“Stuff from everyday” – where does fun come into the training routine?

A recent post from Alexander Juan Antonio Cortes about training routine structure and rationale for exercise choice, which I hope he expands into a full article, got me into a train of thought. I remembered the wrap-up session of one of the “powerlifting 5” courses, which is actually not powerlifting, but “grip training” (they are all called powerlifting and numbered from 1 to 6, with a sub-title for the specific content). Our students are mostly coaches: some are personal trainers, some are crossfit coaches and some are sport specific coaches (fighting, soccer and rugby). In that wrap-up session, one of the personal trainers asked whether it would be indicated to add some of the grip exercises he had been introduced to “for novelty”. I answered that no, not at all: we introduced all the exercises according to the type of grip movement addressed and emphasized their application to three areas: aging and general health issues, the fights and strength sports. The choice of the exercise should be done according to a precise evaluation of the athlete/patient/client grip deficiency, injury or need for improvement. But then it occurred to me that the question reflected some deeper anxiety. I asked him why he needed to introduce novelty in the routine – he actually hadn’t taken the periodization course yet (the following day), where we discussed more extensively the construction of routines (programming).

That was a great student because he brought the reality of personal trainers and “weight room physical educators”* to the class. He shared with us the pressure they felt everyday to handle the bored gym members, to motivate and… entertain them! Although he did understand the conceptual basis for employing this or that grip exercise, he saw a chance of adding something that could be “fun” and “entertaining”.

That brought us to the topics of the emotional and cognitive responses to a program. I always told them that one of the causes for member retention failure was boredom, which, combined with lack of results and depression, could be extremely powerful. Chain gyms tend to throw people into guided movement machines because they don’t have enough coaches to help them develop the skills necessary for free weights exercises. Many gyms don’t have squat racks and forbid squat prescription because they claim it is dangerous and because they are not willing to pay more for a coach properly trained to teach people how to lift. Other gyms forbid the deadlift.

These are real problems: guided movement is boring. Those of us who use guided movement machines in special situations do so for some reason (usually injury), but our focus is the free weight. The free weight requires an active and conscious attitude from whoever uses it, unlike the guided movements where the practitioner is passive, reduced to the role of pusher or puller of something with a predefined trajectory. In some respect, it is a metaphor for the lack of control some of these practitioners feel in their own lives, where they are part of an intangible “machine” with a minuscule role of pushing or pulling something.

My students’ anxiety is very real: if you cannot create challenge and a purposeful program, they desperately try to make the routine “fun” or “interesting” by adding “new stuff”.

The problem is that more and more gyms are allowing free weights into their environments but the coaches retained that background anxiety and unconscious belief according to which if they don’t add “new stuff” into the routine, the member will leave.

It is hard for them to understand that the challenge of mastering free weight movements is quite motivating and does get the practitioner to be present and attentive (otherwise he/she may fall). Also, that understanding a medium term process has a high retention effect.

Some gym members, of course, will just decide to adopt a chaotic training routine. Each new exercise they read about will be done at the gym the following day. Some of these people do this for years and not making progress doesn’t seem to be a problem. There is no need to feel anxious about these people: they are not the ones leaving the gym. While most members (and this includes the population that was not retained) do seek or at least hope to get results, there is a non negligible part of the gym population who wants and needs to have fun all the time: just that.

I have observed several times the 7PM class at my friend’s crossfit box. They were mostly lawyers, doctors and business people who spent a stressful day behind a desk, in front of a monitor and talking on the phone. As soon as they parked their cars and crossed the door, they turned into hyper active five year olds. They threw medicine balls, climbed ropes, did a bunch of nonsense with the Olympic bars for about 10 minutes. Only then they were sufficiently attentive to follow instructions.

Those who criticize Crossfit for producing random chaotic routines have a point (but they usually know very little about the foundations of crossfit training), especially when crossfitters claim not to need periodization or when they do high volume sets of complex lifts, with scaringly poor technique.

However, I also understand why their members are so fond of those chaotic, apparently (sometimes not only apparently) random routines: they need the fun more than the results.

Can we offer a solution to these people where their training can be fun and structured at the same time? I believe it is possible. Not only I believe it is, but I see many of my friends who coach succeeding there. They have something for the introvert practitioner who will strive on (and have fun with) a program that is 100% individualized with no collective activity and something for those who need more interaction and group activity, without neglecting individual needs.

Fun comes into the equation in different forms, for different people.


* that is a legal requirement in Brazil, and these people are extremely underpaid and work long, exhaustive hours with too many members per teacher – they are teachers, not instructors

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