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Setting His Own Pace in the Gym Rat Race


I joined a gym abjectly, the way you're supposed to. Out of shape and beaten down, someone who could no longer drive to work without experiencing serious shooting pains down his left leg, the evident result of a 10-year case of sciatica. My knees ached. I was 36, and I could no longer kneel or crouch without squinting in pain. Standing for a prolonged period at social gatherings gave me aches in the lower back. Still, I had concerns: Wouldn't joining a gym interfere with my smoking habit?

But I could no longer live in denial, not when there was a gym only one block from my apartment. Frankly, registering my body at a gym seemed as mandatory as registering one's car with the DMV. It seemed, in other words, like the law.

I paid $390 for seven months, plus a $25 joining fee, plus a $50 towel fee. Ian, the manager, began to spin me, but I held him off. I wasn't shopping around for a better deal. Just tell me how much, I said, and he did.

The gym, called Meridian Sports Club, has two L.A. locations, one in Century City and the other, the one I joined, on Wilshire Boulevard, in the Miracle Mile area, on the bottom floor of an office building.

As gyms go, it's actually not that faddish or shame-inducing, meaning the people you see on the weight machines and treadmills, even the actors, don't look so great.

I knew I wanted to run and do some leg exercises for the sciatica, and use a lot of towels, but I wasn't looking for all of the other things gyms implicitly offer you: peace of mind, self-esteem, pecs, abs, a spouse, life eternal. Well, OK, maybe I was looking for some abs.

In those early weeks, I began to take some of the classes the club offered--Body Pump and Boxing Technique and 20-20-20--and had a complimentary workout with a trainer. He was young and amiable and soon to be featured in a UPN "reality" series called "Manhunt."

I told him about my out-of-shape legs and he put me on a workout regimen, one that would strengthen my hamstrings and quadriceps. He also showed me a machine to work out what I could only think of in a "Seinfeld"-like way as my man breasts, otherwise known as pectorals. But the exercises bored me, and two weeks later the regimen was a memory. When I saw my trainer, I looked away, guiltily.

The classes were easier to stick with, although sampling them was like trying out for different Broadway musicals. I imagined Bob Fosse at the front of the room, a cigarette dangling.

Body Pump, a class using barbells with adjustable weights to work various muscle groups, was taught by a very attractive but humorless woman who played bad music (that techno-disco stuff that instantly made me feel preternaturally old) and bossed you into four-count dead lifts. Boxing Technique was OK, but I'm sorry, hitting a heavy bag with gloves caked in someone else's dried-up sweat is not my idea of an ideal workout. Sweatin' on the Ball sounded kind of grotesque, and as for yoga, well, I can only conquer one planet at a time.

But then there was John. He taught 20-20-20. The class entailed 20 minutes of stretching and ab work, 20 minutes of Spinning (riding hard on a stationary bicycle) and 20 minutes of warm-down stretches and some more ab work.

John, God bless him, seemed more interested in giving his charges the proper workout than in getting a good workout himself. He would leave his bike while Spinning to make sure you were properly exercising. He would correct your sit-up technique. And he was funny, an entertainer in his own right (he was formerly with a comedy troupe called the Nellie Olesons).

In short, John seemed that rare combination of motivator and performer--the best side of the cliche that gyms are a repository for the acting fringe.

I would still be taking 20-20-20 if it weren't for the fact that it's offered only one night a week, from 6 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays.

If I were super-motivated, of course, I would take The Brains and Brawn Workout on Thursday mornings at 6 or Morning Boot Camp on Mondays at 6:45. I would get past the title and take Sweatin' on the Ball, with Noelle, on Saturdays at 10:30.

But I'm not super-motivated; I'm only motivated up to a point. It has been a year since I joined.

These days, I get up three or four mornings a week and arrive at the gym between 6:30 and 7.

For all the enforced structure trainers offer you, I have done what I suspect most people do--that is, created my own regimen.

It consists of 45 minutes on the treadmill (2.5 miles of running and 20 minutes of walking at an incline, usually), followed by five minutes of stretching, followed by 100 or so sloppy sit-ups, followed, at times, by some machine work on my man breasts.

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