During an ill advised attempt at self improvement I bought a membership to a box gym. The gym looked terrible—a purple monstrosity full of beat up ellipticals and piss covered floors—but the price was right. For twenty bucks a month I got unlimited access to the building, plus tanning privileges and use of the massage chairs. My late night sessions on the stairmaster left a lot of time to people watch. I witnessed some real shit: hammer curls in the squat rack, men in jeans sadly attempting pull ups, protein shakes spilt on the floor and left to congeal in puddles of apathy and good intentions. But the worst of the gym offenses happened during pizza day.
The fact that the box gym hosted a pizza day was sad enough, but the way the patrons consumed the pies was downright depressing. As I hit sprints at double time I witnessed person after person gleefully pound mounds of cheese and dough, then walk over to the cardio machines for a workout. While trying to do the calories in/calories out math, I caught a man take his slice and get on the treadmill. Dude was literally eating pizza while trying to jog. There was something deeply upsetting about the scene. Instantly it became metaphor: all the different ways we self sabotage, how a lack of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, how the institutions that are supposed to help us don’t always have our best intentions in mind. While I was tripping on the existential terror of treadmill pizza eater, the dude dropped his slice. Face down. It took the short trip down the conveyor to the floor. For a second the guy looked like someone had kicked his dog. Then he hopped off the treadmill to get more pizza.
Thinking about the experience I wondered about all the other terrible things that have happened at the gym. I decided to ask personal trainers about the worst things they’ve ever seen at work.
I could talk about gym members not putting their weights back where they belong, leaving the gym floor a scattered, hazardous mess. I could talk about the trainers on their phone, checking their Tinder matches during sessions, or sleeping with clients. I could even talk about the time a guy got arrested after he took off his pants and followed a female member into the change room. But the worst thing, to me, is condescending coaching. Look, personal training is a luxury service. It’s not something everybody can afford. So it's really unfortunate when I see people spending an hour getting told what they are doing wrong and how much they suck at exercise. Condescending coaches try to fit their client to a rigid exercise prescription, regardless of it's the right thing for their client based on their goals. Instead of putting their clients in positions where they can be successful, they give them things they aren't ready for, then get mad when the client isn’t able to demonstrate the the task. People just dropped good money to try and get you to help them improve. How is that ever going to happen if you treat them like they’re in grade school?
I should mention that all my clients are awesome. I work with people who are working hard towards their goals and want to get stuff done. But there are other people around the fitness industry that are...we’ll call them interesting. Prior to where I work now, I was at a big box gym. I had a few very specific requests. There was the guy who insisted on wearing an oxygen mask his entire training session. Another guy who asked if we could help him do barbell squats while standing on a stability ball (he said he was inspired by the circus elephants). There were dudes that would heavy breath into the phone. Other dudes who wanted help in the change room. But the most memorable was the guy who asked if he could be held in the pool while he learned to swim. He said he wanted to be held like mother used to. That was weird.
In addition to working as a personal trainer I also work with people on nutrition. I think the biggest challenge for people who want to change their diet is having to read and sift through the bullshit on the internet. People can get misinformed. Three years ago I had a lady in a consultation tell me that she thought her veggie intake was high for the day. As her first serving of vegetables she had ordered Chinese fried rice, which included peas and carrots. Her other serving of vegetables consisted of an XL meat pizza that also had onion and green peppers. My face instantly showed the shock I was experiencing that this woman thought she had consumed enough of the right veggies. Which was...not true. The idea that there is an all encompassing diet is a myth. There is so much information readily available, it is hard for clients to know what is the right information and where to even begin looking. But pizza vegetables don’t count the same as normal vegetables.
I began working at the campus gym in undergrad. The job was mostly walking around and counting people for stats. Occasionally I refilled the wet wipes or did light cleaning. Easy stuff. The only time this changed was during the busy seasons. September and January things became a zoo. There’d be two hundred people in the weight room alone. One day in September I entered the weight room expecting a disaster. It was unexpectedly quiet. Just a single bro. He rocking a sleeveless tee, earphones in, and red mesh trucker hat off to the side. Buddy gets over to the flat bench, grabs a couple of ninety pound dumbbells, and gets ready to go to war. Bro gets in two reps before one shoulder comes down way faster than the other. He drops the weights and grabs his shoulder. He looks totally pale and as he tries to get up he’s wobbly. Pec tear. No doubt. Later in the shift I see the bro gathering his stuff. All of these things are propped on one side and his arm is starting to change colour from bruising. Time and time again I tell people: they’ve got to know their limits.
The worst thing I’ve ever seen at a gym is something I see almost every time I set foot into one. It’s the one time a McDonald’s arch is the least appealing thing someone could look at. The arch I’m referring to is the one that appears when someone steps up to a bar, bends down, and does something that they think appears to be a deadlift. When I see those arches in someone’s spine—when someone looks like they’re doing a standing cat-camel—the chiropractor and strength Coach in me dies a little. The rounded spine while deadlifting is the kiss of death: it could be the first and last PR they ever do. To avoid this: talk to someone. Get some help. Videotape yourself. Download Coach’s Eye. Or get a pair of eyes to tell you whether or not your back is rounded, and for good measure, take them to McD’s after and buy them a happy meal because the only thing that should be smiling is the meal, not your back.
Graham Isador likes lifting heavy things. Follow him on Twitter.
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