By: Barbell Logic Team
Home or Away: Does Where you Train Affect Your Workout?
Trying out a new gym can be stressful. Whether you are traveling or just looking for a new place to train, a change in your regular training environment can be a tough one. Your routines change, the equipment is unfamiliar, and the people are different. And, if you are used to working out as a social activity, new spaces can add an extra challenge to an already challenging workout.
Certain gyms, however, have a special something—an “X-factor”—that seems to seep into your muscles, making everything move a little faster and your form groove a little better, like gains through osmosis.
Stories abound online of lifters finding a great gym to train at while on the road and being influenced by the atmosphere. Few put the X-factor into words as elegantly as did Mark Berry in 1931 after visiting the York Oil Burner Athletic Club (YOBAC), which would eventually become the renowned York Barbell Club:
If you as a real dyed-in-the-wool weight lifting enthusiast have entertained day-dreams of an ideal club for iron-men, you have only to see the York O.B.A.C. club-house to realize that your dreams have come true. In truth, it is a veritable palace situated on the outskirts of a thriving city of some sixty odd thousand citizens.
A private lifting gym wherein a few hundred spectators can be seated, spacious lounging, game, and dressing rooms, with buffet and dining accommodations. We might even go so far as to say it is beyond the dreams of avarice. If you ever get within a few hundred miles of York, by all means go around to see this— the worlds finest weight lifting club. (Fairm1996)
Where do you prefer training, your home gym? Or, do you have a place like the YOBAC that you travel to for training? Studies into the concept of the “home field advantage” in sports have suggested that the performance differences between home and away games provide benefits beyond things like crowd noise and favorable referees. There are psychological and social aspects to your familiar surroundings that can influence, positively and negatively, your performance.
Familiarity. Perhaps the most significant training effect of your gym space is the equipment and your familiarity with it. If you have great equipment at your home gym and you’ve been forced to train at times at a big box commercial gym, chances are you missed your bar, your rack, and even your plates. The home-field advantage is not in your favor in this case. It doesn’t mean you need to change your workout, but going for a new Rep Max effort with a crappy bar, no, chalk, and hex plates is like swimming in your business suit, an unnecessary and uncomfortable complication.
If you are going to have to workout away from your home gym, it helps to prepare. Check out our Travel Training Guide. It discusses how to find your “home away from home” gym and how to remove other challenges that will take you out of your familiar routine.
Social Interactions. New places and new people often present the next biggest challenge. Studies of the home-field advantage show that part of the negative effect of an away game comes from the booing and “razzing” of the crowd. And, while you aren’t likely to be booed and hissed from a gym, feeling out of place, watched, or judged by the regulars can have a similar psychological effect on your performance.
Sometimes, there is nothing for this. Put in your headphones, blast your music, and focus on your training for the day. Sometimes, though, a new gym is an opportunity for some excellent training. For those of you who lift at home by yourselves, just being in a social situation can add a little bit of positive pressure to your training. We want to perform well in front of others, that’s hard-wired into our brains. Take advantage of that instinct with a renewed focus on your lifting form, or dedication to hard or heavy sets. The possibility of failing in front of others is a powerful motivator and not necessarily a negative one; try competing in a lifting meet to see what we mean.
Or, you might, like Mark Berry, find a York-esq gym to train in, someplace infused with the X-factor, with superb equipment, encouraging people, and shared gains. If you have, tell us about it. We love to share the best places to lift with our Barbell Logic Online Coaching members.
John D. Fair, “From Philadelphia to York: George Jowett, Mark Berry, Bob Hoffman, and the Rebirth of American Weightlifting, 1927-1936,” Iron Game History, Vol. 4 No. 6 (1996)
By: CJ Gotcher, SSC
From day one with a new lifter, I tell them to look at a spot on the ground 5-ish feet in front of them, and once we’ve found the correct gaze that gets the head neutral in the bottom of the squat, “eyes” and “spot” become the cue for the lifter to refocus and look at that point. This eye direction is part of the Starting Strength teaching progression, and it’s one element many people struggle to understand.
If we’re trying to go up, why would we look down?
First, in our teaching progression, we start by teaching people the movement without a barbell. Unfortunately, without a weight, there are a wide range of possible positions that will keep the lifter in balance, at depth, with their back in the right place, and we want to teach them the back angle they will best lift heavy weights with. The eye gaze is an elegant solution. By setting the lifter to a point where the imaginary bar is approximately over the midfoot and adjusting the head until it’s neutral at the bottom (5 feet is just a ballpark figure), we have given the lifter visual feedback they can use to find that correct back angle.
More importantly, though, we want to keep the hips and shoulders moving up together out of the hole.
When most new lifters look up, they lift the chest early and the body compensates by bringing the knees forward slightly to keep the weight over the middle of the foot. This is a natural reaction because the cervical spine (the neck) is connected to the thoracic spine (the upper back). However, when the knees go forward, even a little bit, the quads (which are already working their asses off) have to produce more force. Bar speed tanks. The lift feels like death.
It seems simple, then. If looking up brings the chest up too early, just don’t look up. This begs the question: why do some strong squatters look up, usually to horizon but sometimes even higher, when they squat?
Oftentimes, these lifters are front squatting or high bar squatting with limb lengths that favors a more-vertical back angle. In such a case, I would expect the lifter’s eyes to be up at horizon and the exact position will matter less since their head is nearly neutral at horizon anyway. It’s also common to see lifters who are just phenomenally strong, and despite their chest raising slightly, and bar speed visually slowing down, they power through.
Even so, there are some skilled lifters doing low bar squats who can execute excellent hip drive with their eyes up. If someone has an otherwise excellent squat and looks up into the rafters, do we have to fix it? Maybe.
I almost hesitate to mention this because it’s not as big a deal as it sounds, but I think there is a slightly increased risk of injury from looking up, especially in jerking the head up as you drive out of the hole. The spine is meant to extend. We do it all the time without injury, and some have argued that because the barbell is below the neck, the cervical spine isn’t under load and the head position shouldn’t matter. Maybe normally, that would be true, but under a load, things below the spine have an impact upstream.
Specifically, when the weight gets heavy, the traps contract to tighten the supporting frame of the upper back. However, the upper traps connect at the base of the back of the skull. When you reach your neck to look back, there isn’t much pressure on the cervical vertebrae or the muscles surrounding it. If you crunch your neck to do so (think thrusting the chin forward instead of up, which is what we tend to do under the bar), you probably feel discomfort as you reach your end-range-of-motion. Combine that with the downward pull of the contracted traps (especially if you’re ‘whipping’ the neck back in the lift) and you risk going beyond that range and causing injury.
I (sadly) have personal experience giving myself mild neck sprains with pullups and deadlifts during my first 2 years of ‘getting after it,’ and the mechanism was the same: craning the neck with contracted traps.
All that being said, I still hesitate to mention it. First, it’s a minor issue. I’ve never heard of a ruptured cervical disk from squatting. Mostly we’re looking at sprains and strains and, yes, they will definitely put a damper on your dance card for a few days, but you can train through them.
Second, debating this point back and forth, a great question keeps coming up: what does a ‘normal’ or ‘neutral’ head position look like? We know when we’re looking at something that’s just ugly, and most coaches can agree on what neutral looks like (mostly), but when does it become excessive? It’s one of those fuzzy areas- “I know it when I see it”- and that’s just not convincing.
In the end, can I tell you confidently that your neck position will hurt you or that it’ll derail your training? Not confidently. Still, as a coach, I will teach all of my beginner lifters to look down when they squat and emphasize hip drive because among beginners, the reflex is almost universal. If I’m working with an experienced/strong lifter who’s been looking up for years and has excellent hip drive, I’ll work at getting them to lower their gaze, but it’ll be lower on the priority list of issues to correct.
Finally, a disclaimer: if you experience particularly severe neck pain, tingling or numbness in the arms or extremities associated with neck pain, or painful neck stiffness beyond 2 or 3 days after exercise, I recommend you see a doctor.