How to Get More Out of Your Gym Membership

The weather has finally broken, and with any luck winter is behind us. Beach season will be here before we know it, and in an effort to look and feel good for summer, a lot of people have gotten gym memberships. There isn’t much point in buying a gym membership, though, unless the benefits are going to be reaped from it. Otherwise, a better course of action might be to save the money, drink one less cappuchino a day, and call it a draw. But if you’re serious about getting results, consider some of the following. I am not a certified trainer or medical expert, however; these recommendations are based largely on my own experience. Consult a certified person for more information.


1. Go!

This one’s obvious, but the more important point is how to avoid the pitfalls that prevent your actually getting to the gym. Schedule it; know how it fits into your weekly routine. How many times a week depends on what your exact routine is, but let’s just say that, whether you’re at the gym or on the bike trail, you should be working out a minimum of five days a week.

Don’t allow distractions, even important distractions, to crowd out your gym time. At gym time, the gym is the most essential thing. The other stuff can be important in its own time. Turn off the computer, leave your phone at home, and just go. The Internet will be there when you get back, and if it isn’t, we’re probably all better off for it.

In my own experience, I’ve found that the most crucial part of a workout routine is getting dressed and heading out the front door. The rest follows naturally, and barring sheer laziness, there’s no such thing as a bad workout. Even the worst workout beats getting fat in a cubicle.


2. Make a circuit and keep moving

I’ve seen it over and over again: people sit on machines for twenty minutes at a time, taking long rests between sets. If you do all three sets of an exercise at once, you will be slowed down, and then the overall benefit of the workout will be compromised. Unless you’re one of those big thick power lifters this is probably not the way to go, especially if you need to trim down a bit.

Make a circuit of various exercises and keep moving. Obviously, you’ll have to work different muscles in adjacent exercises. For instance, on back day, I do rows, then shoulders, and then back extension, then lat pull down, and then ab exercises in the captain’s chair. This gives the various muscles time to rest, but while one muscle is resting, I’m working on another. My heart rate stays up, and I get more done faster. How uneventful are the lives of the equipment squatters? Don’t they have anything else to do?


3. Watch out for the lazy people

In every gym there will always be people who don’t take my advice in #2. They’re gonna get in your way. It’s annoying, but there isn’t much you can do about it, especially these days when people are becoming increasingly unapproachable. If it seems possible, ask an equipment squatter if you can do a set while they’re resting, texting, googling, fiddling with their iPod, etc. Some just might let you. Otherwise, you’re going to have to work around them. This might mean that instead of doing a lat pull down, for instance, you’ll have to do an old-fashioned pull up. Know what your options are with the equipment in the gym so that you don’t waste time waiting for people who workout sub specie aeternitatis.


4. Change it up

When I was in the middle of losing weight, I would sometimes hit plateaus, as is common. In this situation I would handle it one of two ways: I would go pig out to restart my metabolism, or I would cut back to perform a similar trick on my body. This is a form of changing it up. If you do the same workout all the time, you run the risk of your body getting so accustomed to it that it won’t be of full benefit. You also run the risk of phoning it in absentmindedly. Change things up. Use different exercises from time to time to work the same muscle group. Instead of barbells all the time, use dumbbells sometimes. Also, every fourth week I do high reps and low weights, rather than the routine for the other three weeks, which is high weights and low reps. Just make sure you’re still making enough effort. If it seems too easy, you probably need to add weight or reps.


5. Eat better

I have a friend who used to say, “You’re a runner; you can eat what you want.” This is from a couch potato’s nutrition manual. It’s very easy to overeat after a workout. You must know what your nutritional needs are and not take in more than that. The kinds of calories you consume are also important. For a weight lifter, it’s recommended that you consume at least one gram of protein for every pound of lean muscle mass. Whey protein supplements are a good resource here because it comes without a lot of the regrettable by-products that other sources of protein have. Take it right before or right after working out. I even know some people who carry it with them through the gym. Stay away from energy drinks; they’re candy. Make sure you’re getting enough carbs, but not too much. Consume them earlier in the day, and, in the main, before your workout occurs if at all possible. Stay away from junk food. If you have an irrepressible sweet tooth, as I do, designate one day a week on which you’re allowed to have a dessert.


6. Study

There is merit to simply getting started even if you’re not sure what you’re doing. But by all means study exercise science as much as possible. As little as fifteen minutes a week can make all the difference. I like Scooby’s website; he gives a lot of good information in a succinct manner without running a racket or engaging in buffoonery. He’s also honest about what is verifiable fact and what is his opinion. His videos make it very easy to get a lot out of the website, so you have no excuses left.

Make sure your resources are reputable people, and avoid gimmicks that promise quick results. I almost gave up on weightlifting last year because I didn’t think any progress was happening. This was impatience spurred on by those ridiculous late night commercials that try to convince the viewers that you can go from being Jabba the Hut to Christian Ronaldo in six months. It’s totally irresponsible. I wonder how many people with an otherwise good head on their shoulders have given up on being in shape because snake oil salesmen skewed their expectations.

There’s also the option of taking classes or getting training sessions at your gym. Again, make sure you’re dealing with reputable people. Not every licensed driver is good on the road, and not every certified trainer has his stuff together. I met with one guy who said he was doing so much cardio that he didn’t bother working his legs at all in the lifting department. I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life, and never asked his advice again. Also, he had a bigger gut than I did in my fast food days.

If you do end up with a good trainer—and in my current gym there are several, thankfully—there are things they can give you in a one-on-one situation that you might not be able to give yourself. For one thing, they can get to know your needs and help you sift through the thicket of information and contradicting opinions that are out there. Secondly, they can push you in a workout beyond what you thought was your limit. This is also safer because you have a spotter. Earlier this week I was on the bench press by myself when I experienced form failure in the middle of a rep. The weights went crashing everywhere. It was totally awesome but I’m lucky I don’t have a broken collarbone. That’s why we’re supposed to use spotters.


7. Check your progress

In any fitness effort it’s important to hold yourself accountable. This will not only keep you motivated; it will also let you know if you’re on the right track with your approach. The first thing most people think of is body weight. This is important, but don’t forget that if you’re lifting weights your weight will probably go up even as you get thinner and/or fitter. I also recommend tracking body fat percentage. The equipment that uses bioelectric impedance may not be absolutely accurate, but under consistent circumstances you will get a good relative idea of your fat percentage, and as long as that number is going down, that’s all you need to know. You can also get a tape measure and measure your waist, biceps, and whatever else might be giving you anxiety in terms of its size. Finally, look in the mirror, and take pictures occasionally, and save them for comparison. You’ll be amazed. Some people might accuse you of being a narcissist, but these days that’s usually no worse than the pot calling the kettle black.

Finally, remember H.L. Mencken’s sturdy advice that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. As long as you’re making an honest daily effort—and there is no substitute for that—you will be better off in the long run, occasional bumps in the road notwithstanding. And don’t forget to have fun. You’ll never feel better than when your body rewards your sweat with a nice dose of endorphins.

Now get started.

Good Friday Stations: Three local bands in South Philly

Just around the corner from the iconic Melrose Diner in South Philly sits a little dive bar called the Station, so quiet most of the time that I thought it was abandoned until I met someone who worked as a bartender there. It’s one of the few bars that still allows smoking, which created a time-travelling effect this past Friday night while three local bands played the night away for the bargain entry price of $5.


Opening the evening was Muffin Man, a three-piece group that has a country or folk feel, with maybe some metal influences thrown in. I don’t know their music at all so I was a bit lost for most of their set. By accident I sat in a disadvantageous place to hear vocals, and by the time I realized it a local neighbor had found me and started chatting me up, so it was too late to move. Where Muffin Man excelled, however, was in their very last piece, all instrumental, which sounded psychedelic and improvisatory. It was as if the musicians laid down all the molds and just said what they had to say. It was one of the better moments of the evening.


Next up was Adam and Dave’s Bloodline, a five-piece band that I got to know by being one of Adam’s regular customers at South Philly Taproom, not even two blocks from where the show took place. They began with all four selections from their most recent album, 2×2, produced by Founding Fathers Records. One of the great things about this group’s music is that it doesn’t rely on constant singing; long instrumental interludes allow the music to say more than words could. “Dark Clouds,” for instance, features some of these, and the listener needs it after hearing a refrain that laments, “And so we look down on this grave we dug together, knowing it won’t be long ‘til we’re lying there forever.”


Adam and Dave’s Bloodline is well known to have a plethora of influences—Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, among others, have been mentioned. My ear hears some Ska, too, but maybe that’s because it’s all I listened to in the mid-90’s besides Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. But the important thing is this: these diverse influences are pulled together into an original approach, so that you’re not saying anything except, “That sounds like Adam and Dave.”


St. James and the Apostles, the final band, made for a perfect way to conclude Good Friday at a place called the Station. They didn’t make quite as much racket as they normally do at, say, Johnny Brenda’s, but otherwise the walls may have blown out. With alternative, acid rock, psychedelic flavors, no one would be surprised to hear that The Doors, Pink Floyd or Black Flag are among their influences along with “anything that has soul or kicks ass,” as one of their online profiles says.  Besides their cool name, the first thing I ever noticed about them was drummer Jeff Castner, who gets a huge sound out of the set without banging on it tastelessly. Percussion teachers tell their students to “pull” the sound out of the drum, and that’s exactly what he does. But there is not a weak spot in this trio of cousins who formed only a few years ago. Organist Mike Kiker has chops and can play real licks, not just celestial background chords. Guitarist and lead singer Jamie Mahon tackles the music with full throat, going from words to onomatopoeia, and even to jubilus. Last month at Johnny Brenda’s I approached Mahon and said that he sang like he was possessed by the devil, and I love it. “No, no,” he insisted, “it’s the Holy Spirit.” Fitting, since the Holy Spirit is wind and fire, and this band makes your heart burn in all the right ways.


Among the marks of this band’s musical prowess is its willingness to get out of 4/4 time, an obvious but neglected virtue. Friday featured a bluesy song in 6/8, exactly the kind of rhythmic variety the rock genre needs. They’re also not afraid to draw on religious language, a result of a conflicted upbringing in Catholicism. They tested a new song on us locals called “Lazarus,” and they left us, as all performers with good taste do, wanting more.


I’m more or less a newcomer to the rock scene, having only recently shaken off young-fogeydom, but I have been impressed by the inherent desire of bands such as these to actually say something, to make art—not the art hidden away in hermetically sealed concert halls and museums, but a gritty art that doesn’t shun the everyday venue. Rock musicians of this sort hate commercial pop as much as Allan Bloom but because of their perspective are in a better position to critique it. Rock has earned for itself the chastisement of even careful observers because of its “decadence.” But in many respects it may prove to be one of the genres of music most capable of dealing with the crises of our times, if for no other reason than that it hasn’t been mummified by custom or taboo—yet. With any luck it will stay that way.


I think it’s my second grade portrait. I look like I have the chicken pox, except it’s not the chicken pox but a forehead dotted with scabs, the result of habitual scratching. (Strangely, I’ve never been a viola player. What’s the difference between a viola player and a dog? A dog knows when to stop scratching.)

I can remember lying in bed as a small child, scratching craters into my skin, probably the result of the poisonous combination of boredom and anxiety. One Saturday morning in particular is fixed in my memory. If my brother and I got out of bed too early, we got into trouble, so I lay in bed, catatonic with ennui, digging away at my forehead like I might find gold. My parents would reprimand me but not investigate any further than skin deep, it would seem.

My third grade teacher, who was something of a fanatic—she was the only teacher I ever had who paddled anyone in the class (not me!) or read the Bible, in 1986!—noticed this scratching habit and kept an eye on it until I quit doing it. For a time, I stopped. She even gave me a certificate, saying, “Mike has made it!” But the underlying problem was never solved, and it wasn’t long until the habit resumed. (That teacher, incidentally, left the profession that very year for a career in podiatry. I suspect she didn’t get along with the post-Eisenhower ways of public education.)

Anxiety isn’t all that drives this habit, though. I’ve always had something of a macabre fascination with scabs: how they form, how they heal, their translucence—yes, I know this is gross; I’m just telling you the truth. Part of what started this habit is that when I’d get a cut and a scab would form, I’d think, “Get this damn thing OFF me RIGHT NOW!” So I’d pull at it, and out flowed blood and water (which phenomenon is nothing miraculous, by the way). I’m often fascinated by the different consistencies of blood. It almost seems unpredictable.

Then there’s another aspect that I found really confusing, particularly at first: I experienced any pain associated with scab-picking as momentarily exhilarating. One of my trumpet teachers once accused me of being a masochist, and I can’t find any basis on which to argue with him. There’s this bolt of electricity that courses through the body at times with pain which can be thrilling—not that anyone should look forward to seeing me on a St. Andrew’s Cross any time soon.

Over the years, this habit has come and gone with fluctuations in happiness and anxiety, like eating too much, drinking too much, and having to sleep with the television on. About ten years ago it was really bad when I was in a place and a job that I hated and which gave me a lot of stress. At that time, I could still obscure the habit on my scalp under what was left of my hair, but now I’m bald as a cueball and there is no hiding it. It’s come back with a vengeance in the past few months. My scalp seems to be the first place my fingers crawl, and usually in my sleep, which makes it very hard to control. The advice of a friend to sleep with my hands in my pants would not seem to be foolproof in this matter. I now have a giant spot on the top of my head. It looks terrible and I wish I didn’t do it, but every morning, I wake up to a dome covered in blood.

I hate this habit. It’s embarrassing and gross. I had two dates last week. One was over coffee, so I could leave my hat on to cover up this blemish; the other was over lunch, so I had to bare all. Then I’m left to wonder what people think. Is he a leper? A cutter? The strangest documented case of herpes ever? It’s awful.

If only men were Angels! Maybe these wounds aren’t so much self-inflicted, at least in a poetic sense, as they are inflicted by wrestling matches with the demons that visit me at night, the devils of self-doubt, regret, sadness, loneliness. If only we could flap our wings and rise above our own mixed natures so easily! But I’m not dumb enough to think that we actually deserve better. Why, though, do I have to wear the marks of my affliction on my own body where everyone can see them? Only a megalomaniac would want to be so manifestly tormented. Well, maybe I am a megalomaniac and I’m the only one who doesn’t know it. Alas, even Angels aren’t immune from any of this. Lucifer was the greatest of them all, until he wasn’t.

While this habit is gross, it’s also picturesque, or illustrative. Vulnerasti cor meum—you have ravished my heart. My heart is wounded, and I bleed because of it. Your heart is likely wounded, too, and maybe you just bleed in a more allegorical way. The world is a valley of tears. Maybe my morning routine, though, is the cause for hope. I wake up, stumble into the bathroom, take a piss, glance into the mirror. It looks like a small volcano has erupted on my head. I bow down, bend over the sink, and wash off the clotted sadness. I make a cup of coffee and start all over. Life is too short, too precious, to be sticking our fingers in our wounds all the time.