Potential Cripples: The Weight Room Story

I really should have written about this sooner, but a few things came up. By “a few,” of course, I mean things that might very well change the course of my life. A few minor things like that. Nevertheless, I had to take a little time off to write about what it’s like lifting weights in China.

I’m a bit handicapped here because I have no prior frame of reference by which to judge how odd a Chinese weight room is. I only attempted to do some weight training in high school, and that venture was cut short by a combination of teenage self-consciousness, the overwhelmingly better-built Marines who used the weight room of the U.S. Embassy, and one truly classic run-in with the ambassador’s bodyguard, a truly massive Egyptian man who asked me to spot for him. He had to have known I couldn’t have lifted one side of the bar he was hoisting up, so goodness only knows why he asked me. It was at that point I decided it might be better to be fast and agile. (In my defense, I was one of the fastest people in my high school. I don’t know if the ambassador’s bodyguard was somewhere in my subconscious, but I suppose it’s possible.)

But on to the weight room at hand: the Nankai gym. The first thing you’ll notice when you walk in the door is the group of three weight room attendants sitting around a table playing cards and smoking. I have yet to figure out how Chinese men reconcile working out with incipient lung cancer. Scott plays soccer here and has told me about how his teammates tend to light up during time-outs. For my money, that’s about like handing out shots of whisky during marathons. But at least that’s outside. Smoking inside, near a bank of treadmills no less, is about like deciding the restroom is too far away and choosing to pee in the pool instead. Speaking of treadmills, about 90 % of them are broken right now. I don’t know why. I do know you don’t quickly forget an experience running on a manky treadmill. I had gotten myself up to speed once when the belt started to stick and I nearly did a face-plant off the support bar. I decided not to risk another experience.

The next thing you’ll notice is the fact that there’s either no music at all. . .or else really, truly, deeply awful music. One thing I know about lifting weights is that you want to be listening to something intense. Heavy metal, perhaps, or maybe hard-core hip-hop played loud enough to make the equipment bleed. What you don’t want is James Blunt. Seriously, is there any situation which would be improved in any way by James Blunt? I suppose if a fleet of warheads were minutes from touchdown it might be worth playing him because, well, everything else is going to crap, so who cares? But in any other situation his music is the proverbial cockroach in the jello: easily detectable, and instantly loathsome. Even more so when you’re trying to lift weights. And you know what the worst part is? When you hear James Blunt in the weight room, it’s never coming out of the house speakers, but out of some guy’s portable radio. Yikes. The only thing worse than James Blunt is lo-fi James Blunt. Maybe the Khmer Rouge, too.

And then we come to the setup. The equipment is fine, though it’s generally strewn about everywhere. Nobody replaces weights in China. Perhaps out of a desire to sound as tough as they look, everyone just leaves things where they lie, as though to replace them on the racks would be dignifying them in some unacceptable way. I don’t quite get it, myself. It’s like there’s a blood-feud going on between the men in the weight room and the equipment. As a result, the entire rack of dumb-bells (probably 50 in all) is on the floor, and most of the bar weights are, too. The whole place looks like a hellish counterpart to the ball-pit at any Chuck-E-Cheez. That doesn’t generally concern me since I don’t use dumb-bells right now, but it’s more than a little inconvenient, especially when you have to walk several circuits of the weight room to find what you need. I go to lift weights, not play hide-the-parcel.

Next: the mirror. Ha! My favorite part of the weight room, and the essence of the Chinese gym experience. Most gyms I’ve seen have had at least one large mirror in the room, the function of which, presumably, is to allow those lifting weights to make sure their form is all right. In China it functions as a way for men to ogle every square inch of their upper bodies. Just about every man in the place, after a set, walks across the room, stands directly in front of the mirror and flexes, strokes, and in every other possible way obsesses about his muscles, even if there aren’t muscles to speak of. The really fun guys are the ones who clearly have no idea what they’re doing, but act as though they do. They’re all close to being cripples, and clearly have no idea, but examine themselves in the mirror anyway. To get a good idea of what I’m talking about, stroll with me over to one of the bench-press setups. Observe, if you will, the bar practically bending from the weight put on it. Observe, as well, that the man preparing to lift it is slightly older and has a pooched-out belly and little pectoral muscle definition. See that? All right, now let’s watch him lift. Ignore the exaggerated grunting and shouting and pay attention instead to the back, which is bowed up in a “U” shape. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to actually HEAR his spine snap like a popsicle stick. By the by, this particular man works in the weight room. Don’t ask him for advice.

Another curious detail is the general build of the men in the weight room. With a few exceptions, who are so freakishly-sculpted and buff they look as though they live in the weight room and merely visit classes, most of the guys are pretty built. . .but small. A very skinny man with well-defined muscles is a little hard to know how to take. It’s a little like seeing a half-bald man whose remaining hair is thick and luxurious. Should you admire the hair, or should you worry about how much is gone? Similarly, many of the guys in the weight room here look pretty tough, but I don’t actually know how strong they are. Yes, I know how strong the guy is who comes in once in a while and does one-armed pull-ups before hoisting 40-kilo dumb-bells like they’re tootsie-rolls, but what about the guy who spends forEVER on the universals and looks like it. . .but probably weighs less than the cat I’m currently watching for a friend? I don’t know. I think I might be able to take him.

That’s the quick version of this. More on the excitement in the weight room as it develops.






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