How to Break in a New Training Partner

How to Break in a New Training Partner

I have had many a training partner over the years. In my forty-one years of lifting weights there have been times when I have had up to three training partners, and there have been times when, unable to find a quality partner, I have trained by myself. In fact, I have trained alone for the last couple of years, and it has been fine.  Now, I have acquired a new training partner, my thirteen year old son, James.

James grew up going to weight rooms with me, especially when I was the Head Strength Coach at Penn, and from around the age of four, he'd run around, jump on some plyometric boxes, do some curls. By the time that he was ten years old or so, he was doing some barbell squats and deadlifts and of course, more bicep curls.

And he was interested in it, but he liked running around more than lifting weights. Which was fine, I never wanted to put pressure on him to lift weights. I have seen that happen before, a parent pushing too hard and then the kid begins to hate it. I just wanted him to have fun.

About a year ago, I noticed that he began watching videos on the internet of guys training with free weights, and then in February of this year, he came to a seminar that Marty Gallagher, Kirk Karwoski and myself put on down in Maryland.

After that seminar, he was hooked. This coincided with the beginning of puberty, interest in girls and the beginning of seeing some muscle gains. I noticed an overabundance of flexing in the mirror also. I knew he was becoming hooked.

What do I mean by hooked? I mean that he was bitten by the Iron Bug, a condition whose symptoms include an obsessive desire to get bigger and stronger, a constant need to perform poses in any type of mirror or window or any surface in which you can see yourself. In addition, in some of the worst cases, the individual may obsess over where the good lighting is in the room and where their muscles stand out the best (hotel room bathrooms are usually excellent).

When I noticed James coming down with this condition, I figured it was time for him to join the gym with me and become my training partner.

When I first began training, I trained with folks that I could learn from. I’d keep my mouth shut and follow along. And I never trained with anyone who wasn’t serious when training, who weren’t locked into what we were doing. As I got older, people would ask to train with me so that they could learn. I’m not being egotistical, it’s just that after I got ten, twenty, then thirty years of training under my belt, I had some knowledge to offer others.

But no matter how much I knew, I always learned from people that I trained with, maybe just a tweak in form that made a difference or an exercise that I hadn’t tried before. And everyone needs someone to bounce ideas off of, or just for a form check. “How’d that set look?” was a question that I’d constantly asked my partners, and vice versa.

When James began training with me, he had already seen me lift weights for years, so he understood some of the rules that I prescribe regarding training and the “training partner etiquette” that I had developed over the years.

Partners have to adhere to rules or they aren’t going to be my training partner for long.

What are some of the training partner rules?

  1. No talking about anything but the workout that we are presently performing.

If anyone does talk about any subjects not pertaining to the current training session, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt before I get rid of them. For instance, James and I were in the middle of a workout the other day and he asked me a question regarding baseball or something.  I usually say, in an irritated voice, “Huh? I don’t know what the hell you are talking about. I didn’t hear you. Were you asking a question about the workout?” Usually they “get it” but if they don’t it’s sayonara. James gets it, but being thirteen he just needs to learn to focus for longer than five minutes.

  1. Count reps out loud.

All my training partners count reps. It keeps focus and it deters folks from interrupting us while doing a set. I teach partners to count louder and louder until the person interrupting gets the hint and leaves.

  1. No phones allowed.

A caveat here: If you are changing the music or if you are figuring out percentages for your set it is fine. Other than that? Like texting or emailing or social media? Bye-Bye. James knows better than that, and fortunately, I’m in charge of his phone. If he screws up that phone is mine. So far, so good.

  1. Learn how to spot. Not too early, not too late, not too little, not too much. Spotting is a fine art, and that leads me into my next rule:
  2. Your training partner's set must be just as important as your set.

That means no looking around, no getting a drink at the water fountain, no fooling around. Your partner’s set is your set. And James has adjusted very well. Maybe he has learned that his father is a little nuts, regarding the importance that I put on a training session. Do we ever laugh and cut up? No, not really. We will make comments if someone walks by spreading their lats out when they have no lats to speak of, but usually, it’s all business, and I like it that way.

The other rules are easy, change the weight plates, no negativity, no cable crossovers or kickbacks. You know, rules that everyone should adhere to, if they want great workouts.

As I write this, we just returned from a squat session at our local gym, Atilis in Belmar, New Jersey.  And James did great. He spotted well, he spoke only “essential words.” and he worked hard.  And then when he got home, he ate a big old steak. He’s getting there, following all of my edicts. Listen, I know I am different than most but training means a lot to me. Maybe one day, James will pass these rules down to his son or daughter. That’s what I’m hoping for because in this day and age with all of the distractions, it’s good to learn to focus, to be serious, to be maybe a little worried that he may screw up. From what I can surmise, that kind of stuff is missing from the youth today, so he’s gonna get a big old dose of it from his old man.

We will see how long this partnership lasts. The rebellion of youth may come into play, but I hope not. I hope that he realizes that the weight room and training with me provides a brief respite from the outside world, a place where he can find solace and be comfortable with the sameness of it all. And I hope I can give that gift to him for a lifetime, like my first training partner gave to me.

RAW with Marty Gallagher, J.P. Brice and Jim Steel Podcast RAW with Marty Gallagher, J.P. Brice and Jim Steel Podcast


About The Author. Jim Steel has been immersed in athletics and the Iron Game for most of his life. He has been a college football player and coach, powerlifter, Muay Thai fighter and is currently a competitive bodybuilder. In 1999, Steel was named Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved up to Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2004. He is the owner of the blog and is a motivational speaker, frequent podcast guest and the author of two books, Basbarbell Book of Programs and Steel Reflections. Steel is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Jim Steel is co-host of the RAW with Marty Gallagher Podcast along with Marty Gallagher and J.P. Brice and is a monthly content contributor at IRON COMPANY.