A Month Among the Neon Donkeys

I write this buried to the armpits in a huge pile of pennies, because everyone and their mum has thrown in their two cents on Crossfit by now.

They are angry, or concerned, or aroused, or confused, or in love, or all of the above, and I must admit I haven’t given one third of one toss about their opinions for three simple reasons:

  1. I am extraordinarily suspicious of people who get together on the internet to have strong opinions, even if I agree with them, and
  2. I’m not doing your program, and I’m not ‘working out’ with you, and I’m not doing your classes. I’m training. By myself. If all you do is classes, I won’t go. If I’m feeling cordial, I might nod across the room at you.
  3. I am a straightforward and frugal man (unless you’re selling single malt) and Crossfit is expensive.

Expensive, at least, until now.

I had the simple realisation while I was out of town for a few months some time ago that I was losing money — instead of having a cheap kettlebell gym and a cheap normal gym, I could just have one expensive gym with both sets of equipment. Throw in a discount for smiling, and I’m actually saving money in the local Crossfit gym.

(There’s a phrase you won’t hear often, and probably won’t happen in any English speaking country, ever. Here in Freedomtown, it’s basically a mortgage with barbells.)

So upon a huge slippery mound of borderline-worthless pocket change I stand, ready to drop my own two cents into the pile — an opinion which we don’t need, and one which will change no-one’s mind. This isn’t really much of a didactic exercise, it’s more finger exercise.

I didn’t know much about Crossfit beforehand, really. Everyone sods on about it, but I knew only just just enough to be suspicious. Two reasons:

  1. I don’t like things which come with a component identity. The fitness industry in general is known for its ability to aggregate vain, anxious divs into little groups who all share a language and an ethos. A lot of people love to rally around a flag and have a collective identity and a little song they all sing. I’m not one of them.
  2. An organisation that sues researchers will never be dear to my heart. Crossfit HQ did this. That is NOT how we do business in academia, and even if your grievance is 100% true, it’s an appalling and extraordinarily uncollegial way to correct the academic record.

(I made my peace with the act of giving money to these people by thinking about how much more money I’d given to truly disgusting companies like Nestle, Lion Nathan and Comcast over the years…)

So, I bought exactly one calendar month — just one — in this gym. I train every weekday, so that’s 22 visits. Not an unreasonable sample.

Here are my thoughts.

Good Things.

This place is clean and friendly and straightforward

I am in the way. A man asks me to move. I am very happy to move, because I am in the way. The man smiles. He is nice.

I am doing rowing intervals. At this point, I would rather be at home under a blanket, perhaps crying a bit. I roll off the rower and lie down. Another nice man offers me some water.

I make a big chalky mess with sweat divots and palm skin in it, and am quite proud of it. The next day it is gone. In some gyms, it would be considered an interior design feature and adapted into the general aesthetic. In others, I would be asked to leave. Here it is just part of doing business, as it should be.

The gym has something I really like — a basket of wire brushes. This means you can easily clean the grotty bars off. Not only this, but people use them to clean the bars.

It’s messy, but it’s clean.

There seems to be a tendency to make a colossal and unnecessary mess with gear DURING a workout, but once people stop working they bus their stuff a lot more regularly than other gyms I’ve been to. It has social cohesion. There are very few pricks.

I think it’s the open environment where everyone can see your space and what you’ve put in it.

The only problem is there are a lot of tiresome little twats who like to make modern art sculptures out of all the available equipment, and then claim to be working with it. Putting it away when you’re done doesn’t make up for the fact that you’re “using it” for two hours but only using it for eight minutes.

Overall, though, mostly good. I give them a B+. I’ve seen far, far worse. Americans in commercial gyms fling equipment into every available crevice and then just leave.

You can’t argue with the rig

Most gyms suck.

The first reason for this (amongst about a million others) is they are stocked with terrible equipment designed for use by semi-literate functional cripples and anxious droids in painted-on clothing.

This problem at least is so very solved.

Concept2 rowers, rings, pullup bars, fifty O-bars (Eleikos, too!), a half-dozen racks, broomsticks, bumper plates, prowlers, GHRs, sandbags, skipping ropes, an Airdyne bike, tonnes of chalk, a bucket of foam rollers, nice sturdy boxes, and — be still, my beating heart — proper competition kettlebells.

If Pol Pot and Idi Amin started a gym called Dictator’s Dungeon with competition bells, I would hesitate only slightly before my money hit the counter.

After the ludicrous amount of bad rig I’ve endured over the years, this is a luxury.

Some of these people are crushing.

There’s a guy who has front squat form that is so neat and so deep you’d think he could win money by doing it right.

There’s a guy who did a set of behind-the-neck push presses to bowel-voiding failure and caught the bar perfectly on the last rep.

Everyone is trying. There are no spectators here. These classes certainly have picked up the sink-or-swim-together ethos quite well. I like that.

I can do whatever I like.

“Sorry sir, that looks dangerous and/or confusing and/or ridiculous” said no-one in this gym, ever.

Bad things.

Am I the oldest person here?

A good way to tell if group exercise is worth your time is if anyone over 30 manages to do it without clutching at a site of hard tissue and wincing. I am suspicious of this.

These fucking bumper plates.

Yes, I said this was a good thing before. Bumper plates, when all you have are steel plates, are like gold.

But when you have NO steel plates, the worm quickly turns and you are handling these enormous biscuits of vulcanised bullshit with no handles for EVERY exercise.

I have to load the Prowler with bumper plates, for instance.

I have to deadlift with bumper plates (four of these idiot things and you literally run out of bar — if you want more than 180kg you need to use bands).

Considering they are a quarter of the price, I can’t see why you wouldn’t have a half-ton of iron handy.

But this really is a quibble. On any list of complaints, you all know what’s coming…

On any given day, you can see people beckoning the Reaper: doing high skill exercises badly during high fatigue under supervision.

Unpack that for a second, four things:

  1. high skill exercises
  2. … done badly
  3. during high fatigue
  4. while supervised

For every person moving right, there are six moving wrong and two moving weird.

  • A guy attempting to do a kettlebell windmill but he has the hip flexibility of an aging panda, and his back leg is straight. He bends at the thoracic spine in a way which makes my own synovial fluid turn grey and hide near my pelvic floor in sympathy. The trainer nods encouragingly because he is trying.
  • A woman is front-squatting. Her knees are geeked out over her toes and her hips don’t go back, well, at all. Her heels, at this point, are purely decorative. She looks like a stork. This is also under supervision, a lumpy young man is staring at her. I would guess he is a ‘trainer’ (noun) but seems reticent to do ‘training’ (verb). He has substituted ‘staring blankly’ instead. I wonder what he is thinking about. Probably something shiny.
  • A woman who is 100kgs (conservative) is doing box jumps. She is jumping back off the box, not stepping down. Her pelvis should join an labor union and demand better conditions. She is in a class where everyone is jumping up and down.
  • Some nitwit is trying to learn to tumble. He tumbles near a loaded bar that someone else has not put away. He comes a few inches from banging his neck into the business end of 60kgs while upside down. He thinks this is funny. I think this is dangerous. I make a mental note to never let him or anyone who looks like him childsit my nephews.
  • Is that…? It is. It’s butterfly/kipping/Grand Mal seizure reps of toes-to-bar. Dear Lord. The fellow in the blue shirt is travelling so far between his arms at the bottom of the reps it looks like his torso is trying to escape from the rest of his body. It’s speeding up until it pulls his shoulder open like a bowstring. The DeLorean thorax.
  • A situp with a kettlebell is not an amazing exercise, but a sweaty messy exhausted situp with the kettlebell held basket-style with straight arms over your face … you might as well just stay home, transfer your life savings to a craniofacial surgeon, and save yourself the recovery time.
  • Idiots expand to fill available space. This guy has used four bumpers to build blocks, then another six to load the bar. But the total bar weight is 60kgs. Between him and his two shirtless friends, who are obviously doing the same program, they have managed to use 50 square meters, three bars and TWENTY bumper plates. Of course, none of them are here at present, they are presently at the juice bar. Is there any exercise about to happen here, or is this like an elephant’s graveyard of low expectations?
  • The one-handed kettlebell overhead squat is not a great exercise for someone with bad shoulder mobility. Or hip mobility. Or ankle mobility. That woman with the red face and the sparkly pants has all three. She is corkscrewing in and out of a half-squat half-call-to-prayer position and rolling her eyes. Why do you hate her, polo-shirt man?
  • The kettlebell class guy cannot decide if he is teaching the straight-up hip hinge or the deadlift. Hips back, or hips down? Who cares, let them do both. #freethehips.

Oh, and I’m not running on, because these observations are from my first three days. I stopped writing them down because I couldn’t think of any more jokes. If I included every dangerous, stupid, excessive activity I saw this would be just 5000 words of increasingly laboured humour. At some point in time, even I run out of ways to snark.

Now, look: every gym is full of idiots. Most of them, after a hard day’s idioting at the Idiot Factory, like to spend their time mixing up the dumbbells, grunting doing lateral raises and admiring themselves at quarter-profile angles.

But this is different, and a bit terrifying. The majority of these exercises are taking place under direct supervision.

Many of them, the trainer is STARING AT the offending party.

This is awful.

Imagine you were an architect, and someone was dribbling on the plans and drawing in MC Escher-influenced staircases in front of a client.

Imagine you were a scientist, and someone in your lab was getting the expensive spectroscopy equipment to work by hitting it with a wet mop.

Imagine you were a laborer, and someone on a job site was eating the planks instead of placing them near the chippy as requested.

This is the total abnegation of professional responsibility coupled with the acceptance of an absurdly low standard of competence. There are no possible scenarios where this isn’t negligent.

And it’s normal.

The truly amazing part is there is a warm up, a series of activation exercises, and what definitely looks like prehab/rehab stuff, which is then followed by the acceptance of totally dysfunctional patterns of movement and poor coaching. This warm-up is the Emperor’s New Clothing of exercise prep. These people are paying top dollar to learn the super-special fitness secrets, and they are being gradually battered witless. It’s all very well doing dislocates and flutter kicks and toe touches, but following them with movement patterns that would shame someone recently released from solitary confinement is more than silly or negligent, it’s weird.

Now, let me row all this back a bit.

This is ONE gym, n=1. It can’t be typical, but it’s equally unlikely to be some ludicrous outlier either.

And let’s not pretend that if you just let some droog loose in some normal weights room and shove him in bench press machine, he won’t figure out a way to catch his fingers in the plate stack, lick the vinyl and gradually grind his shoulders into putty.

And finally, people are a lot tougher than we give them credit for. The whole world is saturated with people doing things ‘biomechanically wrong’ all day in a million different contexts, and the planet somehow manages to not explode into a chiropractor’s wet dream.

But even so.

If there’s a problem here, it’s that the longevity of these people is most crucially dependent on movement quality. While it might not be a consideration right now, a responsible trainer is thinking about what happens to your motivation in two years, and what happens to your joints in five years, not can you get FULLY JACKED ‘N SLICED, BRO by March 1st.

Even if you’re young and your trainer is young, you should have half a collective eye on not poisoning the well, and your ability to move around happily in the future.

On that basis, there’s a responsibility that’s not being assumed here, and one that should be.

So, what to do about it? I have a few suggestions, but I’ll confine myself to one big one.

(I’m sure this isn’t original, and please bear in mind that I am NOT a PT, I’m just some wally on the internet. And no, I’m not making any kind of transition to officially clever person or coach or guru or anything of the sort. I’m just going to say some things and you can tell me if I’m an idiot.)

Really hard, really simple shit is left on the table. Why? Embrace it.

When I have the room and the gear, a lot of my training volume revolves about the Hard, Simple Thing. Four things that are matched in their simplicity only by their unpleasantness are generally on the table:

  • Prowler
  • Farmer’s walk
  • Sandbag carries
  • Drags

Pushing, pulling, carrying. If I have access to these, I’m doing them. They’re self-limiting. They’re impossible to sod up. They don’t have complicated mechanics. They can be modified to ‘metabolically ridiculous’ if that’s what you desire. I don’t care how ‘elite’ you are, try a 20m double push/pull sprint with a nice heavy Prowler. Push up, pull back, push up, pull back. Go go go go go go go gogogogo stop — what’s that feeling? That’s the Reaper, beckoning you home.

But no-one is doing the hard, simple thing. In this great gym with all this great gear, there are no farmer’s bars and no sled. In the whole month, I was the ONLY person to move a sandbag. AT ALL. And there might have been five other people tops who wanted Prowler time.

So why isn’t this stuff getting done?

Our neon donkeys are many things, but they are CERTAINLY NOT afraid of hard work. I mean, they’re doing burpees where they don’t have a push-up at the bottom, they just splatter to the floor like a flung pie and then gradually crane themselves up. It’s bloody torturous, the place looks like it’s continually being air-raided. They ARE doing more bear crawls than the average bear ever would. They ARE doing a thousand swing-raises. They ARE doing sprint finishers.

My (assumed) answer to this is that a) carries/drags etc. don’t scale well to be used in classes, although certainly not impossible, and b) it’s identity- or culture-driven… it’s done a certain way because it just is.

And here’s something else to consider, c) these exercises are ugly.

They don’t make you look lean and special and interesting in the same way a ridiculously light shitty-form snatch does.

I wonder how much a part of the identity this is — playing at athlete. Skill development is an eternal bitch. Watch a group of really good Olympic weightlifters train for an hour, and discover the amount of poking and prodding and discussing and fiddling that goes into developing the form of the people who are already fantastic. Doing twenty reps with just a bar in “snatch class” followed by 100 swing-donkey-raises with a baby kettlebell is kind of the opposite.

That’s the best part about pottering around carrying and pushing heavy shit. These aren’t clever fitness secrets, they’re work. Grim, smelly, pre-industrial work.

These exercises will make you will gob on your lapel and fall over and sweat through your special Tuesday pants. You can’t look all lean and fabulous and thoughtful doing Prowler work. Your makeup will slough off and end up on your special luminous shirt with the funny slogan on it. You end up looking like a string bag full of mince and used tissues got in a car accident.

Which, really, is what you should be going for. Are you there to work or to just look like you work?

Anyway, I’m back at my normal gym now, and far away.

Do I miss my wobbly donkey friends in their little neon hutch? On balance, yes. It was good fun. The people were perfectly OK. And I made a lot of progress, even in a month. A LOT.

I also think this whole deal will get better… eventually. Business models evolve, and or they die.

Would I go back? Yeah, I’d go back. I just hope everyone who was there will have lived in the meantime.

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