A guide to navigating the gym for the non-athletic
I am, to employ the overused expression just one more time, built for comfort, not for speed. Before, however, you jump to conclusions about my physical aptitude, let me just say that despite being rather generously upholstered I am not uncoordinated. My dad is a natural athlete and my mother is a heck of a dancer, so I come from well coordinated, physically able stock. I would not, however, say the members of my gene pool are particularly hard charging, preferring as we do to confine our activities to those that are less taxing but also require a certain mental agility, such as golf, poker and Scrabble. The more demanding sports, we prefer to relegate to the TV. Nothing wrong with that.
In light of this, you can imagine my chagrin at being informed by Dr. Feelbad, diet doctor to the stars, that my daily waddles to the Cupcake Cafe and regular walking tours of Bloomingdales could in no way be construed as a fitness regime. He was very clear about this: In addition to removing every food I like from my diet, the price of a return to single digit sizes would be a minimum of two weight workouts and 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week. Swell, I said, but I vowed to do it. My first stop of course was Bloomie’s (for sneakers and appropriate gymwear), and then, since I was already in the building, it only made sense to look in at the Magnolia Bakery, conveniently located on the first floor.
Improbably, I have actually come to
suffer through enjoy my workouts. Within strict limits, which are:
I dislike sharing space with people who are sweating. In truth, I don’t even like to be around myself when I sweat. This makes yoga classes, which can be tightly packed, completely out of the question. I tried a few, and even the underpopulated ones invariably included a stinker, usually on a mat adjoining my own. What’s more, I have a tendency to fall asleep and snore during the little naptime at the end, which adds a general level of anxiety to the first 90 minutes of the experience as I fret about whether I’ll be able to stay awake and if I should or should not put a prop under my neck. Besides I can’t tell my chakra from my prana, and even if I could I’d never use those terms anyway. Is it me, or do they all sound vaguely pornographic? And since we’re on the subject, maybe I don’t want my hips to be more “open.” What does that even mean?
I know there are other classes, but there’s still the sweating issue, as well as the stamina problem. I’ve walked by the spinning room, and there is no way I’d last five minutes in that setting. The chafing of the bike seat, the horrible soundtrack and the military precision of it all would be too much. Stand up, sit down, now speed it up, crank it up a notch, go, go, GO! It’s like being force marched through an Easter mass by a speed-freak priest with music by the unholy trinity of Nickie Minaj, Rhianna and Lady Ga Ga. No thank you.
How about one of the dance-based classes?, you might ask. I think you know where I stand on Zumba generally. And anyway, I never dance in public until I’ve had at least four drinks, and then only if there’s a surf instrumental involved. When the instructors are all about twelve years old, there’s very little chance of that, you can be sure.
It has been suggested that I might improve the efficacy of my workout with the help of a personal trainer. I think not. There’s a slightly mildewy cloud of hopelessness that follows the trainer and student combos at my gym. Most of the trainers are weedy and unappealing, with the exception of Muscle Boy, the resident hottie trainer, but I’d never even attempt to work with him. There’s the whole Mrs. Robinson thing, and anyway being on the receiving end of pitying glances from a guy whose lips move when he thinks is not something I’m inclined to pay for.
Even if I could find a trainer, they all seem to employ this new system of flailing around the gym which I described in an earlier, satirical post. Whenever I see hapless mooks marching around the weight room while swinging kettle bells or walking sideways on the stairmaster under the knowing gaze of a personal trainer, I cannot help but suspect these “exercises” are more for the amusement of the fit than the physical development of the fat. No, I think I’ll just oversee my own work out with the help of a book and an occasional look at Pumping Iron, thanks very much.
No locker room.
I’ve heard that men are generally relaxed about the nudity issue and, if memory serves, I can say with some certainty that this is true. In all likelihood there are women who don’t stress over being seen in the altogether by other women, but then again, there are people who don’t mind dental visits or even high colonics for that matter. I fall into none of these categories, and so I prefer to handle post-exertion ablutions at home — alone, without any mirrors below chin level, and in a shower where if someone has peed, at least I know they’re family.
So what works?
The various cardio options are great because you can pop on your headphones and pretend you’re doing something else. I’m particularly fond of the elliptical machines because I can close my eyes while using them, which means even if people I know pass by I can legitimately avoid speaking to them. It’s embarrassing to have to stop your workout to hold a conversation, especially when you’re puffing like a steam engine after three minutes at level 1, or the wheelchair program as it is commonly known. To be avoided: the horrifying moving staircases. Yes, all cardio machines are in effect roads to nowhere, but these have a kind of Sisyphean gulag vibe that can easily turn working out into an existential crisis.
I also love the weight room. Really. The analog thrill of banging the iron appeals to me in some primal way. Again, it’s an individual thing, no group-think, just me and the dumbbells bonding in pursuit of flapless upper arms and a fat free back.
And finally, the one thing that makes it all bearable is the playlist. Now you’ll listen to whatever cranks your starter of course. I’ve developed a shameful habit of cueing up Florence + the Machine while on the elliptical — she’s kind of the Stephanie Meyer of art rock, but we all have our dirty little secrets. Generally I find that anything by the Foos (provided it’s at full volume) works exceptionally well at getting my thrash on, as do a host of other similarly loud musical selections. Listen:
Makes you feel like you could almost wind the treadmill up to 2, doesn’t it?
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Interested in more slatternly fitness antics? Try these:
“Multiple planes of resistance” workout revealed to have been created as a joke.
New York, NY – In the weight room of the New York Sports Club on upper Broadway, 25 year-old Ashley “Ace” Judson stands before the mirror holding a kettlebell straight out in front of him. Feet apart, he drops to the floor in a squat while swinging the weight down between his knees, then abruptly snaps back to a standing position, swinging the weight up and over his head. Twisting left at the last minute, he then drops the weight down and pushes it out in front of his chest. Yes, it’s as complicated as it sounds.
As he flings the weight, Mr. Judson narrowly avoids cold cocking Morgan Levy-Almond as she passes by on her second lap of the weight room. Rather than walking, she marches in long lunging goose steps while also swinging a heavy medicine ball up and down and from side to side in a pattern so complex you’d need a smart board and John Madden to break it down. Both fitness fanatics are jacked into their iPods, effectively deaf to shouted hazard warnings about the heavy objects being flailed dangerously close to their heads and bodies.
Across the weight room, personal trainer Carlos Mandrake takes in the scene and shakes his head in regretful disbelief. Seven years ago, he now admits, in the final boozy hours of an Atlantic City bachelor party, he and two other personal trainers were joking about teaching their clients to work out incorrectly. He says, “One of the guys dug out this old Steve Martin routine about teaching kids to speak English wrong, you know that bit, May I mambo dogface on the banana patch? That’s how it started.”
They ended up betting on who could get a client to do the most ridiculous thing in the name of fitness. He shakes his head again. “It was getting boring just telling people to do set after set, so we thought we’d have a little fun. I mean it was just a joke. Before we knew it, people were asking for it, then there was an article in the Times about it…We never dreamed it would go viral, ya’ know?”
Viral is right. The workout, which has come to be called Multiple Planes of Resistance (or MPR), is so popular that weight rooms throughout the country have become virtual hazard areas. Interestingly, this has paid unforeseen dividends across the industry, particularly in the field of sports-related physical therapy.
According to Ellis Haight at Joint Relief Physical Therapy in New York City’s Financial District, “We treat maybe five or six people a day for MPR injuries – self-inflicted and due to contact with high speed objects wielded by others.” Mostly, he says, they see lower back injuries, contusions and neck strain, but Mr. Haight also treats people who are trying to come back from broken bones and even a few who just can’t overcome TFSD, traumatic-flail stress disorder. Of these clients, he says, “Even after they’ve healed physically, the emotional scars and fear remain. I have one patient who had all his teeth knocked out by a flying kettle bell a year ago. The oral surgery and implants took six months, but now, six months after that, he’s still having flashbacks and can’t even walk through the weight room door.”
It’s not just the “Empers” (as MPR devotees are called) who are feeling the impact of swinging weights and flying objects. Notes Bruno Mancini, an old school iron pumper, “Used to be people just come to the weight room and laid on a bench or stood in one spot. It was all about control and form, but now it’s like frickin’ Cirque de Soleil in here. You need an air traffic controller just to cross the room. It ain’t safe no more. Last month I got my nose busted by some chick who was trying to juggle a couple of five pound plates while she was laying on one of them balls over there. It’s crazy, man.”
With the enormous injury risk, then, how is it the approach has become so popular? Trainer Carlos Mandrake says it’s the speed. “People come in now and expect you to give them one exercise that works every muscle in their body at the same time. They figure they work out for ten minutes and they’re done. If I tell ‘em, hey pal, it takes time to get ripped, they’re not buying it. I suggest starting with some bench presses, but they get down on the bench and they want to do crunches at the same time. That’s the expectation.”
Does MPR work? I ask. He shrugs. “Look at these people. You tell me.”
I look around. Ms. Levy-Almond has gone across the hall to the mat room and is lying on her back. At first she appears to be stretching out, but a closer look reveals that she is having minor convulsions. When asked about her condition, she explains that she’s having back spasms, but claims they always pass eventually and says she’d never go back to her hour-long circuit training regimen. “No pain, no gain,” she chokes between sobs.
Downstairs, Ace Judson is now working out on an old-fashioned escalator-style stairmaster under the watchful eye of his personal trainer, who prefers not to give his name. Mr. Judson is walking sideways up the moving staircase, which his trainer calls stair-crabbing. I ask the trainer what the benefits of this are. Lowering his voice, he says, “Nothing, it’s stupid. People don’t want to pay me to tell them to use the equipment the right way. They could do that by themselves. So I tell ‘em to do it sideways for half as much time as they need to.”
Business, he says, has never been better.