“At the Gym” by Michael Cohen
BLAST, TMR‘s new online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. In our most recent selection, Michael Cohen asks, “Why do we work out? Is it really about health?” His observant and gently ironic essay “At the Gym” provides some answers and reflection.
At the Gym
By Michael Cohen
The first thing that strikes me at my commercial gym is the mirrors, which occupy every wall they can, wherever there is space not taken up by the glass doors that show me what’s going on in the handball courts or how fast the stationary cyclists are wheeling in their room or what the Zumba class or the yogistas are getting up to. Here in the weight room, the mirrors stop about knee height to avoid rolling weights smashing them. But in the Zumba/yoga rooms, the mirrors go down to within inches from the floor—perhaps because those folks need to see themselves when they’re lying on mats, or to see their feet when they’re dancing.
Why do they need to see themselves? The argument in the weight room is that a lifter must see that the weights are level and the form correct. An improper lift risks injury. Not everyone buys the argument about reflected form, however. One trainer I talked to said, “Lifters need to be concentrating on the weights. Staring at your bulging muscles in the mirror instead of paying attention is the shortest way to hurt yourself.”
A woman friend says some mirrors are just terribly placed. “I myself despise a mirror next to a treadmill. Running is bad enough without having to watch yourself suffering and puffing and sweating along.” She is a regular gym goer in good shape. But studies cited by Christina Corcoran in Psychology Today (1 August 2003) have shown that women who do not exercise regularly may be deterred from going to the gym by the ubiquitous mirrors.
These observations raise the question, too, about the room with all the bicycles: What is the advantage of watching yourself cycling? Or for that matter Zumba dancing or doing yoga? Is it vanity alone? My friend has noticed “the fellows (often wearing a great deal of cologne, for some reason) who sit down with a weight or two and are just captivated by their own image in the mirror.” She points out, too, that mirrors enable a less direct form of people-watching by “the folks who semidiscreetly ogle other folks.” Is there a connection between the idea of being fit and the fact of surveillance by self or other? Just asking the question makes it impossible to deny that we’re all at the gym to be fit and healthy, which can mean not only feeling good but looking good. Armand Tanny, who with his brother Vic ran one of the first chains of commercial gyms in the country, said “We did a survey . . . we found the main reason for working out was not for health, but for looking good. That was among both men and women.”
The omnipresence of commercial gyms is a relatively new phenomenon of American life. We’ve always had school gyms and, for a couple of centuries, facilities to prepare boxers and other athletes for competition; the New York Athletic Club and its Los Angeles counterpart are examples. But the modern commercial gymnasium and the fitness trend that built it have a more recent history that takes us, like so many American trends and movements, to California for its beginnings.
Marla Matzer Rose argues that it all started in Santa Monica. In Muscle Beach: Where the Best Bodies in the World Started a Fitness Revolution (St. Martin’s Press, 2001), Rose tells how the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles sparked local interest in gymnastics. Paul Brewer, a student at Santa Monica High School, was frustrated when the construction of his school’s planned gym was delayed on account of the 1933 earthquake, so he and his friends began to exercise on playground equipment on the beach, near the base of Santa Monica Pier, four blocks away from the high school. Local adults helped the kids add a tumbling carpet, parallel bars, and high rings. Over the next few years the area became very popular as a place to practice and show off not only ordinary gymnastics but also group acrobatic routines involving young men and women doing handstands, making human pyramids and towers, and tossing and catching each other. It was a young bunch, attractive and also muscular, since strength training was required for some of these stunts. The people and their activity soon began to be noticed by the beachgoers who flocked to this section on the weekends and christened the place Muscle Beach.
Some of the young people who were regulars began to open their own gyms; others designed and distributed gym equipment that hadn’t been available before. Rose argues that participants in Muscle Beach activities, including Jack LaLanne, Vic Tanny and his brother Armand, Joe Gold, George Eiferman, and a dozen others who opened commercial gyms starting in 1936, were responsible for the American fitness trend, which accelerated when servicemen returned from the war in 1945 and has been steadily building since. At intervals over the years, the trend got an additional boost from good publicity. Muscle Beach regulars Buster Crabbe and Steve Reeves had movie careers, while Jane Russell was an occasional visitor to the beach athletic scene. Arnold Schwarzenegger, already a bodybuilder in his native Austria, was an import to a later manifestation of Muscle Beach up the coast in Venice, California, after the original Santa Monica Muscle Beach was closed.
That closure came about at least in part because of a movement from strength and fitness training to an exaggerated emphasis on muscle development. According to Rose’s account, there was an intense effort at the weight-lifting aspect of gym activity early in the 1950s, leading to the triumph of the US Olympic weight-lifting team in 1952. This increased interest in weight training was reflected at Muscle Beach. The original athletic group at the beach, whose interest in weight training had been subservient to overall health and acrobatic prowess, gradually dispersed—a lot of them were working hard running their own newly founded gyms—in favor of men who were exclusively weight lifters and body builders. And they were all men, since women’s bodybuilding had not yet acquired its later appeal. Not so many people came to Muscle Beach when muscles were all it had to offer. Watching biceps, pecs, and lats grow to what became, especially after the coming of anabolic steroids, exaggerated and even grotesque size turned out to be without the same appeal as watching normally well-muscled men and women having a good time and entertaining the crowds at the same time. Eventually the Santa Monica conservatives, who were more than a little suspicious of the morality of hugely muscled and nearly naked men walking around and flexing for each other, prevailed, and Muscle Beach was shut down.
Today, as usual, I spend most of my time at the gym on the treadmill. This particular one, I noticed at my last visit, has “Time Elasped” instead of “Time Elapsed” under the LED readouts on its control board. And before I got on it today, I looked at the other treadmills in this row—they’re all Matrix brand machines, and yep, they all say “Elasped.” Oh, well, it’s physical culture we’re here for, though as Virginia Woolf once wrote, “After all, imagination is largely the child of the flesh.” Michel Serres muses in Variations on the Body on the splendid physical shape and the “athletic bodies” of Saint Theresa of Avila and Saint Francis of Assissi, who both walked enormous distances in the hilly terrain of their respective countries. “Saintliness follows health” is his speculative conclusion. Certainly getting my blood flowing seems to clear my thinking, though I doubt it improves my spiritual life. But I like to keep my mind occupied here, as well as my body. When I don’t have a book to read or to listen to on headphones, my attention and curiosity go out to the people around me.
Gym fashion is as interesting a phenomenon to consider as any. Gym goers often dress as they would to mow the lawn. Shorts are popular, and light T-shirts. An occasional fashionista in a two-toned workout ensemble stands out like a tangerine in a box of rocks. Except for the dedicated bodybuilders in muscle shirts and spandex, there to show out as well as work out, the emphasis is on loose fit and comfort. T-shirts are everywhere, and that means, because some people like to talk with their T-shirts, there are messages.
The gym T-shirt with a message reveals a good deal about the types and their motives for being here. There are belligerent, call-you-out, my-workout-is-better-than-your-workout shirts, which fit with a general trend of insulting text on clothing tops, in or out of gyms. I’m not talking about the narcissistic “God of the Gym” self-promos, but the “Maybe You Should Train as Hard as You Complain” messages.
Most T-shirt injunctions I see are the self-encouraging kind: “No Day Off,” “Hustle for the Muscle,” and the ones that urge us to bear down: “Better Sore Than Sorry,” “Earn Your Shower,” and “Sweat Shirt.” Some are self-congratulatory, suggesting the shower has already been earned; others, such as “Body Under Construction,” hint that there is still work to be done.
The best messages try for humor, from the resigned “Well It’s Not Going to Lift Itself” to the hapless “Does Running Late Count as Exercise?” and the perhaps wistful desire to be elsewhere in “Gym and Tonic.” Gender matters; few women’s shirts talk about quads or lats. “I Don’t Sweat, I Sparkle” is popular, with or without glitter. My favorite women’s T has a quote from Shakespeare: “Though She Be Little She Is Fierce.” Is there a gender-specific message in “Strong Is the New Sexy”?
We’re a mixed lot here at the gym. I consider myself among the hard cases: the hurt and the halt and the lame. I discovered after my second back operation that only regular exercise could keep me from back spasm and sciatica, so I am an almost daily communicant here. Others are recovering from joint replacements, fractures, surgeries. The very obese among us have finally had their resolve to lose weight, for so long a mere velleity, energized by grisly warnings from their doctors. I come often enough to watch progress in my fellow gym goers, including real weight loss and the return of muscle tone. Most, alas, I don’t see after a few visits; they have either lost heart or gone to a better gym.
The fitness bunch are largely young people who use the aerobic machines with occasional short visits to the weight room. Some of these are athletes, here because their regular training places are unavailable for some reason: it may be a holiday, or they’re on a holiday away from home. The others in this group are not athletes but just like to stay fit. My estimate is that young women predominate in the fitness bunch. But for men and women alike, the gym can be part of their discipline to control their weight as well. And they may be here just because of the general good feeling and energy regular exercise gives.
The “muscle batch” is what I’m calling the denizens of the weight room whose efforts look to me to be exclusively aimed at building muscle. I consider them the oddest specimens here, though you might say this is a house they and their kind built. They come out of the weight room and wander the rest of the gym sometimes to cool off or just to display, but I rarely see them on the treadmills, stair-steppers, elliptical trainers, or stationary bicycles that make up the cardio machine section.
There are young men there who look like the Greek ideal visible in statues of the kouros, an idealized figure of a youth who is moderately muscled, wide at the shoulders, narrow at the hips. But for many in the weight room, it seems that ideal is not enough, and they go past perfection to a stage where biceps, chest, and shoulders look not so much developed as inflated.
It’s my impression that most of the muscle-batch guys are shorter than I am. At five feet nine, I am a half inch below the current American male average height, according to the CDC’s 2010 Anthropometric Reference Data. Interestingly, Marla Matzer Rose says a lot of the men in the original Muscle Beach crowd were small.
I sometimes see men here who apparently work on upper-body strength to the exclusion of everything else, so a fellow with large biceps, pectoral, and abdominal muscles seems to be walking around on spindly legs. But then a second take tells me the legs are perfectly normal but just look attenuated by comparison with the hyperdeveloped upper body. Differential bodybuilding in men shows up all around me in barrel-chested guys who’ve worked hard on biceps and other arm muscles but who have prominent bellies.
The women who spend a lot of time in the weight room develop upper-body muscle but never approaching the bulging biceps of the men. Some have prominent gluteal muscles and a tendency toward frog thighs. I can only guess that within this body culture, the look is perceived as sexy. At any rate, it seems to be sought. I suspect that women who visit the gym on a casual basis regard the machines that work hip and thigh muscles as slimming. The muscle-culture women know better and are cultivating muscular thighs and glutes. Personally, I find the muscled butt unsexy, looking steatopygous rather than toned: a muscle-bustle.
The subject of who’s attractive in the gym leads me to a favorite people-watching activity here: looking at the couples. Lots of couples come to the gym. “My favorite pair,” says my woman friend, “is an elderly couple that shows up together and maneuvers from one machine to the next, very slowly, she coaching him and he listening very carefully to her.” The fitness couples may come in together, but they usually split up right away, each with a program in mind. I will sometimes see him join her when she’s almost finished with her run on the treadmill, or vice-versa.
The muscle-batch couples occasionally have separate routines also, but the pairs that interest me are the ones who work out together, he showing her how it’s done with the big numbers on the resistance setting, then scaling them back for her workout on the same machine, and finally giving her little tips about form as she does the same routine. The couple I’m watching at the moment is one muscled guy accompanied by an equally strong-looking and slightly taller woman. Today I’ve also seen a couple at the resistance machines consisting of a large man and a woman half his size.
When I consider these romances seemingly growing out of a mutual love of physical culture, I can’t help wondering whether the romantic passion and the passion for body toning are equal on both sides. Could one of the lovers have a less avid love for the clean and jerk than the bill and coo? Does she—or possibly he—go to the gym so often just because the other wants to?
There is another book with the title Muscle Beach, but this one is a novel, written by Ira Wallach in 1959. Wallach tells the story of a muscle-building couple, Jocie and Harry. The narrator of the novel is a New Yorker transplanted to California, named Carlo. Carlo sees Jocie on the beach and becomes infatuated with her perfect body. By means of deception and guile, Carlo succeeds in detaching Jocie from Harry, and for a while, he imagines that he’s got his dream girl. But Jocie and Harry are thinking about each other when they’re not thinking about their own bodies, and when Jocie leaves to rejoin Harry, Carlo is a little sad, but he grasps the inevitable mutual magnetism of the pair.
“Let nothing divert you from your duty to your body,” advises Walt Whitman, who wrote a column on “Manly Health and Training” for The New York Atlas in 1858. Though nothing like the modern commercial gym was available to him—and he preferred the open air anyway—Whitman endorsed using weights, boxing, sparring or punching a heavy bag, walking, swimming, rowing, jumping jacks, climbing—even dancing—as exercise. It’s fair to say that Whitman’s enthusiasm for vigorous exercise leads him to exaggerate its virtues. He claims that “natural moral goodness is developed in proportion with a sound physical development.” Exercise often goes to people’s heads, as when Michael Serres says it is allied to saintliness. Whitman, with characteristic self-admiration, thinks it also makes him handsome—“yes, handsome—for it is not for nothing that all through the human race there is the universal desire that the body should not only be well, but look well.” And this brings me back to the mirrors.
I reject the interior decorators’ banal explanation that the mirrors are there to make the rooms look larger; the truly enormous gyms are the ones with the most mirrors. No, the mirrors are there so we can look at ourselves. The gym experience is all about self-regard. We’re all at the gym because we have looked at ourselves: literally, in a mirror, or in the mind’s reflecting on our state of muscle tone, energy, endurance. We have looked at ourselves and decided we want to find or preserve something in us: decrease a belly or augment a bicep; make a joint more mobile or a back stronger. Even for the least vain among us, the mirrors serve a purpose. My woman friend, who has just finished her run on the treadmill, picks up her bag and gives a little smile to her reflection in the mirror by the door as she leaves.
Michael Cohen’s A Place to Read: Life and Books (Interactive Press, 2014) ISBN 978-1-922120-92-2, is available from Interactive Press: http://ipoz.biz/ipstore and from Amazon, in paperback or Kindle http: //tinyurl.com/k8m6zyb or from Barnes & Noble, in paperback and Nook http://tinyurl.com/qzwsy2b
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