Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Home Away

I’ve mentioned here previously that I was once pretty good at a particular sport. I was never what you’d call “great,” and I certainly wasn’t the most genetically gifted athlete who ever walked the earth, but I did manage to get to a point with it where people took an interest in what I was doing.

When you play a sport on a level above “decent high school varsity player,” there’s a sort of hump you go over when you reach a certain level of performance – a line of demarcation between people who just participate in a sport and people who’ve internalized the sport to where they’re ready to move on to higher levels of competition. I managed reach that point in my sport once – the point where people will watch you perform because they’re either entertained by what you’re capable of doing, or because they think an association with you – in the case of college or professional coaches – can help them advance.

My involvement with this sport – and with training and fitness in general – is something that still means a great deal to me, and even though I don’t play said sport any longer, I’m still not ready to “hang it up” athletically. This doesn’t mean I’m out every Sunday morning playing in Al Bundy leagues and making an ass of myself afterward by drunkenly recounting everything I’ve ever done on an athletic field. No, the window of opportunity to actually “make it” in certain sports is quite small, and I wasn’t able to shimmy through it when I – very debatably – had the chance. There are too many variables involved, foremost among which is the simple fact that I wasn’t good enough at the time.

Still, I was better than most people, and you can see the residual effects of this when you watch me, even today, do anything of an athletic nature. I can still move faster, jump higher and lift heavier weight than your average guy, and I can do these things, if I do say so myself, with the natural grace and ease of movement that I should still have as someone who once crossed the aforementioned “line of demarcation.”

It’s probably evident that I take a good deal of pride in this. I should also point out here that I enjoy putting in the requisite work to keep things this way. Training, whether we’re talking about lifting weights, running, or playing sports, keeps me connected to my youth – and I’m not yet old enough to have experienced an appreciable decline in my capacity for improvement. In other words, busting my ass now feels exactly the same way it did when I was sixteen, and I like that. I like going to the gym with a plan, both for the day and for the long term, because it keeps me anchored.

That said, what the fuck are you people doing there?

Training in commercial gyms never, ever ceases to amaze me. No matter where you go, it’s an absolute freakshow. Ninety-eight percent of the people you’ll see in the gym – even people who look like they’re in shape – have no fucking idea what they’re doing. As a (former) athlete – and yes, there’s a little bit of arrogance in play here – watching people flounder they way through their “workouts” is pure comedy for me. The power of self-perception seems to disappear as soon as most commercial gym members walk through the door, resulting more in Theatre of the Absurd type spectacle than actual self-improvement.

As if the above preamble wasn’t self-serving enough, here are some things you shouldn’t do in the gym. I’m sure I could come up with a hundred more of these if I thought about it long enough, but these should suffice for now. At the very least, pick just one of these and make it a habit. We’ll all be better off.

1. Don’t leave plates on bars or machines. I do most of what I do at the gym in the squat rack, because it’s adjustable and there are about a million different exercises you can do in it. If your gym has one, start learning how to use it. Every time I walk into mine, however, there’s a barbell in it – complete with a squat pad around the middle to protect someone’s precious neck and two twenty-five pound plates on the bar.

Why is it always the guy who’s doing squats with ninety-five pounds who refuses to clean up after himself? Is it that fucking hard to put your weights away? If ninety-five pounds was the best I could do, I sure as hell wouldn’t want anyone to know about it, and you can be damned sure I’d get that shit broken down before anyone saw what I was using. Rack your weights and get the tampon off the bar.

2. Stop standing on things. Standing on top of something doesn’t make an exercise more effective. There’s a guy at my gym who insists upon doing barbell rows while standing on a bench. Why he does this, I have no idea. The exercise is just as effective, if not more so, if you simply put the bar on the floor – avoiding, in the process, putting the bottom of your shoes all over a surface where people are usually supine. If you’re a wee pocket man, standing on stuff won’t make you look any bigger.

3. Use gym equipment for its intended purpose. A perfect example of this is an apparatus called the Glute-Ham Raise. For my money, it’s an essential piece of equipment for any gym, yet nobody knows how to properly use one. I watch people in my gym use it for everything but actual Glute-Ham Raises. This guy even figured out how to use it to jerk off. If you don’t know what a machine is or how to use it, ask someone or look it up online. Doing it wrong – and I’m not talking about being creative and inventing a new exercise here – both makes you look like a jerkoff and can injure you.

4. Get the fuck off the phone. I won’t belabor the point here, other than to say that you should be banned from the gym if you’re caught performing an exercise while talking on the phone.

5. Don’t try to have long conversations with people who don’t want to talk to you. Like me, for example. As I said earlier, I go into the gym with a plan. What I want, more than anything else in the world, is to stick to this plan and get my work done quietly and efficiently. The gym is my happy place where I can go to be left alone. When you see someone who knows what they’re doing - and appears to be completely absorbed in what they’re doing - leave them alone. They don’t want to talk to you.

I was bench pressing the other day with a relatively significant amount of weight on the bar. A guy came up to tell me – apropos to nothing – that he hoped Hillary Clinton would win the Pennsylvania primary because “we can’t have a n----r in the White House.” This was obviously a very important thing for me to hear at that moment, so he did me the favor of providing me with this essential information – proving, in the process, that I am, indeed, a target.

6. Stop wearing wife beaters and dress appropriately. Again, I don’t need to beat this one to death. Especially outside of Manhattan, the populace can’t come out of character long enough to leave the Ed Hardy hats – cocked to the side, of course – rhinestones and sequins at home. Dress like you’re there to get something done.

7. Don’t make a beeline for the dumbbell rack and start doing curls. Nothing says, “I’m not an athlete and I’ve never been one” more succinctly than walking in the front door and heading directly for the “Guido Rack.” Try something else for a change – something that takes a little effort and will actually work.

8. Make sure you don’t give off a scent. It’s possible, in the gym, to smell either too bad or too good. Unless you’re the hottest girl I’ve ever seen – in which case you can pretty much do whatever the fuck you want – there’s no reason to bathe yourself in perfume before you use the elliptical. The same applies to guys who slather themselves with cologne. There’s really no point in doing this. Much of what people do in the gym involves labored, heavy breathing – when you’re running on a treadmill, for example – and having to heave in someone’s overzealously applied fragrance for an extended period of time can be problematic, to say the least.

There’s a guy at my gym who smells like cat piss. We call him “Cat Piss Guy.” Cat Piss Guy is a charter member of the Worldwide Conspiracy, because he seems to make a point of constantly being within ten feet of me when we’re both there at the same time. This is intentional, I have no doubt. I believe my mother is paying him to do this.

9. Don’t take a ten minute recovery period between sets. Timed rest periods are a training methodic, but full recovery can usually be achieved in three minutes or less with most exercises, especially if you’re not working with an exceptionally high volume of tonnage. In other words, don’t do a set of ten lat pulldowns with the stack set on eighty pounds, then sit there playing air guitar for five minutes. Get the weight back in your hands within ninety seconds or less – this holds true for most movements – and you’ll be a lot better off on many levels.

10. Have some awareness of your surroundings. A few months ago, I was doing snatches with a barbell. These are rather difficult to do correctly and require a high degree of effort even when performed in low-repetition sets. Two guys, who’d been using the area next to where I was working, stopped what they were doing and started having a conversation. This conversation took place approximately three feet from where I was trying to do my thing. The rest of the gym was empty. I was trying to get my sets in, sucking wind like a motherfucker, and all I could think about was how close they were standing to me.

“Guys,” I asked, “do you mind not standing so close to me while I’m doing these?”

“What?” asked one. “You got headphones on. You can’t even hear us.”

“Yeah, but you’re standing, like, a foot away from me and there’s nobody in the gym. Can you please move down there a little bit?”

“I don’t understand what your problem is, man. We’re not bothering you.”

“Then think about it this way,” I said. “Do you really want to have an argument about your right to stand this close to another guy?”

If you do nothing else I’ve advised, please just look around you, think before you act, and try your best to make sure you’re not bothering anyone. That is all.