Gym-Jams

Last night I found myself a local gym, and this evening I went along for the first time. I’ve been going to a gym regularly since August 2010. I was on a flight from Dubai to Bangkok with a short connection to Phuket on a wholly different ticket. Unfortunately it was on an A380 and the baggage took an hour to unload, leading to me having to sprint from one terminal to another carrying a small bag on my shoulder. After fifty feet I turned purple and went into a coughing fit which had people staring at me. It was all I could do to stop myself being sick. For the previous 7 years I’d done virtually no exercise, and I realised something needed to change.

When I got to Phuket I went in the gym of my condominium. It stank, there were sweat stains on all the equipment, the gear was rusting, the air conditioning didn’t work, and the treadmill featured a woman who yelled at you in Chinese every time you pressed a button. I ran a bit, cycled a bit, and lifted weights for twenty minutes. My arms didn’t work for about three days afterwards, and remained sore for a fortnight. I doubt I achieved much in those few weeks in Phuket, but it meant I wasn’t starting from scratch when I arrived in Nigeria.

For the first few months in Nigeria I was staying in a hotel. When I got back to my room at 5pm or so, I couldn’t bear the thought of staying there alone – I was depressed enough already. So I went to the gym after work each day, and then again at the weekend. I was doing about 6 days per week, purely to exhaust myself in order that I don’t mope about. I met some of my new colleagues in that gym, including a lump of a Norwegian who I’m good friends with to this day. The other patrons were a mixed bunch, but those times are a little hazy and I don’t recall who they were. Later I moved to a proper housing compound which had a lovely big gym with views over Lagos lagoon. For my entire stay I went there 5 times per week, taking Wednesdays and Fridays off. Occasionally it got busy, but mostly there was only one or two other people in there. On many occasions I was utterly alone. The staff used to turn on the TVs and set them permanently to Trace Urban, a French R&B channel. There are two volumes of music in Nigeria: Unbelievably Fucking Loud and Off. You can guess which one was selected in the Ocean Parade gym. If I was in there alone I’d ask them to switch the TV to the cricket, and I spent many an hour watching a test or ODI. This is how I managed to get through whole series and barely miss a ball. If the staff weren’t there I’d change the channel myself, and if they came in and noticed they’d get all sour because I could cause severe damage to the equipment, or something. Once someone asked the staff to change the music and I got a good look at what music Nigerians think white people like.

The gym I went to in Melbourne belonged to the building I lived in which, thanks to the responsibility for housing falling on my shoulders, was one of the swankiest places in the city. That was probably the nicest apartment I’ve ever lived in. The gym patrons, being mostly Australians, were a friendly bunch. They showed the cricket on the TV screens during the ill-fated second Ashes tour of 2013, when England got clobbered. That was reason enough to strike up conversation. There was also a blonde woman who looked about fifty, which I reckon was also about the number of plastic surgeries she had. She had a small, fit body on top of which sat a giant head and a face like Mickey Rourke’s. She was accompanied by an athletic Chinese boy in his twenties, who helped his cougar lift weights by groping her enthusiastically. When she was done she’d grope him back. If her face hadn’t been welded in place, she might have even smiled.

My gym in Paris was in a basement and I never figured out if the room was originally designed for something else or not. The equipment wasn’t bad, but the facility itself was old and decrepit. I went there 2-3 times a week without fail for almost 5 years, and never said a word to anyone. I noticed the same core group of men were there all the time, regardless of when I went. Some of them must almost have been living there. There were a few women in the fitness section, and occasionally you’d see one or two in the weights section. French women generally don’t need to go to the gym because they stay slim in other ways, namely shunning food in favour of coffee and cigarettes. The thing is, nor do the men. About 90% of the men in the gym in Paris were blacks, Arabs, gays, or expats and only 10% normal Frenchmen. I once knew a doctor who asked a Frenchman if he exercised and his reply was “Yes, I tend to my garden”. This is in stark contrast to Australians who forgo literacy in order to run along the ocean and look beautiful. I hated that gym, but I must have gone there around 500 times.

My gym in Annecy was much nicer: small, friendly, smiling staff and decorated in bright colours with cool pieces of kit you feel compelled to try. It was a lot cheaper than the one in Paris, too. It was attended by both men and women, but there the men were actually normal Frenchmen. A couple of skinny old women used to do some weights, along with an unattractive but very slim girl with a tattoo of a skull on her thigh who wore micro-shorts which looked to have been sprayed on, was there every single day doing every exercise going, and knew pretty much every guy in there. I used to quite like going there, and when autumn came around again just before I left for the UK I got a whiff of nostalgia as I walked across the car park for when I first joined at the start of my MBA. When I handed in my badge I felt a bit sad, especially when the staff said I could pop in and use the place if ever I was back on holiday.

So tonight I went to the latest stop on my global gym tour. It was huge, and the first thing I noticed was it was packed with women, probably 50:50 with the blokes. An awful lot of them were doing weights, too. The second thing I noticed was how a lot of the women were dressed: lycra hot pants and crop tops whether they looked like Maria Sharapova or a humpbacked whale. If sweaty cameltoes are your thing, I can recommend a gym in Cambridge. I also noticed a few of the girls were Asian. My racist guess is they’re at the university studying maths. There was also a woman in her late thirties who had the sort of tattoos you see on an MS-13 gang banger. It was the first time in all my years of tramping the world’s gyms that I’d seen a woman with tattoos on her face. I don’t think she was studying maths.

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30 thoughts on “Gym-Jams

  1. It is hardly racist to note that an Asian girl in Cambridge — unless she has an English accent and is obviously 2nd or 3rd generation — is probably more intelligent and better educated than most of the people around her. That is not stereotyping — that is simply recognizing probabilities in the real world. As always with probabilities, one has to remember that it is only a probability, not a certainty.

    Back to Master Plan A — Strike up a conversation with those Asian ladies. See if there is one there who would be prepared to help you learn Chinese. Then take over the world!

  2. Gavin, an Asian girl in Cambridge is statistically far more likely to be a tourist than anything else. For every girl sitting in a trendy coffee or juice bar with a MacBook and a preoccupied air, there are probably a hundred trailing after someone with a raised umbrella, waiting for the next chance to take a selfie outside some college gates. And if not a tourist, there are dozens of language schools who ship ’em in by the batch. Most of them are more concerned with splitting an infinitive than the atom.

  3. I currently go to the Auckland University gym. A quite surprising number of Chinese girls there are powerlifting.

  4. My special subject is third world gyms. Not swanky ones where oil expats go – the local ones, because that’s my budget. I’ve found that you can cross the Indian Ocean and the terrible pop music, the musty smell and the permanently missing 15kg dumbbell are exactly the same. Although there was a tiny weights gym in a nameless city in the Philippines where the 20-year-old guy played Greenday.
    I once went to my local gym in East Africa and was surprised to find a large group of gym staff, government officials and Chinese diplomats sitting in a circle and drinking tea while listening to Chinese classical music. The girl at the desk explained it was to mark the Chinese donation of two pieces of exercise equipment and a traditional screen. I asked why they did that, and she said, maybe they are kind. I smiled.
    I also notice, and should not notice, that in the third world I am the only one who puts the weights back.

  5. That is not stereotyping — that is simply recognizing probabilities in the real world. As always with probabilities, one has to remember that it is only a probability, not a certainty.

    Technically that is stereotyping. The key is to realise that there is nothing wrong with that and to avoid being apologetic about it.

  6. You should try London gyms, especially cheaper ones. Full of those same Lycra and crop top women but with loads of South Asian men wandering around chatting and not doing much else and then a core group of really big black men lifting everything.

  7. 1. ‘Asian girl’ – is a potentially confusing term as in the UK it means Pakistani / Indian / Bangladeshi and everywhere else in the English speaking world it means East Asian, ie Chinese / Japanese / Korean.

    2. Easy access to gyms of any quality is great but also they cost time and money. I used to go to one in the Netherlands. Now I use weights in my home and take the dog on long hilly walks.

  8. So gym rats, got a question for y’all.

    Realised as I’ve got older that I probably need to start gymming too. And that the advice you hear these days is way different to what you used to be told about exercising, with much more emphasis on free weight type movements and less on endless cardio.

    Anyone got any pointers for a really basic plan for beginners here? Something that won’t put me off. Preferably involving dumbbells and kettlebells as the bars and machines always seem to be occupied by human slabs of meat resting between sets. Probably three sessions a week is realistic.

  9. Cambridge students are a lazy bunch. Most of them don’t return until next month.

    I cancelled the gym subscription the month I stopped playing rugby and switched my exercise to stamina and flexibility.

    There’s a study of the survival rates by age of the Atlantic convoy crews who were torpedoed. Old, fit blokes lasted longer than young strong youths….

  10. @Oblong: look at Stronglifts 5×5. Sure it’s with a bar but initially you can sub kettlebells and dumbbells instead. Key to lifting weights is to focus on big compound movements that use your big muscles and lots of them in one go. Stuff like Squats, Deadlifts, Rows, Bench Press, Pull-Ups, Military Press. These are by far the most efficient exercises for getting in shape. Best to do with the bar as it is easier to keep adding weight that way to keep improving.

    Always always always avoid machines. They are a trap. They isolate muscles, causing imbalances, and force unnatural planes of movement opening you to injury. Never bother with arm or core exercises as they will be covered adequately by the above lifts and are a waste of time.

    When thinking about sets and reps. General rule of thumb: the fewer repetitions, the more sets. Sets of 5 repetitions build strength (they optimise your bodies use of given muscles fibres). Do 5 sets of 5 reps (5×5). Sets of 10 repetitions build size. Do 4 sets of 10 reps. Sets of >15 build endurance. Do 3 sets of >15 reps.

  11. @Oblong,

    I have tried several “keep fit” routines ranging from the Army PT to gym/weightlifting and had poor results with the gym based ones. I recommend a book called Convict Conditioning by Paul “Coach” Wade. The Amazon link is here:

    https://www.amazon.com/Convict-Conditioning-Weakness-Using-Survival-Strength-ebook/dp/B004XIZN5M/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Convict+Conditioning&qid=1568884512&sr=8-1

    and you can read a few pages to see if you think it is worth it.

    It is based on old school callisthenics and requires no equipment or special gyms etc. It is a series of exercises to take you from from dead unfit, desk jockey state to fit and strong. Essentially it uses your body as the “weight” which with press ups, squats etc. and as the body is being used as a system, doesn’t over strain things.

    I agree with his analysis of weight lifting – it concentrates on only a few muscle groups at one time and does not exercise the whole body as a complete system. For example, bending forward and doing horizontal “rowing” by lifting weights does indeed exercise the arms but strains the lower back. Pull ups achieve the same effect but do not strain the lower back. The aches and pains he describes are what I also experienced trying weights and I must admit, using this methodology is not giving me the same problems with pulled muscles and mobility issues as I experienced doing weight training, even under a qualified fitness instructor that I know from another hobby (archery). It is an inexpensive book to buy and a lot less than gym membership.

    See what’cha think.

  12. “I agree with his analysis of weight lifting – it concentrates on only a few muscle groups at one time and does not exercise the whole body as a complete system. For example, bending forward and doing horizontal “rowing” by lifting weights does indeed exercise the arms but strains the lower back.”

    One of the biggest problems with the fitness industry is the rate at which people write utter nonsense about other methods while promoting there own, often nonsense, method. I do wonder if the goal is simply to create as much confusion as possible.

    Weight lifting trains the body as a complete system. It is simply impossible to complete a squat, deadlift or C&J without using the body as a complete system.

    A bent over row is an exercise principally for the back that also involves almost all muscle in the body. It’s not an arm exercise!

  13. Off topic but looks like cambridge has a new bouldering centre (climbing with no ropes) right next to the train station.

    I find it more interesting than the gym and builds a good mix of strength, flexibility and balance.

    These places usually also have a small gym attached so you get that as part of your monthly membership.

  14. @Oblong

    Back in the noughties I came across a simple 20min once a week resistance type exercise program that you do from home. I was getting my blood sugars and waist line under control and it worked very well for me. All you need is some small dumbbells and ankle weights and you are set to go. I have kept doing it since and found it is all that I need to keep the body in shape, muscles toned and increase bone density.

    Its called Slow Burn, there are a few bootleg versions of it flying around the web if you are interested.

  15. Weight lifting trains the body as a complete system. It is simply impossible to complete a squat, deadlift or C&J without using the body as a complete system.

    A bent over row is an exercise principally for the back that also involves almost all muscle in the body. It’s not an arm exercise!

    Exactly.

    Another thing to note about bodyweight exercises vs weightlifting is that in weightlifting you can keep increasing the weight and building strength. Bodyweight caps out quickly at a rather low maximum weight (e.g. if you try squatting you will very quickly get to a point where you are loading more than your own bodyweight onto the bar) Sure you can increase the number of reps you do of a bodyweight exercise (i.e. build endurance) but changes in muscle definition/size will quickly slow down and then stop.

    I also do triathlon (my January-end of summer sport), switching to weights September-December to mix it up. It does me ok. The variations in body composition are noticeable. Triathlon keeps you slimmer but skinny-fat (aside from your shoulders thanks to swimming) and beanpoley. Weightlifting makes you actually look in shape (and very quickly) provided you do it properly. The variety is probably best for general health.

  16. Never gone much on gym training ,myself. Most gym bunnies I’ve known seem to be as week as kittens with little stamina. We used to get uni lads wanting temp labouring jobs. Bulging muscles & boasting how much they could lift. Give them a lorry load of cement bags to unload, they’d be knackered after an hour. The pipe cleaner thin Paddy with the rollie permanently attached to his lower lip, could do it all day without breaking sweat. But, then, he did do it all day. Every day. There’s just a difference between constant exertion & hour bursts, three times a week.
    Your gardening frenchman may have point. French gardens are large & often grow vegetables. Don’t think I’ve ever seen an English postage stamp in France. Looking after one can be serious work. And also exercises everything, all at once.
    I’d refer you to your recent hiking up mountains, post. Down here we regard those as hills. Pleasant Sunday afternoon stroll for my latina ladyfriend & I. She’s headed for your age & I have 30 years on her. But she’s an ex-professional dancer & I’ve had a lifetime of hard graft. Just wish I didn’t smoke a pack & a half of fags a day.
    You want a serious bit of advice? Regard your sofa as a convenience to guests. Use a straight back chair, without arms. Including in the office.That way you’re constantly using half the muscles in your body, just to stay upright..

  17. @Tim “It was the first time in all my years of tramping the world’s gyms that I’d seen a woman with tattoos on her face. I don’t think she was studying maths.”

    Welcome back to the UK, Tim

  18. Oblong,

    “Anyone got any pointers for a really basic plan for beginners here?”

    I suggest finding yourself the nearest Nuffield or David Lloyd (Nuffield are better), signing up for 3 months, going over what you want to do and working on a programme with them. Use the gym to figure out what routine and exercises like and suit you. Later, maybe figure out how to do it all yourself, buying equipment or not using it, but that’s what I’d do.

  19. I noticed when I went back today that almost nobody in the gym in Cambridge uses a towel. Which is pretty minging. Overseas almost everyone did, as do I.

  20. loads of South Asian men wandering around chatting and not doing much else

    There was an Arabic guy who used to come into the gym in Lagos wearing the latest Nike gear all colour-coordinated who used to watch himself in the mirror lifting small weights for ten minutes which he’d leave all over the floor.

  21. @oblong. Mal Reynalds has it right. Compound lifts as he says, a few times a week is what you want. You don’t need to go overly heavy but you do need to do it regularly. You will probably find once you start, you’ll compete with yourself to lift more which is all good.

  22. Given all the very generous (but differing) replies to Oblong, might be worth thinking what the objective is first.

    Living as long as possible? Flab reduction? Feeling healthier? Looking big’n’buff for the benefit of the ladeees? Being physically better capable at dealing with practical tasks that life throws up at you?

    Presumably different goals = different means.

  23. @BiS – my old man (a farmer) had similar views on gym strength to you. Nothing builds strength and endurance like hard manual work.

    The wiry Paddy and the wiry farmer also have the advantage of technique, whether it’s unloading bales or cement.

    BTW, my dad was fit as a fiddle to his mid-70s but the fags did for him in the end though…

  24. MyBurningEars

    “Living as long as possible? Flab reduction? Feeling healthier? Looking big’n’buff for the benefit of the ladeees? Being physically better capable at dealing with practical tasks that life throws up at you?

    Presumably different goals = different means.”

    A barbell does all these things. A regular run/swim/ride doesn’t hurt.

  25. Thanks folks. This gives me a few good things to look into.

    In terms of goals. I guess the following is how I currently see it:

    – top priority is some basic strength that holds my body together, reduces injury risk, makes feats of everyday athleticism less of a strain.

    – then fat reduction. I’m not going to cut my way to a six pack – I can’t sustain the food discipline that requires – but less of a dad bod would be good for health I think.

    – bulk and tone isn’t really a consideration at the moment. It might be if I get my BMI in a better place. And no, it’s not that bad, but it’s bad enough for me. I just rely on my pretty face and charming wit with the laydees haha

  26. Booking on duty as a Police officer, some years ago, I was told about my Chief Constable’ s concern that shift work and doughnuts at 3am on night shifts were making us unfit. His solution was to persuade a local gym group to offer special membership rates to the Police. The more expensive annual one, though cheaper than those available to other members of society, offered use of the facilities as often as you wanted, for as long as you wanted. The cheaper version offered use of the facilities, as often as you wanted, for one month. During the other 11 months, they promised to wave to you as you walked past, on your way to the pub!

  27. I’ve been cycling 10 miles a day for about a month and my calf muscles have gone from weak to strong over that period, so even at 52 doing something regularly can make a massive difference.

    The hard part is balancing the diet so that you get enough to build muscle, but not so much that the body just fucks about and stores fat. Still struggling with that one although I’m better than I was in early 2017 (a big fat fuck), for which the introduction to intermittent fasting and zero carbs has made a life saving difference.

    I can now do a 10 k run and be sweaty and panting only towards the end instead of 20 yards past the start line. It helps.

    As for why I’m doing it? Basically it has resolved my high blood pressure, pre-type 2 diabetes and sleep apnoea for which I was reliant upon a machine for breathing during the night.

    The difference between how I was at the start of 2017 and today is transformative. All for the sake of going to the gym on a regular basis.

    Plus fucking is a lot easier and more fun now. So there’s that also…

  28. – top priority is some basic strength that holds my body together, reduces injury risk, makes feats of everyday athleticism less of a strain.

    – then fat reduction. I’m not going to cut my way to a six pack – I can’t sustain the food discipline that requires – but less of a dad bod would be good for health I think.

    – bulk and tone isn’t really a consideration at the moment. It might be if I get my BMI in a better place. And no, it’s not that bad, but it’s bad enough for me. I just rely on my pretty face and charming wit with the laydees haha

    @Oblong: compound lifts then. Do stronglifts 5×5. 3 days a week, 3 lifts. 5 sets of 5 reps. Simple. If you want more exercise then do cycling/gardening/whatever cardio examples suggested above. That will meet all your aims, basic strength and fat reduction (main dynamic: cardio burns more calories than lifting weights during the 45/whatever min period you are doing it but the weights mean you burn more calories in your general life outside the gym.) Mix both and you’ve got a fat burning combo.

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