Article by Chris Branam There is a fable that tells the story of a group of quarreling brothers. To teach his sons a lesson, the father has them break a single stick, which they are all able to do with ease. Then, he has them try the task again, but this time hands them a bundle of sticks tied tightly together. One by one, the brothers find they cannot break the bundle. The father explains that the sticks when joined are stronger than when they stand alone. This fable demonstrates in many ways the ability of a group of people to withstand outside pressure (workload, psychological stress, physical setbacks) that would break the individual.
Strength sports can be a lonely gig. Whether on the platform, in the squat rack, or lining up for a strongman event, it’s you versus the world. There are many athletes in powerlifting, weightlifting, and strongman who train out of gyms where no one else shares their passion and drive. I’ve certainly been in those places, and it’s easy to tell yourself, “I don’t need anyone; it’s all on me!” I’m here to tell you that a training partner or partners is a valuable asset to your training and have the research to back it up.
In 1926, Otto Köhler had members of a Berlin rowing club do bicep curls until they could do no more. He tested individuals doing curls alone and then with groups of two or three holding onto a single bar. He found that performance improved when the rowers worked in a group, with weaker rowers exerting more effort. Doing the same work, but within a group, has a noticeable effect on performance. This came to be known as the Köhler effect.
The Köhler effect might be what Jim Rohn had in mind when he said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” This social theory, the idea that we mimic those around us, is referred to as behavioral contagion theory. Behavioral contagion theory encompasses concepts such as social conformity and peer pressure. Regardless of the implications of these ideas in our life outside of the gym, it is valuable for us to understand these concepts when it comes to training motivation. Hang out with the guys who always skip their accessory work? Don’t be surprised when you start thinking you’ll do your ab work when you get home (which, of course, you won’t). Your training partner has cheat meals six days a week? You’ll probably start finding ways to fit cookies into more meals. This doesn’t mean that you need to abandon every friend who doesn’t share your goals, but rather that you should try to find a cadre of individuals who help hold you accountable.
It’s not just working together that inspires us to train hard, either. Competition is a driving force of motivation for athletes. A study done with cyclists showed that those performing a 2000 m time test performed better when they believed it was a head-to-head competition than when they believed they were performing the test alone. Norman Triplett further breaks down increases in performance into two social facilitation effects: co-action effects and audience effects. Co-action effects were tested by having children wind a length of fishing line onto a reel. When the children had a fellow child performing the same task, they did it faster. Scientists also found that worker ants will dig three times as much sand when working non-cooperatively alongside other ants. The co-action effect tells us that performance gains are experienced in the presence of someone completing a similar task. The audience effect states that a passive audience observing a task will have an effect on that task. One researcher found that cockroaches crawling through a length of tube with a light at the end crawled faster when other cockroaches were observing them. The audience effect states that just having others watching could increase your performance.
What’s perhaps even more interesting about the effects of competition on our performance is that one doesn’t even have to be competing in order to experience performance gains. The social theory referred to as competition contagion states that simply being aware of a competition, even if one is not a participant, increases one’s competitiveness. To test this, researchers set up at a zoo. Entrance fees were pay-as-you-want, but for one group there was a competition to see who would donate the most. The patrons who were aware of the competition, but not participating, donated more than those unaware of the competition altogether. This brings up an interesting concept for athletes who have not quite reached the competitive level or perhaps never aspire to. This study seems to suggest just being aware of competitions, or being around competitors, increases competitiveness (and possibly performance) in the individual.
With the increase of online coaching, there has also been an increase of online teams—groups spread over long distances, but following the same programming. This is great for the increasing number of people who are working out of garage or basement gyms and don’t have training partners. Even better is that the Köhler effect seems to work even through digital means. A study from Michigan State University found that workout motivation improved even with a virtual training partner. The study had participants perform a plank exercise both alone and with a virtual training partner. Participants who had the virtual training partner held the plank for 24 percent longer than those without.
The benefits of a training partner or group are numerous. It is well worth your time to look for individuals who are slightly better than you are now. Training with athletes who are far ahead of you might be discouraging, but having a mix of athletes at a variety of skill levels can give you people to aspire to one day become, while also providing training partners close enough in skill to be good in-house competition. Whether it’s online or in person, you need a training partner.