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The image: A bunch of sweaty, muscular, narrow-eyed meatheads lifting dumbells the size of your body.
I know what it’s like to be brand new to the gym. I remember how I thought a 23-ounce water bottle would be sufficient, how fresh my shoes were, and how I wouldn’t admit to myself that I had no idea what I was doing.
The Image: A doe-eyed skinny-fat dude tripping over his own brand new sneakers, too-small water bottle in hand and sweatband on head—surrounded by angry giants.
It's something I've seen time and time again, and sightings tend to increase in the month of January. While I understand that starting a new lifestyle can be as intimidating as it is exciting, there have been moments that have seared themselves into my brain, moments I wish I could go over and help but I'm not quite social enough to do so—at least not in person.
So here are a few things to avoid in order to:
- Get the most out of your time
- Earn yourself some respect, and
- Avoid traumatizing me.
The Image: A girl sitting on the leg abductor machine, staring at her phone. Twenty minutes later: the same image.
I’m not going to be one of those fucks who bashes people for texting while in the gym. Maybe there’s some juicy Twitter drama going down. Maybe that guy is too hot not to text back. Maybe you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone.
That said, what’s the point of showing up if you’re just going to bullshit yourself? Not every workout needs to be an insane, intense, shark frenzy, but doing a couple of sit-ups, staring at your phone for fifteen minutes, wandering around the gym floor aimlessly, then leaving, is not going to tax your body to the point that it needs to improve. The unfortunate reality is that the gym isn’t magic. Standing within its walls isn’t going to shrink those fat cells or build the six pack of your dreams. Taking advantage of an environment jam-packed with fitness equipment will.
If no challenge was overcome, if your heart rate doesn’t rise any more than it would have had you just stayed home, you should have just stayed home.
The image: A man lying in the middle of the floor, puffing his chest up and down in tandem with half-inch elbow jerks in what were meant to be push-ups.
The image: A young dude doing cable flyes, with the pin set at 60 lbs, arms struggling to come forward more than two inches, and a face on the verge of eruption.
The image: Myself, in the mirror, at my first ever attempt to deadlift.
So, in each of these memories so painfully seared into my head, there are different reasons which led to these mistakes.
One was stupidity. Push-ups are as basic as it gets in terms of calisthenics, and no grown adult has an excuse to not understand how to do a decent one. If, by some miracle, one has a valid excuse to not understand how to do a push-up, there are far too many resources to allow one’s ignorance to go on.
Okay, maybe that was harsh, but if you have the autonomy to change your lifestyle and work out, you have the self-awareness to know what you don’t know.
I stand firm by my denouncement of butchered push-ups, but bewilderment in the face of many gym machines is totally understandable. Half of them look like medieval torture devices. There’s no shame in researching proper form. If you’re still not totally confident, find one of those jolly giants with legs the size of your torso and ask for some pointers. (Every gym has them and they love talking about working out almost as much as they love protein.)
The second instance was a matter of arrogance, or maybe delusions of grandeur would be better attributed.
Now 60 lbs may not seem like a lot of weight—especially not for you manly men who, I’m sure, aren’t trying to show up every other alpha male within 50 feet—but think of it realistically.
Cable flyes are a weird movement. It’s not like walking on a treadmill, for which we’ve all pretty much mastered the act and only need to do it more often. I can’t think of a reason why any average person in our cushy, first-world, daily lives would need to drag weight from their sides to their front in such a manner. Naturally, the muscles involved in the movement are underdeveloped.
The kid I saw on the cables was very young, almost certainly in high school. He didn’t look out of shape, but he wasn’t yet ready to be lifting what he was attempting. Not safely, anyway.
This leads me to the only memory I list here that’s actually quite warm: my first deadlifting experience. Of course, I butchered it.
As I’ve said, you’re not going to be a master of every exercise movement upon setting foot in the door. That is especially true for this absurd, addicting exercise.
Deadlifts are weird and far more complicated than they have any right to be. You have to consider your foot placement, the distance of your shin from the bar, and when you start lifting heavier weights, you even have to take how you hold the damn bar into consideration. I wouldn’t do them at all if I wasn’t in love with them.
Because the universe is cruel, the most fun exercise also has a high risk of injury. The personal trainer I had at the time had me lifting a bar with no weight on it. It looked a little silly, but my muscles were still learning the motion. Throwing on more than my own weight would have been asking too much of my body. It probably would have retaliated with an injury.
The gym rat life is a fun one, but remember that you are the rat. The gym is the beast. From its teeth, you are trying to pluck health, strength, and most importantly, a sexy body. That takes intelligence and patience, so trust the process.
What You Love
The image: A gorgeous man, with abs sculpted from stone, a chest of iron, and arms that any woman would love to find herself wrapped in—teetering on toothpick thin legs.
It’s an affliction that plagues us all. At least half the guys I see in the gym have solid, well-developed upper bodies and chicken legs. Most of the ladies in there are proportionally slim, with no muscle mass to speak of. Visiting the gym regularly, you’re likely going to fall for many exercises, and one in particular. For me, it was deadlifts. For many others—men in particular, as evidence presents—bicep curls captured their hearts. While love is a beautiful thing, consider why repeating the same routine, and only that routine, may have its drawbacks.
For one, your body will get used to that movement. If your aim is to burn calories, this is your main problem. Stressing your body in a way it hasn’t been stressed before is pretty much what causes it to change. Your body develops in a way that will deal with that stress, but what happens after the fact, when you’re so used to the movement it doesn’t even make you sweat?
Obviously, you can lift heavier and sprint faster, and yes, you will continue to see progress, but not to the same degree as breaking the monotony and forcing your body to use its muscles in a different way.
Secondly (for two?), remember that, in spite of exercises being classified based on which muscles they work, all said muscles are connected. To get the most out of them, you need to strengthen all of them.
For example, once upon a time, I had been progressing steadily with my back squats (traditional squats, with the bar set across the shoulders, behind the neck). Feeling adventurous, or maybe just bored, I decided to try front squats (with the bar held across the front). Since I’m never quite so adventurous (but sometimes bored) enough to throw caution to the wind, I made my first attempt with lower weight (about 50 percent of my body weight) than I was regularly working with for back squats (about 90 percent of my body weight).
It was horrible, first of all, but I also felt it in different areas of my body than I’d thought I would. While it did work my legs and glutes, as one might expect, it strained my abs in a way I wasn’t used to. I did three sets of six that first time. My lower body was game for more, but my abs weren’t feeling it.
Needless to say, I paid more attention to my core strength after that.
Last but not least, symmetry is at the core of aesthetic appeal. You wouldn’t want your right arm to be bulging with muscles, only to have a noodle dangling off your left shoulder. You wouldn’t want your little, toothpick legs crushed under the weight of your upper body.
I’m not saying you should never indulge in your favorite workout. I’m saying you should maintain a proper balance in your exercise regimen.
The image: was fairly normal. A young guy was heavy lifting on the deadlifting platform. I didn’t look twice, until I heard primal screaming. I glanced, but didn’t think much of it. People scream all the time working out.
Then the sound: “Fuck yeah! Fuck yeah!”
This man was screaming “fuck yeah,” to himself, doing deadlifts. Instinct led my head to spin in his direction, but I managed not to make eye contact.
Look, I understand that you’re in the zone while working out. And to be fair to him, he was lifting a decent amount of weight, but there’s a difference between exertion-induced noises and obnoxious cries for attention. We can tell based on how near your face is to exploding.
I don’t know if lifting classy exists, but having some discretion for your fellow gym goers is just courtesy. It falls under re-racking your weights and not staring from across the room. (And for god’s sake, don’t try to talk to someone in the middle of their set.)
If respecting the general population isn’t your thing—even if the population in your vicinity warms up with your max—then think of it this way: You’re in the gym to put in work. Peacocking your muscles isn’t going to get you much if you don’t have muscles to peacock. Working out is where you go to build that sexy body. Building requires concentration, single-mindedness.
Save showing off for the beach.