For all the fitness clubs and leisure centres across London, there's only a handful of hardcore gyms - and it's been this way for years and years. York's in Clapham Junction. Beauty And The Beast, in Thornton Heath. MuscleWorks in Bethnal Green. Squats in Mitcham. Pink's Gym in Carshalton. Physical Culture in Putney. Grove Gym in Balham. Genesis Gym in Wembley. Some have moved (MuscleWorks), some have renamed (Beauty And The Beast), and some have shut (e.g. Grove Gym). Others are still going strong (e.g. MuscleWorks).
The likes of the fitness clubs and leisure centres, et al. are okay, I suppose (insert facial shrug here), if you want to stay in some kind of shape. If you want to get toned. If you want to get fitter. If you want a relatively light touch to improve your condition. If you want to socialise and exercise. But it's in these places I've seen where equipment for heavy lifting is put together as an afterthought following the likes of music and juice bars - and it's lacking as a result. Squat racks where the pins are too shallow to rack heavier weight easily and safely. Deadlift areas where the floor is soft, and so gives a poor platform to lever the weight up from. Benches too high, which cause arching of the back and promote poor form when pressing. Pull-up bars not hung high enough to allow for a dead hang of taller people. Etc. etc. etc.
As a teen, I used to lift in a local leisure centre. And as a scrawny teen not used to the iron, it didn't take much for me to grow a little. Even when I'd pig out on two boxes of Mr Kipling's finest (Viennese Whirls, if I remember correctly) after a session, I'd still grow. Hell, I even got the nickname 'Bencher' from a couple of the guys; as a scrawny teen of 67kg who could bench 90kg. Then I went to uni in the North East and discovered 'Wearside Health & Fitness Studio' - also known as 'Arthur's Gym', which was a hardcore gym. So I was taking lifting more seriously. With a number of patrons being the door staff of local bars and clubs, I'd get to see these guys and build rapport. And because this is the first time I did squats and deadlift, I put on a stone of muscle in the first year. Seven pounds of that in the first 3 months. The goal was (and still is) to get bigger and stronger.
After uni, I was lifting at Grove Gym, which was on Balham Grove. Back then, it was run by Mike Pearman, who was a BAWLA coach (British Amateur Weightlifting Association).
This is also where I went up to benching 120kg. For the competitions run in the gym to see who could lift the most across squat, bench and deadlift, I'd rank, but I wouldn't win. Truthfully, it was about the camaraderie. As well as the kind of brute strength where you could rip a lamp post out of the ground (my man Kerwin will tell you). When Grove Gym finally shut, I was ...adrift for a while. It's really odd that there are only a handful of the hardcore gyms across the city, those churches of heavy iron. I flirted with Squats Gym. Lumped for time in a leisure centre, maybe. Until I made the pilgrimage across town to MuscleWorks in Bethnal Green, East London. Where I'd level off at squats of 140kg (like in the picture in this entry), stiff-leg deadlifts with 170kg and pullups with an extra 30kg. Never did recover the 120kg benching though.
For all the monsters I write about, these gyms - MuscleWorks for sure - are the places where you truly find yourself in the company of monsters.
There are people bigger than you. There are people smaller than you. Leaner than you. Softer than you. But the monster is more than skin deep. These are the places where it's okay to curse, growl and roar. These aren't the fitness clubs and leisure centres where such behaviour might stun everyone else into silence and make things uncomfortable, no. These are the places where the bars start to bend from the sheer weight heaped on them. The places where each rep is a clattering of iron plates. The places where you're in danger of ripping your shirt when you try to take it off post-workout; it's stuck to you with that much sweat. The places where you're truly let off the chain to go to war on the iron and yourself, spurred on by your comrades in iron.
One thing that's changed for the better over the years is to see a wider demographic than 'just guys' hit the weights. No women-only rules here; the women are down to put in work like everybody else. And not just clapping with silver dumbells, no. Squats, deadlifts ...and pelvic lifts for some reason. The disabled as well; that motorised wheelchair will get the man to his station in the gym so he can train whatever muscles he can. The gym's even 24hr now; so the likes of the Ramadaners can still get their food and a good session in. And while MuscleWorks isn't my current gym (and I have York's offshoot Yorky's for that), it's still ...home.
Of course, such places find their way into my work, even if it's just a name check. And why shouldn't they? I love to be in the company of monsters.
After all, I am one.