The adventure & romance of exploring gyms

Reverie of a gym adventurer

When I gush and glow over my life in weightlifting, I don’t talk rattle off my competition stats, titles or records. Not that my modest achievements would mean much to anyone anyhow. When I want to talk lifting, I talk of my gym travels – the gyms I have known, the equipment I have used. I relate to the skiers and climbers who talk not of their performance high points, but the high points of their journeys. They’ve hit Hood and Everest; I’ve hit a gym in nearly every pocket of the Northwest.

I’m a junkie. When I travel on business, my idea of unwinding is to check out the local gym. I delight in seeing what kind of squatting set-up they’ve got, pull-up arrangement, how their platforms are built. Different lifting cultures offer different landscapes to explore. There's the chic, state-of-the-industry gym, with scalloped stainless steel wanescotting and tri-angular machines; full-range, multi-angular, ergonomic devices that most of the world only reads about in magazines. I get giddy over eccentric loading capability. Then there's the rustic romance of the dusty, bare-floored gym with duct-taped heavybags, spilling chalk bowls, and faded handwritten signs (Don't crush the chalk!). If I don’t have time or forbid – the energy – for a work out, I’ve even been known to stop into gyms just to get the tour. If I have to fake being a prospective member, I rise to the challenge. Just let me in.

I’ve been to Gold’s Gyms and privately-owned bodyshops on the south coast, the midcoast, to the chains around Portland, to a kettlebell gym, weightlifting gyms, NIKE World Headquarters, to the earnest physical therapy/lifting combo outfits on the border of Idaho, to university weightrooms in Ohio, to YMCAs in Pennsylvania. I’ve lifted in a golf course fitness center and more hotels than I can count, from the west coast to NYC to Florida, and I’ve broken out my dumbbells outside my tent at sunset on windy South Dakota prairie.

Different places have different energy. A work out performed in a unique place can burn into your memory eternally, so remembering the vision can take you back into the moment.

Close to a bodybuilding competition, I found myself in a new experimental Gold's Gym in Boise, Idaho, a slick, brand new facility with a twinge of The Matrix. I can still see the diamond-plate swooping over the lower half of the walls, and feel the shadowy power of the freshly powder-coated equipment. I was in top condition and so was the gym. I finished lifting at 10 p.m., and can still feel the pump, like a rosy rush of memory over my skin.

There were the nights after I closed down the Gold's in downtown Salem, Oregon, when I'd lock the doors, crank up the reggae and have the bench area all to myself for chest work. I can instantly relive that moment in the Youngstown State University football team weightroom - vast, orderly, heavy and slightly dark - when I forced myself through one last dip and felt the pop in my chest, stopped, dropped and walked into the nurse's station to find out I'd yanked cartilage off my sternum. Not a great moment, but a solid memory rooted in place and motion, part of my evolution that makes me smile.

The tall, white walls and light pouring through the windows at Bally's in Wilsonville, Oregon filled me with such energy every day during the years I worked there. Three floors tall, open and airy, black mats on the floor sliced by light through the vertical blinds - it fed my creativity, and I led clients happily through some of the most unusual work outs of their lives, attaching bands at unexpected angles on the white Hammerstrength frames. Saturday mornings, my leg work outs drove me hard - inspired personal best squats, headphones cranked high, the camaraderie of the clutch of serious lifters waking ourselves up with the power of our blood.

These days, I prefer the magic of the mornings, middays and evenings in my primitive studio, where the elements of nature and lifting merge. Covered in chalk, visited by cats, swelling with the smells in the air, the uninsulated and light-leaking shop is more a segue between the landscape and me than a separation, where the outdoors and indoors overlap. I can open the garage door to the elements. Spiders, bats, rats, bees, flies, raccoons, deer - they're as free to pass over my platform as I am. In the spring, to warm, I step out into the sun; in the summer, I step inside for the coolness trapped inside the old wood walls; in the winter, I brace with the chill, dart to the studio through rain. It's my connection with nature, both inside and out; I feel every nuance of every season.

But I do belong to an excellent small weightlifting gym populated mostly by high school athletes, where handwritten rules include "No stinkin' up the joint" and "No looking outside waiting for your ride to come." And weightlifting competitions have taken me to some major high points - Ironworks Gym in Creswell, Oregon, which is one of my very favorites, and University of Oregon, which some say has the best weightlifting facility in the country. It was awe-inspiring, a real pilgrimage point.

Different places have different stuff. I’ve used straight cast dumbbells, ergonomic handled dumbbells, dumbbells with rubber-coated ends and the square-plate dumbbells that can hold 2 to 100 pounds each. I am a connoisseur of cable pulleys. One look and I can tell whether the set-up is old and neglected enough to add 20 pounds to the marked weight amounts or whether it’s the bliss of smooth-moving mechanical ease. I’ve worked out on machines like astronauts use, forcing air pressure for resistance, on digitally-controlled machines which allow me to program in what percentage of weight I load onto my eccentric versus concentric contractions. I’ve squatted on contraptions that load me vertically, horizontally and on a slant. I've deadlifted with a thick bar at U of O. And you know what? I can’t get enough. At home, while channelsurfing, I pause the remote on makeover reality shows when gyms pop up in the background and subject my husband to flash reviews.

(I have to interject on my own diatribe here and add that you don't need anything too fancy to work out. My own gym is simple. Like tasting unexpected free gourmet treat samples and playing with baubles at hoity-toity clothes shops, fancy stuff is just fun.)

With the exception of the original Muscle Beach site in Santa Monica or its successor Muscle Beach Venice, there are few pilgrimages ensconced in the weightlifting/weight training traditions. Personally, I would love to lift in Toffe's breathtaking outdoor studio in Finland. It's surely the pride and joy of the powerlifting fellow who calls it home. How at one he must feel supported by equipment made of wood and steel, looking up into blue sky from the bench, surrounded by trees.

I don’t know whether this romance for "lifting spaces" is shared by anyone else. I’ve yet to find anyone else to babble on with about gym travels and get drunk on equipment sightings. But I’d like the world of fringe athletes to know there is a different way of talking about one’s lifting career. If surfers paint their histories in litanies of beaches and climbers name their mountains, why not revere our passion of choice with the landmarks of our adventures, and show the world just how worldly we lifters can be? That it’s so much more than a mirror and a trophy.

Want to see my photos of different gyms I've known? Click here.

* Also see Johnny Cash's "I've been everywhere, man"

Photos - My gym; Hiram College, Ohio; NIKE headquarters in Beaverton, OR; Kettlebell Elite Gym in Tigard, OR; Ironworks in Creswell, OR; Five Rings in Portland, OR; U of O in Eugene, OR; Toffe's outdoor gym in Finland; Muscle Beach.


Spider63 said...

Why don't you mention some of those great gyms that really stand out in your mind?

The Mighty Kat said...

Done! (and it only took a few months) Thanks for the suggestion. It led me deeper into the idea, and I hope the piece is better for it? Let me know.