Why I love the gym

March 27, 2023

One man’s reflections on his penultimate past-time

By W. Thomas Smith Jr.

I LOVE THE GYM, which is why it baffles me when people regularly work-out at the gym yet say they hate it. Excepting a several-year hiatus in the 1990s when I was married, I’ve been going to the gym off-and-on since I was 18. I was even a fitness instructor at a gym for six months before entering Uncle Sam’s Marine Corps in the early 1980s.

The gym is, and has always been, one of my great escapes, second only to Sunday School. All the troubles of the world are left at the door when I walk into the gym. There is a unique air of competition – primarily with oneself – in the gym where one’s greatest recorded accomplishments are often every bit as remarkable as one’s professional achievements, though gym successes (unless you are a competing powerlifter or a professional fighter) are rarely if ever noted beyond the confines of the training facility itself.

My good friend Bruce Brutschy, a professional martial artist and fitness instructor, once told me: “You’re only competing with your previous work-out. [Regardless of the occasional slump you may feel you are in] If you’re better than your most recent work-out, you’re making gains.”

Gains indeed, small and great, years in the making: And superstars abound, usually known only to one’s fellow gym rats (forgive the overused idiom).

I’ve been blessed to have trained in some of the finest fully equipped gymnasiums in the world: many of them on military bases (the ultimate gym was at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, CA, another at MCB Camp Hansen, Okinawa); some small weight-rooms aboard various ships at sea; a dirt-floored ironworks covered in camouflage-netting at a forward-area battle position in Al Anbar, Iraq during the war; the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s Special Response (SWAT) Team gym in their proverbial bat cave (the location of which I won’t disclose); the old downtown Columbia YMCA (where I was reputedly “the fastest man on the speedbag”); and years ago I was twice invited to work-out in the Gamecock football strength-and-conditioning facilities at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.

At the particular gym I frequent these days, the air is always cool, clean, and fresh. It’s a far cry from the old days of overpowering Ben-Gay smells, chalk dust, giant fans, and stifling heat. Today, all the training spaces are air-conditioned and there’s the distinctive smell of post-COVID sterilizing wipes and disinfectants as well as the faint scent of eucalyptus and chlorine wafting from the sauna and pool area.

As in most gyms, the sounds of the weight-room include the smacking of iron plates being loaded one against another (I love that sound), the controlled crash of weight-laden bars either thudding to the rubber-matted deck or slamming hard into a steel rack, the slight squeak of pulleys and levers from the machines, stacks of machine-weights rising and then striking the base, the primal grunting of lifters, and the different types of energy-generating music depending upon which staff-member is working on a given day.

If I feel bad going in, I almost always start to feel better once I swipe my card at the front desk.

At the gym, I see friends who rightly know never to talk about work (mine or theirs). We do however talk about working out. We sometimes talk about ballgames (actually we talk a lot about ballgames) and we talk about women and our favorite foods, but that’s about it: Except for God: Sometimes some of us talk with each other about God.

At the various benches and stations in the gym, I whisper little prayers to God or I recite previously memorized short Bible verses before a particularly heavy lift, even prior to lighter lifts. I think I’ve seen others doing the same.

Recently after a particularly arduous set on an incline bench, an anonymous lifter approached me, glanced over my shoulder and said: “He’s got your back.”

“Who?” I said, catching my breath.

“Jesus,” he responded, smiling, before turning back to his own bench.

There are a lot of banged-up, bearded, tattooed, 30-something-year-old formerly deployed Marines and a few Army guys where I work out. We all seem to gravitate toward one another, though at nearly 64 I’m by far one of the oldest rats in the barn. There are only one or two other guys maybe older who make a regular appearance at the gym.

There are a few former college football players who sometimes ‘spot’ me – and I spot them – a handful of high school baseball players, an assistant high school football coach, occasionally sheriff’s deputies (more often than not those who serve on the tactical team), and off-duty firefighters with their always-crackling emergency radios.

There are women too, though not very many in the free-weight area: Most are participants in the pilates or cycling classes which I am not. Of the few women who do venture into weight training, some are attractive to be sure and they largely keep to themselves.

There is also a relatively young guy – probably in his 30s, but hard to tell – who prematurely suffered a mildly debilitating stroke many years ago. But he’s there making the effort, without fail, several times a week, and he makes it a point to approach everyone, hug them, and proclaim: “God is good.”

Everybody at the gym is upbeat and encouraging. There are a few huge powerlifters who in passing say things like, “S’up brother” and “Stay strong.” Sometimes it’s just a nod of the head or the occasional fist bump.

In the lockerroom nobody talks. Most men don’t talk a lot in restrooms and lockerrooms. We just shower, change clothes, and check phone messages. Some guys are at the sink shaving. Behind them and overhead are wall-mounted, sound-muted TVs flashing highlight reels from ESPN or ESPN2.

The gym is the only place where I hear songs playing throughout that I would never otherwise hear like, “I’m in love with an emo girl.” Though I’m not quite sure what is an “emo girl.”

Because of my age, all of the late teenaged and early 20-something-year-old white boys call me “sir.” All of the similarly aged black boys call me “pops.” Both are expressions of endearment and respect.

I actually hate it when I leave the gym, because I’m going back into the harder, expectations-filled, not-always-friendly regular world, though I am emotionally uplifted by the experience of the gym and another solid workout. And, yes, I almost always whisper a “thank you” to God for the blessed time spent in the gym as I exit the door and cross the parking lot toward my car.


– W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a former U.S. Marine Infantry leader and New York Times bestselling editor. Visit him online at http://uswriter.com.