The Workout Class

The instructions when you enter the studio are to get a mat, bench, and dumbbells—light, medium, and heavy. I come late and find a spot too close to the person next to me. They glare but it’s the only spot left with a view of the mirror so I can track my form. Do they expect me to work out with bad form? I don’t want Roger, the class instructor, to come over and correct my form. Not that I have a problem with my form being corrected. I often have a hard time pulling in my tailbone and clenching my buttocks in order to activate my core. A reminder from time-to-time keeps me honest.

But if I can track my core activation in the mirror, even better. So I keep my spot on the floor.

Roger steps to the front of class and gives us a few motivational words: “We come to the gym to feel pain. Give me the cleanest reps you’ve ever done today. Alright check this out (he says as he motions the exercise), we’re gonna do some cross-jacks to start.” 

He counts us down: 5-4-3-2-1. The room comes to life with 25 people aged 20-60 waving our arms out and in, out and in while we jump to the rhythm of Kanye West’s “Stronger.”

Roger says “Jump ropes in 5-4-3-2-1” and then we all make little circles with our hands, pantomiming the act of jumping rope. Another 30 seconds and it’s on to mountain climbers, then squats, butt kicks, and burpees. Warmup complete, Roger tells us it’s time for our first circuit.

“Alright check this out, we’re gonna grab our lightest dumbbells and do some backwards lunges.” He shows us the form and counts us off. I watch myself in the mirror as I step my leg back and bend my knee as low as possible without touching the ground. Through the mirror I catch a glimpse of the woman next to me checking my form in order to correct hers. She doesn’t know I saw her. Feels good.

Another minute and we do the left leg, then he tells us to “check out” this second maneuver, which is a typical squat with weights held at our shoulders. This one often makes my knees tingle. To keep focus, I train my eyes on the man in front of me. He has a ton of back sweat already. Good for him.

The last lower body exercise is the Bulgarian split squat. You squat with one foot on the ground and the other on the raised bench behind you. The movement sends a shock of pain into the hamstring of my grounded leg. To distract myself, I think about Bulgaria. Where is it on the map? Somewhere in eastern Europe, I believe. Was it part of the former Soviet Union? Do they have democracy now? I read a few years ago that the president of Azerbaijan continues to get reelected through sham elections. I wonder if something similar is going on in Bulgaria.

We repeat the same three workouts two more times, adding progressively heavier weights with each set. By the third circuit, my form is all but lost and the back sweat of the man in front of me has ballooned into a full-blown puddle.

The core circuit comes next. The three workouts are planked lateral raises, glute bridges, and side-to-side planks, in which we lie on the floor in a high plank, then lift one arm into the air directly over our head, turning our entire body so that we end up in a side plank. Then swap to the other side, over and over like some kind of weird interpretive dance.

By the third set of glute bridges, my abdomen is truly burning. I daydream an “Oz”-style prison shanking where a gang of inmates take turns stabbing me in the gut with a shiv, then leave me naked and bleeding on the floor of the shower. My blood mixes in with the prison water and swirls down the drain. The guards are stationed right outside. They know what just took place, yet they don’t come to collect me until well after I’ve expired.

What would compel someone to become a prison guard? From what I see on TV, it would seem prison guards constantly have to reconcile their own personal or professional ethics with the brutal system of prison justice. I can’t see how these folks could turn a blind eye to a prison shanking then go vacation in Fort Lauderdale with their families.

The final circuit is upper body. This involves standing shoulder presses, sitting bicep curls, and tricep curls where we lie flat on our backs. In a surprise turn of events, Roger says we’ll all do a drop set after each set. This means we drop the weights and pick up lighter ones and lift them as fast as we can so we can feel that deep burn that only comes from telling your body “yes” when it’s repeatedly saying “no.”

Before the third and final upper body circuit, Roger hits us with a pep talk: “This is it everyone. You’ve brought yourself here today when you didn’t have to. I want to see the most beautiful reps I’ve ever seen. I know you’re tried. I know you’re in pain. But this is what it’s all about.”

My attention wanders back to the man with the sweaty back. It’s completely dry now. No sweat stains to be seen. How is this possible? Not but five minutes ago I could see a sweat stain the size of Bulgaria. Now he’s dry as a bone. I must be more tired than I think.

When the dropset for the shoulder presses come, I drop my 25s too high from the floor, and they hit with a tremendous thud. The woman who I set up too close to is noticeably startled. That’s what she gets for copying my form all class.

I watch myself do the drop set shoulder presses in the mirror and see that I’m shaking at the knees. With each lift I’m bending and then pushing off from my heels to give me that extra “umph” to raise the 10-pound weights above my head. Roger is making the rounds, complimenting the exercisers he likes. He approaches me as “Party Rock” reaches its crescendo. I look to make eye contact and we see each other for a moment. With a tremendous grunt I throw the 10 Ibs. above my head. He brushes past and compliments the startled woman, who has gray hair, on her form.

Class ends. As is customary in Roger’s classes, he asks everyone to come to the front for a group photo, which he posts on his Instagram. Classic personal trainer marketing. Everyone pauses wiping down their mats and joins him in front of the mirror. I’m among the last to arrive and get stuck in the back where I can’t be seen. I smile anyway, just to show I’m appreciative of the workout I’ve received here today.

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