My Grand Return to Gym Culture After Seventeen years

The last time I went to the gym was in 2004, just before George W Bush got elected for a second term. That’s when I started getting fat.

Frank T Bird
5 min readNov 6, 2021


Actual footage of me in 2003 before the dreaded Bush re-election.

“I’d like to become a member”, I said to a serious-looking girl named ‘Jet’.

She ignored me for at least fourteen seconds then pushed a form towards me.

“Do you have a pen?” I asked.

Jet looked at me like I’d asked for a date with her mother. I wondered if there were other ways of filling out forms these days. I had heard of smart forms. Was this one of them?

“Do you do Billy Blanks Tae Boe here?” I asked Jet in an attempt at small talk while I filled out my form.

‘What’s that?’ She asked.

Clearly, things hadn’t worked out for Billy.

I made my way into the deserted changing room and donned my state of the art gym gear including compression pants, lifting gloves and a backward under armour cap.

I was the only one in there. This lack of fellow gym guys was a grave disappointment since I had been watching youtube videos on ‘towel whipping’ and was ready to make some new gym buddies.

Lesson One: People don’t get changed and shower at the gym anymore. They arrive in their gym clothes and shower back at home.


I can understand why. It felt creepy taking off my underpants in public.

The gym ‘area’ or whatever it’s called, was pumping with some horrendous commercial house music. so I whipped out my Walkman and rewound the tape.

Just kidding. I’m old but not senile. Yet.

I pressed play on my Discman. I had the Rocky montage lined up.

The first thing I noticed was a man holding two giant ropes and whipping them. I figured it must be extreme towel whipping training. I would definitely have to stay away from him if I ever saw him in the changing room.

I looked the first machine up and down. I wasn’t sure how to do it, but it was impossible to ask anyone for fear of jeopardising my I know what I’m doing vibe.

I examined the next one and the next one without understanding. How could this be so? Has pumping iron become that complex? Is it even called pumping iron anymore? God, I hope so.

Lesson. Two: Start with a personal trainer session to show you the ropes. (Unfortunately, this wasn’t available because of something they called ‘the pandemic’)


I gave up on the machines and made my way to the free weight area.

Back in the late nineties and early noughties, these areas were inhabited by giant male steroid freaks, and you would never go and lift free weights unless you wanted to be one of them or unless you were looking to score some ‘juice’.

Uncoordinated people like me tend to use machines for a reason.

Still, this was a different age, and one had to adapt. The place was, as always, inhabited by giant freaks but I got the feeling there may have been more protein shakes and fewer steroids involved.

I sat on a bench and looked into the mirror. I looked like a pale ape. This was made more apparent by the heavily bronzed herculean monster with perfect teeth next to me, who was lifting half of my body weight with one arm.

I rigged up my eight-kilo dumbells and started doing bicep curls. It felt cliche to do dumbbell curls, but I didn’t know any other exercises. I managed about six before my upper lip started to wobble. I put down the dumbbells and did the obligatory walk, strolling around the room like a pro lifter.

It felt good. I belonged here.

My euphoric moment came crashing down when I realised that I was the only male person in this entire gym wearing compression pants. Everybody else was wearing shorts.

How could I have made such a devastating error? I thought everyone wore compression pants to the gym these days. I also realised no one was wearing lifting gloves. What the hell had happened? I thought back to the movie Pumping Iron. Arnold wore lifting gloves, didn't he? Perhaps not. What was I thinking?

Lesson Three: Dress Casually.

Triple check.

Pumping Iron (1977) Imagine the towel whipping back then.

I had a feeling people had been looking at me from the start. I figured they were thinking, ‘Show us what you’ve got Whiter than White Warrior’.

Was it more likely they were thinking, ‘Who is the pale ape in the compression pants?

Maybe they weren’t thinking anything at all. One thing I noticed (at least in my gym) was a general feeling of non-judgement. it’s almost like the internet has sown a seed where any form of judgement in the gym is frowned upon. I liked that about the new gym culture. It’s become more intelligent.

The next day I woke up with a torn ligament in my arm from doing too many (sixteen) bicep curls. I realised then that the gym wasn’t for me although, the general culture, sweatiness and nakedness, I must admit, has improved a lot since 2004.

Photo: Ivan Samkov, White Mountain Films

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