Sunday, February 5, 2012

What I Think of Commercial Gyms - By Steve Meredith

Originally posted on on August 30, 2007

Jim Duggan posed the question, "What is it that bothers you the most when you are training at a gym?" in one of his recent posts in the Natural Strength Inner Circle, after he read a newspaper article about a fracas in a health club between two middle aged men.

The fracas that Jim read about happened because one of the men was “making too much noise” and “wouldn’t shut up”. I don’t know what noise the other fellow was making, but I imagine he was grunting and groaning with exertion, something which has to be expected if you’re working hard; occasionally some other more gut-tural noises can be common also!

What strikes me is the resort to violence because the other fellow wouldn’t stop making his noise, this shows a complete lack of manners, and maturity on the part of both men, and is a reflection of just how self centred many people are now. This sparked a memory for me about the gym I started to train in when I was a boy of 13, in the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s, where this kind of incident just didn’t happen.

When I was in school a few of my schoolmates and I developed the aspiration to become bigger and stronger. We all played rugby and the extra size and strength would help. Our enthusiasm was fuelled by the success of the legendary Welsh rugby team of the 1970’s and the success of the great athlete Geoff Capes, and later we were inspired by “Rocky”. In particular, I was motivated by “the Pontypool front row” and their tales of domination made legendary by Max Boyce, a Welsh folk singer. He also sang about the steelworks and the mines which employed some of the very same men who were playing rugby for Wales at the time. You could not help but feel immense admiration and respect for these men who would finish a day’s heavy work and then go to rugby training, or running, or the gym, or in some instances play an international game! Of course their training had to be very efficient, no time for long drawn out complicated routines; they got the basics done in short order then went home to their families for food and sleep, before staring another day of hard work.

Some of these men trained at a local sports stadium which contained a large area set aside for weight training. It was about six miles from home, so whenever we could get a lift up there a group of us would go there to train. This supplemented our regular workouts performed in the garage of my friend’s house.

It was a place for men. I know that sounds a little politically incorrect and sexist, but it was for men. I can only ever remember one female training there; she was a police officer and an international shot putter, her name was Vanessa Head. I got to know here a few years later when she coached the Welsh schools athletics team. She was an immensely strong woman, stood over six feet tall and weighed in at 15 ½ stones. I remember her telling us how difficult it was to keep weight on for her, and she had a special supplement – large tins of creamed rice pudding! I remember seeing her do reps in the split style clean with over 100 kg’s, and benching over 140 kg’s. She was an exceptionally strong woman and fitted in well, but primarily it was a place for men.

As boys we didn’t dare to interrupt any of the men training, and looking back we didn’t get much training done there until we had established ourselves as regular faces and gained the trust and respect the men who trained there. We simply observed, learned about how the strongest men trained by watching them, then taking that information and constructing routines based on it. When we got the opportunity to train with some of them we did, and we did what we were told to do.

This was a time when the majority of young men still respected their grandfathers, fathers, uncles and brothers, and aspired to grow into big strong responsible men just like them. Working men were still seen as providers and protectors, trusted and imitated, looked up to. Things have changed now, and it seems that young men in particular (although many young women are not immune) are more interested in upholding their “repsec’ wid’ de homies” than considering what sacrifices their forefathers made to allow them to live in a democratic society.

We learned about good morals, about the virtues of loyalty to those who help you, friends and family; honesty, not only in the sense of being publicly honest but just as importantly being honest to yourself, about not taking the easy route, about the dignity of work and the satisfaction and pleasure to be gained. We learned about taking real pride, not the puffed up bragging that so many people see as acceptable today, but an inner feeling of accomplishment and worth in achieving some thing by putting effort into it. Try talking about real pride to some of today’s youngsters; unless you can buy it and it makes you look good they don’t want to know. We developed healthy social principles and respect for others, supporting and helping people around us, we had to, many families relied on food handouts to survive during the steel and coal strikes which took place at the time.

We were educated in real gym manners. In the gym you didn’t behave in a way that would offend or upset someone, it was “owned” in a figurative rather than literal sense, by tough men, mainly miners and steelworkers. You played by the unwritten rules or you didn’t go there! I’m not talking about how to dress or what would be an acceptable level of noise, these were never an issue, every one was too busy training to worry about what you looked like or whether you were shouting too loudly. I’m not talking about quarrels over which kind of music should be played THERE WASN’T ANY! All you could hear was the bustle of men talking, laughing and encouraging each other, and the clank and bang of weights as they were being used. I’m not talking about that most heinous crime of walking in front of the mirror when someone was “using” it to observe their form on side lateral raises! (People rarely did them and there were no mirrors!) The manners I’m talking about are clearing up after yourself without being asked or expecting someone else to do it; not hogging the lifting platform or squat rack to do curls in when someone was waiting to do squats; not trying to dish out “advice” to people who YOU think ought to concentrate on losing fat instead of doing 400 pound squats; being friendly and asking people who are obviously waiting to use the piece of equipment you are using if they would like to work in with you, not taking extra sets just to wind them up; about trying to inspire rather than intimidate respecting men who have experience and actually listening to them when they say that training two or three times per week is enough for most people! No one strutted about trying to impress and intimidate, these men were modest, and interested in improving themselves not showing off.

The place was large with three lifting platforms which dominated the entrance side of the room, a multi-gym, some benches, a rack of dumbbells and several plate loading machines. The ceiling was high and the walls were bare. It smelled of sweat, liniment, and a lingering sulphurous odour which was ingrained in the clothes and skin of the men who worked in the local steelworks. There was no heating, and the windows looking out onto the running track would get misted up with the heat being produced in the gym in the winter. There was no carpet or mirrors, no receptionist or pretty instructor, and no club towels in the changing rooms. There were no “instructors” to walk you through each item of equipment and get you to sign away liability if something unfortunate happened, and there was no lounge area to sit and chat afterwards. No “expert advice” about how to achieve “optimum health and fitness”. No presumption that you wanted to achieve a particular “look” or a bloody six pack! YOU JUST WENT TO LIFT! And so did everyone else. Can you imagine how one of the members of the “fitness club class” of today would react to this place?! It wasn’t for socialising or networking, it was a place to lift weights. You didn’t go there after a hard day at the office to “unwind” you went there to get big and strong! It was used by lifters and athletes. Isn’t that what a gym is for?

You paid your fee at the front desk and went in to train, there were no joining fees, monthly and yearly schemes, gold memberships or off peak deals. Most blokes didn’t use the changing rooms, they went already dressed in their kit, and deposited their holdall usually containing work clothes, boots and lunch-boxes in a pile at the entrance to the gym, when they finished they picked their bag up and went home. They didn’t swan around with a bottle of “posh water”; if they got thirsty they got a drink from the tap! They would have felt most uncomfortable discussing tans, man boobs, hairstyles, jewellery, and the multi-sexual lifestyle! No offence intended, you live the way you want to, but in the gym talk about weights! Nowadays you get groups of young men(?) who turn up at the gym purely to socialize, ogle the ladies (and men?) and generally make a nuisance of themselves. They are loud and lazy, all tattoos, fake tans and funny hair! I wish I could transport them through time to the old gym; they would shrivel up and crawl out never to return again! Talk about the feminization of society.

There were weightlifting and power lifting clubs run there informally, and if you wanted to get involved you just turned up when everyone else did and the blokes helped you out. You didn’t need to pay for a personal trainer or extra fees to be part of a club. I remember a couple of old-timers who helped me out, they trained regularly on the power lifts and were quite strong. They were in their 50’s at least, and did a routine which consisted of squats, bench, chins, and dips one day and deadlifts, bench, chins, and dips the other day, they trained twice per week and performed several sets of 3’s and 5’s per lift. I think they were squatting about 200 kg’s for 5 reps, deadlifting about the same and benching about 130 kg’s for 5. They were both about 14 stones in weight, about 5’ 7” tall. I remember that one of them always trained in a heavy tracksuit with a zip up the front, which he would zip right the way up to the neck. One day, it was very warm, and he took the top off, he was wearing a t-shirt underneath which was damp with sweat; I’ve never seen so much honest muscle on a man before or since! He was doing chins at the time, his arms and back were thick with solid, real muscle, and his forearms swollen with blood. This was the only time I saw him without his tracksuit top off, he was typical of the men who trained there, he wasn’t interested in showing off what he had achieved, it was enough that he knew he had achieved it.

The loads hoisted at the gym were very ordinary, if you believe what the internet and the glossy magazines of today say, but if you have trained with men who have lifted for a long time without using drugs you know that actually they were very respectable loads. In my experience Stuart McRobert was about right in the 300 bench press – 400 squats – 500 deadlift estimation he made for realistic goals set out in Brawn. Also, looking back there were very few heavy men lifting, most men were lean and muscular. I think trainees today have been duped into believing that they can attain unrealistic bodyweights and as a result become fat (myself included!). Perhaps this is another slip in realism brought about by drug use and drug users who report high bodyweights at low levels of body fat. I think that it is realistic for a man of 5’ 9” to get into hard muscular condition at about 14 stones bodyweight, but much more than this will require exceptional genetics or drugs.

In the main we learned about lifting by watching these older guys doing Olympic lifts squats, deadlifts, bench press, standing press, rows, curls, chins, dips etc. Where can a young man go now if he wants to learn about real training? There aren’t many places which even allow the practice of Olympic lifts anymore. The last time I went to the old gym they had modernised it, moved it to a smaller plush room with atmospheric lighting, nice floors and mirrors, a loud stereo system, TV’s mounted on the walls, and places to plug your personal headphones in. They got rid of the useful stuff like the lifting platforms and squat racks, Eleiko bars and bumper plates, and furnished it with shiny hi-tech machines and cardio equipment. There’s a running track outside, why the hell do we need treadmills! For crying out loud, where do you squat, deadlift, clean and snatch!

If you are lucky enough to find a traditional gym nowadays it is more likely than not to be populated by the type of trainee I despise even more than the “beautiful people” and “know-it-alls” who populate the health clubs and fitness centres. The meathead juicer! He’s anywhere from 16 years old to late 30’s, with a shaved head and a red face covered in spots. He wears those stupid trousers that look like a cross between psychedelic pyjama bottoms and something Ali Baba and the forty thieves would have worn! He’s got a sweatshirt on which has been hacked to subtly reveal his “big guns”, and usually has a picture of a big gorilla on the front of it. He’s got various tattoos, some designs, some writing, none of which actually mean anything; they just “look ‘ard!”. He walks with a permanent ELS (exaggerated lat spread), and wears his lifting belt tightly notched from the moment he enters the gym. He spend his time camped at the heavy end of the gym, taking about 20 minutes rest between sets with 220 pounds for 6 reps in terrible form on the bench press. He and his buddies talk in grunts and one syllable words, about their latest “bitches” and what stacks they are using. They have no respect for themselves or anyone else. If you enter “their patch” you feel the air of hostility immediately. There’s no friendly banter, offers to work in or welcomes, just stares and sly smirks, posturing and attempts to intimidate. After they realise they won’t fluster you they get back to their conversation about the things which concern the dregs of society. They don’t work, or go to school, and have no interest in helping anyone but themselves. They find pleasure only in immediate self gratification. The gym is filled with loud music with words which offend and sicken me. The walls are covered with various posters of “muscle stars” and soft pornography. The changing rooms are a place where drug deals take place, and the owner is usually the biggest fellow, who got his capital together by dealing drugs to kids, “bouncing” at night clubs and working as a debt collector! What kind of example is this for a young lad interested in getting big and strong?

I still visit commercial gyms from time to time. I like to rattle their cages, show them how it should be done, and you never know I may even have the opportunity to impart some knowledge and inspire others to train properly. I can still remember the smell and sounds of the old gym and I miss it, but I'm lucky enough to have a good garage gym, and the company of some of the old school friends I first started training with, so I stay there to train...

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