On New Year’s Eve, obviously before the sinking quadruple gins and dancing to Bossa nova George Michael began, I was being taught how to lift weights by my boyfriend in a hotel gym that looked like a scene from a true crime podcast.
This is not something I’d planned. I am not on great terms with exercise. I tend to force it upon myself as a punishing chore, rather than enjoy it as fun. I’ve been in gyms, and cried in gyms (as you can read here). I’ve picked myself up off the floor of an exercise class that I had decided was not going to plan and made a silent soothing promise to leave at once and get a doughnut on the way home. The problem is I am vastly competitive but with absolutely no supporting bedrock of motivation or self-belief. My usual instinct in the face of sports goes as follows; fear I can’t, decide I can’t, not even try. Cry.
I know it will make me feel better, (you never regret actually doing the workout) just can’t always muster up the discipline, or even the enthusiasm. Usually training is reserved for fallow periods of unemployment – when I need to do one pro-active thing per day to feel human, and I can’t claim not to have the time. So I have exercised but felt uninspired doing so, and always stuck to bouts of cardio slogging which I found boring and too easy to cheat at. I eyed up the free weights corner at PureGym as being a) too serious b) too intimidatingly populated by bros (not Bros – that would be wild) and douchebags and effectively left it to be cordoned off by a panicky police tape as I imagined with breathtaking naivety that weightlifting would rebuild my body in entirely the wrong shape like a ludicrous lady Arnie (the idea that I could accidentally become that ripped with bugger all effort is hysterical).
This time was different. I redoubled my efforts to transform and found a new well of potential. Perhaps it was the magical freedom of being in Sri Lanka by 28th December, with no turkey carcass to pick at and no need to experience the end of year “merrineum”. It could have been just as simple as a way to spend an extra hour a day in allied conspiracy with my boyfriend, as due to our having vastly differing ideas of what constitutes holiday fun (me using the phrase “hols lols” – is not one of his) we might not have otherwise. Or perhaps I was inspired to move with more urgency after laying eyes on the hippopotamus people out by the pool. I was entranced by these staggering men and women (in more ways than one) who could hang in the pool without moving a muscle, buoyed up by their own mass. They were tanned and leathery in mind-bending swimsuits – each one a miracle of structural engineering – and smoked gruffly on the terrace from noon until dusk. They were certainly inspiring when I lay in bed and thought about not bothering to get up early to move around.
So I started coming to “training” every morning in the gym. And because Chris was in charge, I had to play by his rules, so I had to start lifting weights. Chris is a talented and voraciously devoted exerciser and, excepting for the presence of jelly babies, good at being disciplined. In spite of literally years of this exact idea filling my guts with abject horror – and sorry, even now, if you are a couple who run together – I hate you, he turned out to be the perfect gym partner for me. Under his exhaustive and necessarily patient tutelage I began to gain strength, both physical and mental. Being able to literally see myself improve was revolutionary for me. I still cried sometimes from sheer force of frustration but I realised I wanted to keep going. It was more important not to stop than to have to admit to finding it hard.
Of course, my main reasons for even embarking down this road were superficial, post-Christmas fat related. I just wanted to look better. I didn’t really expect to be any good, or even to keep it up. To be honest I was just in it for the smugness I’d feel afterwards just for having done anything. But that soon melted into something bigger. Instead, I realised I needed the challenge. Doing something that I found immensely difficult, over and over again until even I had to admit it was too easy was good therapy. Lifting bigger and bigger weights up off the floor, and in some cases, over my head, made me feel strong and vitally alive in a way I was not prepared for. It was empowering. I felt like the tiny girl at the end of the Nike Londoner advert, suddenly bursting out from under a pile of pressure. I had been wrong of course! Lifting weights turned out to be very much For Me.
We ended up training every day that holiday, in some fantastically weird scenarios. I don’t know if it’s ever occurred to you to set up a gym in a basement with a ceramic tiled floor, but seriously, don’t do it. It is terrifying. Never before or since have ‘Hindu press-ups’ seemed so dangerous.
I can’t stress enough how disappointing that space was, as a room. It was that slightly dirty Magnolia pink colour that your Mum’s house was before she moved into it. Not unclean, but giving the distinct impression that nobody had set foot down there for a while. You can easily see why they wouldn’t. As I say, the floor was tiled and the ceiling was low, so the acoustics were, well, not what you’d hope for, in any human inhabited space, let alone one where you might conceivably drop a dumbbell on the floor and then have to be immediately admitted to A&E for tinnitus.
To access the gym, you were required to come down some rail-less concrete steps from an above-ground car park, so every now and then the sound of screeching tyres or automatic locking would pierce through your consciousness if you were perilously tired during an uphill treadmill sprint, or in a particularly arduous stress position.
Alongside an inexplicable three cross-trainers, there was a running machine that could not be plugged in at the same time as the house lights. There was a partially deflated swiss ball, a selection of free weights in unlikely combinations and wildly over-inflated sizes to make you look like a goddamned champ, no matter how much you lift, and 1 clanking, white-framed machine comprising 4 different disciplines; pushing, pulling A, pulling B and Farce. (The farce being, that when Chris tried to squat press on the heaviest setting the entire thing came free from its moorings and started shuddering across the floor).
We guessed the hotel manager had, at one point in his life, become seized by the invigorating power of The Wellness Movement, and ordered in some exercise equipment in order to motivate his guests. Or perhaps himself and his army of tiny bustling waiters. This sudden strike of inspiration might even have occurred before he commissioned a swimming pool in the upstairs restaurant. A move which I had originally assumed was a cry for help, rather than a scientific testing-ground devoted to debunking the myth that says you can’t swim directly after you eat (the law of sadness – as we called it when we were kids). I now saw, he had been gripped by a fitness frenzy and just wanted to ease the dripping-wet journey from 50 lengths to the breakfast egg trolley.
In spite of everything about the way it looked, I actually was not being held in that basement against my will. I chose it. I enjoyed it. So help me god.
And of course we listened to a lot of 90s garage and RnB so that was partially it. If you haven’t pumped out a surprisingly high number of bicep curls to Daniel Bedingfield’s ‘Gotta get thru this’ then really, have you lived at all?
On a similar note, if you haven’t slogged hiccupping and coughing through a simple but [murderously] effective circuit of weighted punishment burpees, squats and thrusters in a hotel garden while a party of waiters giggled at you through the kitchen window, then I urge you go away and have a think about your priorities. On this occasion Chris decided the hotel gym was unfit for our purposes – being as it was, 2m2 – and insisted that we did our training outside in the garden, as breakfast was starting up, amidst the comedy irrigation system, while egrets sneaked around scaring up insects from the grass and much more serious guests doing an ayurvedic cleanse passed by on their way to collect their morning fenugreek tea (possibly the worst thing ever tasted – a loathsome distillation of morning-after curry sweats). Honestly the waiters were beside themselves. They were in bits. Although, I like to think there was a hint of awestruck respect in the way they were weeping with laughter and grabbing onto each other for support.
Lifting weights is a compelling way to spend your time in pursuit of self-improvement, and is unfailingly simple in concept. There is something so primal about an activity that at its bare bones is nothing but blood, sweat, salt and iron, and involves so much straining, and growling, and making extraordinarily silly faces (Upright row = Elvis lip) all in the name of physical exertion. I think it provokes a visceral reaction in people, and now in me, that keeps them coming back for more. Admit it, if “World’s Strongest Man” was on right now, you’d watch a bit wouldn’t you. It can be done by anyone, to any level, you just start at the bottom and keep going. Even in an echoing magnolia basement while 2 Indian teenagers take selfies on static cross-trainers behind you. I’d recommend it. Once you start though, who knows where the end is. One day it might all come crashing down, as it did for Chris when Papu, a bequiffed pixie bartender in a Sri Lankan Wild West-themed bar, came over to give his bicep a squeeze and smiled; “I like to play in the gym too”. Playing? Is he flirting? Or did we detect a hint of pity in his glossy eyes?