For lots of people, fitness is a social endeavor. They go to the gym with the intention of both improving themselves and catching up with friends, and for many, it’s that social interaction (and peer pressure) that helps keep them coming back. The social element of fitness can be a powerful one, serving as the basis for long lasting friendships and offering a level of mutual support that can help you to achieve things you may not have thought you could otherwise.

I’m just not at all about that shit.

I’m one of the other kind of gym guys: the guys that have headphones in before they even walk in the door. In my personal and professional life, I strive to be more approachable than my admittedly gruff looking exterior lets on — but in the gym … there I get to be the real me: no polite welcoming of constructive criticism, no bright-eyed “networking” handshakes, no concern for how I look, just me and my objective.

My “lone wolf” approach to fitness was probably born from years of failed attempts at relying on a gym partner (or group). People have bad habits of making promises to themselves while drunk on motivation, then failing to follow through on those promises in the harsh glow of the morning sun. I’ve organized groups of lifters, fighters, runners and watched our numbers dwindle as progress came too slowly for some and the effort proved too much for others, until there I was again — alone on the mats getting my time in with the one teammate that always shows up, my punching bag.

The danger in relying on gym partners is that their motivation can directly affect yours. That’s really the point of a gym partner: to help motivate you into making progress and be your spotter along that route, but that symbiotic relationship can turn on its head with the wrong partner. Sometimes, that symbiosis can give way to a parasitic relationship, wherein you’re trying to stay motivated enough for the two of you, and your increasingly undedicated partner can start to be your own excuse for skipping days.

“Greg isn’t coming today, so I might as well take today off too.”

Lifting alone grants me full control over my fitness destiny, gifts me a reprieve from our social world, and gives me a chance to unwind while improving myself but it also makes progress a little tougher to come by. Having a spotter is about more than just safety, they allow you to push your limits in a way you simply can’t on your own. When you know someone can help the get bar back off of you, you pack a few more pounds on or go for a few more reps. When you know the only way this bar doesn’t end up embedded in your sternum is by getting it up under your own power, you have no choice but to play things a little safer.

That’s not to say that you can’t push yourself — I try my best to lift to failure every day, you just have to be a little creative in the endeavor.

Use dumbbells 

Dumbbells represent the easiest way to push yourself to your limits without fear of failing in a dangerous way. If you reach a point where the weight has become too much, you can often drop them right where they are without too much risk of injury to yourself or others, offering you the chance to push for a few more pounds, a few more reps, or both in ways that you often can’t when lifting solo. Dumbbells have the added benefit of engaging your body in a way the barbell can’t — as both of your arms are forced to not only move the weight but to maintain your body alignment and balance the weights in a way you don’t have to under other circumstances.

In some instances, just using a curl bar rather than the full bar can give you a higher degree of control.

Use machines

Admittedly, I don’t use any machines in my normal workouts because, well, I don’t have any. Machines do rob you of some of that stability work I touted in favor of dumbbells, engaging only the muscle groups they’re designed to engage and often leaving subsidiary muscle groups ignored, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still get a hell of a workout in using machines.

If you go to a gym with a decent collection of equipment, you can often work your way through a circuit of machines and come out the other side with a pretty well-rounded workout under your belt. Throw some dumbbells in when and where you feel comfortable, and your machine based regimen can yield some pretty significant results. You will find websites that argue working out with machines is so inferior to free weights that you shouldn’t bother and those websites are wrong. Doing something is always better than doing nothing, and if machines represent the safest and most comfortable way for you to work without a partner, don’t let some dude’s blog convince you that it’s a bad idea. It is true that a well-designed regimen that uses free weights might be the fastestor most effective route to gaining muscle, but it’s certainly not the only one.

Leave those clips off the bar

If you’ve been reading OMF for a while, you probably already know my position on clips. They’re there to keep the weights from moving on or falling off the bar as you go through the movements of your lift, but they’re also a great way to get yourself hurt when you lift alone. I have two dumbbells in my home gym (both 40 pounds) which means they’re good for little more than some shoulder lifts and high-rep curl work, that means most of my work comes in the form of bar-based compound movements like the bench press and squats. Admittedly, I often have to leave the clips on the bar for squats, but in that instance, you can drop the whole bar straight back — something you can’t do on the incline bench.

When you find yourself failing in a no-clips situation, getting out from under the weight is the easy part, doing it without destroying half the gym is harder. Simply tilt the bar until the plates fall off of one side, and hang on tight to prevent the newly lopsided bar from becoming a medieval trebuchet. It’s loud, it’s embarrassing, and it can damage your floor — but it can also stop you from dropping 300 pounds on your neck.

After three knee surgeries and two ankle surgeries, even just coming off the pull-up bar is a calculated risk.

Use your head

I received a comment after a recent OMF column that said the way I workout is “too dangerous.” They were referring to my method of going heavy, going hard, and counting on my ability to push myself (and my lack of clips) to get me out of a jam if I find myself in one. The element of my routine that doesn’t translate as easily into words is the mental aspect: my understanding of what I’m capable of, my experience informing how I go about my workout, and my internal discussion as I put more weight on a bar I’m already struggling with. Yeah, I guess there’s potential for injury, but it’s sort of like carrying your firearm at condition one (with a round in the chamber). Technically speaking, that’s a more dangerous thing to do than carrying at condition three (empty chamber). It’s training, not hardware, which makes having a round in the chamber a reasonable and manageable risk.

Approach your lone workouts in the same way: listen to yourself, trust your better judgment, and mitigate risks in appropriate ways. For instance, I never lift for single-rep maxes when I’m by myself — it’s just too dangerous to be worth it — but I regularly push myself to failure on lower weights that I know I can get myself out from under if I need to.

Make good choices, keep your safety in mind, and don’t tie your motivation to the dwindling motivation of others and you’ll find yourself continuing to kick ass alone or in a group for years to come.

Images courtesy of the author.


Alex Hollings writes on a breadth of subjects ranging from fitness to foreign policy, all presented through the lens of his experiences as a U.S. Marine, athlete and scholar. A football player, rugby player and fighter, Hollings has spent the better part of his adult life competing in some of the most physically demanding sports on the planet. Hollings possesses a master’s degree in communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University.