He returns his bag to his shoulder, exits the locker room and heads to the bench press. Free weight bench press of course. As he places his bag under the bench he looks around, a smile quickly forming. He recognizes a friend. This friend isn’t necessarily a giant, but there is something respectable about his physical prowess. As they banter, our bodybuilder tips back his water bottle—a full gallon jug—and takes a drink. Placing the cap back on, the conversation concludes with a handshake. With a hint of interest, he directs his attention to the reception desk. His hand nonchalantly rises to shoulder level as his lifting partner smiles and returns the gesture. Noticing he nearly ignored the receptionist, the partner stops and charmingly offers his sincerest of apologies. The receptionist appears to want to tell him he needs to sign in, but quickly reconsiders. Skipping the locker room, the partner (also carrying a giant duffel bag) heads straight for the bench press. The heartiest of handshakes completes the greeting and signals to all that they are about to begin
And begin they do. Our man grabs a ten pound plate, and begins warming up his shoulder and rotator cuff. One arm making deliberate movements, the other hand feeling the concerned area. Switching hands he repeats the process. His friend then takes the weight and does the same. During this ritual—which dates back to the first time they, not wanting to irritate their mentor, skipped warming-up as a consequence of being late to a work-out and then tweaked their shoulder—they discuss briefly how their shoulders aren’t quite 100%, but that they feel good enough. This minor chit-chat serves as a vocal warm-up, as much as a health conscious discussion. It is their way of talking about the weather. Finally, our man grabs a 45lb plate from the rack and loads it on the bar. The warm-up has officially commenced.
In the classic Moby Dick Herman Melville writes, “For be a man’s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base.” Substitute “physical” for “intellectual” and you have a perfect description of a bodybuilder circa late 1990s-early 2000s. The paltry and base aids that bodybuilders call upon, however, have a specific noble purpose unlike those Melville references. At the turn of the 21st century, bodybuilder mentors used paltry and base external arts as a filter to weed out men who were weak in discipline and drive–to cull the heard as it were. As a matter of course, the student later becomes the teacher and the entire group ends up with its own way of communicating.
Quite unlike intellectual superiority, measuring physical superiority is easy. Whether in size or strength or body fat, the human body is quantifiable. Nonetheless, bodybuilders, these giants of our time, still create their own discourse communities. Join me as we enter the once secret world of bodybuilding.
Immediately, we recognize the man walking toward the gym’s receptionist as a bodybuilder due to his sheer size. He is a giant. Giant also is the duffle bag he has over his shoulder. It is oversized–as is everything in it. A 5lb container of protein power, the sturdiest weight belt on the market, wrist wraps and straps, medium sized notebook and pen, and a Tupperware container of chalk fill the bag. This bag wasn’t always packed this way. Initially, it likely had a change of clothes, or a towel. Over the years, one-by-one each item made its way, as if called, into the bag. Today, this bag softly whispers to the uninitiated, “You and I are very different. Do not expect to understand. That you stare only proves my point.”
Blushing, the young lady receptionist takes his flirtatious greeting to heart. If she is allowed any leniency with requiring members to sign in, this man gets the pass. “Have a good workout!” she adds, displaying a little too much interest as he turns towards the locker room.
Once in the locker room, he becomes king. Locker use is doubtful (who would dare touch his gear?), so he drops his bag wherever he pleases and heads to the restroom. Next, he returns to the designated sitting area and settles into his seat with an air of gravity. He hasn’t yet conversed with any other men in the locker room. Using their silence as a currency, the other members pay their respects. One last glimpse around the room ensuring he hasn’t missed anyone important, he bends over to tie his shoes properly. These shoes being a very unique, almost wrestler looking boot. Sturdy and serious, these shoes and the manner in which he ties them tell us he isn’t here for fun.