fitness

The rise of the competitive workout.

Image via iStock.

These days, certain fitness programs have acquired a cult status. From CrossFit to Pilates, cardio to weight training, we’ve elevated the simple workout to a scientific art (with associated skills, slogans, diets and training equipment). CrossFit enjoys the type of public profile once reserved for trainwreck celebrities, and there is a certain grudging respect afforded to anyone who can regularly sweat their way through bikram yoga sessions.

Fitness classes are designed to bring out our competitive sides, and on our smartphones, #fitspo is only a fingerswipe away. So what’s wrong with a little healthy competition? After all, competition can increase our confidence, make us more aware of our strengths, and improve our focus. No one would deny that working out alone can get tedious – and sometimes it’s fun to use apps to hold yourself accountable, or fish for a little external validation via Facebook. But it can be hazardous for your physical and emotional health to monitor every workout you perform in some way, shape or form.

By consistently tying your workouts to how you performed in relation to those around you, you can push your competitive drive into, well, overdrive.

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According to psychologist Amelia Flores-Kater, being competitive is an important and vital part of being human.

“Competitive behaviour can have a healthy impact on our lives and can be used as a driver to achieve individual goals,” she explains.

“But in certain circumstances, being competitive can have a negative impact, particularly when the competition with others becomes a ‘win at all costs’ mentality and results in psychological and physical distress, such as anxiety, depression or physical injury.”

Abbie, a 34-year-old CrossFit enthusiast, knows the damaging effect of competition overdrive only too well.

“I’m not going to lie, I am ultra-competitive, and I have to be the best in my class. Once at CrossFit, we had to do deadlifts during a workout session. I picked up a heavy weight to try to compete with the others and hurt my back in the first round – but I didn’t stop. I kept going, because I didn’t want to look like I couldn’t do it. As a result, I couldn’t exercise for about a week and now my back pain’s chronic.”

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If you’ve ever done an extra set of reps just because your workout buddy did or cranked up the speed on your treadmill to go faster than the person next to you, then you can probably relate to Abbie’s experience. We’re taught from an early age that we should always give 100-percent, so we’re now living in the era of the competitive workout.

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Alex Cheong, owner of CrossFit U in West Melbourne, says that competition is an important aspect of CrossFit, although by no means the basis of its appeal.

“Sport is, at its core, competitive, but it is also fun. Most of the competition within CrossFit is with yourself,” he explains.

However, the mental pressure created by competing with other people in a gym environment can lead to physical and mental exhaustion, which is why CrossFit, for all its popularity, has attracted reams of criticism. It’s impossible to say whether CrossFit causes more injuries than any other training program as no rigorous studies of injury rates have been published, but both its intense nature and the semi-religious fervour devotees seem to bring to it have attracted negative attention.

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Cheong insists that there’s a massive world of difference between CrossFit programs designed to prep participants for CrossFit Opens, and those dedicated to simply making average bodies more fit. ‘You just choose to go to a gym that’s competition-focused, or choose a gym like mine that’s primarily interested in fitness and community. It’s all up to you.’ Flores-Kater agrees that it is how you view competition that will make the most impact in terms of outcome or success.

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Both acknowledge that there has been a massive shift in the mentality surrounding fitness over the last few years that seems largely informed by social media.

“Previously, working out was pretty straightforward,” says Choeng, “You just smashed out a session at the gym before work. Now, social media networks provide a framework to show off, as well as a support base.”

What’s important to realise is that there are pros and cons to being competitive, and a ‘competitive workout’ isn’t necessarily better than a slow, steady one. Healthy competition is valuable for personal growth, but just remember, a lot of the selfies of six-packs on social networks and breathtaking feats of strength at the gym are for show.

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