It has been just a little more than one year since I made the decision to go "gymless." I allowed my gym membership to lapse and walked away from a place that I had called home for two decades of my life.
This past weekend I went back, just to see if I missed it.
From the time that my dad would let me tag along with him to the YMCA to those early morning training sessions before school with my football coach and neighbor, Don Stoner, when I was in the 7th grade, weight rooms just felt right. But today, after a year away (which is by far the longest I've gone in the last 20 years of my life without setting foot in a gym), I just felt bored.
It wasn't the lifts. The movements that I've performed thousands of times came back almost instantly. It wasn't the space, either. I've always been comfortable with the bitter smell of iron and sweat and the sharp, harsh clang of weight plates. It was something else. At first I couldn't really put my finger on it. It wasn't until a couple of days later, when the DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) set in, did it hit me - the weightroom wasn't where I wanted to be anymore. That got me to thinking - what is it I want to achieve from a fitness standpoint, anyway?
In my younger days (I can use that phrase now, right?) it was for sports - football, basketball, track. I went to the weight room to get stronger, jump higher, run faster. Once I was out of school, I switched to lifting to stay in shape. The ended up becoming a means to it's own end. Because I'm a competitive person, I quickly started trying to be the "strongest guy in the gym." Anytime I saw someone bench pressing or squatting or whatever more than me, I used it as motivation to out lift them. While this was fulfilling, it was also self-destructive. Yes, I was putting up pretty big numbers on major lifts, but I was also grinding down my body and packing on unneeded muscle, straining my chronically crummy knees.
For good or bad, all of that led to where I am now. I've seen the older guys in the gym, the grizzled gym rats in their 50s and 60s, replete with wraps and braces for every joint, moving stiffly from one staton to the next, grunting and straining. That wasn't where I wanted to end up. But that was the path I had put myself on. So I decided to make a change. To make myself stick to it, I knew I had to cut myself off from the gym.
Nowadays, I still work out to stay in shape and be strong, but my definition of what that means has changed. So where do I want to go from here? Let's go to the bullet points -
Continue my work with kettlebells. What started as a lark based on general curiosity has really blossomed. Many kettlebell lifts are true full-body movements that require coordination, control, and strength. Whether it's a simple swing or more complex movements like the snatch or turkish get up, the thing I like most about using kettlebells is that you're working with the weight, instead of battling it. Until my little foray back last weekend, I hadn't picked up a weight heavier than 62lbs in a year. My focus with kettlebells is less power and more endurance and technical proficiency. They're a great way to build core strength and burn fat. Also, my back and knees - which were the biggest casualities when I was lifting heavier and heavier - haven't felt this good in a long time.
Expand and continue to build upon bodyweight exercises. I just recently started being able to do handstand presses. I still have to be near a wall so I don't fall on my ass, but still, it feels pretty cool to have that kind of control over my body. That's really the thing I like the most about bodyweight fitness - I feel so much stronger in a more practical way than I have in a long time. I may not be able to deadlift a small car or bench press a ton of weight anymore, but I can move myself around much more efficiently and with more confidence.
Speaking of regression in typical weight room lifts, one of the most interesting takeaways I had from heading back to the gym last weekend was that I'd actually gained more upper body strength. I had no problem whatsoever with the bench press or overhead press or barbell rows. In fact, I could lift heavier weight more easily than before.
Lower-body lifts like the squat and deadlift were another matter, though. My numbers on both went way down. But I expected that. My legs in general have gotten much smaller over the past year. After a lifetime of having thick, chunky, tree-trunk legs, I've slimmed down considerably, relatively speaking. Consequently, biking to work is easier and my knees feel healthier. I'll gladly give up some raw strength for that trade-off.
From a health standpoint, this change has been incredibly beneficial. Three years ago, I weighed between 225 and 235 pounds, the heaviest I've been since my senior year of high school, when I packed on weight to be an offensive lineman and middle linebacker. When I stepped on the scale at the gym last Sunday, I was 195. My heart rate is in the low 60 beats per minute and my blood pressure is also right in the sweet spot, 110/65.
All in all, pulling away from the weight room and changing my approach to fitness has been incredibly positive for me. Everyone has different goals and different approaches to fitness. Mine has morphed from packing on muscle to wanting to still be fit and active when I'm twice the age I am now.
Physical fitness has always been a very important part of my life. Hopefully, it always will be. If I'm lucky and play my cards right. If I can still enjoy an active liftstyle at 68 and beyond, I'll know I've done something right.
The biggest thing I've learned over this transition to being "gymless" is that fitness - if you're truly dedicated to it - has to be adaptable. The best fitness regimen is one that you're excited about and one that pays both physical and mental dividends. If you're fit, but unhappy, it's not sustainable. You have to enjoy what you do if you want to keep it up long term. And what keeps you excited and wanting more changes over time, so you have to adapt. Will I still be singing the praises of kettlebells and bodyweight exercise five years from now? I hope so, but have no idea. As with anything, the only constant is change. I'm excited for where the journey leads, no matter the path I end up taking.