Take No Prisoners

Five Things that Make Gyms a Plague Upon Fitness

You would think that a fitness center, of all places, would be exempt from the lethargic malaise that pervades western society. In most cases, you would be mistaken. The modern gym is a plague upon fitness. That’s right, the very place we go to improve our health is practically custom-made to prevent us from exercising effectively. Here are five things that are horribly wrong with most modern gyms, and how to fix them.

1. No Pain, No Gain

The Problem

The modern gym is like a football video game – it allows the novice trainee to experience the feeling of accomplishing something without leaving the couch. These sorry excuses for strength training facilities are full of so-called “circuits” of machines that loosely mimic real exercises while taking away any remote possibility of discomfort.

Why it Sucks

Unfortunately, the discomfort you feel when pushing through a heavy bench press or squat is the primary indication that you’re working hard enough to signal the body to grow stronger. Worse, these machines necessarily make assumptions about height, limb length and other biomechanical sizes, angles and leverages, which makes the machines inappropriate for many trainees.

How to Fix it

The fix is simple. First, reorganize the gym to emphasize free weights and cardio. Second, give people fitness programs that are predominantly composed of compound exercises performed with free weights. Third, teach people how to perform those exercises … but I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll return to this in a moment.

2. Beauty Parlours on Steroids

The Problem

Strength is approaching passe in the modern gym. Filled with mirrors, spandex-clad gym-queens, teams of personal trainers resembling boy bands, gyms elevate form over function. Any gym sporting tanning beds has disembarked the Good Ship Fitness for the Shores of Narcissism. The Lulu Lemon-clad yoga hordes are taking over, and while there’s nothing wrong with yoga, they better keep their manicured and moisturized hands the hell off my bars, plates, benches and four-post power racks.

Why it Sucks

Strength is underrated. If you want to get a manly physique without taking steroids, you need to lift heavy weights. There’s no getting around it. Broad shoulders, tapered backs, Herculean pecs, powerful legs and arms like cannons don’t come easy. You’ll just never develop a powerful body if you’re preoccupied with looking good at the gym. Gyms are for sweating, grunting, rubbing chalk on your hands and occasionally screaming at weights if that’s what it takes. If you’re still pretty at the end of your workout, you’re not doing it right.

How to Fix it

Again, the organization of a gym is important. Prime space must always be given to four-post power racks, olympic lifting platforms, benches, bars and plates. Stretching mats go in a corner somewhere. Tanning beds go nowhere near a gym unless or until they invent some that don’t give you skin cancer. Moreover, people need to be encouraged to try harder, to train to failure, to sweat, to get their hair messed up, and to stop worrying about looking good. Ever seen a woman clean and jerk more than she weighs? It’s equal parts intimidating and sexy, and no one with half a brain gives a damn that she’s not wearing makeup.

3. Backstreet Trainers

The Problem

You’ve seen these expensive, bleach-blond, overly-tanned personal trainers who look more like boy band wannabes than fitness experts. They’ve got damaged nerve clusters in their backs from the thousands of crunches it took to get those washboard abs. They’ve got water-filled muscles from all the creatine they’ve mixed into their protein shakes. Perhaps more damning, most of them are devoid of any real power because they do too many sets and reps of too many exercises in their relentless pursuit of their toned look. In principle, these douchebags are problematic because normal people would benefit more from modestly-priced weight training classes than overpriced personal training sessions. In practice, these K-Fed lookalikes are problematic because they don’t really know sweet fuck all about weight training. Have you seen the certification exams for personal trainers? They’re a joke. These are the jerk-offs whole tell you that wide grip curls work your inner biceps while close grip curls work your outer biceps or somesuchnonsense while completely missing the fact that lifting weights with your elbows at extreme angles greatly increases your chances of soft tissue injuries.

Why it Sucks

I remember one day I was working out with a couple of olympic weightlifters in a gym near my parent’s home when the local M.Sc.-in-kinesiology-certified-personal-trainer pretty boy started trying to teach a novice trainee to do power cleans. We stared in disbelief. His form was terrible and his advice was worse. One of the guys had to take the poor beginner aside and tell him to get a new trainer, quick, before this jackass got him injured. You may believe that cases like this are rare, but that’s only because most gyms don’t have the benefit of a cohort of expert trainees to point and laugh at these pretty-boy dipshits.

How to Fix it

Fire them. Then demand that the certification courses and exams for personal trainers be improved, and standards raised.

4. Bogus Nutrition Programs

The Problem

Many gyms now offer free diet consultations with the purchase of a membership. You know what they say – you get what you pay for. Here are the two basic principles of nutrition:
1) if you eat fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. This is physics. There’s no way around it.
2) Most of the modern industrial diet is composed of synthetic substances that resemble, but are not actually, food (link to real foods post). Eating healthy means eating a diet primarily composes of real food, not artificial non-foods.

This is not what they tell you at gyms. Truth doesn’t sell. Easy sells. So they tell you what you want to hear: ‘just go on eating the sorts of things you’re eating, but try to eat a little less with each meal and cut back on the baconaise (link to disgusting foods post).

Why it Sucks

This isn’t nutrition advice. This is like giving a Band-Aid to a terminal cancer patient. It’s like fighting zombies with brain-scented snausages. Real nutrition advice advice sounds like this: McDonald’s, KFC, chips, candy bars, soda, white bread and white rice are not food. Stop eating these synthetic, poisonous substances altogether. Oh, and while you’re at it, cut your calorie intake by 600 – 1000 kcal/day from now until you’ve lost that extra thirty pounds you’re hauling around. No you do not get cheat days, cheat meals, or cheat anything. And if you overeat today, you can fast tomorrow.

How to Fix it

This is easy. Tell the truth. Some people need encouragement, some need to be yelled at, but telling people that they can go on living like they’re living and expect their bodies to magically firm up is unethical.

5. Injury Causing Machines

The Problem

Finally, there’s the machines themselves. I’ve never found a well-equipped gym that didn’t include a plethora of exercise machines that seemed purposefully designed to injure as many trainees as possible.

Why it Sucks

You are probably not an expert in biomechanics, so how the hell are you supposed to know that the leg extension machine is slowly damaging your kneecap by preventing your tibia from rotating at the top of the lift? Most people don’t receive dramatic injuries, like broken bones, from badly designed weight machines – any machine that snapped wrists would be quickly uncovered as garbage. No… these machines are far more insidious. They wear down your joints slowly from forcing you to push at the wrong angle, or along the wrong path. They corrupt your natural motion, giving you the illusion of safety while your bones quietly grind their way to chronic knee, shoulder and elbow injuries.

How to Fix it

Gym should be certified the same way personal trainers are. Certification should consist of a review by a three person panel composed of an expert in biomechanics, a chiropractor and a physiotherapist. The panelists should review the gym one piece of equipment at a time, and make a set of recommendations regarding machines that must be removed and any warning signs that should be added to those that remain. While we’re at it, any nutritional programs should be reviewed by a qualified nutritionist. At this point, gyms will not comply with reasonable sets of recommendations without some kind of government intervention, because they’ll balk at tossing thousands of dollars of equipment. And lest you have any compassion for these amoral businesses, remember that they never should have bought this stuff in the first place, and their lucky it’s thousands in machinery instead of millions in class action law suits.

Conclusion

Gyms are like cable news. Cable news should report stories that are important, but, under pressure for higher ratings and greater profitability, they show what is entertaining instead. Similarly, gyms should contain the most safe and effective exercising equipment available, and offer honest instruction in using this equipment. However, effective exercises are also difficult. So gyms promote ineffective, “fun” exercises instead.

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