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We have all noticed the guy in the weight room reaching for the all-too-heavy dumbbells or sliding enough 45-pound plates on the Olympic bar to stock a Williams Sonoma, only to struggle — embarrassingly so — to eke out a terrible rep or two. It makes you wonder whether he’s actually training to improve his physique or just trying (and failing) to show off.
There’s a name for that behavior. It’s called “ego lifting,” and not only can it make you look a little silly, but it also can derail your progress and, in the worst-case scenario, lead to a nasty injury.
However, before you shake your head at those ridiculous dudes, chalking it up to a mere side effect of runaway testosterone and a man’s innate need to impress, know this: Women are not immune to the perils of ego lifting.
“Ego lifting happens when we get caught up in the vibe of the session and we sacrifice common sense, such as proper form and working through a full range of motion, in order to ‘cheat’ out some progress and feel good about the workout,” says Dan Roberts, a top U.K. strength and conditioning coach and founder of the Dan Roberts Group.
A key point to realize is that ego lifting often manifests differently in women than in men. While men will lift weights that are too heavy, women may instead do too many exercises for a bodypart or aim for too many reps, continuing onward long after their form has broken down.
As an example, Roberts noticed this occurring a lot in the gyms while in Rio de Janeiro, where many people hyperfocus on developing their glutes. He said he noticed women doing 10 exercises of high-rep training for this area during marathon workout sessions and usually with poor form. “Yes, you get the burn and it feels like a great workout and progress, but just like bros doing half-rep Smith-machine squats,” he points out, “it’s serving the ego way more than your body.”
Another way women ego-lift is to perform advanced exercises that they know nobody around them can for the sole purpose of making themself look good, says Aaron Viscounte, CSCS, PN1, head coach and manager at Summer’s Fitness in North Canton, Ohio. For instance, someone may flaunt that they can perform a handstand or do jumps onto a 48-inch box — great for an American Ninja Warrior audition, sure, but how often are such feats aligned directly with one’s fitness goals?
While increasing training volume and performing more difficult exercises may not sound like terrible things, when done for the sake of really nothing pertaining to your physique goals, they certainly don’t serve you well. “Ego lifting could actually impede your strength and muscle gains,” Viscounte says. “Even though you’re lifting heavier weight, your body may not be executing the proper range of motion and stretch of the muscle, which is required to gain strength and lean mass while preventing muscle imbalances.”
“When you forgo key principles of exercise, you are always going to get suboptimal results,” Roberts adds. “Most notably, you increase the chance of overtraining muscles at best and cause an immediate injury at worse — particularly when ego lifting manifests in the typically more ‘male’ way.”
Think about it like this: When using heavy weight, there is much less margin for error. If even just one small part of the movement is off, it could result in a strained or torn muscle. “Additionally, over time ego lifting could cause a lot of wear and tear on your joints, tendons and ligaments,” Viscounte says.
Any good fitness program should involve some level of periodization — rotating through periods of higher-intensity and lower-intensity training by adjusting your exercise selection, volume (sets and reps) and frequency. If you’re not doing that, then appreciable gains will be hard to come by and your results may slide into reverse as your body struggles to keep up. “Nobody should be maxing out every single time they walk in the gym,” Viscounte says. “If every week is your ‘max out’ week, you’re most likely lifting with your ego.”
While it is a physical act, remember that ego lifting begins in your head. There is something that makes you think, I need to really work this bodypart, or Check me out, I can do this crazy move with ease, or Watch how hard I can train! The question is: Do you know what’s driving those thoughts?
Summer Montabone, CSCS, retired IFBB fitness pro turned personal development and life coach who founded her own studio, Summer’s Fitness, knows a thing or two about showing off — look no further than the amazing strength and agility moves she performed onstage during her six-year competitive career. “I have seen ego in the weight room with both female athletes and recreational exercisers,” she says. “They often compare themselves to others or feel what they are doing isn’t good enough, or maybe get jealous when others do well, or would rather win than do something well.”
And while that may sound like run-of-the-mill competitive behavior, it tends to be born from a deeper place. “In my experience, myself included, individuals who might be trying to prove themselves might be doing so to overcome a feeling of trauma or the need to display confidence due to something ‘missing’ in their life,” Montabone says. “It’s just important to keep the ego under control and identify if it is a deeper-rooted trauma response where the ego is ‘playing up.’”
You May Be Ego Lifting If … Not sure if you’re guilty of any of the bad training habits that constitute a case of ego lifting? “If you find yourself yelling, grunting, being dramatic in how you move, taking up a lot of time and space while exercising, or trying to get other people’s attention, you may be ego lifting,” Viscounte offers as a simple rule of thumb.
For a deeper dive, Roberts suggests asking yourself the following questions:
If you said “yes” or even “maybe” to any of those questions, slow down and focus on the something that really matters when trying to reach your strength goals: perfect reps. “By only counting perfect reps — the ones with good tempo, good range of motion and done with control — you won’t cheat yourself and the ego will be tamed,” Roberts says. “Not to mention, it’s safer and you’ll get better results.”