This week marks the end of an era in my lifting career. It is with a heavy heart (and bloody shins) that I say goodbye to the best training partner I’ve ever had. My good friend Cory – who also happens to be my roommate, classmate, fellow strength coach and enthusiast of all things heavy metal (lifting and music alike) – is moving back to his home state of Ohio after having graduated with his Master’s degree this past spring. While I’m sad that he’s leaving, I’m pumped for the opportunities he’ll have back in the Buckeye state.
Cory and I connected right away. We both moved hundreds of miles from home to work as graduate assistants. We both needed a place to stay that was cheap and close to school. We both love music that sounds like a grizzly bear wielding a chainsaw. And we both love training more than just about anything.
It was by complete coincidence that we both ended up on Long Island, but without happenstance that we became friends. He’s hands down the strongest dude I’ve ever trained with, and he’s overcome some pretty serious adversity that makes him downright inspiring. More on that later…
One year, thousands of pounds and no less than four Mastodon concerts later, we will go our separate ways. But my sadness is eased by the many lessons I’ve learned from training with someone like Cory. He’s a perfect reminder of why a quality training partner is one of the most important and under-appreciated factors in strength training.
A good training partner can help you smash through plateaus and improve your technique. They can revitalize your enthusiasm for training when you’re feeling physically or mentally drained. And most importantly, they give you someone to compete against.
So here are eight qualities of a good training partner. If this sounds like your partner, keep ’em close. If not, kick ’em to the curb. And make sure that YOU abide by these traits as well. Being a good training partner, like any relationship, is a two-way street.
If you can’t count on someone to show up and train, they’re of no use to you. But reliability goes beyond just “showing up.” It means showing up on time, ready to kick ass – even on days when you feel like crap.
I first felt the effects of a great training partner as a senior in college when I started lifting with Pete, my roommate and teammate (who has now found success in the world of athletic media relations and happens to proof read just about every blog post I write – thanks Pete!). Pete was new to lifting but had motivation and dedication like no one I’ve ever met. I could always count on him to be fired up and ready to train every day. As soon as 2 p.m. rolled around and we got out of class, we went and dominated the St. Mike’s weight room. There were no excuses and we wouldn’t dream of missing a session.
Without a doubt, I can attribute a ton of my success in baseball and lifting that season to having Pete as a training partner. For the first time ever, I had someone who shared the same drive to use every day as an opportunity for improvement. Pete’s reliability brought our strength and athleticism to another level.
2. Similar Goals
Two training partners with similar goals are going to reach them much faster than someone going at it alone. Having a constant support system and someone to compete against makes reaching any goal a more fulfilling experience.
Nothing motivates like a challenge. Racing a friend to a 600-pound deadlift or seeing who can pump out more reps at 225 on the bench are surefire ways to push yourself beyond what you typically would if you trained alone or without like minded people.
It wouldn’t make much sense for an Olympic shot putter and a world class cyclist to train together. Yes, they’re both high level athletes. And yes, they both have the ultimate goal of excelling in their sport. But they can’t directly push each other in their training because the goals of their individual sport are so different.
Don’t get me wrong – you can train with people who have different goals. And it can be highly effective as long as they’re supportive. CrossFit is a prime example of this (and the only goal those people have is to get tired). You don’t have to be an anti-social lone wolf until you find the perfect training partner. Just know that you will optimize your gains if you train with people who share your aspirations.
The same goes for weight training. If you want to put on 20 pounds of lean muscle, you wouldn’t train with someone who wants to shed body fat. Yes, you both have goals of improved body composition and you’ll both use weight training to reach those goals. But the extent to which you can push each other will be severely limited. Better to find someone with a more similar goal, even if it’s as generic as “get as strong as a silverback gorilla” or “have pecs like Dwayne Johnson.”
3. They’re better than you in one way or another
“Never be the smartest person in the room.”
“If you want to be a millionaire, surround yourself with rich people.”
“Get rid of all the negative people in your life.”
You hear successful people give advice like this all the time. And it’s great advice. Surround yourself not only with like minded people, but with people who are better than you. People who have what you want to have. People who are what you want to be.
At the risk of sounding like a conceited jerk-off, I’ve almost always been the strongest and most motivated person wherever I’ve gone when it comes to training. Mostly because I ain’t been many places. But Cory benched 350 within a week of meeting me while I struggled with sets of 295. And the only time we ever did trap bar deadlifts, I pulled 500 for 3 reps. Cory promptly tugged it for 5 reps. Suddenly I wasn’t the biggest fish in the tiny pond.
Training with someone bigger, stronger or smarter than you stokes that competitive fire that gives you no option but to get better. No one gets better by never being challenged. Don’t get intimidated. Don’t get frustrated. Just get better.
4. Same taste in music
This sounds trivial but in reality, it’s damn near essential. If you’re busy arguing over who controls the iPod, you’re not busy getting better. And if one person has to compromise and listen to dubstep when they’d rather hear Public Enemy (and who the hell wouldn’t?), their motivation and performance will likely suffer.
Music sets the attitude for a training session and gives you that extra mental boost when you need it. “Pantera Fridays” won’t be the same without Cory.
And if you’re training somewhere where you control the music, that means A) you’re not in a commercial gym and B) you’re not wearing headphones so you can actually communicate with your training partner. Kudos to you.
This means your partner telling you when your form sucks and when you didn’t hit depth on a squat. It means no “it’s all you” spotting on the bench press. And it means calling you out when you’re not pushing yourself as hard as you should.
A good training partner isn’t there to stroke your ego or be a yes-man. They’re there to give honest feedback, hold you accountable and tell it like it is.
6. They know your quirks
They know exactly how much help you need unracking the bar on the bench press. They know if you struggle off the chest or at lockout. They know where to stand when spotting you on heavy squats. They know exactly what to say (or what not to say) to get you fired up.
There’s nothing worse than getting a lousy bench hand-off or a crappy spot. It can make or break a set and be downright dangerous. If you don’t have confidence in your spotter right before a big lift, how are you supposed to lift to your full potential? Take the time to get to know the ins and outs of your training partner’s set-ups, techniques and spotting preferences.
7. They think a little differently
It’s easy to get comfortable or stuck in your ways when it comes to training. I’m especially guilty of this. I tend to choose the same exercises, sets and rep ranges over and over. I probably spend way too much time warming up. And I tend to stay as far away from training to failure as possible.
On the other hand, Cory likes to push the envelope a bit. He flirts with failure more often and isn’t scared of the occasional (read: frequent) all-out, blood-vessel bursting set. And outside of the basics (squat, bench, deadlift, press, etc.), his exercise selection is pretty different from mine.
Training with Cory has pushed me out of my comfort zone, to say the least. He’s forced me to think critically about my training and use an outsider’s perspective. And to break the rules once in a while.
The other day he told me, straight to my face, “You read too much.” And he’s right. This goes back to the point about honesty. Sometimes I need to just think less and do more, and it’s a good thing I had a good training partner to call me out on it. I need to become my own lifter, coach, person. Without a good training partner like Cory, I’d probably play it safe too often and hinder my own progress.
8. They inspire you
I mentioned before that Cory dealt with some adversity lately. That’s actually a huge understatement.
Cory recently beat cancer. He was diagnosed earlier this year and had major surgery in July. He spent eight weeks in the hospital and went from a hulking 205 pounds to a fragile 145. I didn’t see my friend for two months and when I saw him for the first time after surgery, I hardly recognized him minus a mustache that would make Tom Selleck envious.
The doctors told Cory he may never lift heavy again, if at all. An eight-inch vertical scar engraved his abdomen like the belly of a turtle shell and made most physical exertion painfully uncomfortable.
But within weeks, my training partner was back at it. Slowly at first, with seated dumbbell presses and leg extensions – nothing crazy. And now, just over two months post-op, Cory has gained back nearly 30 pounds and is fast approaching a 400-pound deadlift again.
Watching Cory stare a deadly disease in the face and come out on top – with the same fearless and reckless attitude that he brings to the weight room – has been truly inspiring. And to watch him bounce back and already become bigger and stronger than 99 percent of the human population is nothing short of mind blowing.
What Kind of Training Partner are You?
The next time you get ready to train – by yourself or with a partner – think about this list. How would your training change if you had someone to push you? If you have a training partner, are they elevating your iron game? Or are they leaving you spinning your wheels?
Are YOU a good training partner? Do you give honest, quality feedback on technique? Does your partner feel confident under the bar while you’re spotting? Do you make everyone around you better?
Think about it. Back in my very first blog post, I paid homage to all the coaches who inspired me and shaped my approach to coaching. Our training partners do the same for us in the weight room.
Find a good training partner and BE a good training partner. Your goals will thank you.