When I first started seriously strength training as a sophomore in college, I did so because everyone else on my dorm floor went down together to the weight room at 4:00 pm. We were all sort of an unofficial barbell club. We used terrible training splits and way too much volume, and our post-workout nutrition was—as it is for many college students—not ideal. But you know what we did have? Intensity, consistency, and progression for every rep on every set. It was a competitive atmosphere, and we were always trying to get better. And the gains were amazing.

Those extra reps, that extra five pounds on the bar, going down to the gym when other distractions may surface—those are the factors that determine whether or not you will reach your goals. By working out and “attacking” training in a competitive group, you will create what I believe to be the most powerful stimulator of size and strength—training environment.

Nutrition and a great program are important, but as lifters you already know that. I want to throw something new your way, something different to chew on. So come and check out how I have come to the conclusion that in the “training kingdom,” training environment is at the top of the food chain.

The weak link

Last year’s hit film 300 was in many ways a movie that depicted what lifters are all about. The Spartans were in the minority—a group of fit, strong individuals opposing a much larger, vast society of weaker, malicious people. While the film ultimately led to Google searches like “300 workout” and “Spartan training” provided by scores of 18–22-year-old boys desperately trying to uncover the holy grail of training that every actor in the film “found” (and here I was thinking it was the airbrush), there were several subtle lessons that I found rather applicable to the strength training community. Although I don’t deem it possible that many lifters could have possibly missed this movie, I will briefly summarize one scene that provides such a lesson.

Midway through the film, the Spartans have strategically locked themselves into a battle position to wield off the invading Persians. The night before a major battle, Ephialtes, a four-foot tall deformed Spartan who had sneakily followed the army to the battlefield, begs King Leonidas, leader of the Spartan force, to accept him into the army. After watching a fairly decent spear thrust, Leonidas asks Ephialtes to lift his shield as high as he can. Struggling mightily, Ephialtes struggles to raise the mighty shield to Leonidas’ hip. At this point, Leonidas denies Ephialtes’ request, saying that in the Spartan Army formation—the phalanx—you had to protect the man to your left and right from thigh to chest. While this denial ultimately led to Ephialtes’ betrayal and the Spartan defeat, I couldn’t help but ponder how relevant this was to our strength training circle.


Where do you train? Gold’s Gym? Planet Fitness? Look around you, and you will see Ephialtes’ reading a book on the Stairmaster, noisily slurping a 7-11 Coke (yes, I have seen that). Oh no wait, there he is over there, exclusively performing the infamous “bench press, dumbbell curl” superset. No, no, I’m sorry. There he is over on the Nautilus line, dutifully performing leg extension after leg extension, ad nauseum. Do you see what I’m getting at? Right now, Ephialtes is to your left in this battle that you are waging to convince your body to change. And right now, he is really holding you back.

To truly amp up your workouts, you need a change, and you need it now! But where can you find an environment that will help induce gains in the weight room and make you feel like a beginner all over again? Look no farther than the wild.

Into the wild

The wild. To solve all of your strength training woes, look no further than the ocean, the jungle, and the woods. Out there, it is well-documented that many animals hunt as a pack to survive including lions, hyenas, cheetahs, and wolves. It is no coincidence that these animals are at or near the top of the food chain. They work together to grow stronger and survive. So what the hell does that have to do with strength training? Everything.

You simply can’t survive on your own. I was watching a pretty cool show on the Animal Planet channel (stop laughing—I know you watch it, too) about this British guy, Shaun Ellis, who lives with a pack of wolves. While Shaun’s research is quite interesting and a tad unusual, I found myself chuckling at how these wolves are just like those of us who go to the gym every day. Those wolves need each other in order to bring down prey, boost each other’s morale, and survive. Sure, each wolf has his own personality, strengths, and weaknesses, but each wolf plays a role and each role contributes to the overall well-being of the pack. Not one of those wolves would be as content or healthy if they tried to go at it alone, and I think that as serious lifters, there is a lot we can take from that.

Working out by yourself can be done, but it is going to be that much harder for you to “survive.” Survival may mean fat loss, muscle gain, a bigger bench press, or whatever “survival” may be for you. If you have been going at it alone, try and find a different training environment where you have a support structure, where you are held accountable for missing a workout or not pushing it as hard as you could on every set.


Create that environment

Now that you know the importance of a great training environment, go out and create it. I’m fortunate that I own my own gym and have a few really great training partners who push me to get better each and every time I train. You don’t need your own gym to get a great workout, but you do need a great place to train and some great training partners to train with.

Here are some tips to help find or even create the environment that you’re seeking:

  • Find a small, warehouse style gym to train in. When you are low on space, that tight, packed in feeling really holds you accountable on every set that you do because all eyes are on you. Often times, the strongest bonds are forged in these types of settings.
  • Only join the gym if they allow chalk. If they don’t, this isn’t the place for you. You need a gym with character and heart. Chalk implies that heavy things are being lifted. Heavy things get you jacked.
  • Go back to the basics. Personally, I hate it when people totally discard training modalities, saying things like “machines suck” or “split routines are the only way to train,” but I do think that lifting in a free weight dominant gym is a quicker way to reach your goals. While machines do allow for a very concentrated emphasis on a muscle group, they certainly aren’t nearly as efficient as free weights. I also think that machines hide many imbalances and structural problems (i.e. shoulder stability, core strength, imbalances between limb strengths). My advice is stick to basic rows, squats, deadlifts, and presses and then use machines for “finishers” if you like. This is sure to give you the most “bang for your buck.” Also, when is the last time you got an adrenaline rush watching someone leg press 700 lbs? Personally, watching guys hit their goals in a bench or box squat is far more fulfilling.
  • Express yourself. Proud of someone? Let him know! Mad that you missed your lift? Don’t hold it in. I love it when my guys show emotion when they train and get into our training sessions because it means that they give a crap. And when they give a crap, other people start giving a crap, and when that happens, we have an electric atmosphere.
  • Try turning your basement or garage into a gym. All you need is a nice half rack, a bench, and some dumbbells to start with. Sure, this is a chunk of change, but if you have a group to train with, perhaps everyone can pitch in. If you’re able to buy new equipment, I recommend EliteFTS or Dynabody. Both companies produce an outstanding product. If this is out of your budget, scour CraigsList or E-Bay. Used equipment is all over both. Think of all the money you will save from not belonging to an expensive, cheesy gym that doesn’t give you results!
  • Crank it up! Whatever pumps you up, throw it on your stereo and get after it! We often make mixes on ipods and then plug them into our stereo with an auxiliary cable. I love an old school CD mix as well. It requires a lot of thought and is always sure to please.
  • Recruit your friends. This is the most important piece of the puzzle as your “pack” will help you survive and thrive, attain your goals, and hold you accountable. Think about the keys to seeing gains—consistency, intensity, and progression. Training with a motivated group will certainly enhance all three.

So, there you have it. Now, stop reading this, go get some chalk, round up your friends, formulate a plan, and get jacked.