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I’ve been working out with a training partner for the last few months, but it’s not working for me. They slow me down, and don’t push me. How do I lose them without making it awkward at the gym the next few months?
-I’m Sick of My Swolemate
GOOD RELATIONSHIPS CAN be hard, no matter where you are. The gym is no exception, even if it’s more associated with macho flexing than sharing feelings. The bond you can make with a training partner is a special one. Not only do you have a friend you can count on to share how you’re feeling, both physically and mentally, you have someone in your life who (ideally) shares the same motivations, goals, and willingness to spend time working to achieve them. Some of my best friendships have been either established or bolstered by training together—after all, there are few more effective experiences for building trust than saving your buddy from getting crushed by a barbell with a good spot.
So when you’re not feeling great about the dynamic you have with your training partner, you’ll be well served to take the same care that you would with any other type of relationship when you go about resolving your problems. Maybe you’re not seeing eye-to-eye on when you want to work out, what your goals are, or you need someone who’s more eager to motivate you to finish out a hard set. In this case, you’re going to have to prepare for one of the most difficult aspects of a partnership: ending it.
Breakups suck, no matter the context. There’s no good way to tell someone that you got the ick and you no longer want to spend time with them. To better understand how you should approach that tough talk, I spoke to Shadeen Francis, LMFT, CST, a certified sex therapist and licensed marriage and family therapist.
Francis says that you shouldn’t delude yourself into thinking that you’ll be able to get through the breakup without some sort of emotional response, both from your training partner and yourself. You’re both people, even if you largely shut off your feelings in the gym to focus on your workouts. Francis notes that you especially can’t do anything about how your soon-to-be former lifting buddy will react to the news that you no longer want to be there to give them a spot.
“It’s not within your control, nor is it your responsibility, to keep someone else from having feelings,” she says. “You could have the most perfect, clear, loving conversation with this person, and they might still not take it very well. That might make things uncomfortable for the two of you.”
Feeling uncomfortable is not a good reason to avoid the conversation, whether you take one extreme or the other. Ghosting out of the partnership guarantees awkwardness if you ever want to show your face at your gym again, and Francis says that having a conversation at least allows you to “create a meaningful off ramp,” out of the relationship. On the other hand, you might be setting yourself up for even bigger problems if you just stick with your training partner to avoid conflict. “You’re not giving them a fair chance, because you’re actually not in it anymore, you have left,” she says. “It doesn’t actually move your relationship forward—it just makes you resentful.” Resenting the person you need to trust to save you with a good spot if you fail a lift isn’t ideal. You might also start dreading your workouts together and finding excuses to skip out.
“The costs are really high, because the relationship to fitness and movement and health and your body takes up a lot of psychological space,” Francis says. “If you’re also not feeling present and engaged in this thing that you’re doing for your overall well-being, what does that cost you down the road?”
When you’ve reached the point of no return with your training partner, taking a measured approach to the breakup might help to make the process less painful. Francis has a game plan you can use to talk through your issues with your soon-to-be ex-swolemate. Above all, she says you should make sure that you use two guiding principles in your approach to communicating your intention to end things: be clear and kind.
First, you should check in with your training partner to see how they’re feeling. Francis says that this is an especially useful place to begin if you’re not 100 percent sure that you really want to cut them out entirely. Here’s how she recommends you open that talk: “I haven’t been feeling great about this workout plan that we have. I’m recognizing we work out at different paces and we have different levels of energy. I want to check in with you—how are you feeling about it? Is this working for you?”
From there, you can assess the situation and determine how you want to move forward.
State Your Needs/Desires
Remember, you are working out with this person because you decided at some point that was how you wanted to spend your time. That can change—and it’s important to remember your own feelings and wants are important and valid.
Francis recommends being crystal clear about that shift in sentiment. Maybe like this: “We started this out of a mutual desire. And now I’d like to change it because my desires have changed.”
These probably won’t be the exact words you use, given the context of the situation—but you can use the specifics of your issue to fill in the blanks to make it more relevant to you.
Give Them the Floor
Once you’ve raised the matter and come clean about your feelings, you can’t just walk away from the discussion—literally or metaphorically—without giving them a chance to express theirs. “What often a lot of people do in this process is they get really clear and they craft their kind message, and they send it in a text, and they’re like ‘Great, I did it!’” Francis says. “That’s not actually a conversation, and that is not always the best way to navigate a relationship.”
Even if you are communicating via text message—which Francis says is okay, since you’ll be able to be as clear as possible in describing your needs without IRL distractions—you can’t just leave their response on read (or unread). You need to be ready to hear them out and answer them, too.
Be Firm With Your Needs
If you’re not crystal clear about what your needs are or if you struggle to set boundaries with people, what comes next might be tough. Francis says that some people might take the suggestion that a relationship needs to change and end as feedback for how they can change to make things work. That might be all that’s needed in some cases—but if you’re absolutely done, you need to be ready to be firm about that.
If you’re a people pleaser, this can be especially difficult, but Francis offers two suggestions for this type of scenario. First, state what your intention for the outcome of the conversation is at the outset. “Name that this is the request that I’m making, or this is the action that I’m taking,” she says. This might be that you want to go to the gym with them at the same time, but not lift together, or that you’re going to find someone else to spot you.
Second, you can practice how the other person might react beforehand, so you have an idea about how you can counter their suggestions. “Maybe even draft out some potential responses, if [you] have a sense that this person might do a little bit of rebuttal or boundary testing,” she says.
Don’t Be a Dick
This might feel like a lot of advice, but Francis says the breakup process can be boiled down to a simple TL;DR: “Do a vibe check and don’t be a dick about it.”
Your approach might be a bit more nuanced than that if you were following along closely, but keep that simple statement in mind as you move forward to the end of your partnership. The Talk might not be as scary as you think it will be at the outset. After all, you’re not the only person in the partnership. They might be just as ready to end things with you, too. In that case, wish each other well, and go your separate ways. You can always meet up after your workout for protein shakes.
Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.