When I am working out, much like when I am reading, or eating breakfast, or masturbating, I prefer to be alone. I don’t mind other people working out or anything. I don’t get grossed out watching people on the treadmill. I just find that when I myself am working out, much of the time I am contorting myself into bizarre bodily positions, or grunting (too often grunting), or flailing around on machines I don’t fully understand, or sweating, or doing any number of things that make me self-conscious and thinking about what other people in the room might be thinking about me, at a time when I should probably be more focused on keeping a large-ish dumbbell from falling on my throat.
The gym during the post-work rush hour is a personal nightmare. Young, often sleeveless (a college friend of mine once walked into our school’s gym during peak time and commented that “the Sleeve Monster has massacred this place”), this herd of attractive, toned young people checking each other out is an ecosystem that I have never been able to find a niche in.
One time this year I have gone to the gym during the post-work rush. It was one of the larger mistakes I’ve made in a long line of large mistakes. I arrived at the gym and changed, then went in search of a stationary bike or free treadmill. Nothing. The free weight area was even more crowded, crowded with large men who all clearly know what a “power set” is, men with visible neck veins and shirts instructing me to Get Ripped. I do not have visible neck veins. I assume I must have neck veins, but I have not been able, at this point in my life, to verify that visually.
So I wandered over to the Elliptical area, an area I do not know well. I found an empty Elliptical, and I got on it. It became clear, in one second on the thing, that the machine was broken. But I assumed people had seen me on it at this point, so, for some reason, instead of being the guy who sheepishly hops off the machine (because in my mind at that moment I decided that this would be embarrassing) I yanked and heaved the thing into action, my left arm and leg flailing out wide to the side, the machine rattling off its hinges, me smiling at my neighbors who wonder what all the racket is, huffing and puffing as more people turn now, unplugging their headphones, wondering what this asshole is doing, then smiling at each other with a slight look of “check this guy out,” which they all use simply as another excuse for checking each other out, their sleeveless biceps glistening in the just right amount of sweat, my smile so wide it hurts. This goes on for a good 30 seconds until I finally give up and come yanking to a halt, just as one of the impossibly attractive personal trainers runs up and asks if I need any help, me holding both hands up and assuring to him and anyone else who will listen that everything is fine. Just fine.
After that fiasco I went and did five bicep curls next to a guy who had a neck the size of my torso, and then I went home.
I made a rule, right then and there, that I would only work out during the off times. The dead zones. I’m lucky enough to work from home, so this would be possible. I would never make the same mistake again. Like some ill-evolved animal, I was not built for the post-work gym rush hour habitat. I went underground.
The gym during the day is a strange place. You may have seen it once or twice if you’re an enterprising young man or woman out there who does a quick lift during your lunch break, but in truth the lunch-break rush is just a chiller cousin to the post-work rush. There are far less of the sleeveless, driven, young, attractive people who know what they’re doing, but they’re there. I’m talking about the real dead zones. 10 a.m. – noon. 2 p.m.- 4 p.m. My time.
(My gym is not one of the 24-hour deals, but the mind positively reels at what might go on during the real dead times at those places, the midnight to 5 a.m. shifts. I assume that’s when vampires lift.)
But yes, my dead zones. These are the times when the freaks of the world descend upon the treadmills and stationary bicycles and big bouncy balls I never have any idea what to do with. From 10 a.m. to noon, my own personal gym resembles some bizarre mix of Napoleon Dynamite, Waking Ned Devine, Supersize Me and The Walking Dead, as the frail, elderly, freakish and obese all coalesce, looking to do their exercises in peace, without all the young, toned biceps glistening at them menacingly.
I adore this time. There are no lines at the machines. Everyone is very friendly and polite. You never have to wait long for a lift because, even if someone is on the piece of equipment you want, it won’t take long. A recent example: I watched as a chubby guy a little older than myself walked up to one of the complicated-looking resistance machines. I think it was built to exercise shoulders, but neither he nor I could say for certain. The guy looked at the machine for a few seconds, like one would look at an interesting species of fungus you might happen upon in a wood. He went over to the weight selection thing, and arbitrarily picked a number. (I was sitting on a stationary bike during all this, oscillating my legs slowly, drumming along to the song playing on my headphones.) The guy sat down, and tried to lift. Nothing. He looked quizzically at the machine, and then adjusted for lower weight. This time he was successful for a couple of reps, but after three, enough was enough. He got up and looked again at the machine, even more quizzically this time, and then he wandered away from the thing, confused, chuckling to himself, thinking, undoubtedly, what the hell was I thinking? I nodded solemnly along to this. I understood. I empathized.
There are also homeless people. I don’t know if this is strictly a DC phenomenon, but some of the homeless here have figured out that instead of paying hundreds/thousands a month for an apartment, you can shell out $60 a month to join my gym and have a warm place to hang out seven days a week, clean bathrooms, a sauna (!), etc. My gym also has a “Relaxation Zone” with hot stones, and a large area to stretch. This is where they sleep. The homeless people, that is. (I’m being unfair. They might not be homeless. They do come to the gym with several large garbage bags filled with clothes, food, etc. but I do not, as a fact, know that they are homeless. [My favorite part is that these people, there are three of them at my gym, all carry their bags around while they work out. So they will do some tricep presses, or whatever, then pick up all seven garbage bags, and lug them over to the shoulder press, and on and on. It’s like interval training: The machines are the low-impact lifting. It’s the bags that really get you buff.])
The dead zones are also the time for the elderly. They smartly understand that the post-work rush is a time for those young animals all hopped up on adrenaline, the lithe things participating in some sleeveless mating ritual none of us could hope to comprehend. So we hang, these old folks and I. I am polite to them and, in return, they make me feel like the strongest guy in the world. I do not bench press any amount that anyone would be proud of, but when I do it next to a geriatric who is getting winded after lifting the 2.5 pound barbells for 30 seconds at a medium pace, I feel like Thor. Am I deluding myself into feeling better about my body than I should? Yes, of course. But isn’t that what everyone is doing at the gym?
This is my routine. Every day (or, well, most days) I show up during these blessed dead zones, and I hang with my new friends. We smile at each other, lift our pathetic weights, and never, ever correct each other’s “form.” (We take a more Montessori-esque approach to exercise.) I wander slowly between the machines, experimenting, fiddling, occasionally breaking a sweat, and I am perfectly happy at the end of it. I feel good about myself. And I love my decrepit friends, the elderly men and women, the guy who works out every day in jeans, even the lady carrying around seven garbage bags filled with all her possessions…I love them all. And when one of them turns and asks me to give them a spot, or help them set up some complicated piece of equipment, I tell them I would love to, and I mean it.