I spent years lifting weights just for the sake of lifting weights. I originally got into lifting to supplement my fighting (wrestled in high school, tried my hand at boxing, muay thai and MMA, and was terrible at all of it) before hanging up my gloves and focusing purely on lifting. I had no ambitions or goal to compete in any sort of competitive lifting. By nature, I am a very non-competitive person, and find it hard to motivate myself to “win” something when there isn’t anything really substantial on the line. I told myself that competing against myself in the weightroom would be enough, and that, as long as I got better everyday, I’d be doing the best I could.
Doesn't that sound swell?
All of that is bullshit. It wasn’t until I started competing in powerlifting (and eventually transitioned to strongman) that I finally started making some substantial gains from year to year, and it is because I compete that I am in the best shape of my life and constantly making marked improvements in my training. Nothing compares to competing in an organized sport in terms of creating motivation and drive to force one to push their limits and achieve something greater than they could on their own. My hope is to be able to explain to you AS a non-competitive person WHY competition is so vital to success.
Full disclosure, I am a terrible athlete. This is most likely one of the reasons I have such a non-competitive nature. I grew up a fat kid who was very uncoordinated, and one day became a skinny teenage who was also uncoordinated, and am today a bigish adult that remains uncoordinated. I was never very talented at sports, and about the only thing I am good at is being strong. However, this is more an argument for why I SHOULD compete versus avoiding competition. Without competition, it would be easy to simply do what I am good at and ignore what I am bad at, but with competition, this is not an option. I must become better at what I am bad at, or I will fail.
Some of us just have different talents than others
When you are only competing against yourself in the weightroom, you honestly have zero accountability. No one is paying attention to you, no one cares, you’re just slogging away day in and day out, working toward some goal. Your goals may be specific, like hitting a 500lb deadlift in 4 months, or they may be nebulous, like “get more defined”, but only you will know your own goals. Some people try to make workarounds for this reality by publicizing their goals on some sort of public medium, posting a facebook status saying “I WILL lose 15lbs this year”, and even though they might receive 37 likes from various friends, in truth, no one cares if you succeed or not. There is simply no pressure to perform in these situations, and failure is of minimal consequence.
In competition, it becomes readily apparent who did and did not prepare/meet their goals. Suddenly, instead of facing the silent judgment of facebook, you are witnessing the immediate feedback of an audience. Yes, most likely it will be a small audience of loved ones and other competitors unless you make it big, but the impact of a real human collective observing you is massively different than the computer monitor. The pressure to perform will be exceptionally high, and though this will also benefit you by increasing your adrenaline and allowing you a final push in some instances, the primary motivator is that you will not want to look like an idiot.
Maybe next year
Additionally, this much to be said about the value of being around strong people. So many times the statement has been made that “if you’re the strongest person in your gym, you’re at the wrong gym”. As a home gym user, I can attest to the fact that, sometimes, this reality is unavoidable. However, the wisdom in this statement hinges upon the reality that, without being around stronger people, you tend to lose sight about what is really possible. If you’re the king of the gym with a 405lb deadlift while everyone else struggles with 225, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re doing alright and have achieved a good level of strength. However, once you show up to a competition and see some guy 2 weight classes below you deadlift 200lbs over your max, suddenly it dawn on you that you have so much more potential. “Why not me?” This becomes your rallying crew for self-improvement, as you realize that the people hitting huge numbers aren’t just mystical monsters who exist only on youtube, but instead locals who work at Best Buy and have day jobs and obligations just like you.
However, the benefit of the competition does not exist purely on competition day, but instead on the days, weeks and months leading UP to the competition. Without a defined deadline to reach a goal, it becomes difficult to structure one’s training plan. Yes, a “workout routine” can be established, but it becomes tricky determining when it is time to start really pushing the volume and the intensity, when it is time to throttle back, when it is time to work on skill, etc. Additionally, prioritization changes with an explicit goal, specifically what WEAKNESSES to address. Without a competition, it is easy to ignore weaknesses, but with a competition looming, weaknesses need to be eliminated.
Or just go compete in Men's Physique
Powerlifting and strongman have both been a boon to me in regard to the above. I have a decent bench and deadlift for my weight, while being a terrible squatter. For years, I hung around at a 465lb squat, and though I wanted more, nothing motivated me to get a higher squat. Once I started powerlifting, and especially once I noticed a guy in my weight class squatting 540lbs, I knew I had to get my squat up if I wanted to stand a chance and not embarrass myself. Even after suffering a level II hamstring pull where I couldn’t squat to depth for 4 months, I still managed to finally hit a 502lb squat after figuring out a way to perform concentric only squats from pins in order to get used to heavy loading while sparing my hamstring the eccentric. Without the competition looming, it would’ve been easy to just quit squatting, but this forced me to overcome my weaknesses and injuries to reach my goals, knowing that I would be in front of a waiting audience who wanted to see how far I progressed that year. Oh, and I also edged out the other 181 and took best lifter that meet, so that was cool.
Strongman has been even more monumental toward overcoming weaknesses, for along with having to build more physical strength for other movements, I had to start finally addressing my terrible athleticism. My first contest, I did zero training for it and figured that, since I was such a stud, I’d just muscle through everything and do great. 1 tragic yoke walk and the world’s slowest farmer’s walk later showed me that I had a long way to go in the sport, and it made me want to get better. I hate these events so much, and if I weren’t a strongman competitor, I’d never do them, but that’s the point: competing forces me to make myself stronger. Ever since competing in strongman, I’ve not only become a significantly better athlete, but my static strength and body comp have improved as well. Striving to eliminate weaknesses is the path to having no weaknesses, which in turn makes you a juggernaut.
HAH! Bet you were expecting X-men
This of course is not even addressing the value in performing poorly in a competition, which is oddly enough what so many people seem to dread. You hear so much about people holding off on a competition until they are “ready”, which is code for “I don’t want to compete unless I will win”. These are the people that grew up in the participation trophy era, and fail to understand the value in losing. Losing a competition is incredibly motivating, as it creates the hunger and drive necessary to kill oneself in training. Either just barely missing out on first or being completely blown out of the water are equally effective catalysts, as they both will burn in the mind of the competitor as they lay awake at night wondering what they could do better. It will be what replays in your mind when you’ve hit squat 27 of a 30 rep set, or when you’re just 4 steps away on the yoke walk. It’s what will push you to add just 5 more pounds to the bar, or grind out one more shaky, twitchy, horrible looking rep on the deadlift. When I was cutting weight to hit the 181s and skipping out on pizza so I could eat salads, I would tell myself “this is what first place tastes like”.
You just can’t get this stuff on your own people. Sign up for a contest that seems way out of your league, spend 2-3 months really busting your ass, and note how, in those 2-3 months, your most likely got bigger, stronger and faster than you had in the past 2 years of training on your own. You won’t regret it.