January 06, 2009

Observations From the Gym


I’m Not Really Holier Than Thou, It Just Sounds That Way

As with a few of my previous blog posts, I have to begin this one with a caveat:

I am not a certified personal trainer. I am not a doctor. I am not an expert in physical fitness or exercise physiology. The observations I make below are for fun and good humor—at least, I hope it’s good. Where I poke fun at certain activities one tends to come across in gyms, I’ve also made a point to acknowledge the benefits of said activities, and pay lip service to all the counterarguments.

This post is intended to entertain and amuse, not to infuriate. I’ve written it in good fun, and I hope you’ll receive it in the same spirit.

Okay. Now that the business is out of the way, here we go…

Most of the jobs I’ve ever held were cushy office jobs. I’ve sat in front of computers, and I’ve sat in classrooms. Even when I worked inside airplanes, I still sat in front of a computer. Since most of the rest of my life was also pretty sedentary, I’ve deliberately made exercise a non-negotiable part of my life. Even if it just means walking to the library or post office instead of driving, I try to do some kind of physical activity every day. (That is, physical activity that involves more than picking up and setting down the remote control, or the rapid firing of my fingers across the keyboard as I type snotty blog posts about things I see and hear at the gym.) My devotion to exercise is also the result of my lifelong battle with what I see in the mirror, but if I go off on that tangent, this post will be about ten times longer than it is now, and it’s already ridiculously long.

In the interest of getting on with things, let’s just say I’ve been exercising regularly for about twelve years. (Not continually, of course. A girl’s gotta sleep! And eat! And daydream!) During that time, I’ve used gyms in California, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, Washington, DC, Nebraska, and Iraq. I’ve been to enough gyms in enough places that think I’ve acquired a pretty good idea of how they’re supposed to work. Well, maybe not how they’re supposed to work so much as how I like them to work.

I like gyms that are gyms. Not health clubs, spas, or wellness centers. I have nothing against saunas and massage services (as long as that’s really what they are, and there are no “happy endings” involved). I don’t use them, but I realize other people do, so I’m not bothered by their mere existence. Still, for my purposes, they’re really just fluff.

I like gyms that are, for lack of a better word, manly. I like cardio machines, free weights, lifting machines, and benches. I don’t like fancy lighting, pretty carpet, or nice artwork on the walls. I prefer a bare bones approach to gym d├ęcor. It doesn’t have to be bleak and depressing, of course. No one wants to work out in a dungeon. But most frills are just that. Frills. It’s like the fancy packaging some high-end retail stores wrap your purchases in. Tissue paper, ribbons, and nice bags with rope handles are a nice touch, but they don’t change what’s in the bag.

I like gyms that aren’t meat markets. I like gyms where people go to work out, work hard, and go home. I don’t like gyms where guys spend a few minutes doing a couple of sets of this and that, and then spend the rest of the time shooting the breeze, as if the mere act of standing inside a gym is enough to gain results. As if they could get a better body through osmosis. (If only! If there are any engineers out there reading this, when you invent a way to do this, call me!) Gyms can be good places to meet people, but I don’t like gyms where people try too hard. I like gyms where women dress like they’re there to work out, not to whore themselves out. I know people sweat when they exercise. Believe me, I know. I have to hang my workout clothes up to dry before putting them into my laundry bag. (Gross, but true. Someone once told me sweating like I do is a sign of good hydration. So there!) Getting hot and sweating a lot are not reasons to wear skimpy clothes to the gym. A sports bra is not a shirt! It’s a bra! Put something over it! (Okay, who am I kidding? If I had a flat stomach, I would totally work out in a sports bra…)

Before I left for U.S. Air Force basic training, I belonged to a gym in my hometown. Now that I’m out of the military and back home for a little while, I joined again. Big changes happened there in the four years I was away. First, it’s under new ownership. Second, it’s been expanded. It’s almost three times the size it used to be. Third, whereas the previous incarnation was the classic bare bones gym I alluded to earlier, now they offer classes in traditional aerobics, yoga, boxing, spinning, and Zumba—whatever the heck that is. (Someone said it was some kind of Latin dancing or something? Whatever.) There’s a babysitting service. There’s a big, beautiful locker room, complete with showers and comfy benches, where there used to be nothing but two bathrooms—one male, one female—both the size of broom closets. There’s also a juice bar, where you can get pre-workout drinks, recovery drinks, protein shakes, fruit smoothies, and probably a handjob, if you asked the girl behind the counter nicely enough. (And if you’re a guy.)

All things considered, it’s a vast improvement. I imagine it’s especially welcoming to people who don’t like a bare bones gym. People who are, in fact, intimidated by places where there’s nothing but big, scary machines, and lots of big, scary guys with arms as thick as my thighs milling about. I like the new gym. It has frills for the people who are comforted by frills, and the main area of the gym is still perfect for people who want to work out and go home. It’s spacious and sufficiently equipped that I’ve never had to wait for a machine or a specific weight of dumbbell.

That being said, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have anything negative to say. (Seriously. If you’re reading this, then you probably know me personally, and you know how I do so love to get disproportionately enraged over simple things. [Personal aside to M: *doot* RAAAAH!] But I try to do so in a funny way, and I hope I haven’t fallen short this time.)

And so, I offer the following treatise on gym etiquette. It does not contain the usual advice, which most gym goers should already be familiar with. If this category doesn’t include you, here’s a quick lesson:

1. If you sweat to the point that it drips onto the machines, grab a towel and wipe up after yourself.

2. Kindly remove the weight plates from the bars when you’re done and restack them in their proper places. It’s great that you can bench 250 pounds. I can’t, oh great Mr. Beefcake, so do the weakling girls like me a favor and don’t make me unload a bunch of your plates before stacking on a few of my own. Yes, technically, I could view this as an added bonus to my workout, but I’m more likely to view it as an inconvenience brought upon me by a rude meathead who lacks common courtesy.

And now, for my observations. We’ll start with…

The management

1. Why do you insist on pumping music through the PA system (or whatever it’s called—the speakers that make up the surround-sound system in the main area of the gym, that encompasses everything but the aerobics room, boxing room, and locker rooms)? After looking around and taking note of my fellow gym goers’ listening habits, I’ve come to the conclusion that most people prefer to work out to their own music. Most people on the treadmills, bikes, and elliptical machines have earphones in their ears and a long wire attached to some sort of listening device that is either strapped to their arm, nestled in a pocket in their pants or shorts or, as is the case with my poor man’s mp3 player, placed securely in the holder on whatever machine I’m using.

Furthermore, why do you insist on keeping this music so loud that even with my own tunes turned up almost to the maximum volume, I can still hear yours in the background? Even though I don’t walk, run, or bike to the beat of any of the songs on my workout playlist, it still bothers me that my sheer enjoyment of the music is sullied by the relentless pounding bass of whatever you call the stuff you play. I can’t focus on the rhythm of my own music for the insistence of yours.

I’d like to say something to you about this one day. I’d like to walk up to the front desk and politely ask if you would mind turning it down. You don’t have to kill the music. Just make it low enough that the few people who want to hear it can, and the rest of us can enjoy our own carefully selected playlists that much more. The thing is, I’ve only been a member of this gym for about three weeks, so I don’t feel right asserting myself yet. Besides, maybe I’m the only one who has a problem with the loud music. After all, if other people were bothered by it, they would have already said something, right? Right?

2. If you’re going to go through the trouble of printing flyers and notices, and wasting a ton of colored ink in the process, couldn’t you at least have someone who knows something about punctuation take a quick look at them before plastering the gym with them? I appreciate the sentiment behind your year-end wishes, but Happy Holiday’s? Really? Really? A possessive s? I admit that I am not an expert on grammar and punctuation—as should be obvious to anyone who’s ever read this blog. I use those big dashes far too often, and also probably use parentheses too often, and incorrectly at that. But, like I told my friend, S, who’s a professional writer and editor, I write the way I talk. (Or is it speak? See? I don’t even know which is correct, and I’m not sure I care.) Outside of this blog, I mostly write fiction. I create characters, settings, themes, and sometimes, when I’m feeling ambitious, plots. But I don’t get hung up on where the commas go, or the em- and en- dashes. That’s for people like S, who know what they’re doing. Still, I know something about punctuation, even if it’s just a little something, and I know the phrase Happy Holidays does not require an apostrophe. (For a hilarious exploration of the few other things I know about punctuation, with a few jabs at spelling and grammar thrown in for kicks, wait on the edge of your seat for a future blog post. I promise lots of chuckles and nods of recognition when I bring up things like all the people who’ve resolved to “loose weight” in the new year, and other classics.)

Other than that, I have no complaints about the management at my gym. In fact, I’m pretty fond of the people who run the place. The gym is always clean and smells nothing like a gym. (This is an especially welcome change, as it’s the opposite of the gym I worked out at in Nebraska. Said gym was not air-conditioned. You can imagine how much fun that was in the dead of summer.) I like that I’ve never entered the building and swiped the membership card on my keychain without being greeted by someone at the front desk, and that I’ve never left after my workout without someone wishing me a good day.

Now that I’ve addressed the management, I’ll move on to…

The Men

1. Do you really need to put cologne on before hitting the weights? I appreciate that instead of smelling like sweat, you’d rather smell like the latest concoction being peddled by David Beckham, Kenneth Cole, Calvin Klein, or whatever new formula was dreamed up by the chemical engineers behind Axe and Old Spice. The thing is, you’re at the gym. People expect you to smell like sweat. That’s a good thing. That means you’re working. (Then again, let me be honest: if you did smell like sweat, I’d probably complain about that, too. But unless you have some unfortunate glandular condition that causes your individual brand of body odor to reek so stupendously, most guys get by just fine with a normal application of deodorant. [May I recommend Axe? Or Old Spice? Heehee.])

Seriously, though. If your cologne is so strong that it causes other gym goers—namely, me—to actually get dizzy when you walk by, you’re wearing too much. (By the way, going back to the grammar bit, I can’t believe I just used the word namely. I HATE namely! But I think the use was appropriate there. If not, I’m sure S will let me know.) If you applied your cologne in the morning, and it just happens not to have faded all that much during the day, I could see where that could be an acceptable excuse. However, if you applied your cologne in the morning, and it hasn’t worn off throughout the day, you probably put way too much on in the first place! (Either that, or you reapplied it during the day, in which case you’re worse than most women I know!)

I understand that a gym—even one that’s not a meat market—is a decent place to meet members of the opposite sex. However, do you really want a potential date’s first impression of you to be waking up to your hand waving in front of her face, with you asking if she’s okay, because she passed out when you walked up to her and she caught a whiff of your love spell (available at fine stores everywhere)? Furthermore, if she’s going to survive a date with you, she’s going to have to be able to breathe around you, so my advice is, go easy on the cologne and/or body spray.

2. Don’t be a hero. My gym has a wonderful and brilliant sign near the dumbbells and weight plates: If you can’t set the weight down gently, you can’t handle the weight! I respect the concept of working a muscle “to failure.” I respect the concept of pushing yourself beyond what you thought were your limits. And yet, every time I hear a stack of weights clanging fiercely into place, or a pair of dumbbells being dropped on the floor, I can’t help thinking that maybe, just maybe, you went a little too far.

There are several weightlifting philosophies out there, each with its own core concepts and areas of emphasis. Some of these suggest that the eccentric and concentric portions of weight lifting are equally important. That is, the work your muscles do as you lower a weight is just as important to building strength as the work they do as you lift that weight. If this is true (and I would imagine anyone who lifts slooowly will tell you it is), I’m not sure you’re getting the full benefit from that last rep when you barely lift the weight at all, and then drop it like a hot rock. (And now, I have to make sure I clarify things here. I admire anyone who pushes themselves hard, and who tries to lift more than they did the day, the week, or the month before. And if this means that on that last rep, it takes everything in you just to get the darn thing up—and maybe not even all the way—and you’ve sapped yourself so completely that you have no choice but to let go and let the weight fall where it may, I really have no problem with that. I’m impressed by it, in fact. After all, I think I read somewhere that Arnold Schwarzenegger once said something like, “It’s that last rep that really builds the muscle, when you’re exhausted and the only thing that gets the weight up is your sheer force of will.” Take my criticism in the spirit it’s intended. I’m just trying to be funny. Give me a break. It’s only a blog.)

3. Don’t be a caveman. What am I referring to? The grunting, of course. I’m not going to lie; I’ve been known to grunt and growl on my last few reps now and then. But can’t we agree that there’s a fine line between exerting yourself and going off the deep end? Just like challenging yourself to lift a weight you might not be quite ready for, I acknowledge that there’s a method behind the madness of grunting while trying to eek out that last rep or two. For some reason—and I’m sure there’s a fitness magazine or physical training trade publication somewhere that can tell you in exacting detail exactly what it is—letting go of your vocal inhibitions while you lift seems to make lifting easier. I’ve experienced this myself. I don’t know why, but those unintelligible grunts of exertion actually help me get through those last few reps, and with better form and focus than if I was just going through the motions until I hit the magic number. In my mind, I’m thinking, “Do it, do it, DO IT!” or, “Come on, come on, COME ON!” On especially dark occasions, after ninety minutes of staring at the impossibly lithe, thin, and perfectly proportioned gym pixies has really gotten to me, my saddlebags, my stretch marks, and my gut, I might be thinking, “You F-ing fatass, you F-fing fatass, you F-fing FATASS!” (Yeah…the growl from that last one can get out of hand pretty easily.) But whatever the words in my mind, what actually comes out of my mouth is a sound that could pass for either someone in the throes of passion, or someone being beaten with a baseball bat. Still, I manage to keep that sound relatively quiet. Can the guy next to me hear it? Yes. Can the guy all the way across the gym hear it? No. So why can I sometimes hear other people’s grunts all the way across the gym, even over the music blasting out of the wall-mounted speakers?!

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate that you’re pushing yourself. I understand that those caveman sounds may very well help you to perform one or two more reps than you thought possible. And yet, I can’t help thinking those sounds could come out of your mouth just a little more quietly. You could argue that my own grunts are quieter because I am quieter. My 5’2” hm-hm-hm-pound body probably isn’t capable of producing the same volume or power of projection as your 6’3” 200-pound body is. (To M, whom I’m sure will read this eventually, did you actually think I was going to reveal my weight? HA! You know me better than that, don’t you?) But I’m not sure that argument holds much weight—no pun intended. Ever seen Celine Dion live? Well, neither have I, but from what I’ve seen on TV and heard on the radio, that tiny woman has got one BIG voice.

Another reason you might feel entitled to grunt much louder than me is that you’re lifting much more weight. Of course you are. If you were doing bicep curls with the same amount of weight I was, I might laugh at you. (No, I wouldn’t. Believe me. If you looked like that was all you could handle, I’d respect you for doing it, and for even being at the gym in the first place. We all have to start somewhere. But if you looked like you could lift two or three times as much as me, well then, yeah, I might laugh. Not at you, of course. I would chuckle softly to myself, as if recalling something funny from earlier in the day. But really, it would totally be because of you.)

This argument doesn’t hold much weight, either. After all, lifting is a relative thing. What’s heavy to me would be a joke to, say, Mario Lemieux. (Lest you think I’ve abandoned my love of hockey…I’ve gotten away from it in the past few years, and I know it’s been several seasons since Mario last donned a jersey with a big penguin on the front and the number 66 on the back, but I would imagine he’s still in fine male form, if ya know what I mean.) If I can lift something that’s heavy to me, and grunt only a little, can’t you lift something that’s heavy to you, and also grunt only a little? I mean, let’s face it: Isn’t there a fine line between vocalizing the effort you’re putting forth, and sounding like a total idiot?

Now that I’ve sufficiently emasculated the men, I’ll move on to…

The Women

1. No cell phones while on the cardio equipment! And now that I think of it, no cell phones in the gym at all! Unless you’re a brain surgeon, a heart surgeon, a first-responder who’s on-call, or your mother/sister/daughter/friend is nine months pregnant and likely to pop at any minute, KEEP YOUR DAMN PHONE IN YOUR LOCKER. That’s what they’re for, y’know: your car keys, your coat, your purse, maybe a change of clothes, AND YOUR FREAKING PHONE. This applies to women and men, of course, but I see women violating the rule much more often than men do.

If you can hold a conversation while you’re on the treadmill, sweetie, you’re probably not working hard enough. I’ve read that a good measure of exertion is whether or not you can keep up a conversation. If it’s easy, you’re not working hard enough. If you’re gasping for breath and speaking is nearly impossible, you’re working too hard, right? Pardon my language, but, BULLSH*T. What’s all this hullabaloo about HIIT (high intensity interval training)? Do you honestly think you could tell your “BFF” all about the party you went to last weekend, or all about how Cindi, the nail tech—who not only spells her name with an “i,” but dots it with a heart—screwed up your manicure and it was the absolute end of your life, and still put forth your highest level of perceived exertion? I’m no expert, but, ahem, I think not.

I’ll make allowances for women who aren’t looking to go all-out. Plenty of people just want to walk or bike at a calm pace to get their heart rate elevated, but not too elevated, and that’s fine. Not everyone wants to go all-out every time. In fact, it’s not even good for you. Sometimes your body needs you to take it easy. If you’re working at a relaxed pace, you can hold a conversation without getting out of breath at all, and there’s nothing wrong with that. BUT THAT STILL DOESN’T MEAN THAT EVERYONE ELSE IN THE GYM WANTS TO HEAR WHATEVER YOU’RE YAPPING ABOUT. If what you need to say absolutely, positively cannot wait, GO OUTSIDE AND MAKE YOUR DAMN PHONE CALL. Or at least go into the locker room. But if you do go into the locker room, FOR GOD’S SAKE, DON’T USE THE PHONE WHILE YOU’RE IN A BATHROOM STALL! Pardon me, but seriously? SERIOUSLY?! (Sorry…someone’s been watching a little too much Grey’s Anatomy.)

2. Stop kidding yourself. You can lift more than that. I know you can. Listen, sweetcheeks, you’re not doing yourself any favors by sticking with that 5-pound dumbbell. You are NOT going to “get big” or “bulk up” if you lift heavier weights. You could, if you wanted to, but it would involve ingesting massive quantities of protein and drugs—some legal, some not—and possibly injecting those slender little biceps of yours with steroid cocktails. And if you do that for long enough, it’s likely that eventually, the perky, cheerful boobs you’re so proud of would deflate like the helium balloons on the centerpiece two weeks after your sweet sixteen. It’s not a road you want to travel.

It’s not easy for women to build and maintain muscle in the first place, let alone wind up looking like a longer-haired Mr. Universe. It requires a relentless workout and feeding regimen. Lifting a little more than you’re used to isn’t enough to do it, so relax. Take a look around sometime. In my experience, the women with the nicest bodies lift a surprising amount of weight. (And by “nicest bodies,” I don’t mean they’re overly muscled and have veins popping out of their forearms. I mean they still look like women, and more, they look like hot women. They’ve got curves and valleys in all the right places. They’re strong and they’re toned, but above all, they’re feminine.)

Challenge yourself. Lift more than you think you can. To clarify, I’m not suggesting you go crazy and lift something that’s obviously out of your reach. Don’t go getting yourself injured and then try to sue me. But do challenge yourself. I think you’ll be surprised at what you’re capable of. I realize that many people, with much more expertise than I have, have hammered it into our heads that if we want to look “toned” we should stick with low weight and high reps. That idea’s not without merit and, despite the snarky tone of this entire post, I’m humble enough not to try and argue with people who have PhDs in exercise physiology. BUT, in my experience, lifting a little heavier builds muscle pretty nicely, and if what those same experts say is true, muscle burns fat. Muscle is metabolically expensive tissue. It takes a lot of calories to maintain it. So if your goal is to lose fat, you probably want to gain some muscle. And I’m not sure lifting a 5-pound weight fifty times is going to do that as quickly as lifting a 25-pound weight ten times.

All that being said, if you’re lifting at all, you’re doing pretty well for yourself. You’ve stopped being a cardio queen and you’ve embraced the beauty of strength training. Maybe you’ve even gotten over your fear of the “guy area” in the gym. You know the place. The one where the free weights and scary, manly machines are. It takes a lot of courage to conquer that fear. If you’ve managed it, I applaud you, and at the risk of making myself vomit, I can’t resist offering you a good, solid, YOU GO, GIRL!

3. Stop holding on to the handrails on the treadmill. You’re not getting as intense a workout. Believe me. I’ve tried it both ways. Let go, honey, and if you go flying off the thing, perhaps you’re not quite ready for that level of incline. (But before I go any further, let me acknowledge my friend S again. She explained to me that she will actually fall off if she doesn’t hold on. I used S’s treadmill last week, and I will concede the point—for that particular treadmill. It was a good machine, but narrower and a little less sturdy than most other treadmills I’ve used. I managed to pump my arms like I usually do, but I admit it took some getting used to. I will also concede the point that some people might have balance issues no matter what kind of machine they’re on. I applaud anyone who makes an effort to do any kind of exercise. If they need to hold on to the rails, or the handles, or any other part of a machine in order to keep exercising, then so be it. Good for them for exercising at all. But I think it makes the workout easier. Not easy, just easier.)

I’ve held on and I’ve not held on. When I held on, I could feel right away that my legs (specifically my quads and glutes) weren’t working as hard as they were when I wasn’t holding on. This can be remedied pretty easily, though. All you have to do is deliberately squeeze those butt muscles with every stride. And maybe the delicate young things I see holding on are doing that. Maybe I’d be able to tell if I wasn’t so distracted by the fact that they’re ON THE PHONE! (By means of an earpiece, of course. They have to have their hands free to hold on, remember?)

4. You’re probably expecting me to say something about the skimpy outfits some women work out in. The showing off of bodies that look like the results of winning either the gene pool lottery or the plastic surgery lottery. But this type of clothing is blissfully absent from my gym. So with all the cynicism I’ve spewed in this post, I want to take this opportunity to applaud the women of my gym for dressing for comfort, not for a fashion show. Yes, some of their outfits are more form-fitting than necessary, but I have to admit, if I had a body like some of them, you can be darn sure I’d show it off, too.

Maybe it’s from all those high reps with low weights… :D

Maybe they do know something I don’t…

Maybe I’ll call you from the stair machine tomorrow…