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Pump Me Up 

Confessions of a Gym Virgin

click to enlarge Illustration: Scott Lenhardt
  • Illustration: Scott Lenhardt

A few months ago, for the first time in my life, I voluntarily entered a gym. This might not have been a major event if a large chunk of my youth hadn’t been spent dreading anything remotely associated with physical education. My adult plan was to avoid all places and activities which might, even inadvertently, recall the humiliation of being the last one picked for the “Skins” team. A main reason for attending art school was the absence of gym requirements. Thank God Almighty, I was free at last!

Until I began noticing that just about everyone else was not only going to a “health club” but planning their existences around it. Invite Ph.D. nerds for dinner nowadays and the evening centers less on weighty philosophical discourse than on who’s pumping weights and how much. Hell, if Richard Simmons can not only get through the gym door but make a career out of it, what was the matter with me?

Beyond childhood trauma, my resistance to the gym was based on a fear of the Kafkaesque machinery it contained. I could scarcely imagine the terror of using devices with complicated moving appendages. I can hardly handle an ATM. How would I ever unravel the riddle of an Incline Press? Surely my head would wind up where feet were intended, leading to towering weight stacks smashing down upon delicate body parts and an emergency room visit.

Not succumbing to the gym craze had almost become a point of pride for me, rather like the smug satisfaction of never having endured an Arnold Schwarzenegger film. Naturally inclined to beanstalkiness, I had thought maybe I could effortlessly maintain my svelte figure into eternity. But in the last few years the mirror has gradually informed me of bodily changes since my art school days. The cubist slide was underway. It was only a matter of time before my waist landed down around my ankles.

Then, too, the reported health benefits of working out began to appeal — a consideration when middle age is no longer a distant concept. Adding to the pressure was the fact that — as partner to a college prof — I have access to state-of-the-art gym facilities for free. No excuses about hefty membership fees! The price would come, I suspected, in being surrounded by bodies that had yet to experience the effects of gravity.

Finally, casting reservations and excuses aside, I bit the bullet and sacrificed my gym virginity.

Hoping to sidestep utter embarrassment, my partner and I enlisted the expertise of a friend recently transplanted from the California Bay Area, where working out falls somewhere above breathing on the list of life necessities. He showed us around the vast, gleaming interior of the gym, patiently explaining the virtues of each machine and demonstrating its proper usage. At the end of the session, we were exhausted. What would happen once we actually began using the machines ourselves?

The next session began — per our friend’s instructions — with an aerobic workout on the Elliptical Cross Trainer. Not wanting to overdo, we adjusted the timer from its 30-minute default setting down to 15 minutes and attempted to appear as if we were born to elliptically cross train.

Next to me were young waif-like women, bobbing up and down on StairMasters as if they could do this for hours without a hint of fatigue. As it turns out, they can. Behind us, treadmilling young men increased their speeds until they became pure motion blurs, then slowed to shake off sweat like retrievers after a swim. I imagined janitorial herds racing in to mop testosterone up off the floor. Somewhat shy of 15 minutes, our legs feeling like overcooked asparagus, we stumbled from our Cross Trainers. On to the weights!

So many machines to choose from — which to try first? Since my pecs are what you might call nonexistent, I decided to start with a machine designed to develop them. Cautiously, I draped myself over the Pec Fly, thinking this muscle group was nowhere near ready to take wing but could perhaps be encouraged to flutter. Faced with the dilemma of where to set the weight pin, I examined the choices: I could set it way up at the featherweight top and look like a wimp, or I could set it down a few notches and look like a wimp pathetically trying to look macho.

I swallowed my pride, claiming my wimpiness. So what if I was lifting the equivalent of a Matchbox car while brawny-bod next door was lifting the weight of his SUV? I was here to get pumped, not to be pumped. Otherwise it would be like cleaning the house before the maid arrives.

After extricating myself from the Pec Fly, I crawled over to the Vertical Chest, hoping it might counteract my desire to be horizontal on a sofa with a cool compress. Nearby, my partner looked like he was imitating a dishrag. I began to recall what people had told me about feeling so good and energized after their workouts. Lies!

But since my maiden voyage, so to speak, I have to concede that progress has been made. While I don’t exactly look forward to my workout routine, once I’m in the midst of it I feel, well, almost good. The fact that it’s become a routine is the important part. Away from easily accessible facilities over the holidays, I experienced my first pangs of gym guilt. Mind and body grew sluggish. I imagined truffle-filled saddlebags forming around my waist. It was a relief to return to the gym last week, and that means — gasp! — I must be one of the converted.

Still, there are limits. My relationship with the Preacher Curl was as unsuccessful as my relationship with organized religion. The Hip Abduction and Seated Calf have not inspired below-the-waist work. For no sound reason, I refuse to attach myself to any device which places my knees above my head. Nor will I try anything that involves hanging suspended in mid-air — I couldn’t do chin-ups when I was 12, and I’m heavier now. And having once suffered through a Latin Ballroom Dance class, I’ve no plans to seek out choreographed aerobics. Sorry, Richard.

As for the Väsatrainer — which has you use your arms to launch your crotch through space towards a metal column — no way! Each time I see someone using it I want to warn them they might never have sex again. Which reminds me, I’ve yet to master the carnal grunts that seem de rigueur for anyone marginally serious about pumping up. And, though I’m privately afflicted with Reflective Surface Disorder, I remain squeamish about publicly practicing the check-out-my-buttocks-and-biceps-dude vanity that signifies a true gym bunny. Not that the mirrored ceiling doesn’t tempt me!

Lastly, I’ve yet to work the intricacies of my gym regimen into extended dinner conversations. That bench-press babble is still as boring to me as hearing about someone’s airport nightmares. Let the health-club nuts prattle on about pumping up; I’d rather sneak off to admire my burgeoning biceps.

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Ernie Mcleod


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