I used to use “ego lifting” as an insult. Some dude is loading all the plates onto a bar, and deadlifting with a rounded back? Curling and putting his hips into it? He’s obviously doing it wrong, making me the superior one, even if I can’t get even half his deadlift off the ground.
But now the tables have turned, and I am arguably the ego lifter. I love to do a heavy lift for the ’gram. I’m happy to show off cool-looking stuff that doesn’t reflect how I train most of the time. And the more I see the term “ego lifting” thrown around, the more I find myself thinking: okay, and what’s wrong with that?
What is ego lifting, anyway?
Colloquially, ego lifting is when you try to show off in the gym. It’s a term that people will use to describe your lift if they think you are trying to impress them, and yet they are not impressed.
The downsides of ego lifting, according to its critics, tend to be that you’re using “too much” weight, that you could hurt yourself, and that your form is not perfect. They might throw in a critique that you would build more muscle if you used a different exercise or better form, thus making your ego lift a combination of useless, ineffective, and dangerous.
But my more cynical side sees it differently. Sure, there are people doing unwise things in the gym. But there are also people who will look at a big lift and try to tear the lifter down because they feel insecure or jealous. It helps them to feel better about their own place in the universe if anybody who is stronger than them is doing it wrong, or if anybody who is showing off doesn’t deserve the attention.
Any of those folks can tell you the downsides, so let’s look into the good aspects of ego lifting. Maybe you’ll get some ideas for your next workout.
It’s good to try hard things
Sticking to the same exercises you’ve always done, at the same weights, is safe and comforting. But when you get out of your comfort zone, you learn something about yourself.
If you only ever do squats in sets of five, load up a little more weight sometime and see how much you can really squat if you don’t have to do four more reps afterward. If you see somebody doing a weird or cool lift, give it a try. Maybe you can do that thing you thought would be impossible.
And maybe you can’t. That’s okay. But when you try, you learn something about yourself. The first time I deadlifted 135 it was because my husband asked me to give it a try. “No, I can’t,” I said, and he said “Prove it,” and I grabbed the bar and I was as shocked as anyone when I pulled and it came up. I no longer shy away from challenges; I have pleasantly surprised myself dozens, maybe hundreds of times since then.
Many of us can lift a lot more than we think we can, so put some fucking weight on the bar and see what happens.
It’s good to do things you are proud of
There is nothing inherently wrong with showing off. Every competition is an invitation for people to show off, and I don’t just mean weightlifting or powerlifting. Professional basketball players show off by playing in front of crowds instead of at their local park. We just got through a whole freaking Olympics where people showed off the amazing things they can do, and we rallied behind them and celebrated them for it.
You can do things you are proud of, too. If you run a race, please post a photo of yourself smiling at the finish line. If you’ve built strength in the gym, go ahead and show us what that strength is good for. If you’ve practiced a skill, show us all how your hard work has paid off. I love this stuff. (I’m serious, tag me on Insta, I want to see it!)
I’ve had people tell me that my posts about lifting on social media have inspired them to try weightlifting, or to get into an aspect of fitness they think they’ll enjoy, or they’ve told me that my antics brightened their day. And I feel similarly about the accomplishments I’ve seen from my friends and acquaintances and from athletes I’ve never met.
It’s good to do things you are proud of. It’s good to work toward doing things that you want to be proud of. That’s the nature of training, after all. You’re pursuing a goal. And it’s up to you whether your goal is a formal competition or a 1RM attempt in front of your gym buddies or something difficult yet silly such as doing a Turkish getup with a kayak.
How to use ego lifting for good
So how do we square these benefits with the critiques of ego lifting? Simple: we pay attention to whether we’re meeting our own needs before we consider how we communicate our accomplishments to others.
Don’t confuse training days with testing days
A satisfying ego lift is something you do to demonstrate the strength you’ve built, but it’s not a replacement for building that strength in the first place. If you max out your bench press every week, your bench gains will plateau pretty soon.
Prioritize the long term over the short term. Most days, you should just be putting in the work, the boring stuff that gets you stronger. And on occasion, you can enjoy a little ego lifting, as a treat.
Do what you’ve trained for
People like to criticize anyone who goes for a one-rep max and doesn’t have perfect form. But as you’ll know if you’ve ever tried one, a one-rep max isn’t going to be perfect, and that’s okay. Hurting yourself in the gym is a lot harder to do than armchair coaches like to pretend it is.
But all bets are off if you do something that is drastically different from what you’ve trained for. If you’ve never done a squat in your life, don’t load up your leg press max on a barbell and expect to be able to walk it out and squat it. Try new things, for sure, but be smart about how you approach them.
Be honest with yourself
If you’re going for a big squat but you’re so scared of failing that you don’t even try to break parallel, that’s not really an impressive squat, is it? Consider whether you are proud of your accomplishments before deciding they are worth celebrating with others.
It’s truly up to you to decide what you’re proud of, though. If you’ve been struggling with your squat depth, a heavy squat that’s a little bit high may still be a thing you want to show the world. Just make sure you’re prioritizing your goals for yourself over what you want other people to think of you.
Recognize jealousy in yourself and use it productively
Funny how ego lifting is seen as attention-seeking behavior, and yet we’re using it for careful introspection. But I think that makes perfect sense. Ego lifting is ultimately about yourself, and it’s valuable to think about what accomplishments you value and why.
If you find yourself in competition with somebody else—maybe they deadlift just a bit more than you—that can be great if the other person is pushing you to train harder and dream bigger. It’s not great if you’re simply seeing somebody doing a thing you wish you could do, and then stewing in jealousy.
It’s up to you where you attach your ego. If you find yourself obsessing over other people’s accomplishments to the detriment of your own training, it’s time to find a new way to focus your work and your goals. But if filming yourself doing big lifts is a way that you challenge yourself and connect with a community of friends and teammates and cultivate healthy relationships with rivals, then I say do it.