I twist around on the bench, pulling the earbuds—playing Lana Del Rey’s “LOVE”—from my ears. “What?”
“Could you spot me?” he asks again. Grey t-shirt, short, brawny, dark wiry hair and bristly stubble.
I blank for a second, and then nod hastily. “Yeah, yeah!” I hop up and follow him to his own bench press. “I’m doing sets of four,” he tells me before he dips underneath the bar. I hover in the negative space between the prongs the bar rests on. His hands reach up, pinkies first, and find their places on the grooved metal.
He hulks the bar out of its resting position and does one rep. His face purples with the effort of raising the bar off his straining chest. On the second one, the bar stays static an inch above his chest. Panicking, I hook my hands underneath the bar and lift it up from his chest. “Let me struggle,” he tells me—an admonishment to my ears but probably nothing to him.
“Oh, okay,” I nervously laugh.
The idea of “spotting” entails a weirdly personal moment. As I spot this guy, my feet are squared below his shoulders, my groin hovering somewhere above and behind his forehead. Essentially, I’m the only one responsible for making sure the barbell doesn’t pin him to the bench. Without me, he would have 150 pounds on top of his chest, making ribs creak and internal organs bruise.
Once, I tried to bench press without a spotter. I made it through twelve reps of a first set, and on the first rep of the second set, my arms gave out and the bar jolted back onto me. Gravity, weight and my own weakness led to me being pinned like a bug under glass. Groaning, I slowly rolled the barbell down the length of my body, flattening my own ribs and vital organs, resting heavily against my legs until it was far enough down for me to sit up and lift it off me. With the memory of my own primal fear—fox in a bear-trap—in the back of my mind, I stood as his spotter.
But by being his spotter, I was engaging in the bizarre intimacy of the gym. With my headphones in, and eyes narrowly locked on my own reflection as I lift weights, the gym is an insular experience. But outside the Panasonic earbuds, everyone complies to the gym code. If you’re taking too long on a machine, someone will come up and ask to “work in” with you. And so you’ll take turns, watching over them as muscles pull and strain and sweat glosses reddening skin.
You might ask someone wordlessly—both of you speaking through various decibels of music—if they’re done working on a certain machine, or done using that weight you’ve been waiting for. They nod and smile, and you slip in and slide an antiseptic wipe across the imitation-leather to remove any residue they might’ve left behind.
When you pull off a mat and plop it down onto the floor, you’re often working it in—Tetris-style—amongst other mats, going horizontal and vertical across the gym floor. You set yourself down amidst a rippling mass of elbows and knees as other people hold minutes-long planks, bob up and down in a series of unending crunches. Everything is constantly encroaching onto each other’s space, bony extremities popping into each other’s bubbles, sweat flying off in a thousand directions.
And beyond all that, there’s the fact that you’re a group of strangers choosing to be in pain in front of each other. You would never willingly choose to embarrass yourself—over and over—in front of people, but you do for these people. They witness you fling weights to the ground and curl over yourself as the last set pulls all remaining energy from your body. They see you sweat like a maniac, darkening the joints of your t-shirt as you cycle endlessly to an episode of The Office.
Once you get past the initial embarrassment of being vulnerable in a public space, the gym becomes an incredibly therapeutic experience. Because everyone there—the muscle jocks jotting down their gains in small notepads, the people who brings laptops and set them up like projection screens on the ellipticals, or the people edging in for the first time—is focused on getting healthy. They’re focused on making themselves better.