The studies are unanimous: exercising with a partner boosts motivation and performance, increases your chances of sticking to new workout regimes and helps you form positive habits. But there’s more: by hitting the gym (or the road) together, you’ll also prime your relationship for success… if you do it right.
Make a plan
‘Help your partner set goals, like deadlifting her own bodyweight or doing her first pull-up,’ says personal trainer Jessica Wolny (jessicawolny.com (opens in new tab)). ‘And let her know that by hitting them, she’ll improve her body composition. Also, tell her that you’re impressed when she does what she sets out to do.’
Focus on body fat percentage, not total weight loss, otherwise she may be disheartened when an increase in muscle makes the scale go the wrong way. Get her a notebook or app to track progress, and if she hits a milestone in the gym without you, show enthusiasm, ask questions and relive the experience. According to a study in the Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, couples that celebrated their successes according to those three principles reported feeling happier and less stressed.
If it’s not her first time in the gym, switch off being the leader. If one person is constantly in charge it may lead to problems, become each others personal trainers and then switch.
Is she worried about getting too big? ‘Remind her that muscle distribution is different for men and women, so it’s difficult for women to get excessively bulky upper bodies,’ says Wolny. ‘And mention that apart from female bodybuilders taking, ah, “specialist supplements”, women don’t have the testosterone to get huge.’ If she’s still worried, stick to low-rep workouts: studies show that the one-to-three rep range is ideal for adding strength without hypertrophy, so pink dumbbells are out and big plates are in. And if all else fails, go for the nuclear option. ‘Remind her how many guys in the gym are trying to get huge,’ suggests Wolny. ‘And then point out how few of them are actually managing it.’ Ouch.
Aim for strength
It isn’t the tough sell it was a few years ago – strong is the new skinny. ‘I’ve seen a huge shift where women now associate weights with strong women who can still slip into that little black dress and feel confident not only in how they train but in how they carry themselves outside the gym,’ says GymBox trainer Kerry Tanner. Introduce her to big, basic moves such as the squat and deadlift – as well as the secret weapon for impressive glutes, the barbell hip thruster: she lies with her shoulders on a bench and a barbell across her hips, and bridges up.
Be a cheerleader
Not everyone’s motivated by piling more plates on. ‘A lot of women are driven by the feeling of being strong in the mind and body, not just looking pretty in front of the mirror,’ says Tanner. ‘Avoid physical comparisons to other ladies, even if you’re framing them in a positive way. But do encourage your partner to watch what other women are doing in the gym – women are often more motivated by watching other women than men. And remember to praise her when she does well.’ According to psychologist and marriage expert John Gottman, couples who stay together for the long term have five positive interactions for every single negative one. So keep it positive.
We know we just said keep it positive… but this is different. ‘Because of their muscle distribution, a lot of women will have trouble with even unweighted press-ups and pull-ups,’ says Wolny. ‘Instead of bands or kneeling press-ups, get her to use “negatives”. For example, jump to the top of a pull-up and lower slowly. Aim to do five lowering for three seconds, then build up the time – once she can manage a ten-second eccentric, a strict pull-up isn’t far away.’
Focus on form
‘For a lot of ladies, the feeling of owning their mind and body as they walk into the free weights area – what used to be the “male” zone – is like nothing else,’ says Tanner. ‘It’s about breaking boundaries, discovering new levels of mental strength, building courage and self-esteem.’ Knowing what to do helps, so go over the finer points of form on basic moves including the squat, deadlift and bench press. When one of you is having a bad day in the gym – carb crash, anyone? – try to use humour to defuse the situation. And never roll your eyes – studies suggest that’s a common relationship-breaker.
…And ditch the elliptical
Her new rules for cardio? Short and horrible. ‘Long periods on the treadmill or Stairmaster will increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to excess stored belly fat,’ says Wolny. ‘Keep it quick and hard. Grab a couple of exercise bikes together, and go for 15 seconds of all-out sprinting followed by 45 seconds of active recovery, repeated ten times. You’ll both burn fat all day.’ The alternative is to go for a long walk – it’ll burn calories without building stress and let you chat.
From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.
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