Sweat Is Not Causing Your Acne, And How To Deload

Image: kris krüg

I’ve been doing a beginner’s lifting program for a few months now (Strong Lifts 5×5) and I’m really enjoying it! My problem is that I posted a form check online to check how my squats are doing and I’m not quite hitting enough depth (many thanks to ladies of r/xxfitness) — I was squatting 60kg before I realised this but I’m not flexible enough to break parallel even with just the bar 🙁 My question to you is how do I go forward from here after what feels like a massive set back? I’m currently stretching a lot and trying to practice goblet squats with plates under my heels but it feels like I’m not getting the workout that I used to! Squats are a 1/3 of the exercises of SL so it’s kind of getting me down — is there any other exercises I could do instead? Feeling a bit lost as all the advice I can find is just like “nothing is as good as squats!” and “just fix your form!” but what do I do while I’m trying to do that??

Many many thanks to you and your column — I love it! — Phoebe

If you’re certain it’s a flexibility problem — the flexibility bit of lifting can be quite frustrating for people, but it will pay off, I want to promise you this. You will be so limber so soon. Flexibility is an issue but unless you were extremely far off from parallel to begin with, it shouldn’t take more than a few weeks to make significant progress. If it does, you may not be doing enough of the right stretching. Practice your flexibility every day, as you are, but also practice your squat, specifically. Sit in as deep a bodyweight squat as you can while your brush your teeth in the morning and at night. Get up from your desk every hour and rest in that position for a a bit.

Tip: Do a Deep Bodyweight Squat Daily | T Nation

But let’s also talk about deloading and the mental and physical effects thereof. When you start lifting, the name of the game is “linear progression,” or adding weight every workout. You do that until you notice you’re accumulating form problems, and you have to deload, or ratchet back the intensity of your lifts to make sure you’re doing them correctly. In this phase and context, deloading can be discouraging, but in the broader context of lifting, the path to progress is rarely straight. Deloading is something everyone will have to do eventually; even the strongest people in the world are not on a constant uphill trajectory toward more and more weight. When they start a new training cycle, they take stock of their issues, make a new plan to address their weak points, and begin again from lower (but still intense) weights before building themselves up to challenging their potential again.

Scaling back periodically in order to rebuild is normal and healthy and does not make you a failure. Quite the opposite; you are taking necessary steps to have a long and healthy relationship with yourself. Gains come in many shapes and sizes. Part of progress is being in touch with yourself and what you can do for you, and progress that addresses your situation does not always look like achievement. As with so many things in life, focusing on achievement, rather than good progress, leads to neither.

To your point of feeling like you’re not getting a good workout — most people’s idea of getting a good workout is based on tiredness, soreness, stiffness, how much you sweat. Seriously, the next time you take a spin or Zumba class, note the ventilation system: the windows are probably closed and the air is off, because you will sweat more that way. You won’t necessarily feel this way from compound lifts (squat, bench, deadlift), especially if you are recovering correctly with a lot of food, water, and sleep, because it’s a system that builds slowly upon itself and works big groups of big muscles at once. The point of it is not to make you feel like you worked out, as is the point of, say, a boot camp style workout, or P90X. The point is to make you stronger. So if your training is progressing, try not to get stressed about not feeling like you’ve worked out. Your body is adapting, and a lot of that adaptation is neurological, learning to activate the right muscles at the right time.

All that said, deloading in the beginner phase should always involve doing the heaviest weights you can ~with correct form~. Likewise, your linear progression should continue from wherever that is. So even if you’re not squatting terribly heavy now, you should be adding weight to your correctly formed squat with some speed (2.5–5lbs per workout). Doing the correct form should be hard, even at low weights, but significantly low weights also shouldn’t last more than a few sessions.

As a last resort (or maybe a first resort, depending on how sure you are that you’ve diagnosed your problem correctly), if you have the means, I would highly suggest perhaps getting a consult with a personal trainer who is experienced with powerlifting (search for a relevant gym or perhaps “powerlifting” with the term “coach” and your area. Side terminology note: I see people refer to lifting often as “weight lifting,” but in the professional or even just competitive sphere, “weightlifting” refers to specifically Olympic-style weightlifting, like the clean and jerk and snatch. “Powerlifting” refers to the squat/bench/deadlift movements). Your problem may be fixable through your stance, or even shoulder position or the order in which you break your hips and knees, which can affect whether you’re moving the bar in a straight line or not, and so forth. Even if you find out that your problem is flexibility after all, a professional may be able to help you figure out more specifically with how to work on your particular issue, and, critically, possibly shorten the overall time you spend trying to overcome it, if it’s already been long enough to frustrate you.

Dearest Swole Woman,

I’ve recently been working on getting swole (or something like it). The more I workout, the more I sweat. The more I sweat, the more I’ve begun to notice a terribly unsightly problem: sweat causes acne. My hairline and chest are particular problem areas for me because, well, I guess that’s just where the sweat accumulates. I try to shower immediately after working out, but that’s not always possible and even when it is, the problem seems to persist. Acne in all forms is pretty annoying. Chest acne is humiliating. I have an appointment with a dermatologist next month, but (a) I can’t wait that long! and (b) I think this is a common problem and there’s probably a solution I just don’t know about. Do you have some kind of magical product? Or at least some sweat-related tips?


Seemingly exercise-related acne is a problem that a lot of people have, but one thing you should know for sure up front: sweat does not cause acne. Technically, webMD says “no one factor causes acne,” but sweat, in particular, is not the cause of your problems, so banish that thought now.

However, the fact that you are exercising is not totally irrelevant to this issue. Acne can be caused by a lot of things that involve both being too dirty and too clean — too much washing, abrasion, or the constant presence of products can cause skin issues, just as dirt, fungus, etc can. Your focus on showering is almost certainly misplaced. The acne in particular on your chest, presumably inside your clothes, suggests to me there are factors specific to your routine in play, rather than just the general grossness of a gym, which I will get to in a minute. I would begin with looking at your fabrics and the care thereof — are you rewearing your gym clothes or bras between sessions, or putting them back on after your shower? What about the towel you use after your shower, is it clean? Do you have a towel you use to wipe yourself down during workouts? That should always be a fresh towel. Towels are a huge, HUGE culprit of acne everywhere in your life, not just at the gym. So are sheets and pillowcases. Please wash your linens. Men with bacne: I see you not washing your sheets for months, and months, and months.

Second, if you are washing this stuff with regularity, are you sure it’s really getting clean? This goes for both “not clean enough” and “maybe too clean” — if you are using way too much laundry detergent and it’s lingering in your stuff when you wear it, it could be irritating you. A demonstrative example — did you, like me as a teen, neglect to fully rinse your face wash from your hairline because you didn’t want to mess up your ‘do and always end up with hairline acne then, too? Same deal — if you have lingering soap in say, your t-shirt, and you, like me, sometimes pull it up over your face to mop your sweat, boom, there’s your acne source. I asked A Clean Person, Jolie Kerr, late of The Hairpin and most recently of Racked, how best to deal with this stuff:

“Definitely don’t throw the towels [or clothes] out — they just need a proverbial boiling. Generally speaking, the buildup of bacteria on towels is due to the overuse of products (detergent and/or fabric softener). When you’ve got a load of towels that have developed buildup, the solution is to run them through the wash, using the hottest water setting, with only a small amount of detergent, maybe half the suggested dose (note: not half of what you usually use, half of what you’re supposed to use), and a cup of either bleach or white vinegar. If your machine offers an extra rinse cycle, use that, as it will help to remove lingering product residue.”

The Hairpin

If I’m misunderstanding your clothing situation and your chest IS actually somewhat exposed when at the gym, environmental factors may be at work. Gyms, I’m sorry to say, tend to be pretty gross, especially if they’re of the type where there is not a culture of rigorously wiping down equipment after use. Even if people do this, they tend to wipe the seats and head rests but not the handles, which are the grossest parts. If you are touching equipment and then, say, wiping your brow, that introduces a lot of gross stuff to your skin; it’s part of the reason some people are so obsessive about gym towels. The general acne advice of life goes double for the gym: try hard as you can not to touch your face or acne-prone areas of your body. If you must wipe your sweat away, bring a fresh towel or a little wrist sweat band or something you know is clean that you can do that with.

I think most people will get a lot of skin-clearing mileage out of this advice, and your issues could be a combo of all the above. In short, make sure your stuff is clean but not SO clean you have lingering excess product sudsing up on your body or giving a home to bacteria, and be careful about where you put your hands after touching gym stuff. I say all this first because I would hate to see anyone try to band-aid over a simple hygiene/housekeeping fix with, like, Stridex pads. All that said, I’ve seen lots of people recommend Stridex pads (the red box) as well as salicylic acid (I use one from Paula’s Choice on my face, not for gym acne reasons, but I get constant compliments on my skin since I started). These things may help clear up what you already have going on, but please (please please) look for issues that are endemic to your routine or gym before your try to pile another product on top of the issue.

Got a question for A Swole Woman? Email swole@thehairpin.com. You can also follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

You can also listen to A Swole Woman spreading the gospel of powerlifting on this week’s episode of the The Awl’s podcast: