What I Learned Working Out at a Gym for Nerds
Swinging maces and channeling He-Man for gains.
Photos by the author
It gets lonely in the no man's land between jock and geek. Though active my entire life, watching sports bores me to tears, and while my city gets swept up in World Series fever, I'm primarily concerned with which road to take to best avoid the traffic it spawns. And as I don't have a nostalgic bone in my body, watching stuff like the now-annual Star Wars offering feels more like a perfunctory exercise to keep up with pop culture than a joyous explosion of fandom.
That said, I take a "live and let live" approach and begrudge no one their personal interests or hobbies. People like and dislike what they will. Unfortunately, this preference truism is a double-edged sword, and, through no fault of my own, I'm left with fewer cultural touchstone than most to help me bond with other humans.
When I heard about Nerdstrong Gym, a Los Angeles gym that's equal measures CrossFit and Comic Con, it seemed as if I'd stumbled upon the solution to this problem and would be able to kill two birds with one Darth Vader–shaped kettle bell.
With the guidance of Nerdstrong's founder, Andrew Deutsch, I signed up for a hell week that would allow me to sample each of the gym's classes to help me pin down which of the workouts best spoke to the fanboy that must be locked inside me somewhere.
Deutsch started the program in his garage in 2014 after falling into a rut with his usual CrossFit regimen. Originally, Deutsh gamified his routine to cajole a reluctant friend into working out with him. But after word spread of his novel approach to exercise and more people began to express interest, Nerdstong was born.
Over the years, the gym has become a sort of poster child for the growing geek fitness market, with Deutsch now being courted by major entertainment industry players to facilitate special promotional events like a Blade Runner 2049–themed workout.
"It's really just about creating a safe zone for people who wouldn't necessarily feel comfortable in a traditional gym setting to come out and be active," Deutsch told me when I asked him about the gym's mission. "I'm not gonna be upset if people want to use the term 'fun' to describe us, either."
My initiation into the community was a baptism by fire. The "18/00: Exceptional Strength" class (a reference to PC game Baldur's Gate) I started with was a grueling gauntlet of heavy lifting and jumping. Though it was likely the hardest workout I'd put myself through in years, I managed to keep up with the class regulars.
David, the trainer overseeing the class, made good on the promise in the gym's name and injected ample nerdy commentary into his instructions. While correcting my form on a kettlebell exercise, David suggested I shout "I have the power," and channel He-Man raising his sword.
My classmates geeked out along with David, and ran the full spectrum of nerdiness. Everyone from long-bearded Central Casting Dungeon Masters to unassuming corporate types were represented in the classes I attended.
This diversity speaks to the proliferation of nerd culture into the general population. It's clear that few among us regard themselves as entirely devoid of some nerdy interests. The generation reared on comedies like Weird Science and Ghostbusters has mythologized and adopted the underdog hero's struggle portrayed in these films as their own. Today, though sci-fi and comic properties annually dominate the entertainment markets and STEM careers offer greater job and financial security than most other vocations, a segment of this tribe still identifies as the beleaguered underdog, perpetually under assault by the preppy Chads of the world. But if everyone's a nerd, is anyone a nerd?
I left the class with muscles burning but heartened that I was on my way toward new common ground with both the meatheads and dorks in my life. Over the coming week, I poured myself into my Nerdstrong routine as well as committing to its vocabulary. I swung maces around for the "Blacksmith" class and chipped away at a mini-boss's health with battle rope sets during a morning "Boss Fight." Each night, my body ached in new places and ways from these skirmishes, resisting the "leveling up" I was subjecting it to.
I gradually began to socialize more in class, picking up "allies" for partnered exercises. One fellow adventurer, Anthony Stewart, said he clicked with the gym after his roommate dragged him out to a class designed to work around his back injury.
"I tried regular gyms, and it just didn't work," he told me. "But being around other people with similar interests who are equally motivated to do the work really made the difference."
Another workout partner, Aaron Hallaway, whose penchant for wisecracks and silly takes on exercises made him the clear jester of the group, claimed that Nerdstrong Gym saved him from heading down a dark path.
"I'd just been laid off from the job I'd been at for four years," said Hallaway. "I woke up the next day and said to myself, I can either sit at home eating pizza, playing video games, and being depressed, or I can see what happens if I go to the gym. After that, it's like I entered a fugue state of fitness. I just kept going and going, and eventually six months had passed. I'd dropped all this weight and gained all this strength, so I figured I might as well keep coming."
My workouts progressed nicely, but in true Joseph Campbell fashion, my hero's journey hit the "ordeal" phase, and I missed my Sunday morning "themed workout" class. I'd been overexerting myself, and the sickness I'd been battling finally got the better of me. But, sticking to the story circle, I rebounded by the next day and came back to my last workout more energized than ever.
Deutsch, who oversaw my final class, commended the effort I'd put into the week's adventure and wished me well going forward. But had it actually worked? Had I actually harnessed the nerd and jock duality within me for good or would this all fade away again once my barbell plates no longer had Captain America's shield painted on them?
My jock side had certainly blossomed over the week. Given my history with team sports, I've always known I can channel my innate primal bro should the need for him arise, even if I never want to learn a pro athlete's last name. Using this, I was able to maneuver through a surprise baseball conversation without incident during my week. Furthermore, on more than one occasion, I caught myself shamelessly admiring the unexpected swole-ness of my new Nerdstrong body. I'd have to make sure to keep that under control but, by and large, if this was me at peak jock, it seemed relatively manageable.
The greater challenge was always going to be embracing the nerd shit. And with Porgs and Stranger Things hype spattered all over my social media feeds, preemptively making my blood boil, I began to worry that not only had I failed my quest but, worse, I was just a jock.
I fretted about this for a while before a friend pointed out that I'd been missing the forest for the trees. Nerd-dom has expanded to encompass pretty much everything. I am absolutely nerdy, just not about things in the bullseye center of pop culture. Taking stock, I realized that I somehow make time to play pretty much every indie and AAA video game. Mainstream, but still kinda nerdy. Most of my waking moments—driving, walking, exercising, cleaning—are spent listening to an endless backlog of podcasts. That's pretty nerdy! And I'll admit that I, like every other nerdy asshole, thoroughly enjoy watching Rick & Morty.
It took a week of rigorous exercise to finally learn that I am just as nerdy as everyone else when approached from the right perspective. Now, when I'm finding the best path around Dodger Stadium crowds or weaving my way through Anime Expo cosplayers downtown, I'll take note of the earbuds I'll undoubtedly have blasting some esoteric comedy bullshit into my head and remember we're not so different after all.
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