It’s almost December and I’ve been avoiding the gym again. I know as soon as I flip the calendar over, I’ll start looking at myself more critically in the mirror — thinking about the New Year’s resolutions I won’t make about being healthier. Do you ever surprise yourself with what obsesses your thoughts? My thoughts are often consumed with the body I used to have in high school. I was skinny, lacking the hips and breasts that would come later in college, but I was strong. I’d taken a Weight Training class my last semester and our teacher, Coach S, who also happened to be an assistant football coach, stood firmly on the neck of gender roles. In his weight room, all students were expected to perform to the best of their ability. I’d taken the class for what I thought was an easy ‘A’ and a slow, luxurious dive into summer. Turns out, it wasn’t an easy class, but it did become one of my favorites.
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday the period began the same way: stretches and goals. My classmates and I stood on rubber mats between weight racks, bent over touching our toes and loosening tight hamstrings. We counted off together, “1, 2, 3, switch.” On the whiteboard, the workout of the day was already written and it was always based on one of three themes: Legs, Arms & Chest, or Back.
Coach roamed the room, stepping over outstretched legs, asking every other student, “What’s your goal? Can you best yourself today?”
The gym was arranged in stations and we moved like minute hands clockwise around the room. On Arm and Chest day, it was bicep curls and bench press, lawnmower rips and overhead press. Three reps of 15, or five reps of ten. On leg day we did alternating lunges down hallways, squats with the bar digging into our shoulders, deadlifts, and my favorite, hang cleans.
I loved watching women in my class do the hang clean.While they couldn’t lift as much weight as our male classmates, they were more graceful and fluid in their movements. The best part was at the end, when we were allowed to drop the bar to the ground from waist height and the rubber weights bounced on the gym floor.
Every two weeks, we’d have progress checks. Every student was expected to be able to lift more than he or she could lift two weeks before, and our grades depended on showing progress. We’d start at the bench press and Coach would look at the max number a particular student could press the week previously, and he’d call for someone to load the bar with five to ten pounds less.
With the whole class around you, cheering and encouraging you, you’d get five reps to warm up, then five reps at your previous max and then weight was added until you couldn’t lift anymore. I’ll never forget the feeling I felt every two weeks, when I lifted more weight than I had before, more weight than I thought I could. And the sound of my classmates, who slowly became my friends cheering and whooping as I made my goals, still rings in my ears when I lie down on the leather bench.
Some Leg days we did cardio exercise instead of weights. We’d run up and down the bleachers of the football stadium. We ran 4-person relays around the track, and jumped rope in the hallways. Cardio leg day was the best day to be social, because every other day we were grouped in teams of four, and the timed stations forced us to focus. But on cardio leg day the whole class was together in one big jumble of spandex and basketball shorts. I had never been to a football game, and before this class, had only known the football players by the jerseys they wore on game days. Never one to roll in the popular circles delineated by high school hierarchy I believed they were all self-absorbed meatheads.
But from the first moments of the Weight Training class, as we learned the proper techniques of lifting weight, the football players became our mentors. Some of the seniors in the class had been lifting since freshmen year, and even the JV players knew more about it than I did. It easily could’ve become a cesspool of testicle jokes (which sometimes it was) but because of Coach S, it was mostly an enthusiastic learning environment where classmates respected each other and praised their gains and pushed together past the plateaus. We all wanted to be better, and get stronger. At first I was consumed with numbers, with increasing how much I could lift for progress check, but by the middle of the semester, I wanted to have better form, cleaner hangs, deeper squats.
On the last progress check, I could lift double, run a decent mile and do a near perfect hang clean. My first official boyfriend was a football player who took me to prom. When I got to the gym now, I can hear Coach S asking me what my goals are for the day and will I best myself. I always try.