The Problematic Male Ego
Freud referred to the “ego” as the realistic part of the brain that seeks to mediate the demands of both the “id” and “super-ego.”
Others have thought ego to be the manifestation of testosterone and the inner circuitry of the male brain that has propelled the masculine identity of arrogance and confidence over “weaker states” like that of humbleness and self-reflection.
While I would love to spend an entire post psychoanalyzing the male ego, I unfortunately don’t have my Freudian cap on today; rather, in my years of training, I have come to understand that there is an intimate connection between the ability to divorce one’s ego from the process and the ability to build muscle.
At the advanced levels, there is an intimate difference in intent between trying to get outrageously strong and building slabs of muscle. Contrary to popular opinion, most bodybuilders are really strong but their intent while training can be much different than those chasing maximal strength like elite powerlifters.
For our purposes, getting strong and “being strong” requires one thing: the completion of a rep or reps at a weight that would make mere mortals cringe in fear.
If you compete at a powerlifting meet with 750 lbs on your back while you squat the judge nor your total will reflect that it was a 15 second grind where your knees experienced enough valgus collapse to make your ACLs cry and your back experienced so much flexion that it felt like a silverback gorilla just rode you to the promised land.
Not powerlifter strong by any means but back in the baseball days where performance and strength but not muscle were a priority. No stringent rep cadence control. My ego and hubris probably forced their inclusion.
Despite how unsightly the squat I just described is, it still counts as a successful squat pinning you as one strong motherfucker regardless of the fact that in all likelihood you won’t be very strong for long because of your abysmal attention to biomechanics.
The ego, in this instance, likely aided your quest for strength allowing you to undertake and successfully complete a weight that in a non-competition setting with human like levels of adrenaline would have stapled you in the hole and taught you a good lesson in humility.
The Pursuit of Muscle
Let’s contrast this to the pursuit of building muscle.
Studies have shown that the optimal range to build muscle is between 70 and 85% of one’s 1 rep max which translation from nerd speak means between eight and fifteen reps. It’s unfortunate that our friends in the white coats don’t qualify these studies with the fact that not only is it a certain rep range that’s optimal to build muscle but it is how these reps are performed that matter most.
Bouncing the bar off your chest with a hip drive so powerful you wouldn’t dare try on your girlfriend with the lights off (or on since you’re jacked) is not in the same stratosphere as a bench press done with a slow descent, pause on the chest, and a controlled completion of the rep just short of lock-out to stimulate maximal tension on your pecs.
Fast-forward years and several hundred workouts down the road with these two styles of training in mind. Who do you think will build more muscle? Who do you think will inevitably be stronger because a bigger muscle is a stronger one?
The answer is clear.
Ditch the Ego
If you want to build an impressive physique, you must divorce your ego from the training process. While pursuing added strength should always be a training goal, how much weight you are lifting is a secondary consideration.
What matters is what those reps look like. Are you maximally contracting your pecs on a dumbbell fly to initiate the concentric swing or are you jerking the weight up like an adolescent boy? Are you completing a set of 8 rows in 15 seconds when if you were really serious about building muscle, it would take upwards of 30-40 seconds.
Notice the control and then watch every video on John Meadow’s channel
For this reason, commercial gyms could be the perfect breeding ground for muscle wannabees and mediocre results. It becomes almost impossible to divorce one’s ego from the process when you throw 30-40 testosterone-fueled men in a weight room. When you see your mortal enemy benching 25 more pounds than you and doing it easily, what’s your natural inclination?
“Fuck this baby weight, I can’t let that asshole show me up. Hey Sean, throw a 25 on there” – Your Ego.
What started as a stimulating, engaged training session where your pecs were under hellacious fire from your dedication to each rep, turned into a humping session where the only thing accomplished was a temporary saving of your ego.
I can think of no faster way to stay mediocre in the pursuit of muscle than to let the training of others dictate how you approach each session.
So what can you do about it?
- First off, stand in the mirror, look yourself in the eye and ask yourself why are you doing what you are doing? Is it an exercise fueled by a relentless desire for self-improvement or are you chasing muscle to impress others? If it’s the latter, pick a new hobby hombre because you won’t last very long when the training gets hard and progress is all but non-existent.
- Go to your commercial gym (better idea – train at a private one) during dead hours. Do this for a couple weeks to a month and start to understand what it’s like to train properly. With no other bros around, you’ll be able to remove your ego and start to understand the importance of “feeling” the muscle and why a controlled rep cadence and time under tension is far superior to the 8-second jerk fest you’re accustomed to.
- Rather than utilizing rep ranges, train for time. For example, instead of the typical 4×8 rep setting, replace it with 4 x 30 seconds. This all but eliminates the ego-fueled desire to lift heavier weight with egregious form because you’ll have a next to impossible chance of completing the lift. Not only does it divorce your ego, but also it maximizes time under tension, which is imperative for muscle growth. Mass by Pat Davidson is an outstanding resource.
- Get a training buddy that will keep you honest. Preferably, he will be a bit stronger and bigger so you will be incentivized each training session but not so much further in development that you’ll start to try and compete with him when you are not ready.
- Become mindful. Our ego is allowed to take over when we get stuck inside our own heads plagued by self-deprecating thoughts about our current inadequate state. Anxiety is allowed to build and manifest itself in poor reps because you failed to be mindful. If you are present, truly present, then there is no time for debilitating self-talk. You are engaged in the moment where nothing but you and what needs to get done matters.
Give these a try and consciously work at being better at your state management. Building muscle is as much mental as it is physical and ultimately your mindset may be the limiting factor in whether or not you see a different creature in the mirror years from now or the same mediocre body plagued by the same over-bearing ego.
P.S. Chad and I would love to help you on your pursuit on building muscle, losing fat, and journey to become your most diesel self. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also offer online coaching.