d always felt them snickering at the small pile of iron I hefted, and here they were again, the same clubby meathead types, eyes all afire as they attacked their workouts with vein-popping intensity. I blocked them out by focusing on Peruo’s instructions: first some foam rolling, then a few goblet squats, three sets of the bench presses… I can do this.
Jen and I plowed ahead, matching our pace like two synchronised swimmers. It wasn’t long before a strange, surprising calm grew within me: when we were both doing a move, it looked intentional. It looked correct. I scanned the room and saw everyone around us differently: they looked at us, yes, but also at everything else, their gazes meandering the way people’s normally do. And many of them appeared exhausted. These weren’t gym rats. Their faces weren’t contorted in lift-to-failure ecstasy. They were normal people with healthy resolutions. They were other versions of us.
The only thing that changed was our confidence: when you feel like you belong, you do.
Once we moved on to lifts, we discovered that it was better to abandon our synchronicity. Peruo’s plan paired exercises into supersets – push-ups and split squats, or step-ups and inverted rows, for example – each exercise in the pair focusing on a different muscle group. “As one group works, the other recovers,” says Peruo. Not only did this strategy streamline our workouts, but it also helped us avoid one of the most annoying gym irritations: someone stealing your spot while you take a breather. Exercising together like this, we owned the place.
SECRET 2 Let her lead the way
Strength training feels like a challenge, which keeps me interested. But stretching? It’s slow and boring and I don’t feel I’m accomplishing anything. I wanted to skip it entirely. Jen loves stretching, though, or at least loves her own version of it: she quickly discarded Peruo’s plan and substituted her old yoga routine. Because we agreed to do everything together, this meant I couldn’t just leave her to salute the sun while I hit the weights. I had to stick around. So I started doing yoga.
That very well may have saved my butt, says Peruo. A dynamic warm-up primes your body for action. It improves your range of motion, jumpstarts your central nervous system, and boosts blood flow to your muscles, enhancing performance and reducing your risk of injury.
Of course, the benefits are all in your approach. I treated each stretch as a challenge because that’s what I enjoyed most about weightlifting. If a stretch hurt, I’d take it slowly and see improvements in a matter of days. I also started using a foam roller on particularly tight spots, such as my iliotibial (IT) bands (groups of fibres that run along the outside of each thigh, stabilising the hips and knees). It worked wonders but felt like a karate chop to the bone. “Foam rolling breaks up scar tissue, which is a naturally occurring consequence of weightlifting,” Peruo explained. The more you do it, the more you’ll increase your range of motion. After a few weeks, the roller became less of a torture device and more of a performance tool. In fact, using it felt good. If Jen hadn’t been there doing her yoga, I might never have eased my IT pain.
SECRET 3 Give constant feedback
One day Jen looked at me in the middle of a split squat and asked, “Are we doing this right?” I shrugged. We’d been doing it that way for weeks – a step sideways and then a dip. But I looked it up on my phone anyway. Sure enough, we’d been doing it totally wrong. The exercise begins in a staggered stance from which you lower your body until your back leg’s knee nearly touches the floor.
Peruo had shown us how to do this move, and we’d forgotten his instructions almost instantly. It was a reminder of the danger of couples’ workouts: you can become an echo chamber for each other’s mistakes. That’s why it’s worth watching each other closely. Peruo advises always keeping an eye on your partner, and if you have any doubts about your or your partner’s technique, ask a pro or look it up.
“The best thing about working out with a partner is the feedback,” Peruo said when I recounted our split-squat snafu. “Verbal feedback is great – ‘you’re doing good’ or ‘straighten out your back’ – but give physical feedback too.” He tapped between my shoulder blades. “I might say, ‘Pinch my finger here,’ to make someone move their shoulder blades back.” Then he tapped my upper abdomen. “Or do this to remind someone to tighten their core.”
Even more valuable: give your partner a feedback task. Peruo said I had trouble keeping my knees in place when I did lateral squats, so I had Jen watch for it.
“This is like discount couples’ therapy,” she said. “My goal is to say when you’re wrong!” You’ve never seen a bride-to-be look more pleased.
SECRET 4 Pace each other
Peruo built rest periods – typically 60 seconds between sets – into our program. But like many men, I’m impatient: I wanted to power through each exercise and move on to the next. Bad idea, says Peruo: “Rest is the unsung hero of training. You can make a lot of gains and see a lot of good results if you have proper rest periods in place.”
If you skip your rest or cut it short, you can become so fatigued that you abandon proper form, setting yourself up for injury. If you make a habit of going too hard, you can succumb to overtraining syndrome – otherwise known as a plateau, where gains dwindle and exhaustion is chronic.
Jen was far more responsible, so Peruo suggested I follow her lead. “While she does an exercise, you watch,” he said. “Then switch.” The result was a perfectly timed rest period that kept the workout moving forward. I soon found that it came with an unintended benefit: for the first time ever, I could watch a woman exercise without leering. Trust me, that’ll keep you plenty occupied for 60 seconds.
One morning about a month into our program, I sat shirtless on our bed and brushed my teeth as Jen lounged under the covers. We’d planned to be out the door and on our way to the gym in 10 minutes. “Whoa,” she said, inching a little closer. “You have some muscles!”
“Really?” I replied, checking out my new guns.
“I like them.”
“Hey, do you really want to go to the gym today, or can we just… stay in?”
Her intentions were clear: cardio was happening at home that day. Sometimes, I decided, it’s okay to skip the gym.
The longer we stuck with it, the better our payoff, and three months later, our wedding day arrived. I first saw Jen in her dress as she bounded toward me, photographers snapping away, her confidence fueled by a strong, slender physique that made her smile all the wider. When we hit the dance floor, we moved like maniacs. I don’t have much rhythm – I flail a lot – but I outlasted my friends and family, keeping the party going late into the night. And that made every stretch, every lift, every second in the gym worth it.