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How to Work Out With Your Significant Other (and Actually… Enjoy It?)

Dear Swoley,

I miss being accountable to going to workout classes with my friends, and I used to thrive on hangouts as a way of getting a lot of things done otherwise, when you could do that (writing in coffee shops with a friend; running errands together; etc.). Can working out with a live-in romantic partner scratch the same itch? I suspect yes, although I guess it would depend on your dynamic. Maybe there’s, like, a way to use it as a novelty in your relationship, or to gamify it, or to rotate workouts that you pick so it’s fun… basically, I have no idea. (I also don’t have any equipment.) 

—Can’t Suffer Alone

Okay so, this can be a thorny subject. There are infinity posts online about adjacent issues with partners having different relationships with exercise, and even resenting each other over the idea of working out together, or working out alone, or wanting to do different things. But I understand your overall desire here: Working out is already hard enough, and having a friend to suffer through it with you/keep you entertained/keep you accountable/share in your mutual accomplishment can make a really big difference for some of us who struggle with this stuff to begin with. 

While workout partners can be motivating in the overall process of working out, it’s extremely important to not confuse that with “being my apathetic partner’s workout buddy is what will magically turn them from a perfectly content anti-exercise person” (who I personally don’t understand, but whose personal journey I respect) “into an enthusiastic pro-exercise person.” I want to stress here that a partner is not a project for anyone to fix or experiment upon. For some people, having someone present to witness their discomfort and lack of fitness may make them feel judged and like they want to die—and this is key—no matter how much you personally love and accept them. OCCASIONALLY it’s true that working out together will be the thing that does it for them, in which case there are not very many “tricks” to it. 

But I think what you’re proposing here is doable if you put a little thought into the approach, as I’m about to overly-thoroughly lay out. In the second half, I will get into some ideas about converting an exercise-apathetic partner. To start, I’m going to assume you have someone who is already willing, and you’re just lacking for ideas that aren’t the incredibly embarrassing kissing-each-other-between-sit-ups variety of “partner workouts” desperately trying and failing to keep things interesting.

How to exercise with your partner, no between-reps kissing required

First, there are two important spectrums you have to locate your partner and/or your dynamic on in order to optimize your approach here: One, would they respond more positively to cooperation or competition; and two, will they be less put off by something that is so easy it’s boring, or something that is so challenging it’s intimidating? 

Now you are going to calibrate what you try to with them, based on that, if you are compatible on this spectrum. You don’t want to challenge a collaborative partner to a footrace or “let’s go push-up for push-up until one of us gives up or blacks out”; likewise, you don’t want to drag your disdainful former amateur athlete partner through Zumba 101, or force your partner who’s never done a sport into learning to lift you Dirty-Dancing style over their head. If they bite off more than they can chew, or too much of the wrong style, they might blame themselves for simply being “bad” at working out with you.

Do you have a question about working out, eating, your health, or why you shouldn’t be afraid of lifting heavy weights? Send it to [email protected] and follow @swolewoman on Instagram.

After all the suggestions of what to do, I have an idea about how to get you both to stick with it. But first, here are some suggestions for those four stylistic quadrants.

The four types of workout partners

Competitive/easy: One key to identifying this dynamic is if you’ve ever played video games together before: do you guys have more fun racing in Mario Kart, or cooperatively executing and expediting meals in Overcooked? The first suggests you guys vibe well competitively; the second suggests you are more of collaborative types. 

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A competitive type who doesn’t need a strenuous challenge is going to be a breeze to engage with common sports stuff; just do a short little jogging race, some sprints for time, or bodyweight squats or pushups until one of you can’t anymore, and then make the workout a little harder each time. You don’t even necessarily have to compete with each other, but can compete with yourselves, together. Here are some at-home workout things you could egg each other on about doing. You can also skip down to the “cooperative” section and do some of those partner drills, but for time or rep-count challenges. 

Competitive/challenge. Same as above, I would just make the workout a little harder or less like things they’ve done before. If at all possible, do sports with them; go on a hike and push each other to go faster, higher, better, climb the trees and rocks, sneak up on the animals, see who can throw rock farthest. Play one-on-one basketball or soccer. Try a squat-thrust chicken fight, where you both crouch down and try to get the other person to fall over first by swatting at them.

Some of these partner exercise challenge games are a little goofier than others, but I think “catching the falling stick game,” “crab foot tap game” and “inside the knee tap game” would be fun for partners and could be done inside; “rabbit game” would probably require outside space but also looks fun. 

Now, if all that sounds nightmarish to you or like your partner would never in a million years do that, one or both of you are probably more of a cooperative type. 

Cooperative/easy. These types are going to be slightly more difficult to engage, because I think most physical activity and sports that people are familiar with is competitive. But this is also, fortunately, the category with the most options. 

Try actually learning a dance. This feels so corny but you know what, literally no one is going to know you’re doing it except the two of you. Learning to dance, a practice that humans became mostly too embarrassed to do between the years of 1960 and 2010 in favor of this little little lip-bite cha-cha thing, is actually back. Learn a TikTok dance together, or a Fortnite dance, or take an Instagram dance class. There are ample partner-dance tutorials online: salsa, merengue, tango (!!), ballroom. Think how cute you will both be the next time we are all allowed to have dance parties. Again, no one can see you except each other, and at the end you can do a little dance together. 

This is also GOING TO SOUND CORNY but, play Twister. Have you played Twister in a while? Twister is fucking hard as balls. If you think holding a plank is hard, try holding a plank upside down with one foot in the air and the other foot on red, with one hand on blue. I appreciate this suggested variation, Sumo Twister, where you stuff a big pillow in your shirt. There is also this newish game, On a Scale of One to T-Rex, that I have not played and is maybe not “exercise” in the strictest sense but is physical and involves matching intensity. It’s maybe a little more on the competitive side but it’s so silly, if you and your partner are relatively comfortable being idiots together this seems like a nice way to move around a bit. 

We can also bring in some simpler forms sports here. Something simple like playing catch, throwing a frisbee, or kicking a soccer ball back and forth, if you can find an empty field, is more work than it sounds like at first, because you will both inevitably miss and have to run and get the ball. Catch is secret jogging. 

Cooperative/challenge. Okay, please don’t do anything dangerous, but to me this falls in the category of “trying to do it at all will count as a workout.” Try something you don’t usually do; if you guys lift or run, try partner yoga or acrobatics. If either or both of you hate sets and reps, I would just try to do one of these things for like 20-30 minutes. 

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If you are usually yoga-doers, try cooperative physical drills. There are a loooooot of dumb and overly cutesy partner workouts out there. I don’t know about you, but even though I love my own partner very much, I reflexively find the idea of even showing him something like that embarrassing. However this partner workout from Men’s Health is actually pretty clever in how it uses partners as weight or resistance in various moves; when one of you is done, you can swap sides. If your partner is too heavy in certain positions, they should be able to adjust by moving their anchor point closer to you (for instance, in the overhead press movement, they will feel “heavier” the further their feet are from your back).

This other partner workout video on YouTube also puts your partner’s weight to good use as resistance; we know how hard it is to replicate pulling movements at home, but there are so many ways to do pulls with another compliant human being! The Nordic curls at 2:50 are an especially good exercise that is really hard to do without a person to hold your legs, so DO NOT pass up the opportunity to do them if you can get your partner to just hold you down for a minute. This video has a lot of variety but as a general rule for structure, try doing three sets of 5-10 reps for two upper body and two lower body moves each, with one being a “push” (squat, push-up) and one being a “pull” (row, deadlift).

Alternatively to all of this, if your beloved tends to be on the control-freak cruise-director end of the spectrum, give them a general category of thing you’d like to do and then hand them some terms to google to let them find something they like that you can do together. “TikTok dance,” “partner physical challenge,” “partner workout,” “recess/gym class games you forgot,” “how get started with parkour,” etc. 

In the grand scheme, once you find something you generally like, try committing to it for a month, and do try to improve each week, if you can. People underestimate the powerful feedback loop of motivation that actual progress can create, and one huge plus of a partner is you have a built-in person for casually recapping the session and remembering and complimenting you on how you’ve improved since last time. Who doesn’t love compliments, to feel Seen for their physical toiling efforts? Recluses like myself just chastely and silently record this data in a notebook, but I think it will build your overall workout bond, both to the act of working out and to the process of doing it together, to notice and reinforce each other’s progress week to week. 

Now, the larger issue:

What if my partner is not really into exercise in general?

The thing I find that works best on me, by myself, and others is pointing out all the great things about working out that have nothing to do with the working out itself. Let’s be honest: working out is fundamentally uncomfortable, and it will do you no favors to lie to your partner and say “come on, it’ll be fun” if they aren’t already on board with the values of sweating and moving around. And while you don’t want to try to corner them into the merits of exercise through wheedling or rigorous debate, it can help for you yourself to talk openly about how working out helps you feel more physically comfortable, at peace, and so forth in your daily life. Here are some things working out does for us all that you could focus on:

  • It helps us sleep better at night. Who among us is not chronically awake right now, and therefore distressingly attuned to current events at all hours of the day over the last year or so? I guess those of us who are given to depression naps are doing okay on this front, but, for real, if your loved one is struggling to sleep, it just makes good sense for them to try tiring themselves out as a basic solution to this issue.
  • It helps us be in less pain. Many of us are sitting even more than usual because we are cooped up at home, which is good and safe, but I find myself with incredible pain in the hips if I don’t do a certain amount and kind of moving. It is sometimes literally to the point that working out would hurt less than sitting, or it would at least be deliberately inflicted hurt, which is psychically less difficult to deal with than the pain of too much sitting. Help them help their own aching lower back or shoulders; truly, more movement is better for low back pain. 
  • It helps us get a mental break. I find it hard to even do the things that allow me to fully divert myself from endlessly monitoring the feeds, lest I miss something, which leads to like, scrolling on my phone for hours while a TV I remember nothing about plays in the background. Exercise occupies the hands and feet and brain and involves not being on the couch or in front of a tv or computer, something that we all need right now, even if only for 20 or so minutes. 
  • It gives us a concrete sense of achievement. When my life is going absolutely sideways and I can’t move a damn thing in a forward direction, at least I can work out. I don’t even have to do anything that makes me good at working out; even on some of my worst days I can go attempt to do movements for 20 minutes and check the box and say “well, at least I worked out today.” Self-help gurus all ride for “focusing on what you can control” for a reason: it does help. Moving your body (within reason, not as torture, not as earning food or any of that garbage backwards reasoning) is nearly always something you can do for yourself that is free and feels good. Sure, I stan lifting weights, but I also stan not setting the bar too high. This is something everyone can do for themselves. 
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The last thing I’ll say is, if none of this really gets your partner over the hump, one approach is not to overthink this in a relationship sense. Say, “Hey. A way that you, my adoring and generous partner, could enable and support my personal development and overall betterment of myself, is to work out with me a couple times a week. I find it really helps me if it’s a bit of a social or collective experience, and I would love if we could do this together. It would mean a lot to me.” And that’s it. As long as this is actually true, and not some kind of trick you are doing to get your partner to exercise (I know how working-out types can be about other people not working out), I think this should do it for them. Take the lead on what you do; don’t, you know, rope them into attempting a double trapeze act or ice dancing or something, and I think you should be okay, and I think they should be okay about it, for the most part.

Maybe I have an optimistic view of how pliable partners are, but whatever your activity of choice is, it’s probably going to be in or near your house, and will thus fundamentally be relatively simple, easy, and private. So to me, that should eliminate most common objections to working out with someone. Anyone can do anything for 20-30 minutes a couple of times a week, and so can your partner, especially if you clue them in on how it has a disproportionately large carryover to your happiness. But if they simply really hate this kind of thing, that may just be the way things are, in which case, accept it and focus on other ways to motivate yourself.

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email [email protected].

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