Discomfort Zone: Heavy Lift
The biggest weight room challenge isn’t getting ripped — it’s blending in
I learned how to do side lunges with a resistance band around my thighs recently at UNLV’s gym. Most of the exercises I’ve learned have a considerable awkwardness factor, but this one is especially inelegant. Unless you’re my tall, buff personal trainer Michael, it makes you look like a dog in mid-squat who keeps changing his mind about where to poop. “Hmm. No, this spot isn’t quite right. A little to the side, I think. A couple more steps. Maybe here. Nope, back the other way is better.”
So, I was doing this — five crab steps to the right, five to the left — under Michael’s supervision, when an older guy wearing an AC/DC T-shirt with the sleeves cut off walked by slowly and observed, “That’s impressive.” Or, as my insecurity filter translated it, “That’s impressive… for someone our age.”
I was mortified by having attention called to me in such a compromising position, but also trapped by the fear of tearing a hamstring if I stood up mid-move. I glanced at Michael, who was totally ignoring the passerby. “Two more … you got this,” he said, tapping pen to clipboard. Nothing to do but swallow hard and keep going.
Why was it okay for someone I didn’t know to comment on my performance that way? Or wasn’t it? Was he patronizing or complimenting me? Or both? What was the appropriate response?
I honestly don’t know the answer to these questions, because I don’t speak swolese. Before January, when I took my doctor’s advice to start weight training and hired Michael, I’d never been in UNLV’s — or any gym’s — weight room. I’m a stranger in a land where people throw around terms like “chest press” and “burnout set.” I grew up riding horses and cheerleading, and left the Soloflex and Muscle & Fitness craze to my brothers. This identity carried over to the gym, where I prefer spin or yoga class over jacking steel. But I’m eager to get through the newbie phase and own these ridiculous drills. If I have to do them, then I’m damn sure gonna know their names and how to do them right.
A month passed before I worked up the nerve to check out a resistance band and attempted side lunges on my own. I did them right in the main aisle, where Michael had taught me. I was still a bit self-conscious about looking like a constipated dog, but no one even seemed to notice me. Not that impressive after all, I guess.
“Have you used this before?” Michael asks, as we approached a metal structure that could plane wood or hoist an engine, for all I know.
“No, I’ve never used anything in here,” I tell him, for at least the fifth time. I think the idea that someone who’s as fit as I am has never been in a weight room is as foreign to Michael as the idea that it’s okay to walk by an old lady who’s straining indecently and say, “That’s impressive” is to me.
“It’s a Smith machine,” he says. A lesson in squats ensues.
As he talks, I notice the young woman who puts the top of her shiny black bob into a ponytail that points straight up. I watch with admiration as she confidently glides from the pullup machine to the power rack. She’s probably 30 years my junior — most of the gym’s patrons are, given that it’s in a university — and dresses so unlike the women I’m used to seeing in spin or yoga. There, standard attire is colorful, patterned, pedicured. But ponytail girl obeys the female weight room aesthetic of Converse sneaks, black athletic tights, and gray T-shirt (optional knot at bellybutton).
Despite our differences, I feel a kinship with this young woman. She appears strong and independent. Unlike many of the other young women here, she’s never coached by a boyfriend. And, unlike most of the young men, she toils without show or apparent need of validation.
As I start my first set of squats, I make a mental note to get online and find some new workout gear. My crow’s feet may stand out, but at least my clothes won’t.
I dread the bench area of the weightlifting floor more than any other. You can practically see the bacteria growing on the red vinyl pads, and no one ever cleans up after themselves. But Michael insists that bench presses are a necessity, and, indeed, they’re listed in almost every basic workout I look up online.
“Have you ever used a bench?” he asks, adjusting its height.
“Nope. I’ve never been within 10 feet of a weight bench, Michael, much less picked up a dumbbell.”
Midway through my first set of bench presses, there’s a terrific scream and crashing sound from the deadlift platform. Anyone without headphones on max volume snaps their gaze toward the source of the ruckus: The elderly man with a limp who wears ballet slippers and a leather weightlifting belt has just triumphantly dropped a barbell the size of a Honda Fit. I look up at Michael, pleading with my eyes for some explanation of this weird behavior, but he only cracks a slight smile before noting that my elbows are out of alignment.
He’s told me before to ignore what I see and hear in the weight room and focus on what he’s teaching me. Most people don’t know what they’re doing, he says, and even those who do may have different goals than mine, which are to strengthen and stabilize my joints. I want to continue hiking, swimming, and doing the other things I love as long as possible, and overuse injuries have started to interfere.
And then there’s my personal boogeyman: the dementia that runs in my family. It has taken a couple relatives, and I secretly obsess about it getting me, too. During my research on weight training, I’ve come across many studies confirming its benefits for people 50+, including some linking it to better cognitive function in old age. That’s all the motivation I need to keep at it, no matter how it may feel sometimes.
Remembering this, I think twice about the old guy limping around in his ballet slippers. What’s the Honda-size demon he just slayed, I wonder.
The hydraulic machine area is closer to my comfort zone. For one thing, there’s a higher ratio of women to men there. For another, each machine is labeled with instructions. And perhaps most importantly, people in this section use the cleaning supplies.
“Have you ever done this?” Michael asks, the first time we venture into the area.
“No, Michael. I’ve never used any of these machines. I never lifted a weight of any kind before I met you. Ever.”
He launches into a lesson on hamstring curls, noting not to do them as shown in the instructions, but rather, one leg at a time.
I like Michael. He gives me motivational lectures about the body being capable of more than the mind admits. He tells me his mom enjoys certain exercises, seeming to believe this will make them more enticing. And he’s astonished by my side planks and pushups, not realizing they’re yoga poses I’ve been doing for 20 years. With his top-level personal trainer certification and physical therapist internship, he’s a steal at student-gym rates. I’m lucky to have him.
But the day comes when he turns me loose. In an earnest e-mail exchange, he makes sure I’ve got the basics of creating my own program and encourages me to check back in whenever I need help. Then, I’m on my own.
I was nervous walking up to the Smith machine alone the first time, but I could hear Michael’s voice in my head as I loaded 10-pound weights onto each end of the bar, set my feet hip-width apart, and began my first set. I promised myself that if I got through three sets each of squats and bench presses, I could move on to the hydraulic machines. In my black tights and gray T-shirt, I channeled ponytail girl’s energy, heaving the 20 pounds onto my shoulders and lowering my torso toward the floor, careful not to lean forward too much. One.
By the second set, I’d settled into contemplating the new and familiar characters nearby. By the third, I was starting to sweat and feel noodle-legged. But I still had lots of energy, so I challenged myself to a burnout set. Before I knew it, I’d done twice as many squats as I had in the first two sets. On the last one, I had to push so hard to stand up that I emitted an involuntary grunt.
“That’s impressive,” I thought to myself, “for a woman my age.”