Physical Culture: Clanging weights, grunting and making friends

I hear a lot of female friends complaining about gyms. The free weights section of local low cost chain gyms seem to be the source of frustration, anger and fear. The weights themselves are not the problem, but the racks, benches and platforms are inhabited by the absolute nemesis of every woman and a lot of men who have basic intelligence and aren’t narcissistic thugs – the BIG, MUSCLY, GRUNTING, SWEATY MEN. They lift more than the rest of us. They look huge and intimidating. They’re probably judging you. They think you shouldn’t be there. Their brainpower has an inverse relationship to their constantly growing muscle mass. They stink. They take up all the space.

What if I told you that the most enormous, most gym-obsessed guys hoisting three times your bodyweight into the air with a grunt can be gentle, kind-hearted, intelligent, knowledgable and encouraging? What if, instead of being people to hate, despise and avoid, they could be one of the greatest supports you ever have in your own training? What if you actually walked into the gym and were genuinely happy to see them there? And what if a large proportion of muscly people bench pressing more than you can ever imagine, surrounded by a small crowd of enormous men yelling encouragement, were women?

Welcome to Physical Culture.

Physical Culture sounds like exactly the kind of gym women stereotypically hate. It’s not small, but the gym floor is very full. There are odd-looking machines, squat racks, benches, a huge amount of dumbells ranging from teeny to ridiculously heavy, barbells, racked plates and very little empty space. There are platforms for all your deadlifts, cleans, snatches and so on, but very little space to stand around.  On a busy peak time evening, you will have to move around and share platform space with all sorts of people. Big bulky powerlifters take turns on the platforms with bodybuilders rippling with muscles I didn’t even know people could have. Olympic weightlifters prepping for competitions rub shoulders with brand new PT clients being shown how a squat rack works. The music is loud, but not nearly as loud as the weights hitting the ground after someone’s max effort clean and jerk (hehehe jerk). Guys with headphones and expressions of grim concentration curl with dumbells like their lives depend on it while people resting in between heavy squats and deadlifts chat about protein, form and the election. So why is this one of my favourite places?

Number one is the people. While PC has excellent equipment and all the squat racks anyone needs (apart from at peak time, but hey, that’s life) it’s pretty easy to go to an EasyGym and get the basics. Most people don’t need Eleiko competition plates or bars reserved for deadlifting only. But one of the things about the dedicated lifters who do need that stuff is that they tend to spend a lot of time in the gym, and people who spend a lot of time in their gym want and need it to be a good place.

Think about it – whether you are a veteran heavyweight or just super into getting hench, you don’t want to spend a significant amount of your week in a gym where the equipment is damaged or you need to search all over the place for scattered plates or people are dicks to you. You likely go at regular times, and so you get to know the other regulars at least by sight, enough to exchange greetings, enough to ask if one of them can spot, enough to be asked to spot. Enough to start giving a bit of a damn. You get used to the regulars enough then you start to notice new faces. If someone looks a bit lost hovering at the edge of a platform, it stands out – and it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to ask if they want to work in, does it? If you’re already having a bit of chat between your own sets, it becomes natural to include that new person, or at least give them a nod and smile when they finish their set and step aside for you. And so your gym stays a good place, and you are part of that, and you take pride in it.

A hardcore bodybuilder or powerlifter or weightlifter or strongman also tends to be just a tad enthusiastic and even nerdy about their sport. If you have ever been enthusiastic about a sport, ask yourself if you have ever disparaged anyone new to it. If the answer isn’t “of course not” then please stop reading this and take some time to reflect on yourself – but I bet most of you tend to be really keen on seeing new people enjoy learning and get better at whatever your interest is. I bet if you’re a skater then you have seen and experienced so many failures yourself that you don’t judge a fresh meat struggling with a T stop. If you’re a full on crossfitter, you get psyched and high five a n00b managing their first pull up. Hell, never mind crossfit – if you do cross stitch you are probably understanding when someone gets it wrong and screws up their pattern (or whatever happens – I don’t know how cross stitch works).

Lifters are no different. A dedicated lifter physique and challenging lifts are a sign of intense training and enthusiasm, not being a dick. The giant men at Physical Culture enthuse over someone’s best lift to date like a parkour practitioner cheers someone’s first vault. The giant, enthusiastic, mighty Physical Culture lifters are not going to shake their heads at your tiny overhead press. They’ve been there, they’ve seen others start small, they also have more than a basic understanding of how bodyweight and gender changes realistic expectations of what people can lift. They will just enjoy seeing someone slowly grow and develop over time.

People also like to have training buddies. Sometimes you want to put your headphones in, get yourself into a rack and just do your thing. But sometimes you want to work together. Heavy bench press needs a spotter, so people pair up. One of the best things I have ever seen at PC is a guy coming in with a pile of decorations and quietly putting them around the bench. Why? Because his friend and training partner,  a long term regular, was coming in and it was his birthday. It was infectious. The gym owner fully endorsed and helped put the decorations around the place. The gym crowd were carrying on with workouts while shooting surreptitious and amused glances at the preparations. The owner put a happy birthday playlist on. Anticipation built as we waited for the birthday boy, who was late, to walk in and see it all. We were all in on it. We all signed his card – and we all stopped to enjoy his reaction when he finally came arrived. There was cake, there were happy birthdays, there were bench presses. Not all of us had known this guy for years, but we were all part of that birthday surprise and shared it with him and each other.

Some sports NEED group training. Strongman is one (at least around here). It’s one I am new to, and I already love it. It involves an awful lot of going backwards and forwards while carrying enormous things, kind of like going home from Tesco but a bit harder. This means space, and as we’ve already talked about, there’s not a lot of empty gym floor. Definitely not enough to run 20 metres in a straight line with an enormous metal frame on your shoulders.

This means teamwork. We need to get the equipment from the gym to the nearby park. A few weeks ago, this meant the gym owner, Chris, helping us to get access to various items, figuring out which of us could carry what, and having a buddy come along with a car – she herself was too injured to join in, but helped out with the transport, timed us and was encouraging. In the space of one afternoon I felt like I was part of a team.

Number two is how Physical Culture is run.

In an age of the customer always being right, convenience, promises of instant results and reduced staffing for reduced costs, I have never heard the term “customer service” at Physical Culture. You are a member, not a passive consumer of a “fitness” product. As members, we are part of a community and responsible for that community. Customers do what they want and expect to be catered to – I once saw a friend jokingly say that the best thing about just going to the gym instead of a taught strength class was that nobody made her put the weights away. Members, however, are responsible for those weights and their own behaviour. We put the damn weights away, because we respect our community resources and our fellow members.

Members are accountable. Membership is a privilege, not a right. Should your behaviour be unacceptable, that privilege an be revoked – there will be no harassing of people, rudeness or casual chucking around of the equipment at PC. If you give respect and consideration to others, you will get it in return.

Members have expectations of each other. Another customer at a chain gym is someone who has paid to be there. They’re not answerable to you, and when the customer is always right, gym staff are there to keep their employers profiting, not to protect a community. As a member of PC you get to be part of the community, and know that everyone around you is held to the same standards that you are. You’re all equally expected to share the equipment, play nice, be considerate to each other and so on.

Staff command easy respect and affection. The gym owner is not a man who is desperate for your money. There are no quick buck making schemes – PC has been going since 1928 and it offers nothing but honest training and results. There is no treating staff like skivvies and expecting them to pick up after you – we’re all part of this community. Rather than someone far up a corporate chain looking at profit margins and innovative ways to make ever more cash, we all matter as people. We’re held to account, yes, but we’re also worth so much more than our monthly membership costs (which aren’t high, to be honest). this is a guy who posts updates on how busy the racks are. This is a guy who wanders down and hands out bottles of lucozade, who brought us water and coke when we were training in the park, who celebrates our achievements and milestones. Show me a chain gym with a manager that will chat to you about taking some of the rustier weights to the park for a couple of hours.

There are PB boards for both genders on the walls, and I have seen a larger number of women lifting in this gym than I have in any other weights area. Women outnumber men some nights and there is no sexism. There is no talk about lifting like a girl. We are absolutely equal. I saw someone recently write that they were once asked by a man at their gym whether they would get off the leg press so he could “use it properly” – I have absolute confidence that this would never fly in our gym. It’s not just against the rules. It would offend everyone on the gym floor, male and female.

There are no drop in passes for Physical Culture. Part of the deal when you sign up is that you are there to stay for at least a while. This creates a place where trust and personal relationships matter. I have seen so many mobile phones left out on benches, ledges and next to racks. I think nothing of chucking my bag down in the changing room before I head downstairs. Nobody there is coming in for one night and therefore doesn’t care about how they leave the place when they are done, whether their behaviour will upset others, if they will be allowed back. Everyone you see is someone you will probably see again.

And so this is how a place full of loud, muscled grunting men can be absolutely perfect for a small woman trying to regain her fitness and work up her lifting ability. This is how the giant men can become friends and supportive training buddies. They give respect, and they deserve it in return. They have boundless enthusiasm and want to see you do well, and that lets you see beyond the intimidating size to the actual kind-hearted, good-natured people underneath.

So instead of fearing the giants in the gym, give them a chance to be part of your community. Offer respect, and see if it is returned. Build a community instead of a nemesis, and see if you can create a place like Physical Culture. And if not – if your gym is honestly full of assholes – then know that you have options, and it doesn’t have to be that way.