Forget about becoming 'Incredible Hulk,' going to gym offers great entertainment

Stepping into world of fitness

Posted: Sunday, April 29, 2001

I'm sweating on the stair stepper, which has a commanding view of the gym.

Inane electronic music booms from the right, where a trainer leads a couple dozen women in some crazy aerobics boxing routine.

"Punch left ... 1-2-3-4 ... only five more. ... Punch right. ..." she cries.

The synthesized music runs the same line, over and over: "Move your body, everyeverybody. Move your body, everyeverybody. ..."

CNN Headline news blares from a television where puffing people -- from trim runners to fat walkers -- work the treadmills. That competes with a basketball game blaring near the elliptical trainers. The weight lifters watch hockey, and it's MTV by the rowing machines. Country western music from the radio underlies the cacophony. On top of that, some exercisers wear Sony Walkmen.

The first time I poked my head in last fall, the club was too intimidating -- heavy weights and bizarre contraptions swarming with Arnold Schwarzenegger clones.

I didn't come back for three months.

But the crummy winter finally drove me in. Too dark to see, no snow to ski. I was going nuts.

I bought a gym bag, walked through the door and tried to look like I'd been doing this all my life. But the panel of red lights and buttons on the stair stepper could have come from a space shuttle. I finally asked the guy on the elliptical trainer how to start the countdown. He had to ask someone else, but we finally got it going.

So, it stretched my mind as well as my legs. Soon, I was huffing and puffing and blowing the winter blues out the door.

I have a $25 garage sale stair stepper at home -- the sort that feels crummy and makes exercise a chore. The equipment at the gym is first class. You don't have to fight it to get a workout, and there is more variety than I could ever afford -- treadmills, rowing machines, exercycles and more.

Plus, there is constant entertainment.

I watch a young woman follow her husband to the barbells.

He demonstrates a bench press.

"No way!" she says.

Soon, though, he has her lifting weights. Must be love.

There are the Incredible Hulks.

One loads huge plates of steel on the machines, then bellows like a wounded bull at the peak of every lift.

Another -- the sort of guy you'd see on the cover of a body-building magazine-- pumps iron quietly for an hour, then moves to the mirrors, strips his shirt and starts flexing and striking poses.

The serious lifters carry dog-eared notebooks to record how many tons they move each day.

Everyone carries little towels to wipe away sweat.

High school tracks stars use the treadmills. A coach lifts weights. There are people I think must be doing physical therapy, trim folks who who seem to enjoy the exercise, and round ones trying to trim their waists. There are lawyers, oil field workers, housewives and guys who pound the dents out of cars. It's a metaphor for world peace. They're all friendly and everyone gets along.

I never touched a barbell during my first 47 years on the planet. After a couple of months at the gym, though, I bought a copy of "Weight Training for Dummies." For one thing, I wondered if lifting weights could cure the aches that afflict old people who type too much.

The main problem with the book, aside from the title, is that the cover is bright yellow. I studied in secret at home, then stuffed it in my gym bag where I could sneak a peak in the locker room if I got confused. I got a little notebook to carry around, then tested my mettle on complicated contraptions with cables and steel plates. I started small, compared to what the Hulks were lifting.

The latest craze is "Body for Life -- 12 Weeks to Mental and Physical Strength," by Bill Phillips and Michael D'Orso. The inside covers are a collage of before-and-after bathing suit pictures of pudgy men and women who built fabulous bodies in just 12 weeks. I'm not taking the class.

I bought the book mainly because it has some ideas on how much weight to lift and how many times. "Dummies" advises a few lifts with heavy weights to build bulk or more lifts with lighter weights to build endurance. I was having trouble figuring how many sets of lifts to make with how much weight.

Phillips' sequence is 12 lifts with an easy weight, 10 lifts with heavier ones, eight with weights that make you work, six with weights that make you work hard, 12 with slightly lighter weights.

The last step is the the high-intensity point -- 12 lifts with a different exercise using the same muscles and weights that nearly kill you.

"Could you have done one more rep if I were standing right there, encouraging you to reach even higher -- to push yourself further?

"If your honest answer is, 'No way!' then congratulations! You've scored a 10!" he writes, and elsewhere in the book, "And the result? Well, if you've seen the photos on covers of magazines like Sports Illustrated, People, Time or even my magazine, you can see that the results are impressive. Sometimes breathtaking."

I tried it once, and it darn near killed me.

Despite the "Body for Life" photos, "Dummies" offers different advice.

"By the way, don't expect to look like the sculpted fat-free people who sell weight training products on video commercials. Many of these people have unusual genetics, have taken drugs, and/or have undergone surgery to achieve their looks," they write.

The next time you see an Incredible Hulk at Safeway, it probably won't be me. But I have noticed some changes in my arms and shoulders, and it does seem to help with the typing.

Doug Loshbaugh is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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