Mark Simpson on the joy of gyms & the dreary barbarism of home workouts

A week before gyms were shuttered for lockdown back in March, I managed to buy a pull-up bar, a dip stand – great for lower pecs, triceps, inverted rows and drying socks – plus an ab roller. (I’m not sure whether ab rollers actually work, but they make me think I’m Richard Gere in American Gigolo.)

My smugness at successfully planning ahead for the gympocalypse before home workout equipment transmuted into gold dust was slightly dented however by the fact that I somehow completely forgot about actual weights – so had to buy a 17.5kg pair of dumbells for silly money. About three times the pre-lockdown price.

It took me several weeks to install the pull-up bar – it’s a permanently fixed one that requires substantial drilling, controlled explosions and deep-sea anchors to fit. It was as much down to wishful thinking as DIY-phobia – I hoped and prayed gyms would reopen before I had to install it on my most suitable wall – in my living room . Where it will remain forever: pandemic wall art.

Initially, I was full of determination not to let my over-muscled middle-aged physique – or self-love – wither away. After all, when you’re in your 50s you’re going to struggle to put that beef back on. And the last thing I want at my age is for nature to take its course.

I studied innumerable, exhaustive and exhausting online home workout videos. I printed off charts depicting every dumbbell exercise imaginable. And several that weren’t. I made lists and routines, which I carefully pinned to my fridge.

Pro sporno Bradley Simmonds getting sweaty in Men’s Health’s topless & tight bottoms gym

I even worked out. Fairly furiously and frequently. Convincing myself, like a recently dumped lover, that working out by yourself at home was actually, like, really GREAT. And, anyway, who needs gyms? And how fab is it that you can work out in your pajamas? Or do a spot of gardening in between sets!

But that was early lockdown.

As lockdown dragged on and on and on, and as the re-opening of gyms got pushed further and further back – after pretty much everything, including pubs – I could no longer avoid the truth. The truth that strangely, none of those evangelical home workout videos mentioned.

Home workouts are shit.

Gyms existed for a reason. Not just that they have all the equipment and space you need to work out, but also there’s not much else to do there except work out. Once you’ve paid your membership, pulled your stretchy pants on, taken your pre-workout and turned up you feel foolish about turning round and going home for a sandwich or to do some dusting.

When you work out at home there is no shame and these things happen regularly between sets. In my case, by mid-lockdown a workout ended up taking me most of a week to complete.

I actually began to have dreams about being at the gym. And no, not those kind of dreams about hanging around the steam room and showers, Top Gun stylee, but dreams of actually working out in a place designed and equipped for it.

It was only when they started talking about the possibility reopening gyms in late July that I began to start exercising at home with a less listless attitude. Suddenly there seemed to be a point. I wanted to look as good as I could for my re-entrance. And really, ‘fitness’ is all very well and good, but if you’re not showing off as well then isn’t it all a bit monkish?

Contrary to what I said before, gyms are not just places where you go to work out. They are also places you go to check each other out. Places of inspiration, not just perspiration. Competition, comparison, exhibitionism – envy and desiring. Life, in other words.

I’ve missed it.

As someone who already worked from home before lockdown, the gym was vital. It got me out of the house. It got me out of myself. It got me offline. It got me talking to actual flesh-and-blood people – many of them very fleshly indeed. It got my pulse up. And it got my pectorals big.

So it won’t surprise you that I’ve been almost every day since they reopened in the UK a few weeks ago, and I feel as reborn as someone my age can be. My first session – the first in four months – was almost quasi-sexual. (Yes, I sanitised the bench after me).

Amazingly, I suddenly had enough room to pump iron in without worrying about knocking over the telly. Huge racks of dumbells and barbells of every weight to choose from. As well as strange, alien equipment such as ‘bench presses’ and ‘squat racks’ to play with. Even better, I was surrounded by lads in shorts and vests offering me encouragement.

(In my mind.)

Gymnasia, not democracy, philosophy or kalamata olives, are the greatest gift the Greeks gave Western Civilisation. Even if we are still terribly overdressed in them by their standards (‘gymnos’ = ‘naked’). I will never take them for granted again.

And so long as I can grasp a dumbell, I never, ever want to watch a dreary, barbaric home workout video again.

(Unless it has Bradley Simmonds stretching in his compression pants.)

Spornosexual pride

As for spornosexuals, lockdown inevitably put them into hibernation. But they are coming out of it now, and want to make up for lost staring time. Spornos need to share.

Exhibit A – the swole guy who walked down Oxford Street in London stark naked, save for a face-mask posing pouch last month. It was on the day that masks were made mandatory in shops in England, and he does seem to be pointedly mocking this – but it was also, and this was something missed in the reporting, the day before the gyms reopened.

He was obviously a dedicated gym-goer who had done an awesomely good job of maintaining his muscle size during four months of gymlessness. An inspiration to us all – no wonder he wanted to show off.

P.E with Joe | Monday 23rd March 2020
No – things never got so bad that I found myself watching Mr Wicks

It may be that post-lockdown, many gyms will find that their core market is more sporno than before. ‘Hard core’ male gym-goers who haven’t been seduced by Joe Wicks’ flowing, domesticated locks, or socially-distanced runs in the park. And haven’t been terrorised by articles in Men’s Health and the Guardian about the horrifying dangers of going back to the gym, or leaving the house. (Instead of staying at home watching MH workout videos.)

I’m happy to report that my gym has been reassuringly busy-ish – if socially distanced. And everyone is wearing their own face. Which is nice.

Doubtless PM Boris Johnson’s much-publicised ‘war on obesity’ – which he launched after closing gyms and ordering everyone to STAY HOME – will make fitness a more general concern. But spornosexuality always had a particular interpretation of the the word ‘fit’. 

One that will never have anything to do with Boris.

This post was based in part on answers to questions asked by Max Olesker for his London Times feature ‘Will men go back to the gym to get ripped?’