The Law Of Gyminished Returns…

This is Part I of a 2 or 3 or maybe even a 4 part essay on my perception of the current state of gym culture. We’ll see where this goes. Please check back in a few weeks for Part II.


A big box of followers…

I have spent the past 5 weeks training in a chain gym for the first time in many years. As a fitness trainer and a relentless observer of people, this has been a thought cultivating experience.

I can’t help it, with each workout my mind continually toggles back and forth between what I am doing, and what everyone else is doing. So compelled am I to believe that I am always on the most correct path, that I am usually left to believe that most everyone else in the gym is on a dirt road to nowhere.

I won’t go so far as to say a majority of these gym regulars are foolish or blind followers, but I will say that most I observe are being completely inefficient in what I perceive they are trying to accomplish. Regardless of what their goals are; weight loss, body sculpting, or conditioning (it’s usually some combination of these), I’ll suggest that most I see here are not on the most direct path to where they wish to go.

I often ponder obsess on this question: Why do people believe that buying a gym membership is enough…?

Buying a guitar is seldom enough. Buying golf clubs is seldom enough. Lessons on how to use these are usually purchased with them, or shortly thereafter. However, joining a gym is too often a purchase made with no intention of learning how to use it.

At best, a new member might workout with a friend and do what their friend does – who learned from another friend, and so-on. People sign up, show up, and when they are not shown by theirs friends, they just mimic what they see other gym members doing. What could possibly go wrong…?


The law of gyminished returns…

If a person does something inefficiently in the gym for months or even for years, and nobody ever corrects them or offers them a more efficient path, they ultimately become a veteran of failure, but a veteran nonetheless. As a veteran of the gym they are watched by beginners. Beginners see what gym veterans are doing, and they copy it. Gym culture is now many generations deep into this way of learning.

Think of it as a cassette tape from the 1970s. Back then we could copy an original cassette to a blank cassette on our home stereo. If one then took that copied tape and subsequently made a copy of that copy, the fidelity would decrease. Each successive copy of a copy would lose another degree of fidelity. After so many generations of copying the copies, the music would become less true to its original incarnation.


In a very real sense, that has been happening with gym culture over period of decades. In particular, how exercises are performed and the volume in which they are performed. As more and more people have copied what others have done before them, who have copied what others have done before them, the overall productivity and effectiveness of the culture has been reduced. That is just my opinion.

Pump up the volume, someone told her…

The most common inefficiency I see though, is too much exercise volume; too many exercises, too many sets per exercise, and too many days per week. Again, this is not just limited to beginners. I have seen many experienced gym goers who exercise with too much volume, and too much frequency. I saw an example of this yesterday. A young woman, maybe 23 years old, and she didn’t appear unfit, but was clearly not any kind of athlete.

I first saw her performing set after set of barbell bench presses. Shortly after, I saw her doing dumbbell bench presses. Sometime after that, I saw her doing chest flies. Later, she was doing push-ups followed by more chest flies.

In the amount of time in which I was able to do multiple exercises for multiple body parts, and complete an entire workout, she had exclusively worked one area of her body, her chest, and did so with an unnecessarily high volume of sets – regardless of her goals.

Because curiosity got the better of me, I broke my never talk to people in the gym rule and asked her about her high volume of training. She explained that she wanted to make her cleavage line more pronounced so a friend suggested that she do every chest exercise she could think of. Good plan!


I thanked her for her time and walked away without passing judgment. Notwithstanding that she could have already achieved that goal by simply changing her diet, and doing 3 sets of push-ups a day for a month, I wasn’t her trainer, it wasn’t my gym, so it certainly wasn’t my place to offer unsolicited advice.

What is water…

As I looked around after my conversation with the young woman, I better observed that there were many more in the gym just like her – people who had the best of intentions, but were on road to nowhere, or on the road to not very far.

Whether these people were just guessing at what they were doing, copying other members, or getting their strength training instructions from a cassette tape friend 4 generations deep, it was clear to me that few people in the gym were the beneficiaries of sound instruction which related to their specific and unique objectives.

I suddenly felt the old fish in that David Foster Wallace commencement address. What is water…? If I had been brave enough to point out the water to any of them, they would still have no idea what I was talking about… Be well. rc


Please take a moment to scroll up and rate this, and be sure to check back in a few weeks for part-2 of this essay. Part-2 will address fitness trainers in big box gyms. Hint: If you ever see trainer turn his back on a client mid-set in order to take another bite of oatmeal with chia seeds in it, he’s probably not your guy.

Oh, and there’s this from Girls Guns & Glory. Enjoy!

19 responses

  1. First, I’d like to say thank you for giving me helpful and very useful advice on my working out!

    I saw this diminishing procedural technique in surgery. Because of this, I made it a point early in my training to look at old textbooks to see how the original designers of my craft did it. Knowing this gave me a much better foundation to build my skills.

    I like that even though many of the people you saw could be working out better and smarter, they had the motivation and enthusiasm to want to workout.

    I think I am spoiled and lucky to work out in a fitness center with great facilities and many trainers available to help us.

    • I’m pretty sure Dr J., complexity and institutionalism being what they are, this could be superimposed on institutionalism of any kind; academia, religion, music — all become diluted overtime.

      As to your fitness center, if Darden works out there, it must be a cut above the average box gym 🙂

  2. Maybe they are just tightwards like me? I don’t even pay for a gym membership. 😉 but, to be fair, I don’t spend a lot of time doing exercises – in correct or incorrect form. Ha! You know it’s a journey for me, right?

  3. Sometimes I think all of human history is like a faulty game of “Whisper Down the Lane,” where one little flea-bitten cave-dwelling ape had one good idea back in 90,000 BC, and we’ve all been screwing it up since then. 🙂

  4. So true- so many of my patients object when I recommend they work with a personal trainer as part of their healing- “But I’ve been in the gym for years” they say- But those who do follow my recommendation to work with a qualified (key word) trainer all say the same thing- it’s worth every penny. And for the record- despite all my years of training on my own and with sports coaches it wasn’t until I started working with a well-qualified personal trainer that I really saw progress in my own areas of weakness- it’s been a huge benefit to my quality of life- not to mention my training.

    • Thanks for dropping JennyMarie! Although I’m not huge on box gym personal trainers, and many others, I will say, and I will be writing about this next month, even the greenest fitness trainer fresh off a weekend certification program, probably knows more than the average gym member.

      As critical as I am with my profession, it has come a long way, and is improving with each new year.

  5. Well…… I LOVE your expertise always!!!!! :)You are correct that people are mimicking others they shouldn’t or I see the blind leading the blind or just not taking the time to figure out what is right for them. Gyms don’t care – they want your money but they don’t keep the gym up.

    I am probably one that you would think works out too much BUT I like it & it works for me. I love lifting & my prob is I could overtrain to the point of exhaustion if I let myself! 🙂

    As for the chest thing – heck even what you suggested is probably not going to do what she wants which is a boob job.. 😉 I get that chest thing a lot & have to tell them it is not going to give you boobs! 🙂

    • Trust me Jody, I’m the king of overtraining, but I am AWARE of it, and accept the consequences. Like you, I train because I love it. Love it. Love it. Those who believe more equals better, faster, sooner, bigger are those who I refer to.

  6. Roy, I haven’t stepped into a gym environment since I stopped playing college sports nearly 20 years ago, so this isn’t a subject I’m very familiar with, but your post really made me see your point. I just wanted to let you know I think it’s especially well-written. Keep up the good work! 🙂

    • Thank you Shannon, for the kind words. The good news is, if you ever do decide to step into a gym, you don’t need to 🙂 Anything that really matters in exercise can be done in the security of your won home!

  7. Pingback: Intentional Trainer… | Contemplative Fitness

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