Crossing the Divide in the Plex

One. Two. Three. I lifted the dumbbells up to my chest, then let my arms fall back down to my hips. Of course, words like ‘lift’ and ‘let’ imply a sort of grace or ease of movement that just didn’t exist here. Rather, I pushed the dumbbells up to my chest, feeling as though I was moving my arms through drying concrete, wrists shaking uncontrollably and face contorting with pain. Once the dumbbells hit my chest, I let them drop down to my hips in a sudden burst of relief. Twelve more to go.

Do I sound like an athlete? A constant gym-goer, someone who tells you to love the pain and work to fatigue and treat your body like a temple? That’s not me. I’m an occasional jogger and a yoga enthusiast who has never actually done yoga. In short, I’m a fraud.

Recently, I set out to change this. Armed with an illegally downloaded fitness plan and a trusted workout buddy (i.e. someone to force me to go), I entered the Plex. Of course I had been to the Plex before (I’m not a sloth) but this time I walked straight instead of turning up the stairs to my trusted treadmills and ellipticals. I walked to no-man’s land, or rather no-woman’s land, the section of the Plex designated for weights and strength-training machines.

The testosterone hung in the air, a cloud of sweat and Old Spice deodorant. Metal weights clanged in their places and dumbbells hit the floor with resounding thuds. The only voices were quiet, low, muffled in the sounds of the whirring fans.

My friend and I walked through the maze of machines and bodies, and I wondered if anyone would notice if we turned around and bolted out of the building.

Our plan was simple, a short circuit of bodyweight exercises and light lifting. We started at the weight bench for dumbbell chest presses. The weight bench was small and maroon, far less complicated than the medieval torture device I’d expected. As we stood before it, a strange look came over my friend’s face.

“Can we just use it?” she asked me. I met her questioning gaze with an even more uncertain one. What were the rules here? What were we allowed to do?

As we stood by the weight bench, paralyzed by uncertainty, I looked around at the other lifters. Boys in BC T-shirts and sweat-drenched tanks weaved between barbell racks, proving their membership with an easy nod. There didn’t seem to be anything easy about this to me. Perhaps this apprehension was due to my inexperience in the weight room. Or maybe it was because I had never been initiated into the increasingly obvious boy’s club, the club that encourages deadlifts and pull-ups and cold, metallic weights. I had been initiated into a different club, one with calorie counting and cardio. The boundary between these two clubs seemed impenetrable.

Then something odd happened. I looked to my left and saw a girl in a neon pink tank top. She held a 30-lb. barbell in her two outstretched hands and an intense look in her eyes. Her hair was pulled back in a self-assured bun. I watched her from the corner of my eye, trying not to stare so obviously. She squatted down and then lifted the barbell up in a fluid snap of her body, confidence cutting through the heavy layer of testosterone in the air. She hadn’t asked for permission to use the barbell or tried to justify the space she took up.

My friend and I later tried to deadlift, and we looked nothing like the girl in the neon pink tank top. We looked nothing like the bulgy-eyed boys around us either, though we never expected to. As we tried to mimic the fluid snap, I felt the boundary between the two clubs breaking down, brick by brick.

While slogging through bicep curls, my arms were even shakier than my breathing. Each lift of the dumbbell felt like pushing against a steel wall. I spotted the girl with the neon pink tank top again, this time walking toward a friend in a gray T-shirt. They gave each other an easy nod, a quick flick of the head to prove their belonging. The boundary seemed less certain now, maybe even a low fence I could hop over with a running start.

Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor