Rant 30 February 2006: Gyms that don’t suck

“Here is a rough-bullet summary of a devastating decline of modern mankind… Fitness takes hold in the ‘60s and erupts in the 70s. Swell. Big biz and big bucks do their dirty work: feeding frenzy, deception and hype, confusion and gluttony. No comprehensive education offered, intended or achieved, just sell, exploit, sell. Aerobics will set you free; buy a $7,000 treadmill.” (Draper, 63)

Nothing is quieter than a gym in mid-February once the winter blahs have set in and the resolutions are long forgotten. Of course this would not be you, dear reader, for this is the year it will happen! You will save money, whiten your teeth, be nicer to your coworkers, quit burping in front of your in-laws, and make a perfect gourmet 300-calorie lunch every day while talking on the phone and trying to separate your two children currently conjoined by claws and fangs. However, perhaps you have a friend who will fail in her resolutionary perfection, so pass the following book along to her.

If you (or your friend, wink wink) are looking for inspiration this season, look no further than Dave Draper’s latest book, Iron on my Mind (California: On Target Press, 2006).

This may be Draper’s finest work to date. It’s a series of little vignettes, Draper’s ruminations on his long career as the Blond Bomber and now golden aged iron lover. The writing mixes training advice, anecdotes, and the wisdom of long experience. Each mini-chapter is like a ritual of affirmation and motivation. Unlike empty affirmations that simply attempt to repeat I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and goshdarnit, people like me, and which evaporate along with the breath once they pass the lips, Draper’s affirmations are like a kick in the ass wrapped in a warm hug. One feels Draper’s boot in the glute for days.

One way to read this book might be to set aside ten or fifteen minutes per day or week to read a chapter, so that one is provided with an ongoing source of reflection and inspiration. This could enable one to remain committed to a fitness and wellness project throughout the year. Hey, put it in the bathroom so it’s close at hand and you have no excuse.

A passage in Draper’s work struck me as particularly interesting. He writes:

“The gym… Where musclebuilding takes place: crowded, funky, out-of-the-way, insufficiently equipped, wrong atmosphere and full of smudged mirrors and jerks. I hope that doesn’t describe your local iron-and-steel watering hole. If it does, think garage, Olympic set, squat rack, and a bench. The person who must work out can train in any dungeon, believe me. For the beginning trainees, the last impression they need is the most common scene they are introduced to across our fertile pastures and fruited plains: hyped energy, endless stationary bikes and running and climbing machines in a dazzling fluorescent white convention-hall setting, lined with mirrors and occupied with gaily outfitted, but disillusioned hopefuls strutting in unison. Who are they and where do they come from?”(105)

This type of gym sounds much like what Alan Klein, in his important work on the ethnography of masculinity as performed by California bodybuilders, Little Big Men (New York: SUNY Press, 1993), describes. Klein observes a fictitious gym that is an amalgam of a number of California gyms, cavernous places crammed with equipment, a complex primate social hierarchy, and a strong sense that gyms are serious business:

“With such a high level of tension during the precontest period, it is no wonder that the gym takes on a surly atmosphere The tension is intensified by the combined effects of dieting, steroids, exhaustion, and anxiety, which can turn any interaction into a confrontation… malicious gossip and even public character assassination are used as surrogates for physical fighting… (78)

“On one occasion I watched as Don was bench pressing 400 pounds. His cousin psyched him up by calling him a long string of nasty names. Failing to get the desired response, Phil propped his work boot against his cousin’s throat. The adrenalin rush that Don felt as he lay there enabled him to get out another repetition. ‘Training in the fifth dimension’ they called it… The abuse is, in their minds, instrumental in psyching-up the training partner…”(73)

Klein describes scenes full of competition, confrontation, narcissism, and what might even be termed body loathing at the Olympic Gym, a cavernous tourist trap with machines laid out in neat grids and a highly regimented pecking order among the bodybuilders that frequent it.

Yet Draper continues:

“Choose your gym wisely. Seek a clean iron refuge, a steel workplace, not a flashy cushioned playpen for adult toddlers. You can either get the job done with purpose or be certain, or fuss with colourful tinker toys, erector sets and building blocks till it’s time to go bye-bye.”(105)

Find your fitness forum, says Draper, and play in it. Make it special, fun, and genuine. “Put aside that time of rejoicing alone or with like minds three or four days a week, sixty exhilarating minutes of vigorous exercise.” (65)

I found this spirit of enjoyment quite apropos as I had just returned from visiting California and two gyms in San Francisco and Sacramento. Both gyms move beyond the sardine-can, fitness-as-commodity approach of most commercial gyms. They look different but the general mindset behind them is similar. Both are examples of alternatives to the norm.

Dikadi is in a converted warehouse building in San Francisco. Upon entering, I was immediately struck by one thing: it’s nearly empty by the standards of commercial gyms. My current gym, although I love it dearly, has taken a sort of pack ratty approach to things: every square inch that can have crap on it, does. Navigating the small but decent free weight areas is dangerous business: at any moment some important body part could intersect with a pointy steel thingy. Today, a trainer was doing some kind of ball bridging exercise with a woman in the weight room. People had to climb over benches not to step on her face as she lay on the mat.

The second thing that struck me at Dikadi was the integration of space. There was no “free weight” or “cardio” area. A massage table sat in the middle of one room, and other therapy rooms were scattered around the big open space among dumbbells, cable stacks, medicine balls and even (joy!) climbing ropes. In its layout, this gym said: we cater to the whole person. Tell us what you want, and we’ll make it happen. We’ll integrate, not isolate.

I’ve alreadyraved plenty about Bodytribe but you’ll have to indulge me one more time. This gym is so freakin sweet. When we arrived, two women were working together, barefoot and chalky handed, on the deadlift. One of them is in her mid-60s and just set a powerlifting record for her age class. Pop Will Eat Itself was on the speakers. Someone had brought their dog in and it ran around giving lickies to everyone. Quirky little touches adorn the place: original art by local artists, plants, couches, a strangely phallic giant fountain, a sculpture of a dog.

Chip, the visionary behind BT, gave me a kettlebell lesson, which was great fun. I even had a go at swinging the Big Kahuna kettlebell, which was something like 72 lbs (approx. 0.65 MKU [Mistress Krista Unit]), and discovered that the hard part isn’t so much swinging it up, but not falling forward when it descends and centrifugal force does its job. We finished up with some band squats.

One thing I enjoyed best at Bodytribe was the feeling that anything was OK in this gym. Whatever crazy crap I came up with, whatever my body type or fitness level, it’d be cool. Chip himself is known for going out to the park and throwing stuff. This approach carries over to his new endeavour with partner Cody, Empowered Tribes.

This “I’m OK, you’re OK” attitude is rarely found. Years ago I trained at a World Gym that was owned by a no-neck bodybuilder dude with the type of squarish mole-like hairline often found on the tanned, pharmaceutically muscular. It was a lovely gym, well equipped and neatly kept, except for one puzzling thing: they frowned on serious lifting. One day No Neck came by as I was deadlifting with my workout partner.

“What are you doing?” he exclaimed in horror. We were somewhat confused.

“Deadlifting,” we said.

“Don’t do that,” he ordered. “This isn’t a deadlifting gym.”

A World Gym not a deadlifting gym? Isn’t this like a Gap with no yuppies allowed? This World Gym, by the way, was also the place when the front desk staff insinuated aggressively that I looked fat and ungainly when I signed up and refused the free training session. No Neck and staff generally seemed peeved that people might actually be using the equipment, or that clients would have the poor taste to be out of shape.

After a few years of getting yelled at for deadlifting, squatting, and Olympic lifting, I quit Worlds and headed to a university gym. I stayed there for a while, happily using their rubber bumper plates and Olympic platform. At first I was so grateful for the platform and equipment that I didn’t mind that the place didn’t have air conditioning (staff explained that when the room was built, somehow they forgot to install ventilation), and I would just kick the platform’s boards back into place when they fell off (since they hadn’t been fixed since about 1973). I didn’t even mind when the staff yelled at me for wearing army boots – a kindly Bulgarian weight room attendant with a gray goatee bailed me out by explaining to the other weekend-certification putzes that “when lift, need hard shoe”.

Although thankful that a former Soviet weightlifter was willing to get my back, heatstroke, lack of oxygen, and giant nails sticking out of the floor have a way of dissuading a lifter. Midway through an extremely hot summer when noticed I spent as much time lying down on the platform as I did standing up, I sought out a local gym. Here the feeling was laid back, the staff didn’t care about me using chalk as long as I cleaned it up, and the weight room was spacious, if a little dingy. There were a few problems. First, the owner was a cheapskate who kept the place in poor repair. Apparently to save money, he only installed about one-third of the lights. The change room was like the basement of a parking garage at midnight. Water dripped from the pipes in the weight room so one had to be careful about stepping in a puddle when replacing the dumbbells. But worst of all, and most unforgivable in a neighbourhood gym, the staff had the cheerful and welcoming demeanour of autistic premenstrual trolls.

I’m leaving a fair bit out of my narrative, of course. There was the gym where the front desk guy wouldn’t let me look around until I bought a membership (I didn’t); the gym that was twice as expensive as most gyms with half the space (machines were wedged into the hallway so that if one stuck one’s elbows out too much while rowing, one was in danger of losing them to other gym patrons squeezing past); the gym that caught fire and was “cleaned up” by putting a fan out for a while; the gym that had hot water about 50% of the time; and the gym that didn’t permit women to join.

I’ve worked out now for about a decade. I’m pretty easy to please. I’m polite, friendly, and respectful. I’ve tried a whole lot of gyms, and most of them suck.

Why do gyms suck? This is the cardinal question. Why, in a city of millions of people, is it so damn hard to find a joint where I can lift in peace, wearing what I want, doing the exercises I want, without being hassled, disparaged, or ignored? It’s actually easier and cheaper to provide decent basic equipment and a welcoming environment than to maintain a fancy club. So what’s the deal?

One problem is that most gyms are not run by lifters whose operations are a labour of love. Most gyms are businesses designed to make money and run by people who could well be managing anything: a photocopier shop, a lawn care business, a pyramid scheme, whatever – the content is irrelevant and what matters is the bling. There’s nothing wrong with making money of course; we all have to earn a living. And yet, a business that runs on people has to acknowledge and cater to those people. Now I’m no MBA, but I think that “don’t make your clients feel like shit” is a good business principle. Although the rules of arithmetic are cold and hard, a people-oriented business has to have a little love in it to really thrive. Most gyms don’t give a rat’s ass about providing a pleasant environment, building community, or actually improving your fitness. They don’t care if you even show up. In fact, they’d rather you didn’t so that they can just collect your monthly fee and exorbitant “initiation charge” and not have to provide a space for your body to inhabit. No Neck drove a very nice car, so I’m pretty sure he wasn’t hurting in any way from my deadlifting.

Another question is, why do we not demand better? Why do we allow No Neck and his ilk to intimidate us, sell us things we don’t need, and make us feel like flab-encrusted beasts? Why do we tolerate gyms with all the charm and individuality of a morgue, with buzzing fluorescents and institutional furniture and used car salespeople who couldn’t tell their glutes from a hole in the ground? Why do we join fast food gyms that look identical instead of demanding local places with a little character and community? Why do we go to places that make us feel worse instead of better; that are more like purgatory than play, and that assume we are morons who can’t be trusted instead of wonderful works in progress?

Over to you readers: what makes a gym suck? What makes a gym not suck?

Also, what gyms do you know that don’t suck? I’m going to build a database of Gyms That Don’t Suck. Send me the names of worthy candidates, including locations, websites, pictures if possible, and a detailed explanation of why this gym deserves inclusion. For now, here’s a list of gyms that cater to strongpeople-type training.

“The gym, a haven featuring barbells and dumbbells, is a place of opportunity. It is what you make it; a place, in fact, for making and breaking…. The gym is home to the alone, a training camp to the robust, a correctional facility to the madman, a repair shop for the broken and a fairground to the lighthearted. It’s a hangout, a refuge, a rendezvous, and a place to regroup.” (Draper 44, 47)