I hate the gym. At least, I hate "the gym" as imagined by the modern American health club: the mindless repetitions on the weight machines, halfhearted crunches, daytime TV during the treadmill. Such a sad, unimaginative excuse for a life, when I could be out rock-climbing, surfing, or, hell, even just scrubbing the bathroom floor. But I love working out the way I've come to understand it, and two big discoveries made all the difference.
First, I realized that we all live in a kind of Fitness Fog, a miasma of lies and misinformation that we mistake for common sense, and that makes most of our gym time a complete waste. Second, and by far the bigger news, I finally figured out what gyms are good for and exactly how a man can use them to make himself healthy and fit in the truest sense: strong, capable, and durable in the long-lasting way that doesn't just ward off chronic disease but actually lets a 35-year-old desk drone carry both of his laughing children up a mountain, simultaneously, and take on serious skiing at age 40, trusting his knees to bend deep and firm.
Muscle withers away if you're not constantly building it, and muscle withers faster as a man ages. Fading muscle mass gives way to fat gain, stiff joints, stumbling-old-man balance, and a serious drop-off in weekend fun, not to mention self-esteem. But if you fight back right, it can all go the other way. And this means getting strong. The bottom line is that not only can lifting weights do as much for your heart health as cardio workouts, but it also provides you with a lean-muscle coat of armor against life's inevitable blows – the way it did for my own father, who broke his back in a climbing accident at age 69, spent months in bed, and recovered strong only because he'd been lifting for 35 years.
Not that I haven't wasted time at the gym like everybody else, sweating dutifully three times a week, "working my core," throwing in the odd after-work jog. A few years ago, newly neck-deep in what Anthony Quinn describes in Zorba the Greek as "Wife, children, house … the full catastrophe," I signed a 10-page membership contract at a corporate-franchise gym, hired my first personal trainer, and became yet another sucker for all the half-baked, largely spurious non-advice cobbled together from doctors, newspapers, magazines, infomercials, websites, government health agencies, and, especially, from the organs of our wonderful $19 billion fitness industry, whose real knack lies in helping us to lose weight around the middle of our wallets. Not that all of these people are lying, but here's what I've learned: Their goals are only marginally related to real fitness – goals like reducing the statistical incidence of heart disease across the entire American population, or keeping you moving through the gym so you won't crowd the gear, or limiting the likelihood that you'll get hurt and sue.
We're not innocent. Too many of us drift into health clubs with only the vaguest of notions about why we're actually there – notions like maybe losing a little weight, somehow looking like the young Brad Pitt in Fight Club, or just heeding a doctor's orders. Vague goals beget vague methods; the unfocused mind is the vulnerable mind, deeply susceptible to bullshit. So we sign our sorry names on the elliptical-machine waiting list – starting with a little "cardio," like somebody said you're supposed to – and then spend our allotted 30 minutes in front of a TV mounted a regulation seven to 10 feet away, because lawyers have told gym owners that seven to 10 feet minimizes the likelihood that we'll crane our necks, lose our balance, and face-plant on the apparatus. After that, if we've got any remaining willpower, we lie flat on the floor, contract a few stomach muscles with tragic optimism, and then we "work each body part" before hitting the shower.
Go one better – I certainly did – by hiring a staff trainer and telling him you're serious about your once-in-a-while surfing, skiing, or cycling, and that you'd love help designing a "sport-specific" routine. Forget that your trainer knows literally nothing about these sports; he'll gladly prescribe a whole suite of cool stability-ball "functional fitness" and "core-training" exotica with rubber bands and wobbly Bosu platforms. Maybe it'll even be fun. After a while, though, when you still can't tell if anything ever makes a difference, you'll get bored all over again, quit all over again, and wonder why 21st-century American fitness looks so much like 21st-century dieting, something we labor at constantly while our bodies hardly change.
My own epiphany actually hit me in a roundabout way, over the course of a couple of years – humiliation at the hands of a special-ops trainer, being told I was unfit to bench-press by the 1999 Mr. Olympia – but I somehow bumbled my way into a parallel universe of American fitness, one in which men know exactly how to get strong. And none of it is rocket science. Even more shocking? None of it takes any more time than you already spend working out. Maybe it takes even less.