Barbell Summer

by Hannah Pralle | September 08, 2021

bottom of a squat

You know that feeling when you close down a bar, and it’s 2am, and they turn on all the lights?

Some guy with an earpiece starts circulating around and repeating, in a practiced, intrusive monotone, that you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here. And what was, moments ago, a timeless dream, an ambiently thoughtless environment, where decisions were not only unnecessary but discouraged in favor of simply floating, together, in this boozy stream…now, along with the floodlights, the necessity of decision crashes down upon everyone’s head, like thin, noisily breaking glass.

This is essentially what the COVID lockdown felt like, for average gym goers. Ejected, rudely, from whatever had functioned as their hazy fitness fantasy; forced into a world where, sure, it was possible to go through most of those motions at home, or in a park – just like it’s possible to buy all the ingredients and make craft cocktails in your own kitchen. What you can’t recreate though, is the environment in which any of that makes sense, or rather where your own suspicion that it might not make sense is soothingly suspended, lulled by the comforting awareness that everyone around you is doing it too.

Nope — now you’re just drinking, at home on your couch.

For instance, it’s one thing to go drift around a gym and perch, like a curious bird, upon various pieces of equipment, absently moving a body part while actually scrolling your phone. It’s another thing to waste your own time in the light of day, all by yourself.

You could have Amazon deliver some exercise equipment, if you could decide what — but every time you look, less of it is available, as everyone everywhere faces this same conundrum. An elliptical? No, I don’t have room for that, and they might still allow me to go for walks. A bar and some weights? That probably makes the most sense. I’m sure I can figure out what to do with it. Shit, those are all sold out. Some, like, cables or bands or something? Okay.

More videos of people snapping themselves in the face with exercise bands went viral on the internet in the spring and summer of 2020 than ever before.

One’s choice of fitness strategy and requisite equipment became, suddenly, a choice one must starkly face and actually compete to acquire, rather than an anonymously, reflexively phoned-in habit, with a monthly bill you’re so accustomed to paying you don’t even notice. It’s one thing to flirt around at the gym, Mr. Isolation Machine or Ms. Cardio, but are you gonna take this workout home to meet the parents?

Judging from what sold out when, I’d say the COVID lockdown caused a lot – and I mean a lot – of people to have a real Come-To-Jesus moment about barbells.

We didn’t own our own equipment, when they shut the country down, and believe me we had to hustle for it. We drove here, there, and everywhere, going back and forth with people on Craigslist, CrossFit gym owners liquidating excess equipment to pay the rent, individuals trying to monetize stuff they didn’t need, and long story short, we got ourselves set up.

We consider ourselves lucky. We were firmly plugged in to Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program already and, sudden equipment gold rush notwithstanding, nothing about our training paradigm changed or needed to change.

We spent the spring on the East Coast, with Nick’s family, abandoning our home in Albuquerque for the time, as our livelihoods as a strength coach and a truck driving instructor, respectively, had been erased. Our landlord, Andy, wanted to use our casita as a means to self-quarantine from his family, due to being a nurse in the COVID ICU. We weren’t thrilled at the prospect of spending an open-ended lockdown in what is already one of the most violent cities in the US. We’d check in with Andy from time to time.

“Y’all got some coronavirus people over there?”

“Ah yes. They’re quite ill. Very ill.” (Andy is British – very British.)

“Healthy before?”

“Well, no, not really. One gentleman had renal failure, before, and the other is terribly obese. Five, six hundred pounds. Not healthy, no.”

The ‘Rona was steadily being presented as the worst thing in all of human history, and we continued seeing nothing amiss, in our travels to the East Coast and all around to buy barbell equipment. Were there upside-down burning cars in the ditches? No. Stacks of dead bodies at every city limit? No. Megatrons over every road in the country advising us to ‘STAY SAFE STAY HOME’ and ‘WEAR A MASK SAVE LIVES’? Absolutely.

I stood in line at a cafe, on one occasion, barred from entry obviously and six feet from the people behind me and in front of me.

“Two of my coworkers got it,” volunteered one guy.

“How’re they doin?” I inquired.

“One’s fine. The other didn’t make it.”

The line of people murmured and shuffled their feet. Predictably, and like an asshole, I asked, “Healthy before?”

“Ah, no, actually. He was very old, past retirement, and had severe MS.”

Everyone shuffled their feet again, with a modicum of relief.

We set up our barbell gym in the garage, and did our workouts with the big door raised and the music blasting. Wilmington, NC was wonderful that time of year. Nick’s little sister Marianna had been in tears, when we arrived. This kind of thing fucks people up. They can’t go to work – alright, that’s okay for a while. They can’t go to church, even with social distancing? That’s, ah, unconstitutional.

Thankfully, God can still be found at home, for the most part. You know what can’t be found at home? Gains. Not without a barbell.

So we installed our janky second-hand gym in the garage, and Marianna availed herself of it with extreme prejudice. Nick’s brother Jarrod, displaced from his home in Manhattan and his job as executive chef at a five star restaurant, made dejected and particularly intense use of the equipment. Nick’s mother and eventually his father became magnetized by the challenging spectacle of these incredibly simple and yet subtly complex lifts. Barbells proved far more transmissible than the coronavirus.

Our little garage gym became, amazingly, an oasis, a space where everyone could both acknowledge and appreciate the mutual challenges they faced, individually tackled, under the barbell.

In a world full of people at loose ends, questioning the suddenly anchorless meanings of their own existence, Nick and I felt very oriented. Jobless, churchless, sanctioned by the government for pursuing nearly any normal relationship except one with alcohol, saturated with fear by the relentless barrage of the ambulance-chasing media, the entire world seemed steeped in fear, thoroughly tea-bagged by dread – yet Nick and I remained happily absorbed in our practice.

Meanwhile, the world continued falling apart in the stupidest imaginable way, as we traveled on to Baltimore, to visit a friend. More megatrons telling us what was good for us, a continued and at this point almost disappointing absence of burning cars and piles of dead bodies.

In Baltimore, we identified a sunny, flat parking lot for our daily sessions. We’d follow up our lifts with long, open-ended excursions to the nearby park, with our two little dogs. We quickly realized we were the only sober people there, at any time of day. Canines of all sizes frolicked for previously unimaginable amounts of time – eventually tiring themselves, returning to their owners’ feet, actually asking to be taken home.

George Floyd was killed while we pumped up our gains in Baltimore, and the race riots were in full effect as we cautiously made our way back across the United States. We’d secured employment with a wildland fire season contractor, and now must negotiate not only COVID but also Antifa, all the way west.

David Dorn was murdered in St. Louis the very night we stayed there. We hadn’t checked the news, but were surrounded by emergency vehicles, on our way out of town, and were lucky enough to be the last ones through a hastily erected road closure. I realized I had better get on my phone and start Googling.

“They LIVE STREAMED this guy’s murder on FACEBOOK?!” I shrieked.

“Are you fucking... what?” Nick hissed, concentrating on the road, and the sound of sirens everywhere.

We traveled more cautiously now, rolling into campgrounds late and leaving early. Half the world was still sheltering in place, and the other half was setting shit on fire every night.

I checked in with British Andy, our landlord back in Albuquerque. “Got any sick ones?”

“Ah yes, quite ill.”

“Healthy before?”

“Naw, no. Ninety six years old, one guy. The other one stage-five cancer.”

We became fire season contractors. We’d pick our way to the incident, a convoy of two, across stretches of Reservation oopsie-daisy road humps, through canyons closed by the DOT due to being actively on fire, down interstates and highways and county roads and two lane roads and, sometimes, dirt tracks. We’d get there – wherever; Colorado, Utah, California, just some new place on fire. And we’d drop and level our 53-foot shower trailer, do a million things to get it operational, and then finally unload the weights. Try to find a level spot, clear away the rocks and weeds.

We started out fancy, with EZ-ups for shade, and a nice level spot dug out with the shovel. By the time the season matured, five months and many relocations, many destroyed EZ-ups later, we were little more than damned ole’ barbell cowboys. Squinting into the sun, squatting on rocky ground that had a thirty degree grade in every direction, pulling helplessly deficit deadlifts from the soft, chalky ground, literally spraying wasps and horseflies off of each other during work sets with the highest-powered squirt bottles Walmart carried. Our little dogs flopped in the dirt beside us, veterans of this strange ritual we performed daily.

We had to keep an eye on our shop, even during lifts because, you know, COVID. All things must be sprayed with bleach at all times. A hand touches the metal rail? Bleach. A single person takes a single 3-minute shower? Bleach. A person sits in a chair to put their boots back on? Bleach. Our existence was a groundhog day haze of bleaching things, pulling reps, and eating terrible food out of styrofoam containers.

The fire guys would come for a shower and notice our barbell gym, there among the weeds or the rocks or the expanse of blowing dust or what-have-you. “What’s that, there?” they’d say. Or, “Oh-ho! Y’all got weights!” Mostly they’d look at Nick and then back at the rack and say, “Oh! Makes sense now.” Nick’s presence and effect at fire camps was unmistakable. “Don’t hurt me bro!” firefighters would yell out of their engines as they drove past, giving him the thumbs up and flexing their biceps in jealous solidarity.

More easily prone to boredom and ennui than myself, Nick flung himself into lifting with a ferocity no one could have matched, least of all me. I enjoyed my work sets – oh hey, I added 5 pounds! Or, oh well, it feels really heavy today, better luck next time. I think I haven’t been eating enough. I was happy to just stay in the game at all, in an environment where sedentation and type-2 diabetes were the real occupational hazards. We faced agonizing daily decisions such as, should I stay hungry or eat another Uncrustables? So Nick initiated beast-mode. “Jesus Christ,” was people’s most common reaction to encountering him for the first time, as the season wore on. We literally ran out of weights for him to deadlift. They wouldn’t all fit on the bar, in the plate increments we had.

So that was all overt. The interesting trend, though, was that people who seemed proactive, decisive, and who could hold a conversation with respectful but clearly-expressed opinions, seemed to also gravitate to the sight of our barbell gym. They might not have time to train, but you could see them yearning in that direction. They might circle back for a lift, later. Nick spontaneously coached many, many interested people throughout the season.

However, a certain flavor of personality seemed put out, almost offended by the site of our portable barbell gym, and that flavor was bureaucrat. Yes, the spirit of the DMV is alive and well at fire camps, often incarnate as the person whose job it is to come inspect our unit or sign our paperwork.

Maybe it’s just anecdotal, but I’m telling ya: anyone who doesn’t basically get it, when they’ve shut down every gym in the country and the ER has more resistance band victims than COVID patients – those people ain’t right.

The barbell summer became barbell fall, winter, spring, and you know what? The gyms are still closed, and we’re still doing our thing. And our thing is still the most sober, rational, self-empowering way to train, even in the face of – gah – all of it.

It’s a good time for everyone, probably, to reconsider: do I really want my fitness paradigm to be defined by having uninterrupted access, with the government’s fickle permission, to a carefully curated ambiance of nothing needing to make very much sense? An armada of machines I can ride, sequentially, scrolling my phone while I, indeed, phone it in?

When the great Last Call of 2020 happened and the lights came on and we found we must all stagger home to our own best guesses at exercise au naturale in the sober light of day, what devices were we left to? And what did we find we truly understood, or not, about stress/recovery/adaptation, the magical or mysterious capacity of our own bodies to remain able, or not, without the distraction or intervention of name-tagged “personal trainers” who are invariably either skinny-fat or fat-skinny?

It’s always a good time to learn barbells. But there’s never been a better time to barbell. A nation of people suddenly prevented from working, encouraged to drink, and discouraged from all healthy social, religious, economic, or civil discourse besides rioting realizes, among other things, that “gyms” aren’t the answer. They never have been. They can certainly help, but we have to have some way to meet our own needs. The government’s attempt to prevent you from exercising can be, just maybe, the best thing that ever happened to your body!

Thank god for Starting Strength. Thank god for Mark Rippetoe. Thank god we didn’t have to become runners! Oh, and remember that 96-year-old guy in our landlord’s Coronavirus ICU? Well, he survived, so thank god for that, whoever he was. But most of all: thank god for our humble barbell and rack. Whatever happens in the country and the world, I know what we’re doing, this afternoon.

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