Be a better training partner

Be a better training partner

I read something funny the other day on the Instagram story of a friend, saying “contrary to popular belief, screaming “easy weight” to your training partner before a set doesn’t ACTUALLY make the weight any easier”.
It was good for a chuckle, but it also made me think about what it is to actually be a good training partner, which is the topic of today’s article.

Step 1 – wear your uniform

Ultimately, your role as a training partner can be summarised as simply facilitating the best training output and performance of those who are with you. This obviously encompasses the motivational component (or else people wouldn’t yell “come on (x)” or “last set best set” or whatever so much), and I think that’s important. What I want to cover in a smidgeon more detail is the coaching component of the equation.

That’s right – I said coaching. As a training partner, your job is to in some part play the role of the coach of your partner, just as they ought to for you. Whilst encouragement is useful, what ACTUALLY improves the performance of the athlete in front of you is coaching input, and for you that makes training practice for the art of coaching others. Being a good partner involves cueing and analysis of performance, communication, management of emotions/expectations and helping to engineer the performance environment for those who train with you.
Let’s break that down

1 – Cueing
When you train with a given person, you should develop some knowledge of their unique technical needs and the cues that they respond to. Whilst some cues are “useful” near universally (eg “big breath, back tight” or similar when setting up to squat/bench/deadlift), most lifters have specific technical difficulties or foci that they may ask you to assist with.
For instance, when I squat with Julz or Alex at Lift Performance Centre, they cue my knee position on the ascent of my squat, and my descent path on the bench, because those are the errors that we have identified to work on, and the cues we use are ones that we have found useful to address that. As a partner, your job is to work to identify those technical weakpoints and cue appropriately to fix them.
Whether or not we should be cueing excessively is another discussion entirely, and for a rundown on motor learning principles you can read here.

2 – Analysis
Per the above, it is also your job to assist your training partner in reflection. Saying “sick lift, bro/bro-ette” is nice, but it is much more helpful to be a sounding board for their self-assessment before providing your own input. Powerlifting is a sport where technical efficiency makes an enormous difference, and having a second set of eyes to give you feedback on when you performed well or badly is a big help.
Many people find solo reflection difficult, so having a training partner who is honest and insightful in appraising their performance is a big boon, because the act of conversation facilitates some thought.

A useful post-set discussion might be like
Partner – How did that feel?
Lifter – Alright, I rushed the set-up on the 2nd rep a bit and then I collapsed in the hole.
Partner – Agreed, you need to take your time more and find your balance before you descend. But your back tightness was better than it has been.
Lifter – Yeah, next set just cue me to let the weight settle and find my spot before each rep

Notice how the above includes some assessment of performance, a review of the success of a prior cueing strategy/focus (back tightness) and planning to improve execution on the next set through a new cue.

Over the course of a session or training career, a good partner will also identify new technical challenges that you face, or patterns in performance, and communicate them to you and help you problem-solve so that you can do better next time.

Step 2 – always mirror each other’s actions

3 – Emotion and expectation management
This is similar to the motivational component, but different. It’s not uncommon to have training partners who are in different phases of training/competition prep to you, or who are chasing a particular goal that you aren’t.
Often this can lead to wildly optimistic or pessimistic appraisals of their performance, or how well they are progressing. A good training partner can provide some perspective, but also keep your eyes on the prize.
For instance, during the last few weeks of a peak many lifters feel physically average and their stress when approaching the bar is heightened due to fatigue and concern for their meet performance. A good training partner helps to contextualise those feelings, adds some reality to the post-set appraisal (executing technique is harder when weights are heavier, because they are heavier) and directs your energy to more productive things, like your cues.
On the other side of the coin, during general preparatory periods it can be easy to be lazy in your execution because the weights are light and, to be honest, squatting 60% for sets of 8-12 is really mundane. Again, a good partner keeps you goal-directed and is uncompromising in asking for your best execution.

So that is three important aspects of playing coach, but it’s also important to cover when NOT to play coach. You may be somebody’s training partner, but if they have a coach who has written them a program and either works with them in person, or remotely, your job is to facilitate the athlete performing their plan well as opposed to usurping it.

If the coach has said to focus on one or two technical components/cues, your job as a training partner is to do exactly that. Say the cues, appraise your partner’s performance against them, and feed that back to them to communicate to the coach.
Where there is flexibility built into a plan (for instance, where loads or volumes are autoregulated), giving honest and accurate feedback can help the athlete/coach make better training decisions but otherwise the coach’s word should be law.

On a similar note, whilst your feedback and insight is valuable, it is the athlete’s prerogative to establish exactly what they want to work on. You may think (and possibly rightly) that they should invest their focus in a given cue, or make a certain alteration, but once the decision has been made to do otherwise, you serve them best by facilitating that. Remember – even failed plans are useful as information-gathering exercises, but when a plan fails and you can’t tell whether that is due to execution or planning, you haven’t learnt much and still failed.

The other most important thing not to do is… BS your partner
Powerlifting is a pretty simple sport, and the rules for execution of the lifts are not particularly complicated. In simple matters such as squat depth, bench press pauses and positioning, being exacting on your partner is a big favour to them because it can save them from a very rude shock on competition day.

Many people think they are being kind by giving the benefit of the doubt to their training partner for borderline squats or benches where their butt lifts and so on, but they aren’t. It is not a character-judgement to tell somebody that their squats don’t look to depth, and if your partner doesn’t like being told that then they are being a sook unless you say it like a real prick.

On a similar note, particular with flexible plans, it can be tempting to encourage your partner to always go heavier or do more and so on, but you have a unique position as an objective observer from which to say “no, x, that was a little slower than 150kg normally moves for you, I think you should call that your top set for today”. The reverse is occasionally (but less often) true – sometimes your partner just needs a kick in the pants to do the work.

Finally, if you train with somebody, you need to take some responsibility for the partnership that you want to create. Being able to analyse others and communicate feedback is helpful and it can teach you a lot to use in your own lifting, but you do that hoping for your effort will be reciprocated.
Learn to clearly communicate what you want and expect. If you have a cue that you want to work on, or notice an error in your lifting, tell your partner. Be introspective enough to realise that you likely have some character/attitudinal weaknesses that your partner can address – we all do. If you frequently need somebody to keep you on task because your mind wanders, or you get too excited and forget your cues, or you can be a perfectionist and psyche yourself out, say so. Help others help you. Lastly, and most importantly, be humble enough to take on board what is told to you. Your partners are with you to help you get better, and their criticism is meant in that light. Give their insights the consideration they are due, give their suggestions (where necessary) an honest attempt, and engage in a dialogue where you both learn.

Being a good partner is much more than being the hype man. It’s important to be good fun, and there’s no doubt most people appreciate the extra motivation of having somebody there with them to train. But beyond that, a partner is like a stand-in coach, and a sounding board for reflection for a lifter. Give your partners the attention that you as an athlete would like – deliver their cues, assess their lifting, strategise to improve their performance, and keep their mind on the task. AND have fun, it’s a hobby, after-all.

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