I’d like to take you through a common gym day at your neighborhood box gym (think Bally’s Total Fitness®, 24 Hour Fitness®, or Planet Fitness®). You open the door and feel the nice comfortable temperature. Your ears are filled with uncomfortably loud, up-tempo, popular, remixed top 40s music. You know the music that complies everyone’s exercise playlist. There is a huge area dedicated to various types of cardio vascular machines. It’s filled. People stand and wait to run inside. You’re greeted by a muscular man behind a counter who asks for your membership card. “Hey! Have a great workout!” he says a little too enthusiastically. The main room of the gym is full of machines. They resemble some sort of odd, ancient torture devices. But the attractive personal trainer everyone gets one session with swears by them. Across from the machines is the land of the free weights, an area that is intimidating to many gym goers. There are sweat covered men and women in revealing clothes, heavy objects, an abundance of mirrored surfaces and a perceived lack of safety.
The people in the box gyms are usually beginners, people who are starting a new year’s resolution, want to tone up for summer, want to look good naked, and occasionally a hardcore bodybuilder. They focus on the latest magazine generated workout for obtaining the ever elusive 6-pack, the latest 4-minute workout, or whatever has promised to not make them too bulky. Low weights at high repetitions are the staple of big box gyms. The social aspect of the gym can overpower the exercise portion.
Now, to contrast the big box gym, let’s take a trip through a powerlifting gym. It’s a warehouse. It’s hot, there is no air conditioning, the music is at a reasonable volume but it is aggressive the primary sound is iron plates colliding with each other. The cardio area is one treadmill from the 1970s and a spinner bike. The equipment is always open. It’s used to raise your heart rate. No one is checking membership; the fact you are inside is enough for the others. You walk in, and everything around you is designed to make people stronger. The machines have been picked out for the crossover to the competition lifts. They are still set up across from the free weights, but the attitude toward them is opposite. The machines are the exiled and to be avoided. You use them when you have to. The workouts are not focused around them. Here, the focus is free weights, particularly barbells. The bars’ loads are increased.
Very few of the gym members are beginners. They cut their teeth in the big box gyms, but found something lacking. Most found they needed like-minded people; here everyone has the same goals, physical strength. These people read books like, Starting Strength, The Westside Book of Methods, and Dinosaur Training. All of their books promise one thing—strength. There are no section on how to shortcut your workout. The work is done with high weight, low repetitions. There aren’t mirrors on every wall; your form matters, and workout partners are focused. They’re there to push you as much as they can, help you get stronger, and possibly save your life if you fail a lift.
If you work out at a big box gym, I’m happy for you. Hell, if you do any exercise, I’m happy for you. If you are attempting to lose fat, gain muscle or both, I’m happy for you–and I’ll support you in that journey.
My personal strength quest has led me to the land of giants, the land of powerlifters. A land that most don’t know about, and much less understand.