Body Health, Essay, Mental Health

HANG LIKE CHICKEN

In my first-ever gym class of high school, we underwent a fitness diagnostic. Our gym teacher required the students to perform as many chin-ups as they could. If they were not able to do a chin-up, he offered, they could simply hang from the bars.

The oddness of those two choices – to either perform an act or engage in something that arguably proves nothing except the presence of fingers – was further underscored by the vast breadth of physical prowess. If you had hit puberty by then, you could do chin-ups. If you hadn’t, you hung like a limp flag or, more realistically, the trussed and plucked chicken hanging in a meat shop. Since I’m barely hitting puberty at 22, it’s an easy guess to figure out which camp I fell into.

That did not stop me from pathetically attempting a chin-up. I didn’t realize that it’s nearly impossible to do a chin-up from fully-extended arms, so I tucked my knees underneath me and tried to pull myself up from ramrod-straight arms. After several tense, physically agonizing moments, I let myself hang quietly before dropping back down to the floor.

And I remember, in the seconds that I hung from the bar, thinking how completely pointless this exercise was. Gym class proceeded much in the same way; after freshman year, I just opted to do homework with a clutter of the other unathletic boys while the fitter ones fucked around with dodgeball, or whatever. By senior year, I was skipping out of gym entirely – using my senior privilege and status a runner to avoid it. But, to be honest, having a gym class once every six days wasn’t doing me, or anyone, any favors.

So for most of my life, the chin-up, and any desire to do it, eluded me. When I started working out in college, I hopped in and out of the chin-up phase. Once I realized that clinging to the bars and literally leaping up into a chin-up position didn’t technically count, I swapped to the assisted pull-up machine and avoided it whenever I could.

The assisted pull-up machine requires you to put your knees on a pad and subtract weight from your total mass. So if you’re 160 pounds, and you subtracted fifty pounds, you were doing the chin-ups with a body weight of 110 pounds. I was subtracting so much weight that I was actually flinging myself upwards with every pull and reaching an exosphere orbit.

I would eye the people who could do a pull-up or chin-up unassisted with hot glowering envy. It seemed literally impossible, and then I saw people actually adding weights to their own self and doing repetitions with that. That was as unbelievable to me as those stories of mothers lifting up cars to save their loved ones – actually more unbelievable. I began to measure my prowess in terms of how many unassisted repetitions I could do – one was bad, two was better, three was ideal.

But as I worked out more, I began to reacquaint myself with the pull-up machine. As I lost weight and gained muscle, the notches of the weight began to shift lighter and lighter. Eventually, I was doing ten to twenty pounds of assistance, for a weight of roughly 185.

And then, a few weeks ago, I decided to leave the pad entirely. Straining, I pulled myself up – my elbows narrowing into neat acute angles – and down. When I completed sixteen chin-ups, four repetitions in four sets, I fell into a crouch and felt my heart pump blood headily into the aching muscles. But I kept doing it. every day, at the beginning of my workout, I did sixteen chin-ups – always in four sets of four – before moving onto the rest of my workout. I found that the less I focused on what I was about to do, the better I performed. If I hesitated, arms extended upward but feet still on the ground, I could barely get myself into the air.

I began to change it up – I added another set of pull-ups to the routine. Eventually, I switched to sixteen pull-ups (working the back muscles, shoulder muscles and the latissimus dorsi muscles). I tacked on a set of chin-ups, and on arms days, I would do sixteen of each.

I’ve noticed more muscle changes in the few weeks that I’ve started doing unassisted pull-ups. My shoulders are squarer, my collarbones swoop with the graceful lean of ship’s bows, and my biceps are bigger. In the shower, I catch glimpses of back muscles rippling in ways that they didn’t before. I’m obsessed with my shoulder blades, their hookedness like two eagle beaks.

Unfortunately, like a lot of people, I have a complex relationship with my body. And I’ve often leaned on the gym in unhealthy ways, eviscerating myself on days when I had to skip, or punishing myself for days that I didn’t push myself as far as I could’ve. In my most depressed, the gym becomes more of an outlet and a crutch. Before, when I looked my best, it’s often because I was feeling my worst. At a particular low point in college, mental health-wise, I would escape to the gym for hours every day, later pinching the fat on my hips as it melted away. I obsess over my body’s aesthetic, how this looks and how this lays.

I’ve always carried that anxiety when going to the gym; that I could backslide and become obsessive again. I still have lingering habits, a twinge of despair when I weigh myself, or a slight internal battle about how much cardio to do. I take my backslides softly, and slowly, and I’m trying to treat myself gently. It doesn’t always work, maybe not even half of the time, but I try.

Doing these pull-ups aren’t about how they will make my body look. It is a physical challenge, a test of my own strength – something that doesn’t come from aesthetics alone.

But this feels different for me.

When I’m doing pull-ups, I revel in the strength as I lift upwards. I imagine all of the scenarios where I can pull myself up. Action movie scenes, where the ground falls away beneath me and I have to swing myself up from the lip of a cliff. Deep dark holes that I’m trapped in. American Ninja Warrior monkey bars. I revel in getting stronger, and it feels wholly unconnected to aesthetics or attractiveness. In every muscle micro-tear, I steel myself with strength. I feel myself getting stronger, and I nourish it like a seedling. I picture myself as a warrior, each line of muscle meaning that I am more capable, more sturdy, more indomitable.

It isn’t about how I look – it’s about how I feel.

And damn, sis, I feel good.

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Body Health

“CAN YOU SPOT ME?”

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.

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