pecs & the city

An Irish man’s life in Cape Town: The Point, Clifton 3rd and what’s left in between…


Cape Times, September 22nd 2008

Pecs & The City: the break up

“It’s not you, it’s me. I think you’re really amazing – but I just need more. I’m so sorry, but it’s over!”.
Breaking up is never a Swiss picnic but when I recently uttered the above it was in a less than traditional context. On the receiving end of my mortal words was not another flash in the pan lover wailing “Why God why?!!!”. It was to my pint sized female fitness instructor Dee. Yes, after a steady one year relationship, I was giving Dee the boot.

I had met her at a perfect time in my life. As a Virgin Active virgin I’d never had the confidence to even set foot in a gym before and Dee was the perfect non threatening partner to introduce me to gym culture. My body image had always been below; I grew up in an environment where sportiness was revered and as sickly and rather angular child and teenager I never displayed the physical prowess of my peers. And not long after moving to Cape Town I realised my esteem was about to take another body blow. I always knew South Africans were a burly nation but it only took a trip to Camps Bay and Greenpoint to make me realise I was being confronted with a super race. Adonis like physiques seemed to be the soup du jour in Cape Town and whether I was shopping at the Gardens Centre or filling petrol at the Engen on Orange, buff boys were unavoidable. I spent one afternoon at Clifton 4th and it seemed like Men’s Health had vomited on the beach. I had two choices: shape up or ship out.

Recommended through a friend, Dee was the cream of the personal training crop. She had letters after her name nogal. During my first body assessment with her I was quite nervous stripping down and there was good reason. “Oh, my goodness, what have you been doing?! “ she exclaimed, as she scrutinized torso. Clearly years of bedroom exercises had bequeathed me with the symmetry and posture of a mildly anabolic gibbon. I had toiled with various home workout programmes and diets for years in the vain hope that some day I would have a body I’d be content with, but the exercises had never quite bore fruit. Seeing my body’s failings before her eyes, Dee asked me what my goals were. I pointed out that I wanted to see developments in the typical superficial body areas; arms, chest, abs, thighs and buttocks or “The Big Five” in fitness parlance. And hey, If I became fit in the process, I’d consider it a bonus. Dee however was of the school of the natural approach and not at all an advocate of jacking up bodies by excessive weigh-training or popping various supplement pills. She refused to accept that I was a ripped jock bursting to get out and encouraged that I rather focus on correcting my bizarre posture and doing core exercises, her own area of expertise. A little disheartened that we were not reading from the same sheet of music, I was still highly enthusiastic and duly obliged to replace the dumbbells with the swiss ball.

As the months went by I was appreciating my progress and the great strides I was making under Dee’s guidance. My body fat lowered and I had better definition. In spite of my reservations, I had taken to mat exercises like the proverbial duck and my posture soon reverted to its natural homosapien state. The self titled prince of pilates, I could now do routines with that same swiss ball that would have had a female Ukrainian gymnast foaming at the mouth. The only problem was, it was the physique of her male team mate which I desired. It was indeed this aspiration which was to mark the beginning of the end for Dee and I.

Not long after our eight month anniversary I explained to Dee that in spite of my newly acquired defined physique, I was still keen to do some heavier lifting. I felt squatting and doing dead lifts would increase my strength and muscle mass. She made it clear that this wasn’t her area of know-how but concurred to give it a shot as long as we would balance my weight training with healthy portions of aerobics. However it didn’t take long for this pact to go up in gym history and the faithful bench press turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s vertebrae. Benching with Dee had always been precarious. And as I had advanced on to using heavier plates, week by week there became the increasing element of Russian Roulette that goes along with using a 45kg spotter. One fateful day as I upped the weight ante once more there was a mounting doubt about where the 60 kilo barbell was going to end the repetition; back on the support hooks – or – on my face. Call me vain but I had to call it a day.

Our break-up was perfectly amicable. Were it a movie, it would have been the perfect time to play a montages of “the good ole times” between us, with slow-mo images of Dee and I trading enthusiastic high fives after I’d completed my first set of assisted push-ups. But we both knew it was time to part. She could see the commitment was no longer in my eyes and I felt like she never really trusted me after I admitted to her that I had been hiding a creatine habit all those months. A true professional she completely understood that I had renewed objectives and recognized she was no longer the trainer for me. In addition, I now had also developed the frame and confidence to feel that I was worthy of a alpha male trainer. As a last gesture of “no hard feelings” Dee even referred me to a colleague of hers who she felt would be my golden ticket to a physique of Olympic proportions.

Enter Schalk, a perennial competitor in provincial bodybuilding meets. Proudly weighing in at 110kgs of Afrikaaner muscle, his immense stature was clearly the product of an outdoorsy upbringing in rural Mpumalanga. I firstly asked him whether he felt that together we could pack a few pounds on my ectomorphic frame. “We’ll turn those calves into cows!” he bellowed. “Cash or cheque?” I replied.

139 Mail & Guardian, October 23rd 2008

Pecs & The City

‘Welcome to Cape Town: don’t stick out as a tourist and if you have any insecurities about your appearance rather catch the next plane home.” It’s the kind of sound advice Cape Town Tourism should include in its welcome guide.

Let’s face it, Capetonian men are a brawny bunch. I guess it’s that melange of being a beach town, a gay town and, arguably, a superficial town that has bestowed on it a concentration of gym bodies to rival Los Angeles or Rio. Having relocated here from Ireland, a country more noted for its six packs of Guinness than its six packs of abs, I was clearly in for a rude awakening when I made my first trip to the city’s trendiest gym …

Picture it: 7pm and peak-time as I make my entrance. Scores of cross trainers, stair masters and treadmills are occupied to capacity. Blasting out of the gym’s sound system is Madonna but with the number of iPod users present, Papa Don’t Preach — The Remix is rendered slightly redundant. I amble over to the crowded weights area. Noticing the only vacant bench press, I territorially place my towel on it before pausing to take a look around me.

About a dozen men are in my vicinity — most with impressive physiques by anyone’s standards. Two guys in their thirties, who’d make worthy cover models, are spotting each other on the incline press. A younger guy with a rugby build has just completed a taxing set of bench presses. He uses some of his rest time to throw a discreet eye over to the guy next to him to see how much weight he’s using on the same exercise. In the foreground is a massively built West African who effortlessly pumps out hefty dumbbell curls and seems to have garnered the unspoken envy of everyone watching him.

With so many Olympic-like bodies around me, my initial adrenalin upon arrival is overshadowed by a relapse into physical inadequacy. I may have thought I looked buff in the mirror of my apartment block lift 10 minutes earlier, but here in the iron jungle I am brutally reminded of my inferior muscle mass. My body has grappled with image woes since adolescence as I was a sickly teenager and moving to the Mother City clearly was fuelling that fire. Down, but not out, I give kudos to the fact that my gym peers are bigger than me, but I wonder whether these men actually feel any better about their bodies than I do about mine.

You’d think they would — after all, we’re the most muscular generation in centuries. In the buffness stakes we might even give the Ancient Greeks a run for their Drachmas. And we’re feeling great. Right? Well, I for one am feeling the pinch. Credit where credit is due, I can recognise the feel-good endorphins gyming releases as much as the next gym bunny. But, seeing as the stress I’m busting in the first place is body related, it’s rather a vicious cycle. The writing’s been on my wall for some time now.

The fairer sex has been pressured to look a certain way for years and it was inevitable that men would fall victim to the same trend. There is a growing pressure on the modern man to embody the perfect male images we see around us every day. And, with every passing year, the ideal male body seems to go an extra rung up the muscle ladder. From fitness magazine models to the guy from the Gilette commercials, images of the increasingly muscular body beautiful are ubiquitous. Even shop-window mannequins are in on the act, having evolved into “built” figures with washboard stomachs. Buff is the new black, eight packs are the new six packs: muscle is en vogue and the more of it, the merrier.

As an upshot, gyms have mushroomed everywhere in Cape Town and supplements are big business too. But fitness is taking second stage to aesthetics. While some of the guys around me could easily bench 90kg, a short treadmill run would prove demanding. Roids are all the rage; I am offered them at my gym more often than I get offered dagga walking down Long Street. And as much as a chunkier frame entices me, the thought of receiving an epidural of illegal hormones is something I just ain’t buying for now.

Despite the gym addiction I guess many men don’t see their gains. They never quite see themselves as others do and perhaps still view themselves as either the skinny or fat teenager they once were. I wondered whether the svelte guy next to me felt any better about how he looked than I did or was he too just aiming for a bigger and leaner physique. And, dare I say it, could I have been a source of envy in the eyes of the rotund newcomer sweating on the treadmill?

Sitting there on the pec deck two thoughts lay on my mind: First, the goal posts of the ideal body are ever-widening and amid this culture of “cut or gain” there seem to be no takers to simply maintain. So, is the body I will be content with always going to be one more bicep inch, one less percentage of body fat or one more supplement cycle away?

And second: Who does Madonna listen to when she is working out?

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