The Poetic Wax of Weightlifting
As far as I can remember, my first “gym” experience was early high school when P.E. class featured a weight training unit. Hence, one fateful day my 130lb sophomore frame reluctantly strolled into the school’s weight room for the first time.
Gym anxiety was at an all time high, as I think is for anyone (especially a hormonal teenage boy) making a maiden voyage into the weight room. There was just that pressure–mostly self inflicted–to know what you’re doing, understand standard workout etiquette, and lift a respectable amount (whatever that means).
I plopped down on a flat bench, preparing to put up the first bench press reps of my life. Nervous, I tried to copy my classmates while around me football players racked monstrous weights like pros, further fueling my nerves. Somehow, 45 minutes passed and my scrawny gym partner Allen and I had successfully executed our first lifts. We didn’t pound protein shakes at the time because we didn’t know that’s what we were supposed to do. Yet, our body building days had begun.
Not really. Today, about a decade later, I do possess a gym membership. It costs $69 a month and affords me access to a wonderful Brooklyn neighborhood fitness establishment, which I stop into 2-3 times a week. It’s no Equinox or 24 Hour Fitness Derek Jeter. There isn’t a fancy sauna, and the clientele is a huge range of…normal people. On top of that, my gym is housed in a converted, old bank building. Think Average Joes not Globo-gym.
Sure, my gym has its quirks. There’s the 1991 NYC Marathon posters that adorn most walls and the massive heater that points directly at the incline bench which makes for an uncomfortably warm pectoral workout. I also can’t forget to mention the rock band that rehearses in the bank’s basement vault on Wednesday nights (just before closing). All that said, I genuinely like my gym. It’s no frills and the people are kind. The big guys give you fist bumps, there’s a full spectrum of fitness levels, and anyone will agree (with a smile) to help you out with a spot on your last set.
Two events last weekend capped off a great gym day. 1) a personal record with 5 reps at 165lb on the incline bench (commence judging) and 2) a pleasant conversation about squats with new gym friend, Aton.
To me, lifting weights represents simplicity. It doesn’t get much less complicated than setting your mind to pick up a heavy object and then put it down. And some would say the squat is where it starts. You put a heavily weighted bar across your back, drop down and explode back up. It’s a full body, foundational, compound exercise.
Aton and I bantered about how squatting your “max” weight depends so much on where your head is at. It’s a mental game. Doubt yourself, and you’ll get stuck at the bottom of your lift with a hunk of steel on top of you. You’ll either have to dive forward face to the floor or crawl out from underneath. That’s failing in it’s simplest form and it messes with your head. It makes you shy away from the lift. Excuses creep in and like any other failure, you’re tempted to give up. Fear wins and you stop trying altogether.
Aton, in his ultimate gym wisdom, tightened his weight belt and lamented, “You need to fail though. It’s good for you. You have to know what it feels like.”
That original gym anxiety from over a decade ago has faded and my evenings at the gym are filled with much more calm and routine, with a healthy dose of challenge. There’s something poetic about knowing the hardest task I’ll attempt to perform–amidst work, meetings, calls, the relative weight of a day’s decision making–still the hardest thing I’ll do during a day in the life is attempt to put 200lb on my back and try to stand up straight. Simple.