by Shaun N Jafarian
“Recently I’ve faced the challenge of finding a gym suitable for working toward my strength goals after spending over a year as a member of the Wichita Falls Athletic Club. To say my perspective on what constitutes a “gym,” particularly in regards to strength training, had been transformed by my time in Wichita Falls would be a gross understatement… ”
Today’s fitness industry has ushered in a new paradigm of what Americans consider a “gym.” In cities across the country the traditional small, privately-owned gymnasiums are being quickly replaced by large corporately owned “fitness center” chains. Mammoth palaces of colorful machines, even more colorful clothing, at least one juice bar, and more tubes of shame (aka tanning beds) than flat benches. They’ve got all the amenities today’s common gym rat or Rattus plebeius palestra to the scientifically inclined, could possibly desire. One can flail around on a giant rubber ball, enjoy a delicious $8 smoothie, or go strap into a futuristic machine that looks as though it was designed to be the centerpiece of one of Tool’s music videos. How about pedaling away on a stationary bike in a movie theater while giant robots battle it out on the big screen? Yes, you can.
However, if one’s interest is true strength training, as opposed to comparing apparel while mastering stairs, these bastions of fitness may leave something to be desired. Recently I’ve faced the challenge of finding a gym suitable for working toward my strength goals after spending over a year as a member of the Wichita Falls Athletic Club. To say my perspective on what constitutes a “gym,” particularly in regards to strength training, had been transformed by my time in Wichita Falls would be a gross understatement. I’ll admit it; 15 years ago I might have been referred to as a disco bodybuilder. I was completely comfortable using 18 different machines on “chest day” and never really getting any stronger. As an adult with more education and experience I now lift weights exclusively for the purpose of getting stronger. And my notions of what constitutes an acceptable training environment have transformed into a more pragmatic, utilitarian model.
While this model was embodied quite well in the WFAC, Uncle Sam would have it that I move on from my time in Texas. I had to say goodbye to the familiar round iron York plates, the old school power racks, the presence of chalk everywhere, including the air, and the smell of varnish in the Olympic room when the platforms had been freshly refinished. It was time to find a new place to train. I was about to return to a world where the odor of perfume hung around the cardio equipment while cheap cologne assaulted the senses near the weights. I’d be training in places that made it impossible to even touch a weight without simultaneously viewing oneself in 3 different mirrors. Abattoirs filled with hipsters bouncing up and down on giant rubber balls in a fashion reminiscent of the recent South Park episode about testicular cancer. Pragmatic utilitarianism was about to be swapped for gaudy pretentiousness.
As I made my trek across the country I had the opportunity to sample several of the big-name fitness conglomerates. It had been several years since I’d stepped foot in one of these atrocities, and despite my horror I’m sure it was my eyes that had changed over the years far more than the gyms themselves. In total I would visit gyms in 6 states in just a couple of weeks, from the West coast to the western edge of the Eastern Time zone.
First up, 24 Hour Fitness. Nearly 30 years in business, this is the world’s largest commercial fitness center chain. It’s the Wal-Mart for those looking to generically enhance their health through exercise. Just as the above mentioned discount retailer, 24 Hour Fitness gyms can be found in an assortment of sizes. From the enormous 100,000 square foot “Ultra-Sport” to the miniature single room “Fit-Lite,” it would seem at first glance this mighty corporate fitness chain should have everyone’s training needs covered. Clearly the gym’s title invokes a sense of convenience; the notion that one can go train 24 hours a day could be enticing to some. However, as it turns out the name doesn’t say it all. Several of them that I encountered would close on Saturday and Sunday night, effectively becoming “24 Hour Fitness, Except on Weekends.” On their website I signed up for a 7 day free trial and proceeded to one of their “Super Sport” locations. This particular iteration occupied about 60,000 square feet in a shopping district a few miles outside of a metropolitan area. After tolerating the requisite sales pitch and repeatedly explaining I just wanted to “try it out,” I was set free amongst a vast array of equipment I will simply never use. This is a fact that applies to all the big fitness centers I would eventually visit on this fruitless search for a serious strength training club. It is not an exaggeration to say that 95% of the equipment in these places is totally unnecessary and a good portion of it counterproductive to strength training.
An example; The Kegel machine. At least that’s what I’ve always called it. A few seconds wasted on Google indicated this repugnant piece of hardware is referred to as an adduction/abduction machine. A middle aged trophy wife can usually be seen occupying this ridiculous contraption, legs spreading and closing ever so rhythmically while her ipod fills her head with the sounds of Michael Bolton. Henceforth this machine will be known as… the Kegel machine. If your gym has more Kegel machines than power racks, it’s time to find a new one. There is absolutely no functional reason whatsoever to apply resistance to one’s hips and inner thighs in this manner. I’ll leave a refutation of this statement to the more imaginative.
This 24 Hour Fitness was home to a single power rack. Next to it was an angled squat rack, while two Smith machines sat in close proximity. The Smith machines were occupied with people doing whatever it is they do with that thing while the power rack was empty. I was happy to see some round plates mixed in with the 12 sided rubber-coated ones that always dominate these clubs. There was no dedicated deadlift platform, but that was no big deal since the power rack and round plates were all I needed. This rack did not include a pull-up bar at the top. No chalk was offered anywhere in the gym, but this was no surprise. I had brought my own, and I also noticed a few faint remnants of past chalk use on the bar. That’s a good sign and one that would be absent in some of the other clubs I’d call on. I was able to accomplish a standard 5x5 day of squats, presses and deadlifts without ever having to venture outside the familiar comfort of the only power rack in the joint. I finished my workout with a few sets of dips on an assisted dip/pull-up machine after stowing the gravity-defying pad-of-the-weak. This was the only option because a conventional dip station was nowhere to be found.
May 19 Training Camp (Deadlift & Clean) : Atlanta, GA
May 17-19 Starting Strength Seminar : Newport, NC
May 25 Training Camp (The Squat) : Chicago, IL
June 7-9 Starting Strength Seminar : Wichita Falls, TX
July 12-14 Starting Strength Seminar : Denver, CO
August 9-11 Starting Strength Seminar : Springfield, MO
September 6-8 Starting Strength Seminar : Brooklyn, NY