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The Comparison Complex

Social Comparison Theory: a term coined by psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s, which observes how we compare ourselves to others in order to determine our self worth. Whilst there is certainly a wider topic about the dangers of comparison especially with things we see online on social media, today we’re addressing the simple notion of comparing ourselves to our peers, within the gym environment.

It’s all a bit of fun, right? We find ourselves forming rivalries – often light-hearted and healthy ones – with people at a similar level to ourselves. It might simply be a case of checking the leaderboard to see what weight our ‘gym rival’ achieved on a lift so we have something to shoot for… or perhaps we’re head to head in a workout and their pace means we can find that extra 1% to chase them! This competitive element can be a huge part of the fun in a workout.

Now we’re probably not going to be losing sleep over the fact that we finished an open workout a number of minutes behind Tia Toomey… but damn it, if your rival catches you by a few seconds then that’s something else! So why is this? Research shows that most people feel satisfied and confident if they perceive themselves to be better than two-thirds of what she referred to as their “relevant peer group.” So what exactly does this mean? It means we are more likely to form these seemingly friendly rivalries with people who we believe are at a similar level to us.

It seems logical, and not necessarily a bad thing, however… there is a problem. It is a losing battle, because once you conquer one person or group, you set your sights on a new goal – conquering a new person or new group!

The bottom line: no matter how good we get, there will always be someone better than us.

This isn’t to say that a bit of competition isn’t fun, because it’s a natural part of being human and healthy rivalries can encourage us to push to be better, faster and stronger. But if that’s our constant aim – to ‘beat’ our gym rival, or to ‘win the workout’ – then it can become all consuming, and we can lose sight of goals and achievements that are really important to us.

The solution?

It sounds simple: but instead of getting sucked into the comparison cycle, focus instead on your personal improvements and YOUR personal bests.

What happens if we don’t?

You finish a workout, where you lifted 5kg more than your best ever lift, or shaved two minutes off your previous time. You’re overjoyed and proud of yourself, and then you check out the leaderboard. You discover that through the day’s classes, there are 10 people who finished faster than you that day. 

You then feel discouraged and you assume the person who had the fastest time of the day must be feeling a great little ego boost. But what we don’t see is that they actually went 30 seconds slower than their best time, and is disappointed they didn’t improve. Perception is everything!

The above is the perfect example of how comparison can rain on your parade, and devalue your hard work. It’s natural to compare, but if you’re forgetting to celebrate your wins along the way, no matter how small, you’re missing out on a crucial part of your journey – and the fun!

So let’s break down the steps to identify how we can make sure we’re focussing on the achievements that matter to us, instead of being sucked in to the comparison complex!


If we have no idea what our starting point is, then we will have no way of knowing whether or not we’ve improved. Use the tools you have: SugarWOD is an excellent tool for recording weights, workout scores and times. Each log will note the date of the achievement too, so you can easily look back and reflect on your progress over time, rather than just a running score of your latest PB or best lift to date. For goals that aren’t quantifiable in times or numbers, find somewhere to write them down. Perhaps you’re looking to gain weight, or make a regular habit of attending classes. Record your starting point somewhere – even if only you can see it.


Look back on your scores and review your progress. Sometimes we don’t even realise quite how much we have progressed, so it’s helpful to have a reminder of just how far we’ve come. Hung up on trying to get more than 3 unbroken Toes to Bar? There was a time where just hanging from the bar was a challenge, and the thought of a single Toes-To-Bar felt like a far off fantasy! Just noticing how far we’ve already come can help us appreciate our hard work so far, and perhaps give us that bit of self belief needed to reach the next checkpoint!


Notice that PBs and achievements come in all shapes and forms. It doesn’t need to be extra kilos added to a lift, or seconds shaved off a run, your achievements might be that you attended two classes a week for 4 weeks in a row, or that you attended every morning class you booked, and didn’t hit the snooze button once, or perhaps it’s that you can press a barbell overhead now without shoulder pain! This is why it’s important to record the goal that are relevant to you, so you can really see when they’re being achieved. 


Congratulate yourself on your achievements, and share it with the people who matter to you! Who cares if you came last in the 1 mile run – that might be the first time you’ve ever run a continuous mile in your whole life, and that is cause for celebration! Don’t let your mind wander down the road to comparison and rob of your achievements.

So there we have it, in a nutshell: conquering the comparison complex. This is not to say that a bit of friendly competition isn’t just that – friendly, and fun – but it’s important to recognise the paradox and to let that get in the way of our progress. Simply being more aware of this tendency to compare can not only help you reflect on and recognise your achievements, but can help you do the same for others too. Lead by example when you’re next in the gym, and celebrate others’ milestones with them – you might just be the reason they leave with a smile on their face and a sense of accomplishment. 

Looking to join a gym that celebrates individual achievement in a welcoming environment? UV could be the place for you. Get in touch to book your free No Sweat Intro now. We’d love to meet you!



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