Lifting weights at cost of dignity

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In college, we called them meatheads or jocks and avoided them easily by steering clear of the fitness center and business classes – or, if those avenues were impossible, we minimized interaction by making a bee line for the front row of class, the racquetball courts or lap pool, each haven guaranteed to be jock-free.

As an adult, I’ve mostly gotten over the need to assign pejorative labels to people whose interests are different from my own, but I still feel uncomfortable when confronted with a muscle-bound man or woman who bears the countenance of a person who could — and might like to — take me in one skillet-sized hand and crush me like a canned tomato headed for the sauce pan. Call it my own personal emphasis on the second half of fight-or-flight, or call it me being a bit of a pussy – either way, I won’t deny it.

Fortunately, avoiding such characters and such labels for myself wasn’t much of a challenge after college – you don’t run into to many body builders on the Tuesday night World Championship ride, and there aren’t any in my work place. For some reason, journalists tend to fall closer to “flabby” or “twiggy” than “hard body” on the fitness spectrum.

But, thanks to my coach’s plan to help me ride faster than I ever have this season, I’ve been spending more time than I ever have in my life in the company of these non-endurance athletes at the local YMCA, where I’ve been dispatched to lift weights, do plyometrics, and even to make use of some of the more-medieval of the weight machines. It’s been a real change for me, who, for years, swore that the only exercise I needed was to ride my bike.

Just for the record: I don’t have anything against anybody working out in a way that suits them; and I’m generally the last person to make generalizations about any group of people; and I’m sure that many weight lifting enthusiasts are kind, interesting individuals who I am not giving myself the chance to meet because of my own preconceived notions about the kinds of people they are. Shame on me for writing this essay.

But, all the same, those stiff-walking gargantuans make me feel rather foolish when I go to the free weight section of the gym, to do my dead lifts with a 55-pound barbell. Dumbbell presses with a scant 25 pounds in each hand make me feel pretty good about myself, even while the thickly muscled-gentleman on the next bench is staring through the wall while judging me and curling what appears to me to be about 100 pounds. Then I glance at my own, puny, bicep and shrug.

On to the squat rack, where I load up a reasonable 115 pounds – and struggle to complete three sets of 10.

But looking and feeling like a weakling in front of the Ephedra crowd is one thing. The “dry land” exercises that keep me up at night wondering just how much like a fool I seem to those around me are the plyometrics; Swiss ball back extensions, squat-thrust-to-jump, planks, single-toe touch downs, and all the rest. Even though I know the very good reason behind all of these exercises, I can’t help but be overly cognizant of how silly they look.

The thing is, even if I’m only pressing 25 pounds with each arm, at least a bench press is a recognizable exercise. Swiss ball Hamstring curls? That just looks odd, like I’m preparing for a role as an sex-tronaut in an upcoming adult film set in space. Most young people think the worst horror of going to the gym is encountering older, naked folks in the locker room. Clearly anyone who thinks that has never been subject to beads of sweat flung from my brow as I jumped up and down on only my left leg. That is the real horror show.

But there’s a good reason for these odd-looking exercises, of which I try hard to make sure everyone is aware. I make an effort to wear t-shirts that I picked up at races to the Y, to let anyone paying attention know that I’m a bike racer, and just as I shave my legs for a purpose (to look good), there’s a good reason for all the odd-looking exercises. But I worry constantly that the signal is too subtle. Hell, I know the signal is too subtle from the number of sidelong glances I get while doing push ups on the Swiss ball — my body shaking as I struggle to keep the ball underneath me. Yes, it does look rather odd, but it’s also hard as hell, so it’s got to be doing something good for me, right?

Why do I care what others think of my workout routine? Well, isn’t it obvious? If I so easily ascribed the “meathead” label to those men and women looking only for the perfect muscle tone, I can be sure that someone, right now, is looking at me and thinking “spaz,” or worse. I can only look forward to the day all this weight training is behind me, and I can focus solely on the important thing – obviously, riding my bike.

 

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