Many of you have undoubtedly seen the Planet Fitness ads that mock bodybuilders.
Personally, I find the “I lift things up and put them down” ad somewhat poignant — there is a certain existential purity and focus to the bodybuilder’s mission that many of us might wish to emulate in purging the distractions of modern life. He is akin to a Zen prophet — merely a humble traveller on the Way of Weights, where enlightenment comes simply from moving the body towards a dedicated objective.
Slate.com reviews the messages inherent to PF’s ad campaign, as well as the more real challenges in a gym where serious lifting is discouraged. I remember similar problems in a Globo gym about 15 years ago, where I was told, “This isn’t a deadlifting gym.”
Now, let’s imagine the scene — I am a small female lifter. I’m not intimidating anyone with my mighty 95 lb DL (or whatever I was lifting in 1996), besides perhaps a 6-year-old child. I don’t smash my weights; I put them back assiduously, carefully stacking the plates properly (even taking several minutes to rearrange the plates on the racks so that they all hang in the proper order).
This is the same gym that made me feel like a lardy piece of crap when I showed up to get a membership — after having proudly lost about 20 lb.
And there’s no deadlifting for me. For no other reason than… well… this isn’t a deadlifting gym. (Amusingly, the guy who actually owned the gym was a waddling steroid-slab who wore the stereotypical bodybuilder ensemble and loved to make pants-crapping sounds while shrugging. Do as I say, not as I do, I suppose.)
The larger problem is that many commercial gyms are businesses. They couldn’t give two shits about getting you into shape. Their business model is based on taking your money and ensuring you don’t show up.
In fact, Globo gyms are much like the high school cliques of popular kids that occasionally pretend to include you as long as they can cheat off your science test, then shove your face into a locker while mocking your haircut. It casts a veneer of republican meritocracy over a feudal system.
Conversely, one thing I have always loved about the serious strength world is its deep sense of democracy.
They don’t care if you’re a fatass, a pencil-neck, a four-eyes, a dweeb, geek, dork, banger, or spaz… as long as you show up, work hard, and try your best. If your best is a tuna can or a water jug, fine. See you tomorrow, kid. We’ll give you a bigger tuna can in a week.
They also don’t care if you think you’re a shit-hot athlete or have abs like the Rockies. Either you can lift the weight, or you can’t. Shut your mouth, grab a bar, and get to work. (Delightfully, other gyms have begun to respond to PF’s strengthphobia with their own ad campaigns, although I’d love to see the sequel where a kindly old lifter takes the pocket-protected nebbish under her wing and turns him into a squat god.)
The larger, larger problem is that we do not have a sense of healthy physical culture.
Muscular people are viewed as weird, stupid beasts who — in a Cartesian brain vs. body economy of “knowledge workers” — serve as mockable morons (as Scott Abel discovers). Other “fitness nuts” are obsessive crackpots who wear Spandex, live on spirulina, and run in the snow at 5 am.
In any case, we feel, fit people are somehow different from the rest of us.
We view movement and strength as a luxury, not an intrinsic capacity that is available to all of us — and should be developed in order to be a functioning human. Movement is not a luxury. Strength of mind and body is not a luxury. They are our birthright. We will all move differently, within our own abilities… but we must move as often as possible, as powerfully as possible.
We view movement and strength as something that you have to go to a special place to do, in a pre-approved way, under the watchful eyes of surveillance personnel — many of whom have never, themselves, experienced disability, aging, or simply the humility of struggling against time, life circumstances, and gravity. They (dis)approve of our bodies. They create regimes and tell fibs about what we can and may do. If we displease them we are shamed.
Today, I encourage you: Take a moment. Pause your intellectual pursuits. Wrap your human appendages around an object. Move that object.
LIFT THINGS UP AND PUT THEM DOWN!!!
And let your freaky fitness flag fly.
Postscript: One of my judo instructors, a spry wiry man in his 50s, told me, “I never lift dead weight.” I asked him what he actually lifted. He looked at me like I was nuts. “You lift your own body, or you lift someone else’s. You do pullups or you throw someone.” Then he dropped into a deep squat like he was four years old with glowing, shiny rubber joints. He kicked my ass six ways from Sunday. Maybe he had a point. In his gym, you wouldn’t deadlift… unless that meant hauling a guy over your head before you threw him on the mat. I could live with that vision of the universe.