Why Working Out With Your Girlfriend Helps You Build Muscle Faster
The first time I joined a gym, I was 24 and scrawny. The jacked 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 look. “This is a large,” he replied. “It’s all we have. Once you start lifting, you’ll fill it out.” Hardly. I lasted 8 months.
But then I proposed to Jen, a onetime 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 slouched.
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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, C.S.C.S., of Peak Performance in Manhattan, 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 Equinox 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. Jen and I ploughed ahead, matching our pace like two synchronized 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.
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. 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.
That very well may have saved my butt, says Peruo. A dynamic warmup 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.
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 smart-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.
“The best thing about working out with a partner is the feedback,” Peruo said. “Verbal feedback is great—‘you’re doing good’ or ‘straighten out your back’—but give physical feedback too.” 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.” “Thanks!” “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.