It’s entirely okay to want to look away (purely out of concern mind you) when you watch someone attempt a rep with too many plates on the leg press machine. It’s entirely okay to ask yourself ‘why?’ when someone is going for a heavier lift at the cost of their form, leading to a higher risk of injuries. So heavy the back shudders and swings and arcs during a bicep curl. All that effort, for nothing but a dangerous stress on your back muscles.
This is due to the gym disease called ego lifting. The easiest way to define the term is anything that is done to serve one’s ego more than one’s body. This is a temptation nearly every active person has faced at some point in their fitness journey. “Ego lifting happens when we get caught up in the vibe of the session and we sacrifice common sense, such as proper form and working through a full range of motion, in order to ‘cheat’ out some progress and feel good about the workout,” writes strength and conditioning coach Dan Roberts, in an Oxygen Mag article titled What Is Ego Lifting — And Are You Guilty of It?
This is not to say there should be no progression in your lifting journey. But an increase in training volume has to be strategic and not at the cost of wearing down your joints and tendons. The trick is to remember to give form and function much more importance than the load. The other way to learn is by injuring yourself in a bid to lift more than you can, without first building the strength required to do so.
“I injured my elbow while ego lifting during bicep curls. I have also hurt my shoulder joints which probably happened due to lifting too much during a bench press,” says Shaoor Shamsi, who has been going to the gym for the past five years. Shamsi, 28, lives in Baroda and runs his family business, and says that the realisation that he was hurting himself rather than building himself up was the first step to not getting affected by how much others around him were lifting. “I believe I was doing it because of insecurity,” Shamsi explains, adding that lifting more would give him a temporary ego boost. “I don’t do it anymore or at least not in as many exercises as I would in the past.”
A check-list of red flags is mentioned in a comprehensive bonehealth.com titled How to Know When You’re Ego Lifting (Plus, 6 Ways To Avoid It), and it is pretty simple. Their main suggestions are basically good gym rules that you should always follow: Get better at form/technique, use external feedback (use a box to squat to measure your depth), concentrate on eccentric movements (returning slowly to the starting position of an exercise), train unilaterally (more single-side exercises), and use higher rep ranges to support heavier low rep range exercises. An example would be to do five strict pull-ups followed by a higher rep range set of pulldowns at a lower weight. They end the article with a line you must have read plastered across a gym wall: silence your ego and get back to gains.
Ego lifting could also stem from a toxically competitive gym environment. I remember tweaking my back nearly a decade ago, while during a bicep curl, only because the person next to me was doing more weights with relative ease. I felt that I must seem like a weak noob to him. Having learnt my lesson, I broke the rule again a couple of years ago during a heavy back squat. I should have told my gym-buddy that the 2.5kg plate added to either side might be a bit too much. It took extensive rehabilitation to get back to doing any kind of back squat. If you are training with a personal trainer or a friend (who can lift heavier), it is important to communicate that you will not be able to lift a certain weight, even if it’s just one kilogram more than the previous set.
Just wanting to lift more than you can is not exactly ego lifting though. Mark Ludas, a trainer based out of the US, who introduces himself as someone who “can deadlift more than 300 lbs and more than 280 lbs high-bar squat as a 6’5” 170-pound ectomorph on a fully vegan diet” knows a thing or two about ego lifting and writes about it in an Iron Master article: “The question comes down to this: do you enjoy strength training? If so, then you should do it. [But] the point of strength-training is to build strength, not constantly test it. Asking yourself this question keeps your ego in check and prevents injury.”
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator, sports podcaster and writer.