We sat across from each other, in the secluded, "office"-type area of the gym. All around I heard the clanging and soft whirring of weight machinery. On the wall behind her were photos of smiling personal trainers, and that's what she was, too?it said so on her name tag: "Marina, Personal Trainer, Crunch Gyms." I've always had a healthy disdain for people who used personal trainers, so this would take some getting used to. "Nice to meet you, Ned," she said in her clipped Russian accent, shaking my hand. I thought she might outline her experience, give me an overview of the gym, something, but she wasted no time: "Would you mind telling me what are your fitness goals?" I sighed. This was something I never thought I'd say: "I want to get buff. In the upper body."
"Uh-huh. What about the lower body?"
"I'm not so worried about that. It's mostly my chest. I mean, I've always been skinny. Real skinny, since I was a little kid. And I know that most American men end up obese. So I figured that somewhere, on the way from being skinny to getting obese, I'd be, you know, naturally buff for a while. But then I realized that some people in life just start out skinny and get pudgy, and then they turn obese without ever having been buff."
"Okay, okay," she smiled. "Well, the first thing you have to understand is that you already took a big step by coming here."
That was a line for suckers, but it got me. I beamed.
"Most people never take the initiative to take care of their body, so their body does not take care of them."
"And you are very young, which is good, and you have no injuries, which is good, and you have previous training, which is good."
"Well, I took karate, but that never gave me any weight."
"It doesn't, for most people. Come!" Marina got up. She was 5-feet-4, maybe, and for the first time I noticed that she was built like an absolute tank. She took off her glasses.
"That's it?" I asked.
"Yes. Time to work!"
This was gonna be weird. I'd signed up for the gym a week before, because I needed something to counteract my sit-on-your-ass-all-day computer job, and because I wanted to be ready in case my ex-girlfriend sent her goons after me, but mostly just because of what I told Marina: I was tired of being skinny. It was time.
She led me out of the office area and into the actual gym. It was like a dancefloor, big-on-paper but packed with people: tan, wiry old men with stuck-out veins, fat guys in computer-logo t-shirts, beautiful women and some skinny bastards like me, tapping their feet as they waited for one machine or another.
"I know a lot about muscle, let me tell you," Marina said as we walked to the leg-lift devices. "Do you know how muscle grows?"
I shook my head.
"Well," she began, and then gave me such a clear, terrific explanation that I couldn't believe I hadn't heard it before. "Muscles are made of microscopic fibers. When you contract your muscles, to lift weight, the fibers come together." She overlapped her index fingers. "Then when you release weight, those fibers pull apart." She pulled her fingers apart slowly, "leaving microscopic tears in the tissue. As your body repairs those tissues, your muscles grow."
"So the important part of any exercise is not the lift, but the release."
She sat me down at a leg machine and put the pin in the weights. I didn't look to see how much weight there was?I knew it would be embarrassingly low.
"Lift on a count of two," Marina said. I lifted the weights with my legs. They were pretty light.
"Now release," she instructed, "on a count of four." I let down the weights agonizingly slowly.
"That's what you should feel," Marina said, her face wide and chipper. My face was scrunched up and quivering?I saw it in the giant gym mirror. "That's your muscles tearing."
This was like a whole new activity. In high school gym, I had just put the weights on the highest setting they would go, lifted them as quickly as possible and let them drop even quicker, to impress the girls.
"Again," Marina said. "Slower this time." I obeyed and continued, and each time I lifted the weights (which was called a "rep"), she yelled advice at me.
"Don't lock your knees! We don't want you to get an injury."
"Don't stop at the top of the lift! Keep the momentum."
"It's all in the biomechanical positioning!" (This was one of her favorites.)
"Feel the peak contraction!"
When I had done 12 reps, which was a "set," Marina stood me up and stretched my legs. "If you don't stretch, you will die," she said simply, and I didn't question. Then we ran to the next machine, another leg thing, only on this one I had to pull the weights down instead of pushing them up.
"Now your quadriceps are resting, because we just worked them," she said. "So while they are resting, we work the opposite part of the muscle. It's a system."
Okay. Whatever. Good deal. I sat down and did the work. Afterward we ran back to the first machine, did another set there, then back to the second. We repeated that pattern on all the machines: work muscle A, B, A, B, move on. Marina told me what to eat as we sprinted around the gym.
"It's always 50 percent working out, 50 percent diet," she said. "To gain weight, you have to eat. You should eat six times a day. That means protein. Protein builds muscle. That means chicken breast. Turkey. Fish is okay. No hamburgers. Eggs are fine."
I nodded: "I get a fried egg and cheese sandwich like every morning. Is that bad?"
"If you were watching your cholesterol it would maybe be bad, but you are not, so go ahead. Also complex carbs. That means always whole-wheat bread. Never white. Oatmeal. Two vegetables a day. That means one salad, one steamed vegetable. Olive oil, sunflower oil and canola oil. Nuts. Raisins. Lots of fruit."
We finished up the workout and Marina brought me to a padded table. "Now it's time for stretching. My male clients love this part best." She put me down on the table and started doing indescribable things to my legs and hips. I had my eyes closed so I didn't even really know what was going on, but it felt good.
"That was your first session," Marina told me as I got up. "You need more. Monday at 7, Wednesday at 8, Friday at 8. You need to work consistently and hard. But I will get results. It's a system. In a month you will see."
I shook her hand and walked back to the locker room. On my way to my locker, I passed the scale and figured?what the hell?I'd find out the extent of my problem. I took off my shoes and got on.
I weighed 143 pounds. And that was stretching it a little. And I'm over 6 feet tall. So this was a real problem. I changed clothes and walked up Crunch's spiral staircase to the "eatery" part of the gym, which mostly sold shakes.
The guy behind the counter had a goatee and a fisherman's hat. "Hey," I told him, scanning the blackboard menu, "I'll have a, uh, 'Mango Madness.'"
"Do you want protein in that?"
Uh... Moment of truth. The guy was standing there with a scoop of white powder, ready to put it in. Was I going to become one of those guys? Those guys who drink protein shakes?
"Ah, yeah, put it in," I said. He added the powder (it had come from a tub labeled "vanilla whey"), blended the shake up and handed it to me. The protein tasted like fluoride, but I drank it in about 20 seconds, giving myself a nice brain freeze.
I strode out of the gym confidently, remembering one more thing Marina said: "After you work out, you have a half-hour window where your body needs protein. You have to eat as much as possible in that window." So I stopped at a deli for a turkey sandwich, a chicken sandwich and a salad, which I ate walking down the street, lettuce hanging out of my mouth.
Two days later, I came back to Marina, having eaten six times daily as instructed. I knew I was being fanciful, but I thought I could feel it?a little more weight on my arms, maybe on my shoulders. It seemed like I was a little less of a skinny bastard. Marina had said it would take four weeks, but I thought I saw some heft after that first Monday.
Anyway, I came in; I did my exercises; I worked hard; I felt the peak contractions. And when I was finished, I weighed myself, to see if I'd improved over my original 143. "Remember," I prepped as I stepped on the scale, "as you've read, weight fluctuates day to day. It's possible that you weight less than you did on Monday; maybe you're only 142 pounds now, but that's natural, that's all part of the process."
I weighed 146. I was ecstatic, so I went and got a protein shake.