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first time at the gym

"Dude I just ate and shat a kettle bell"

Into the Land of the Gym Bros

Fitness

How do you fit in at the gym if you, well, don't fit in at the gym. Matt Charlton, always the last to be picked at school, braves the gym and discovers absurdities and revelations.

It’s strange, isn’t it – the shape society tells you that you should be – a little tighter, taught, toned, tucked, with the hard lumps in the right places and the soft lumps nothing but an awkward carb-fuelled fever dream of a memory. There are, it goes without saying, right and wrong ways to achieve this Poldark-like figure, though this has to be figured out using a combination of guesswork, magazine articles, and YouTube videos which use the word ‘bro’ a lot. Once you’re in a place where such research can be put into practice – some call this ‘the gym’ – the first few weeks, if you make it that far, are a heady combination of discombobulation and subtle sideways glances at what that muscly bloke is doing over there with that medieval torture-like machine.

But then, even as you contemplate that sacred vein appearing on your bicep for the first time (visible blood circulation is so ‘in’ right now, bro), there are all these other conundrums as you set foot in a new gym – how should I dress? How should I act? Will I be a real man if I do a bit of Yoga or cardio… or is cardio a kind of tapas? If I ask the surly gym staff a question about how to use a piece of equipment, will I look and feel like a toddler asking his mummy to put the straw in the juice carton for him? WHAT WILL EVERYONE THINK?! I’d like to tell you this feeling goes away, I really would.

There’s a man – I’d put him at around sixty-five – who comes to the gym at roughly the same time as me most days.  He turns up shortly after I get there, and is dressed in grey slacks, a V-neck jumper with a white open collared shirt underneath, and (I’ve never looked that closely) what I take to be to be some sort of Clarks-like Velcro black leather shoes. With the addition of a bottle of water, this is exactly what he wears for his workout. So, there he is, dressed as he would be for a quiet evening in the pub or a Sunday dogging trip to the Ashdown Forest, simply striding over to the pectoral fly machine and starting on his reps, not giving an open-air shit about his surroundings, or what anyone in that gym may think of him.  God, I envy him.

Because the first thing to remember is that he is the anomaly.  Hell – I’m not inside his head, maybe beneath that ‘don’t give toss’ exterior he’s like the rest of us – a tight elastic band ball of self-doubt, insecurities, and a voice telling him ‘look at all these people – they’re better than you, and they know what they’re doing YOU INCOMPETENT IDIOT’.  There are rules you see, and that is the reason I envy this man – he obviously doesn’t care, or know, about the rules, and I’m not talking about the ones written on the gym walls such as ‘no bags on the gym floor’; ‘no photos’; and ‘Matt, please make sure the cap’s on your water bottle before you put it back in your bag…’

First and foremost, what the hell do you wear? If you go wearing all one brand does that look too try-hard? If I wear gloves for the weightlifting so I don’t get blisters will I be judged for not being man-enough? Do you reach a point in the toning of your muscles where you graduate from a t-shirt to a vest? Is there some sort of ceremony? What do I wear for the ceremony?

Then of course, there’s the equipment – anything that doesn’t look a bit like a bike or a giant conveyor belt is an incredibly intimidating piece of alien machinery, which, if misused, could lead to lasting physical damage, or, far worse, a bruised ego. And what weight do you set, because people are watching, aren’t they? I mean – when you walk past, you let your eye drift over where the pin is sitting in the stack of plates, so why wouldn’t they? Oh god, what must they think of me – I should chase after them and tell them that I’m going for lean muscle – that I’m still a real man.

And even if you build up the courage to ask for some advice, they start talking about reps, sets, lats, traps, glutes, and rhomboids as if you should know what they are already. Everyone seems to be in on this secret language – did I miss that lesson? Is there a summer class just after you finish A-Levels where they take you to one side, teach you muscle groups, car maintenance, football bullshit-talk and DIY? I must have been on holiday. So there you stand, looking the trainer assuredly in the eye as he speaks a foreign language –  nodding the same as way you do with the plumber when he starts talking to you about the intricacies of the boiler. You’re supposed to know this stuff – you’re supposed to be a man. Help me.

But gyms are now full of people like me… It’s full of boys who were picked last for football during PE; it’s teaming with those who were tragically off-games for almost three years because of an ‘ingrowing toenail’ (both me). Yeah Mr. Downing – for most of that time I was lying, because cold communal showers were not really how I saw my day panning out.

But there’s something still in the back of my mind which screams ‘pick me’, some part that wants to be friends with the sporty boys, who wants the stride in his step that says, ‘I belong here, and I always have’.  But here’s the trick – that voice? Kill it – stuff a sock in its mouth, give it a wedgie, and stuff it in a locker for the cleaner to find at the end of the day. It’s what your parents have been telling you since the first time you were called a ‘gay-lord’ at school – the bigger the dickhead, the greater the insecurities. The ones who are strutting around with their nipple vests on were probably the fat kid at school; the ones who were picked last during games; the ones about who Mr Brakewell shouted ‘Don’t pass to him, he’s rubbish’.

It’s a sad truth, especially for men, that most people at the gym are running from something, not running to something.  What are they doing it for? Do they have a competition, an event, a marathon? Mostly not – mostly they’re just trying to shut the fat kid inside up, muffle the muso nerd who failed the beep test two minutes in, get enough likes on their Instagram to release enough endorphins to increase their self-worth for a nano-second.

So, when you’re at the gym next time, try this (especially if you have noise cancelling headphones which reduce any sense of context – actually, if you can track it down, try listening to the Benny Hill theme for this): during one of your rests, take a look around the room, and see how ridiculous everyone looks – the guy with the giant elastic band around his ankles doing crab-like sideway steps with a glinting forehead and a serious look upon his face; the woman in full make-up walking up steps that go around in a circle like she’s in some sort of cartoon; the puffy crouching bro making a heavy ripple in a big rope for no particular reason.

I suppose I’ve happened upon the truth, perhaps the ultimate truth – a truth which not only applies to the gym, but to almost every single aspect of life – all you need to do is look like you know what you’re doing, because, basically, almost everyone is just as scared about looking ridiculous as you are. Apart from the man in the V-neck jumper – he knows exactly what he’s doing.

 

Read Matt Charlton’s rules of the gym which, if broken, should result in the mother of all public wedgies.

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