Do Not Be Afraid to Be Alone

A smart-aleck newspaper columnist recently made fun of the “guys who bench a lot and then stare at the wall.” You have missed the point, champ. These gents have their act together. You should have made fun of the nerdlings who “update their profile” and tweet about their chicken sandwiches between their sets of “Bulgarian split squats.”

A cultural observation: today’s young Americans are afraid to be left alone. They have to be constantly chatting or texting, and they are afraid of silence. If this describes you, either change your ways or be content to be weak.

Do Not Be Afraid of Strength
My father alone with his strength.

Do Not Be Afraid to Be Alone

There is a finite amount of nervous energy you possess. Any accomplished athlete is a Scrooge when it comes to using it sparingly and only on things that matter. A strong lifter will rack the bar, then sit down and zone out for ten minutes until the next set. Being alone, meditating, whatever you call it, is how a lifter restores his nervous energy with interest.

Contrast the many ways a typical gym rat wastes his precious nervous energy. The worst drain, by far, is the infernal device called the cell phone. It must have been invented by a Machiavellian mind with a deep hatred of the Western civilization and a burning desire to bring it down. He is succeeding. Americans used to be known for thinking big, dreaming big, living big. Not any more. Consider the new fashion, “life logging.” A nerdling straps a camera to his scrawny or fat carcass to record every moment of his petty, meaningless life.

Leave that pathetic little device in the car. If you are bringing your own music (not a bad idea given the testosterone-inhibiting drivel played at gyms), get a music player that is just that. No communications and no “apps.”

The headset, in addition to covering up boy bands with Motorhead or Saxon, will limit unwanted social interaction. I wish I could wear a “Do Not Disturb!” hotel sign around my neck, but headphones and a reptilian absence of facial expression are the second best thing.

Make no eye contact. Do not look away; look through.

Several years ago I watched an amusing scene at a powerlifting meet. A spectator started waving frantically at a top lifter he knew. The lifter was in the warm-up area. Although it was not his turn to lift, his thousand-yard stare failed to register the fan. The latter thought the lifter was rude. I knew better.

Do not talk. A conversation, pleasant or unpleasant, is an engagement of nervous energy.

Do not smile.

Stop Smiling and Lift

Prof. Stuart McGill tells a fascinating story in Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Jerzy Gregorek, a weightlifting world record holder from Poland whom I had the pleasure of meeting, cleaned the bar and was ready to jerk it for the final attempt. He knew the lift was his and he smiled internally. “Not an external smile that any observer would detect, but a smile in his brain.” Gregorek missed the lift and lost the championship. Prof. McGill concludes, “Several high performance people have suggested that smiling inhibits muscle activation. There is some evidence to suggest that this is true. It may well turn out that ultimate muscle contraction requires a ‘game face’!”

Kraus & Chen (2013) examined pre-fight photos of 152 MMA fighters facing off and correlated them with the fight records. Those with a more neutral expression were more likely to win. The fighters who smiled less were also “more likely to end the fight by knockout or submission, more likely to land a higher percentage of significant strikes and more likely to wrestle their opponent to the ground during the fight.” Other studies show that smiling can be a sign of submission and that men with higher levels of testosterone smile less.

I am not suggesting you become a jerk. Just save your smiles for outside the gym.

Strength is a decidedly individual pursuit. You may have a coach and training partners, but when it comes down to it, it is between you and the iron. Do not be afraid to be alone with the iron.

Pavel Tsatsouline
Pavel Tsatsouline is the CEO of StrongFirst, Inc.

48 thoughts on “Do Not Be Afraid to Be Alone

  • Thanks for this wonderful post. For me personally and as a father to a couple of young kids this philosophy / attitude is so useful. I’ve been guilty of some of this in the past. I will be passing the essence of this post on to my friends who can then use if themselves and for their kid’s improvement. This post sums up why I love StrongFirst; it is about strengthening body and mind. StrongFirst has taught me how to improve mental focus and in a very real and powerful way it’s inexpensive therapy; definitely a form of meditation for me. Simply great, great stuff!

  • Pavel, I hope you do not dishonour yourself with Motorhead or Saxon produced after 1991?

  • I definitely think one of the silliest things a person can do is only workout when they have a workout buddy. I personally would rather workout alone because I can get more done. Whenever I workout with a friend, I tend to spend a majority of the time talking a catching up. Although the only complaint I have about working out alone is not being motivated because no one is watching. I have also found that the best way to have others leave you alone is using ear buds. If I go to the gym with a planned workout, I will automatically accomplish more. One of the biggest mistakes we make when working out is assuming that just because we have been there for an hour, we have gotten enough exercise. In reality, half of that hour is spent socializing when we workout at a gym with friends.

  • This is why I have had much greater gains since building my own gym at home. To be honest, I thought I might miss some gym friends, but I prefer the singular focus and intensity. Plus, I get all the Metallica I want without having to listen to any Lady Gaga.

  • Pavel, for me ” strong ” is not going with ” afraid “, in training, in everyday life…at answering in this ” gents ” forum…

  • At this weekend’s two day workshop at Ranfone Training Systems, Dr. Stuart McGill gave an excellent demonstration of grip strength and the importance of facial expression, then emphasized the need for seriousness and focus when training for strength and speed. It was excellent seeing the influence that you have had on each other and demonstrations showing how effective the methods are. The preparation work for my upcoming SFG-1 course next weekend intertwined perfectly with Dr. McGill’s hands on teaching of superstiffness and true strength. Thank you

  • Great article. More people need to understand that silence is a friend.

    I’ve found that, for me, when I am TOO pumped up for a performance, a smile can be the very best thing I can do to bring that anxiousness down a notch.

  • I lift Kettlebells in my secure car park and people always talk to me when i am lifting might have to ignor them next time

    • I was doing barbell front squats the other day, and some idiot I didn’t even know came over and started to talk to me mid squat. Bar was rammed against my throat so I only growled at him. He hasn’t done it since…

    • Gossiping texting and engaging in distracting behaviour is a common feature in gyms unfortunately. I train at centaur in Belfast and it is conducive to training. There is a philosophy there of strength and perfection which holds us all to high standards. The gym is for focused training not for hobnobbing. And if PAvel Tsatsouline tells you to shut up and train, then don’t expend any more nervous energy worrying if he is right. Just do what your told ,shut everything out , and build a zen like inner focus that disolves the surrounding environment, leaving only you and the task at hand.
      Excellent post.

    • Great article,

      Always found the only way to keep the quiet in the gym is to put on headphones between sets. Hate lifting with them, but at least when you have them on & keep you eyes focussed, people tend to leave you be.
      I think the main idea is to be there with a purpose (ie lift heavy), then get out. Just annoying when others feel it’s time to socialise in the middle of a set. How much time do I have in the day? Not enough to waste exercise time & energy on superfluous chitchat.

  • Pavel thanks for the pointed reminders. You have told us this on many occisions in workshops, certs. And I have passed this on in my own gym to my clients. It is great to watch as instructor in a room full of students they are each yet “alone” with their lifts… Another reason why my students are progressively getting stronger and staying injury free. Thank you for your infinite wisdom and attention to details that makes us each stornger, mentally, physically in our journey for a clean, purposeful, strong life.

  • Wow, Pavel, this is your best post yet.

    In mainstream gyms there is no concept of sacred space. People don’t understand that the full minute one spends in front of a weight, belly breathing and mentally rehearsing, is as important as when the weight is actually moving. It’s an absurd situation where idiots crowd out serious people.

    Since improving my organism is a lifelong deep hobby, it makes no sense to link my progress to other people. I do have two accomplished friends, but we don’t train together. We each know what we’re doing, have our own schedules, have our own piles of iron, don’t need spotters, and don’t need motivation.

    In college I trained in a crowded gym, and was surprised to hear a rumor that I was “mean.” Strange — I was just training and completely neutral about other people. But I got hyooge. There was also a rumor that I was on steroids. If only!

    Thanks for providing us with this website & forum. It’s great to read about other people training legit, in public or at home. Please tell your Dad he’s my hero.

  • I do not have a coach or training partners. It’s just me and the kettlebells. As a Marine being alone and unafraid is something I embrace. Sometimes I wish I had people to train with but oh well. I will be alone and unafraid. It’s what I do.

  • I read this last night and have been thinking about it. Today is so technology and “being connected” based. I will admit, I have been guilty of the things Pavel speaks of. Since I have moved south, I train alone most of the time and have caught myself playing on my phone, etc., between sets. This will no longer be a part of my routine and it started today thanks a lot to this article. I left my phone in the car when I went to train today. I actually just tried to focus ONLY on my training. i felt like I was stronger and more powerful with my deadlifts too!! I’m not interested in things that take me away from reaching my goals. Lean and Strong and driven . That’s what I desire. This is what I will have. That is what I will be.

  • Totally in agreement. I’ve been accused on many levels to not make myself accessible when people see me train. Guess what? When I train, I AM not accessible. It’s me time. How can I take what I do or be taken seriously if I don’t have my game face on, my focus? I don’t gave two cents about my interaction with others during my lifts, unless it’s to make sure I own my space and stay out of harm’s way. I ain’t gonna chat during or between snatches. Even if I wanted, which I don’t, I don’t have the lung capacity to carry a conversation and snatch at high volume.

    And those that are put off by my icy zoned out stare are not client material anyway. Those who are respect that and wait for me to be done.

    I am in the process of phasing out of training clients after 10 successful years, only a select few. (Not leaving the profession, though, this is who I am).

    Thank you Pavel, you’ve made the selection process that much easier.

  • Pavel, please continue to be yourself and write accordingly. You are a life-boat in a ever-growing sea of weakness. Awesome post!

  • Pavel,
    Nice blog post.
    Years ago when I trained at a commercial gym my training partner and would wear head phones in our ears connected to our Walkman.The funny thing is we didn’t have our Walkmans on.People would try to talk to us and we would not notice them because we were “listening”to our Walkmans.This was a great diversion so we could concentrate on the task at hand and not be bothered by the average gym folk.
    These days I train in my garage gym alone most of the time,but when I do have someone join me while training and they get talking to much I kindly point to my sign on the wall”shut the f*** up and train”.

  • Great post give me more strength to go on my way, to train on my own. Blessing if there are training partners, rather if somebody a coach but training, as a potential tool for being better men, is the first. Musashi sensei said more but hardly understand sentences on this in one of his latest work, in the Dokukodo, The Way of the Followed Alone. Everybody should be Strong, first! OSU!

  • Couldn’t agree more, that’s why I prefer to train at home.
    No one but me, no distractions and no tossers.
    Great post.

  • awesome. a few weeks ago I was training at a gym with a very broad range of clientele (nice way of saying yuppy gym with only one power rack). Between sets of deadlifts, she walked up to me and said, “You don’t need to be so angry. Jesus loves you!”
    I thought to myself, ‘I’m not angry at all. Why does she think that?’ but only said, “thank you,” and continued training. I had not spoken to a single person since I’d been there and felt bad for being the angry guy. Since then, I have been making an effort to be friendlier at the gym. No more. I’m going back to “reptilian absence of facial expression.” <– (favorite quote in a long time)
    My future response will be, "Jesus loves when I pull a PR."

  • There is a certain type of discipline that is required to be strong and powerful. A solitude that requires complete focus and imagery of the upcoming lift. If there is any faltering, especially with 250kg above your head, it’ll either lead to failure or worse, injury.

    This is something I’ve come to learn in recent years. Even my Dad told me not to smile when arm wrestling him when I was little. He knew.

    Excellent post Pavel. Look forward to reading more.

  • Again the Chief is right on the money. We walk into the training area with a goal in mind and a limited bio-resources. These resources can’t be wasted on talking or the goals aren’t met. Talk about being a jerk, I have used headphones attached to absolutely nothing but the point was made.
    Hopefully this message will reach the ones that need it.
    Brilliant as always.

    • I couldn’t agree more. My time with the iron is MY time. No distractions. No questions. It’s my time to enjoy my strength, find imbalances and weakness and push myself to the next level. It’s a rare these days to find people who truly know what focus is. The internal quality that can’t be taught but must be mastered by practice. I am proud to say that I am “anti-social” when it comes to practice. Anti-social to some-focused for me.

  • Sir,
    That is definitely one of your best posts. I guess I’ll tell people who ask why I’m scowling that I’m smiling inside. My training has continuously produced increases over the last couple of years since I built my own gym in my backyard. I do most of my training alone…cutting out distractions is definitely a huge component! Good stuff.

  • Best blog post ever. You just cant teach this stuff unfortunately. It needs to be cultivated from within, out of pure necessity to perform at your peak. Then it becomes who you are; in the gym and in the arena anyway. If you do not identify with this post, you have never truly pushed yourself. Great post Pavel!

  • Nothing better than silence and stillness. Thank you for bringing this to our attention and showing the performance benefits.

  • Chief,

    Your topic selection is outstanding and rich with value. Truly an inch wide mile deep.

  • Outstanding. To quote a joke from the TV show “The Office”:

    Dwight: I never smile if I can help it…. Showing one’s teeth is a submission signal in primates. When someone smiles at me, all I see is a chimpanzee begging for its life.

  • I love my time in the gym all by my self, thats MY TIME and i only want the iron as my companion.
    I smile just before my lift as a think about Pavels saying be happy and lift =)

  • sharing this one with the world-unfortunately they will have to log into their Facebook accounts to see it-hopefully NOT while at the gym!

  • Well I agree with most of that but when Benny “The Jet” smiles during a kickboxing match that means he knows he has already won. 🙂

  • Another reason I train at home, in my own living room or outside in the grass. For me, the gym is for times of barbell work only, not talking to the socialites who spend 3 hours in the weight-room – but only doing 20 minutes of “work” – about the latest local gossip or newest pre-workout drink on the market.

    This is beyond great training advice… this is true wisdom. Great post, Pavel.

  • Nice to know im not the only one who as a detest for the modern age. Great Blog!

    Dont talk about it, Do it make it happen or Die Trying.

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