The Strangest Habit I Have

Most people who go to the gym bring a towel, a water bottle and a lobotomy.

In general, the assumptions of a gym encourage this. People fit into machines which address single muscles, define muscle groups, planes of movement. The structure is inherent in the idea of industrial machinery which is purpose built for a single task, with a controlled input and a controlled output. Most barbells are appended to an appropriate bench. Incline press, that goes here. Next to the ab machine, tricep machine, calf machine.

And, the father of them all and the emotional centerpiece of the whole silliness, the cardio machine. The kale of exercise.

(A $12,000 machine designed to recreate the experience of the method of transporting yourself that you used to get to the machine in the first place? Bless you. It’s like driving out of town to an urban driving simulator.)

Machines can’t be altered or moved. They usually weight several hundred kilos by themselves. When you think about it, if the provision of a piece of iron or steel to produce resistance against gravity is what you’re doing, 95% of the steel in a machine is useless — you’re moving 30lbs on a cable, while another 220lbs sits unmoved, in a welded frame which weighs 500lb. In that sense, machines are ludicrously inefficient. Would you get a better ‘workout’ if you picked the whole thing up?

You change the weight, with a pin, along a single dimension. Sometimes, the manufacturer will proudly tell you on the little steel sign, they allow you the unmitigated luxury of two.

(This is a misnomer. A lot of proud boasts about two whole dimensions provide a single path through two dimensions, which ‘perfectly matches your biomechanical pathways’, or at least it does if you are a scoliotic 19th century coal-miner with limb lengths decided by committee.)

I wonder if this is why people are congenitally incapable of returning the movable equipment that they use.

It’s curious when you think about it.

I’ve never seen anyone eat in a diner, and then leave their plate on a chair and their cutlery on the floor. I’ve never seen anyone return a rental car with the seat headrests tucked under the back seat and the fuelcap in the trunk. People — mostly — manage to leave their cutlery on the table, their ‘tray table folded and seatback in the upright position, thank you’, their litter in the bin, and their car parked within the lines. These other public/private spaces manage to maintain a certain kind of basic object-oriented civility.

But hand them an 8 kg dumbbell, and suddenly a compulsion to wedge one between the wall and the rack, and the other in a space on the other side of the room marked with 55KG overwhelms them.

You might do it yourself.

#NotMostGyms. I mean, these are in PAIRS.

Well, I put other people’s dumbbells away.

Actually, I reorder their dumbbells, then put them away.

I pair up lonely plates. I put bars back on pins — and if they’re specialty bars, I return them to where they ought to be. I put pins back in supports. I carry the big plate you did your dorky-ass twisting crunches with back to the leg press.

Occasionally, I reorganise the whole dumbbell rack. This is normally late at night, when no-one else is around — obviously, it takes time and needs space.

And, while I still feel compelled to do it, it makes me feel a little strange. I feel like if I’m helpful I’m violating some kind of unspoken contract which states the correct way to behave is to instead leave everything in a screaming heap. Human nature is strange like that.

I didn’t have a decent self-reflection on why I did this until I started writing here. No grand motive. Not even an un-grand motive. Do you need to have a motive for preferring slacks over jeans, or driving a Dodge Omni? Not every activity is worth examination.

But I realised eventually why I was doing it.

It isn’t because I saw someone else do it and thought it was a pleasant and civilised idea. I’ve never seen anyone else do it. I’ve never read any hairy-chested article on the internet about how you should do it bc. culture bc. construct-of-masculinity bc. whatever.

It certainly isn’t trying to set an example. Gym nubbins don’t pick up information socially. You’ve more chance trying to get your cat to bust out the chorus to The H.M.A.S. Pinafore by singing a few light operettas at him.

“You’re a modern major WHAT now? Stop singing! Where’s my dinner?”

With all the hysterical posturing and egos and tiny triumphs and miseries sailing around fruitlessly in any given designated exercise space, the idea of ‘show tacit respect to other people through cleanliness and order’ is just not going to catch on. Tacit and mindless do not play well together.

And it definitely isn’t because I’m a neat/clean freak. I’m not.

If anything, I had the opposite problem for years. A list of the horrible things I’ve done involving mess and bother would be long. Imagine Wreck-It Ralph with disposable income, a penchant for cooking and not cleaning, and a sledgehammer. I used to thermite things in my backyard.

(Ask my poor brother and his wife about the time they lived in the same house and I bought a raw, wet cow’s head from an abbatoir and half-buried it in the backyard so the ants would leave me the skull. I called him Norman. I have photos of him somewhere. I was pretty much a bigger, louder Pig-Pen.)

ME. Even the hair and the smile are accurate.

This dumbbell thing, it’s much simpler than all that.

It’s free work.

Imagine that, the vast majority of people in a gym want improvements in body composition, and there’s a nice weight-beating task right there that is unstructured, that you won’t feel, that will keep you moving between sets, that will keep your heart rate up, that will even help someone else

And after you’re finished your super-mega drop set of curl-o-blasters, you can’t put the dumbbells away, you can’t put your plates on the pin and you can’t rack your bar in the right place?

(How often have you been legitimately, absolutely 100% too tired to put even the biggest pair of dumbbells away? Right — never. Me either.)

I’ve actually seen someone do a set of farmer’s walks in a gym, and then fail to put the implements away.

EVEN THOUGH THAT IS THE SAME THING AS THE EXERCISE.

The whole attitude people have towards the things the lift reveals a) a mindset that works within structure and b) a really weird sense of entitlement. Honestly, neither are particularly conducive to legitimate physical culture.

Oh, I can also think of one other influence.

I have a very, very short list of things written about training which I like. It’s short enough that I can remember most of them by heart.

I read this more than ten years ago — it’s a description of training with the 5 time World’s Strongest Man, Mariusz Pudzianowski:

“Try to read this remembering this was all done in a 90 minute session (Mariusz had a plane to catch).
10 sets 7–10 pull-ups, and chin-ups
5 sets of 10 lat pull-downs
5 sets of 10 lat rows
5 sets of 6–10 good mornings
5 sets of ten standing triceps skull-crushers (with 155)
5 sets of ten triceps push-downs
5 sets of deadlifting (he worked up to 655 for a few).
During this whole workout, Mariusz never took a break, and never got winded. If we started talking or carrying on he would throw up his arms and say…‘train! train!’ ”

Yes, he was a freak. But he was a freak competing against other freaks, and he stomped them. Consistently. For years. And the one thing he always had in the bag was conditioning. He had the work capacity of a Shire horse.

Now, while none of us will be conditioned like he was (I mean LOOK at that workout, Sisyphus would have taken up yoga if you’d presented that to him), if there’s one message it’s that it sure does help to keep moving. Little bit of extra work, don’t slob out, stay focused.

If I lose focus, I get distracted.

So, I keep moving.

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