Phoning It In

June 24, 2013

I joined a new gym today, which is kind of like your first day at a new job. You’ve got to figure out the lay of the land, such as the location of the bathroom. As important, you’ve got to pick up quickly on the culture. For example, at some gyms, loud grunting will earn you a dirty look from gym staff. At others, making a scene while you lift is encouraged – even admired. Regardless, at all gyms, there’s one rule you have to respect: You must cooperate when someone asks you for a spot.

I’ve written previously about my objections to spotting – it interrupts the pacing of my workout; it offends my sensibilities to see someone using more weight than he can handle; on the bench press, it puts my low back in a terrible position. But most of all, if the guy benching 315+ suffers a total failure, I literally can’t help. There’s no way I can pull an anvil off some guy’s chest.

So during my workout today, the guy next to me throws three plates onto each side of his barbell. He looks my way and says, “Hey, can you help me out.” I started trudging over to my position behind his bench, but I noticed his strange expression. “Here,” he says, as he hands me his phone. “My buddy doesn’t believe I can bench this weight. I need you to video this lift for me.”

Finally, a spot where I can actually help.

From Top to Bottom

January 22, 2011

I’m a fan of basic, compound movements that work large muscle groups. I’ve even read that powerful movements like squats and deadlifts can cause the body to release a flood of growth hormones. However, sometimes due to necessity, sometimes choice, gym members spend a great deal of time focusing on smaller body parts. Here are 10 exercises for secondary muscles that people can probably do without:

10. Rear delts/forearms: The poor condition of gym equipment often makes self-maintenance unavoidable. For example, when you want to adjust the setting on a hamstring machine, you’ll first build your forearms trying desperately to unscrew the knob that has rusted and stuck. When that fails, you’ll build your rear delts by lifting up a 5 lb weight plate and smashing it down on the knob.

9. Neck: It’s one thing to flip through a magazine while riding a stationary bike. It’s a whole different kind of workout to read while bouncing up and down on a treadmill. This activity requires tremendous neck strength in order to lock your gaze in place. The woman I saw recently performing this feat was even reading some dense academic journal with tiny 9 point font. I know I can’t do it.

8. Wrist/hands: Though the failure of members to wipe down their equipment after use is a literal gym plague, there’s one guy at my gym who is a massive over-wiper. In addition to wiping down the equipment pads, he’ll soak the machine’s handles, dust the frame, and clean the machine’s cables. Dude, it’s not like you’re even sweating in the first place.

7. Jaw: I took clarinet lessons when I was young, and my teacher held a yearly recital for all her students. One year, a saxophonist played through his entire concerto with gum in his mouth, sometimes chewing. Whenever I see someone at the gym chomping her way through a workout, I am reminded of this performance: not remarkable for its quality, but for the ability to combine previously mutually exclusive activities.

6. Muscles of the orbit (eye): I know that many gym etiquette sites take issue with women who exercise in outfits intended for the beach. Personally, I don’t know what the problem is. If you have genetic gifts or you’ve earned your body at the gym, then do whatever works for you. However, interesting things happen when a scantily clad woman sets up next to a guy working out with his wife/girlfriend. The guy’s intense focus on his significant other, combined with the obvious straining of his peripheral vision, provides superb conditioning for the eye muscles.

5. Lips/gums: I give this one guy at the gym a large berth, but I’m still able to observe from afar his astonishing verbal stamina. He doesn’t stop talking when he’s lifting his weights, he doesn’t stop when someone is talking to him. He doesn’t stop talking when he’s taking a sip of water. It’s a cloud of noise, like a lawnmower, that annoys more or less depending upon your proximity.

4. Achilles Tendon: The explosive fibers in the back of the leg often come in handy jumping out of the way of – or running away from – fellow gym members. For example, the guy lifting weights while perched on a swiss ball is a danger to himself and the people around him. Likewise, I’ve hightailed it out of the gym’s sauna when a fellow member began the process of burning the whole place down.

3. Diaphragm: Hard laughing can put a substantial stress on the muscles of the lower torso:

I was on a treadmill once and the guy next to me thought he’d jam his speed up to the max … next thing I know he’s making some god almighty noises and trying desperately to stab at the controls while continuing to run. Several seconds later just when I thought this guy’s head was gonna blow off he managed to slam his hand down on the emergency stop and the sudden deceleration launched him into the mirror in front of the machine … don’t you just hate trying to cover up a major attack of hysterics?!?!

2. Forearms/front delts: You could perform an entire workout just putting other people’s weights back where they belong. I’ve never understood the mentality of loading up a barbell for squats or bench presses, completing your sets, and then simply walking away. This behavior is the equivalent of going to a food court, having your lunch, and then leaving behind a tray scattered with an empty milk carton, used silverware and half-eaten sandwich.

1. Elbow: When your fellow member launches his weights through the gym window, and your mouth falls open at the spectacle of a barbell rolling down the carpark, you’ll use the flexibility in your arm to reach up and return your chin to its default position.

No Class

January 9, 2011

I admit there’s one part of the gym experience with which I have no experience: aerobics classes. I’ve always figured that my own training is far more intense than whatever workout the instructor regresses to the mean. I’d also rather control my own pace and intervals of rest. Regardless, I do spend a great deal of time in the aerobics room – the mirrors and wood floor create the perfect environment for jumping rope. And whenever I jump rope prior to the start of an aerobics class, I am a witness to some incredibly bizarre behavior.

First of all, many members turn their aerobics class into a major half-day activity. People start showing up nearly two hours early to reserve their favorite spots on the floor, marking their territory with the full aerobics complement of step, weights and mat. The scene begins to resemble the unwashed crowd waiting outside early on Black Friday morning. One woman sits atop her step with a book; another naps along her mat. I’m sure that soon someone will whip out a portable stove top and begin cooking breakfast.

I can only assume that the line of sight to the instructor or to the mirror is the cornerstone of the entire enterprise. I have watched one woman on several occasions move her aerobics gear as close to the front of the room as possible – where I happened to be swinging a thin plastic tube at multiple revolutions per second. Even as my rope is smacking against her step, she continues in oblivion to load the rest of her gear into position. When she comes back for her class an hour later, her equipment is mysteriously touching the back wall.

This morning, I watched the level of aerobics egocentrism reach a new high. A guy setting up his station decided that the aerobics room dumbbells weren’t heavy enough for him. So he went out to the regular gym dumbbell rack, helped himself to the pair of 20s and 25s, and walked them back to his station. These community dumbbells, useful for bicep curls, forearm work and shoulder laterals, began collecting dust on the floor of the aerobics room – an hour before the class even started.

Inquiring Minds

November 8, 2009

I don’t mind when people approach me with questions between sets. Give people credit for recognizing excellence and caring enough to learn more. Lately, I’ve been drawing a lot of attention with my Manta Ray, and folks wanting to know if it makes squats easier. Yes it does, since the device neutralizes problems caused by the typical bent and rusty barbell. However, with the bar placed higher on your traps, you’ll work harder as you’re forced into better, upright form.

When it comes to strange questions, I’d have to give the gold medal to a personal trainer who once sought me out. With her client in tow, this trainer inquired about what exercise I had been doing. It was that newfangled motion called deadlifts.

Irrespective of the query, I draw the line when someone wants to chat mid-exercise. Today, I was grinding away on the StairMaster, with my headphones drowning out the pain and my sweat streaming down the handrails. Desperate for my attention, a woman began knocking hard on the base of my machine. Obviously the gym must be on fire. I couldn’t really hear what this woman was saying, but the upshot was that she wanted to commend me on my workout intensity. Ironic that she didn’t see herself as an impediment towards that goal.

I intended to discount this last intrusion as just another example of poor gym etiquette, but then I had an epiphany. If I had witnessed something in the gym as unusual as a person training hard, wouldn’t I also seek out the nearest member to gush about it?


As a footnote, I’d add that violations of gym etiquette aren’t limited to the gym. I was in the middle of a jog once when a car rolled up next to me and began matching my brisk 8-minute mile pace. The driver lowered her window and shouted out a question about directions.

No Smiling, Grinning or Laughing

July 8, 2007

As a society, we do an excellent job making life easier for those with the greatest need. Handicapped individuals get parking spaces closest to the building. The elderly find reserved seating nearest the subway door. And on any sinking ship, it’s women and children into the lifeboats first.

For whatever reason, civilization breaks down at the gym. The people occupying the equipment and disrupting my workout certainly do not have the greatest need, or at least the greatest desire.

What’s particularly atrocious is the way some people treat the arrival of equipment, like my gym’s new ab machine. I’m getting ready to hit my muscles from a new angle, to add variety to my workout. Yet I find myself fidgeting in place while two women climb all over the machine and giggle like it’s a fresh addition to the playground.

In all kinds of public places, people give up their seats to those more deserving. So here’s my need: to explode my stress, to quiet the noise, to train like a champion today.

Forget the usual gym rules about re-racking weights or proper attire. The number one rule should be: no smiling, grinning or laughing. If you’re engaged in any of those activities, you’re going to the back of the line.