Sunday, February 19, 2012

Gym Class Zeroes

In case you missed it, Thursday, May 19th, 2011 was a dark, dark day.  Much like 11/13/2011, it's a date that will never make the pages of the history books, but a terrible tragedy struck the Minneapolis area:

The Gym, formerly the Twin Cities' top-ranked training center as rated by The Gym's former owner, was repossessed by the bank and shut down that morning.  The Gym's closure marked the sad end of a spectacular five year run with the only gym I'd ever known.  It didn't take me long after joining The Gym in the summer of 2006 to realize that I was in the right place--what that blandly-named building lacked in creativity, it made up for with a top-notch weightlifting environment.

During an otherwise quiet Saturday afternoon workout that summer, two police officers walked in, talked to the guy at the desk for a minute, then made their way over to a steroid freak on the incline bench. An officer walked up on each side of the bar, spotted the guy on his final rep, then one said, "you need to come with us."  The cops escorted the guy out of The Gym, his bag and chalk still sitting next to the bench. I knew I was a member of the best gym in the state. My opinion was solidified in the years that followed as I overheard countless conversations of gym members sharing stories of their prison experiences.

That's why I felt utterly hopeless and depressed when the bank shut the place down.  Where would I go?  What was I going to do after work every day?  Was I destined for afternoons of couch time, ice cream, and Oprah?  After some time off, a few of us former Gym members  exhausted all other options and reluctantly joined a Lifetime Fitness, trading power-lifters and ex-cons for soccer moms and accountants.

There's no doubt, The Gym's membership list included a cast of odd characters longer than the rap sheet of some if its longtime members. But in the nine months I've now spent at Lifetime, I've realized that for whatever reason, gyms inherently attract an incredible number of unusual members.  The specific oddities you'll experience may differ slightly depending on the type of gym you join, but as a universal gym rule, members seem to fall into a handful of stereotypical groups.  The following is my top ten list of weird gym people, in no particular order:

#1: The Count-Out-Louds
The count-out-louds (COLs) are a rare, but unfailingly annoying breed of gym member.  During a workout, a COL makes it his job to let everyone around him know exactly how many reps he's completed.  Don't get me wrong--you've gotta keep track of your reps during a workout, but most people are able to manage that complicated math in their minds...quietly. One particular COL at Lifetime seems to talk louder and louder as the set wears on, grimacing and exhausting himself until he's shouting unintelligible numbers at everyone around him.

#2: The Cheaters
Every gym has 'em--the people who load an insane amount of weight on a machine, then climb on and start exercising with the worst form or smallest range of motion humanly possible.  I can only assume that these people are trying to impress other gym members with their incredible feats of strength. My personal favorite is watching the guys who load twenty or more of the 45-pound plates on a leg press machine, then use their arms and/or hands to press on their legs and move the weight. Can the exercise still be called a leg press at that point?

The partial bicep curl also seems to be a favorite exercise among Cheaters, but I guess ignorance is bliss--who knew that the human elbow could bend beyond a 45 degree angle?  I'm also a huge fan of the Cheaters' infamous half-bench press.  After all, letting that barbell get anywhere near your chest is just too *$@^# risky!

#3: The Wanderers
You don't have be a life coach to know that focus and direction can be key difference-makers on the road to success in life...or success in workouts, for that matter.  That's why it's so sad to watch Wanderers during their painfully aimless workouts.  Veteran gym members walk into the gym every day with a specific plan in mind and concentrate on one or two major muscle groups during the workout--shoulders, legs, back...something.  Wanderers, on the other hand, treat the gym like a wine tasting, trying a little bit of everything and accomplishing absolutely nothing over the course of an hour.

This crowd tends to swell in population immediately after New Year's, during that painful ten-day stretch during which couch potatoes resolve to get in shape and then quickly reverse course and decide that fitness will be next year's resolution...again.  To help the process along, whenever I'm talking to friends at the gym in early January, I try to make loud, discouraging comments with the hope that these short-timers will overhear and start packing as quickly as possible, reducing the pointless January gym overcrowding.

#4: The Thieves
You can set your bag near it, you can leave a dumbbell on top of it, but nothing seems to stop bench thieves from working their magic.  It's nothing more than simple gym etiquette, really--before you start using a bench or machine, you ask the people around if anyone else is using it.  But some people choose to ignore this simple courtesy...and believe me, there's nothing more frustrating than returning from a 30-second trip to the water fountain to find a middle-aged woman using your bench as a magazine rack for her issue of Better Homes and Gardens while she does bicep curls with pink, one-pound dumbbells. This sort of thing happened from time to time at The Gym, but those occurrences seemed fewer and much farther between.  I guess you make it a point to learn gym etiquette when most of your fellow gym members have wrists the size of your thighs and aren't terribly concerned about the prospect of returning to prison.

#5: The Neat Freaks and The Slobs
Another important lesson in gym etiquette: clean off the equipment after you use it.  But it's important to strike a balance, because there's a difference between touching the equipment and leaving it drenched with sweat.  Back at The Gym, one man took his fear of gym germs a bit too far.  Every time he walked in, he headed straight for the sanitizer bottle, picked up a towel, and sprayed it with cleaner until it was dripping wet, then wrung it out on the floor.  For the rest of his workout, he wouldn't touch a single dumbbell or piece of equipment without first scrubbing it down with his soaked towel.

Oddly, a guy with a polar opposite philosophy often worked out at the same time.  Normal people usually don't sweat too much during a non-aerobic, weight lifting workout, but this man, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Bill Clinton, constantly looked like he had just climbed out of a swimming pool, and not once did he ever wipe down a piece of equipment.  Using anything after Mr. Clinton was downright frightening--beads of his sweat were still streaking down the bench long after his workout ended.

Here's my general rule: if I only touch something, I don't wipe it off.  If I sweat all over it, I wipe it off.  I don't get too hung up on cleanliness at the gym.  I wash my hands at the end of the workout, and I make it a habit not to go around licking the equipment.  So far, that strategy has worked pretty well for me.

#6: The Freeloaders
Television is a great way to help pass the minutes during a grueling cardio workout, but TV can also destroy a well-intentioned lifting routine.  Clearly, some members believe that as long as they're at the gym, it counts as a matter what they're actually doing. I thoroughly enjoy watching gym-goers sit idle on a bench for ten-minute stretches, eyes glued to the TV screen a few feet away. (Even better when they're sitting in a gym, watching The Biggest Loser...a brilliant strategy to one day end up as a contestant on the show.)  This phenomenon has gotten so bad that I'm convinced that some members' sole purpose in joining the gym was to take advantage of the satellite TV subscription, not because of any interest in health or fitness.  Here's my philosophy: if you're able to follow the plot of the TV show you're watching at the gym, it doesn't count as a workout.

#7: The Screamers
Every gym has a least a few people who fall into this category--the painfully loud grunters and screamers. Back at The Gym, the frequent screaming made at least a little sense. There were always crazy power lifters who were lifting incredible weight, enough to justify the gut-wrenching shrieks. That, and at The Gym, it was always a safe bet to assume that someone may have been stabbed when you heard screaming.  But beyond the hard-core power lifting crowd, the grunting and screaming gets old very quickly.  One particular member was a poster child for this group.  A short, round, bald man who resembled Humpty Dumpty, this guy always screamed--and I mean always.  Doing warmup stretches?  He screamed. Toning his calves with some light weights?  More screaming from Humpty.

#8: The Droppers
If you've ever worked out at a YMCA, then you already know that the group known as "The Droppers" consists primarily of high school males who seem to enjoy drawing attention to themselves by dropping dumbbells from a height of several feet at the end of each set.  Ironically, Droppers aren't typically lifting very heavy weights, which makes it hard for me to understand why they want everyone to know that they just completed a set. Even when Droppers are standing within arm's length of the dumbbell rack, they choose to drop the weights. I just don't get it. I'm still waiting for the day when a Dropper breaks a few of his own toes with an errant drop--it would make for a delightfully appropriate, self-inflicted punishment for an extremely annoying habit.

#9: The Overly Comfortable
Unlike Droppers, members of the Overly Comfortable crowd skew much more heavily toward the upper end of the age spectrum.  This group gained fame not from its members behavior in the workout area, but in the locker room. After a post-workout shower, most people dry off and get dressed--the way it should be. But that's not the case for the Overly Comfortable.  After showering and toweling off, the Overly Comfortable are in no great hurry to track down their clothes.  I guess we should be happy that these people feel comfortable with their bodies, but from what I've witnessed (despite my best efforts), the Overly Comfortable are the least deserving of this overwhelming sense of confidence that they seem to possess when it comes to their body image.

I suppose when you reach age 65 you just assume that you've earned the right to take your sweet time in putting your clothes back on, but I can't say that I appreciate the group of senior citizens that has turned locker rooms across the country into a nauseating network of nudist resorts.  If you're a complete stranger and want to strike up an awkward locker room conversation with me, please, please have the courtesy to wait until you're at least partially clothed...

Apparently I'm not the only one who has experienced this uncomfortable situation...what a fantastic illustration!

#10: The Inflated Egos
The Inflated Egos are a unique class of gym members, easily identified by their illusions of tough-guy grandeur and their mysterious allergy to sleeved shirts.  You'll rarely make eye contact with any of the Inflated Egos, because they spend 95% of their time admiring themselves in the mirror.  But keep an eye out, because Egos are so engrossed in self-admiration that they've been known to walk right into other people while not-so-subtly sneaking another glimpse of their own reflection.

To make matters worse, the Egos occasionally pass the time between sets by flexing in front the mirror. If you're a professional body builder preparing for competition, then practicing your posing technique is an important part of the job.  But if you're a narcissistic, recreational weight lifter with an undeserving sense of pride, flexing in the mirror is just plain laughable.

It's also important to realize that the average IQ of the Inflated Ego crowd is extraordinarily low, and if you somehow manage to get pulled into a conversation with one of the Egos, your only shot at a semi-meaningful discussion rests on your ability an speak at length about one of the following three topics: weight lifting, bar fights, or strip clubs.  Outside of those core subjects, you might as well be trying to explain calculus to a hamster.

#11: The Freaks
Yeah, I know I said this would be a top ten list, but I need one final catch-all group to fully capture all of the other odd gym members who fall outside the ten other categories: The Freaks. This category covers all of those strange gym-goers who are so unique in their oddness that they fall into their own niche of weirdness. What exactly am I referring to?  I have two perfect examples, each supported by brief video clips.  First, there's dancing guy:

The clip isn't even ten seconds long, but let me assure you: every spare second that this guy isn't on a machine, he's dancing--not just a few seconds here and there, but for the entirety of his hour-plus workouts.  And believe it or not, he was relatively subdued when I captured this clip. When he really gets into it, he'll clap his hands and get his hips swinging like you wouldn't believe.

Next, we have skipping/prancing woman:

Let me start by saying that I apologize for the length and quality of this video clip, which warrants further explanation.  The local Lifetime Fitness has a 1/11th mile indoor track, where you can often find this 50-something woman on weekend mornings.  What is she doing?  I'm not exactly sure.  I can describe it only as some kind of combination skipping, dancing, toe-tapping, arm-swinging, Michael Flatley-esque run/walk. And on such a short track, you're subjected to this unusual routine every 45 seconds, which makes for an odd workout.  I'd hoped that I could capture a much better video of this strange ritual, but I decided to air on the side of subtlety.  This woman already attracts enough strange looks from Lifetime members when she's not being followed around the track by some creepy guy with an iPhone, video recording her prancing.

It appears that the glory days are over and The Gym is closed for good, but while the faces have changed, the daily entertainment and frustration that comes from being around strange and annoying gym members will live on forever. As I've come to learn, that's just a universal truth, as certain as death, taxes, and monthly dues.