Nostalgia and Progress, the gym and me

March 17th 2016 | by Rob Harris

The ‘Gym’, a place where people solely go to check themselves, and others, in the mirrors. A place where the body is trained, but the brain is left at home. A place where preening, prowling, puffing and panting are the norm. A place where narcissism rules, self-obsession pervades and the numbskull Meat Head is king. The gym is an unnecessary hive of wasted exertion, built on selfish, pointless goals, executed by those unable to socially interact with others on a more meaningful level. Or, is it? I am witness and testament that this is far from the true!

A little background. At 20 years of age, I found myself distraught...I’d juddered to a halt at a measly 6feet 1 in height, I’d been aiming for 6feet 4, at least. I was determined to keep on developing. I found the university gym; as I’d initially gone to Uni to study Sports Science, you could say this was somewhat appropriate. The gym was a dated affair. Artificial lighting, a distinct lack of free weights or any real qualified advice and the kit gave it a feel of place that time had forgot. Nevertheless, the Universal Multi-gym, located in the middle of the room, and the clunky machines that surrounded it, soon became familiar territory; unsurprising, given I was there 4 or 5 days a week...and using them every time I went. All of them! I had no idea of form, technique, programme design, body part splits, or what I should be doing, other than I knew it should feel "right". It felt right, it felt so right.

A few months passed, and I was gaining lumps and bumps in all the right places. My arms and shoulders were catching up with my legs - they’d been given a genetic head start. My training had evolved and I’d begun to train different muscles on specific days, affording them more recovery and more time to strengthen and grow. I’d also discovered sports supplements and jeez they tasted bad back then. I was growing in confidence. I could see (and in fact touch) the strong link between effort and results. Each week, I could guarantee that if I put my all into training, ate well, and slept enough, then in 7 days I would be lifting more and there would be more of the good stuff, MUSCLE

To have such a concrete thing in life, as my training, was really something. The weather in South Wales was awful, it rained most days. The life of a student was fun in many ways, yet I also had to deal with many pressures: exams, assignments, deadlines, family and peer expectations, a lack of money, and being away from home, all meant that the predictability and controllability of the gym were always welcome and a reliable boost to my mood. I knew that if I sat through 6 hours of lectures, and the same again of home or library work, then my reward would be waiting for me at the gym. The gym equipment always felt the same, they always made the same movement, with the same noises, in the same place. The handles always felt the same, as did the weight pin and the excitement of moving it down the weight stack to a new weight- I was developing, I was getting stronger, my efforts were being rewarded. Consistency, effort, application, determination, focus. All the characteristics that work, were working for me.

There were no mirrors in the gym. Sometimes, I’d go out of the gym and across the landing to the toilets (to actually just use the toilet), where there were a couple of mirrors over the sinks. While I washed my hands, I’d catch glimpses of what was developing under my own skin, through MY efforts. But that was it. There were no selfies, there were no camera phones, no Facebook, and no Instagram. Social Media hadn’t been invented yet. If you wanted pics taken, it meant bringing in a camera, taking random and poorly constructed shots with lame poses, and then waiting a week or two for them to be developed at Boots in Pontypridd high street. But matter not, I was seeing what was happening and I could feel it and others were starting to notice too. I got acceptance from the other lifters - we were in the trenches together. I got respect from those also trying to improve themselves - we put the time in to get the rewards out. I also garnered a little attention from those wanted to know what I was doing - it was working. This felt great. People were asking ME for training advice. What a proud position to be placed in.

A couple of years earlier, I’d been really struggling with being shorter than many of my friends; for some reason, this had been really important to me at 14/15/16 years of age. Now, here I was being requested to dispense information and wisdom on how to shape and create the body that others wanted. It was a long way from being sat at home with Mother, complaining that I wasn’t growing as fast as my friends were. Why did I have to be the short one? Weight-lifting and the gym gave me confidence in myself and confidence in the link between effort and reward. I also began to notice that those that worked out around me were more fun to be around. These people had a mentality that I could relate to...get it done, keep going, keep working, push yourself, do more next time, short-term sacrifice for long-term benefit; these were all common thoughts and themes among us. I look upon those that I lift with (and lifted with, in the past) like Brothers in Iron, rather than mere acquaintances. They also knew the importance of rest, relaxation and enjoying what else life has to offer. We’d go out socialising as a group, or just hang out in halls or in town. The gym had brought a whole new circuit of fun, like-minded people in my life.

Moving to another job or house can be challenging and unnerving. Getting your first job out of University and it being on a different continent, where you don’t know anyone, was indeed extremely challenging. That was OK though, because I took my muscles with me and, as luck would have it, there was a gym already there! In fact, I was now working in a gym and it didn’t matter how much work I was given, how much my boss (thankfully) pushed me, or that the guys didn't get my English-humour, so long as I could get my fix each evening on the gym floor. New equipment, new opinions, new training partner, and lots and lots of research; all of this, combined with my work ethic, meant that the results kept flowing. My muscle and strength regularly increased and my passion for spreading my knowledge grew with it...a disciple of Iron. I found myself in a position where I could train and help countless others via informal chats, emails, and phone calls, to shape the way they looked and consequently felt. It felt like everything that I learned, trialed, and found to work (or not work), had the double benefit of helping myself and others. There’s something incredibly rewarding about helping others - you don’t do it because you have to, you do it because you want to. I found that I had a huge amount of energy for being on the gym floor and helping others to train safely and effectively. It gave me such a buzz and sense of satisfaction to pass on knowledge and understanding to others. 

On my return to the UK, I carried this on and started to build a Personal Training business. I’d worked myself into a position where I could do what I enjoyed and now make a living from it. Effort and reward were again inescapably linked. Courses, further qualifications, relentless reading of Flex and Muscular Development magazines, my uni text books, and training websites. It became clear that something only became "work" when I didn’t want to do it, and I definitely wanted to do this! Hours of Personal Training clients, hours of learning, and hours of cooking and training was in no way difficult. Actually, it was a pleasure, because I’d found what I wanted to do. I found myself in the familiar position of training where I worked. I would fit my training in around my clients, which taught me to be flexible and manage my time. 

Around this time, I lost a good friend to a brain haemorrhage/ car crash. Seeing someone every week, they become a little part of your world. You hear about their life, they listen about yours. You talk, you listen, you joke, you laugh, you share life. Then, all of a sudden, at just 22 years old, my friend is gone. At the time, I felt a huge amount of disbelief, this turned into sadness and frustration. The gym helped with my was a place I could go and unleash my feelings. The weights don’t talk back, they don’t require an explanation, they don’t foist unpredictability on to the lifter, they’re a constant. They whisper "I remember you", "come on", "one more rep", "well done", "again". I remember a particularly therapeutic leg workout with another close friend of mine, shortly after the accident. I’ve never felt that surge of anger or power since. What a constructive vent for all my feelings. Where could that energy have gone, if I’d been of a different disposition, if I didn’t have the gym? 

I’ve known times where the gym has helped avoid arguments and saved relationships. Get out of the mad house, lift some iron, exhale, go home and approach life/problems/discussion with a far healthier, calmer and more measured outlook. Gym-goers come in, full of bluster and consternation, and leave cleansed, relaxed, and de-stressed.

In the extreme, I know occasions where the gym has turned a self-harmer into a self-helper. Someone who thinks they have no control over their world now finds control right where they thought they had it least - their own mind and body. Many times, I’ve seen the gym turn the shy and self-conscious into confident and comfortable in their own skin. To witness the "ironing-out" of posture, and of one's outlook, is truly wonderful. To see limitations, self-imposed and imposed by others, lifted, almost in synchronisation with the dumbbell, is awesome!

So much positivity can come from the simple introduction of reps, sets and pushing and pulling. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. It’s so simple, it’s staggering that it’s still considered by many as a niche pastime. 

In 2010, life shaped an opportunity for me to buy a gym. I took it with both hands, and all my teeth. Gym ownership is an interesting, rewarding, and challenging occupation. Meeting and helping people from your local community, and sometimes even further afield, is incredibly fulfilling. Listening, watching, chatting, helping, encouraging, are all ingredients that make up a day in the life of a gym owner, in my experience. On the flip-side, every day I let members of the public, paying circa £1 per session, use my treasured gym equipment. The chance of one of the more valuable pieces being disrespected and broken is potentially huge. However, encouraging those using the gym equipment, showing your own respect for the kit by keeping it clean and functioning, and continually reinvesting in more and better kit has certainly helped. Here, I’ve seen that most people will treat you and your belongings how you treat them and theirs. 

Cleaning multiple showers/toilets weekly, no problem. Hoovering after midnight, no problem. Opening every morning and closing every night and doing every single task in between, no problem. Dusting, Polishing, manoeuvring, tidying, replacing, straightening, sweeping, hoovering, cleaning.  It’s not work when you want to it. It’s the reps and sets of my life and I enjoy it all. The gym has taught me this. 

From day one, I’ve spent much of my time suggesting, correcting and motivating members. To see so many of them in the physical shape of their life, whilst simultaneously improving their own psychological state, is a fantastic feeling. In the last 6 years, I’ve spent more money on equipment, maintenance, upkeep, seminars, etc. than I have ever spent on myself. I’d do it all again, if only I could Lol!

Now, I have a great Team of young professionals working in the gym, they've taken on many of the roles that I did for so long on my own. I trust them, and they’ve grown and developed into proficient fitness professionals. What a buzz this has been...the gym has led me into the world of managing and developing others. 

This article offers a small glimpse of my passion for the gym, and perhaps  helps you to understand why. Maybe you feel the same, and can recount many experiences and fond memories of your own. The truth is, if more people embraced exercise, if sets and reps were prescribed by the NHS, if society as a whole encouraged the use of gyms, then our nation would be in a much greater condition, physically and mentally. If you lift, then you know most of this already. If you haven’t yet ventured into a gym, don’t worry, it’s waiting for you, with muscular arms wide open. 


GP's Notes: Who's Rob?

Rob Harris is a lifelong natural bodybuilder and has dedicated his own passion to help others achieve their physique and health goals. He's the Owner of Progress Gym in Yeovil, Somerset (UK), and Author of The Mind Muscle Connection book, which is available in both paperback and eBook formats.  

Please be sure to check out Rob's gym at the video below and you can find his book HERE