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Home fitness: The pros and cons of going back to the gym

As gyms reopen in the US, the question is: Do we actually need them?

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A gym’s impact on a workout might be harder to measure than a one-rep max. Anyone with an interest in fitness has been likely working out regularly at home since March, long enough for annoyance to evolve into a habit.

That frustration has an end date, though: Many of the gyms that closed in the winter have been reopening — a New York Times overview lists 44 states as having opened their gyms. Even gyms in New York City, once a Covid-19 hot spot, resumed business on September 2nd.

But is it even worth going? Home workouts versus at the gym is a long-running debate in strength circles (seriously), with current events giving us a real-life test case.

People have been working out for months, regularly, at home, to effect. Practical questions arise, like whether there should be a tradeoff between health and strength, or how long a wait to get in might be. Bigger issues, like who might come, and whether gyms in tonier neighborhoods might be emptier than in other ones are also on the table. But mostly this begs the question of whether we need gyms at all.

The transition from gym, to home-gym — People have worked out in gyms since forever — Zurkhanehs, in Persia, go back thousands of years — with organized weight training tied, in a sense, to industrial expansion. Weight rooms in the mid- and late 1800s were built out at community centers like the YMCA and expanded as cities grew.

A century ago, schools began getting outfitted with gyms, and by the 1950s, black iron gyms — complete with free weights and not much else — and bodybuilding magazines promoted those exercise routines to an audience of mostly boys and men. Gold’s, from Venice, opened as a bodybuilding gym in 1965; it’d become one of the first national exercise chains. As jogging, running, and aerobics became popular in the ‘70s and '80s, other chains arrived and expanded, and began offering more exercise options.

In 1895, a man demonstrates some exercise equipment in a gym.

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By the turn of the century, a mature health club industry had emerged. Customers didn’t have to choose between musty weight rooms and cardio caverns — they could go luxury with Equinox, or a la carte with Class Pass. They could stick to free weights in resurgent black iron gyms and weightlifting centers, go holistic with yoga and Pilates, join a clique with Crossfit or go off the deep end with Strongman. The numbers reflected the surge, pushing the industry to $94 billion in global revenue.

Then in March, everything stopped. It was a struggle: Gyms, central enough to people’s lives and routines, became stages for protest — people in Florida literally did squats outside a courthouse. It made sense: most people could work from home, but could they squat? If people couldn’t do so with barbells, they still exercised — consuming workout videos, and buying enough bikes so as to sell them out.

The interim has decoupled gyms from exercise and revealed there are other ways to mark off the exercise checklist. Questions that would have been sacrilege in February are now fair. Is it dumb to hit the gym with movie theaters still closed? Do we need a row of dumbbells, or extra treadmills, to feel like we’re prioritizing our health and strength levels?

It depends on the person. Athletes who move serious weight, like powerlifters and strongman competitors, will likely see a dropoff; it’s hard to grease the groove on a four-plate squat when you’re only moving kettlebells.

But for those in the middle of the pack strength-wise — the folks who make up the better part of a gym’s membership roll — there can be serious benefit to working out at home. The light-weight workouts we’ve been cornered into doing at home have been proven to build muscle and promote health so long as they’re done to fatigue. Many trainers are offering programs that maximize these comparatively low weight workouts — Flux Vitality on Instagram has an endless set of cable and body weight exercises; bodybuilder John Meadows offers a number of awesome band workouts for free on YouTube.

Even powerlifters, who live and die by compound movements, are adapting without the barbell.

The limits, and the alternatives — Joe Cristando, a powerlifter and trainer for S&S Barbell in Brooklyn, hasn’t trained clients in person since winter but has been coaching his clients, most of whom are competitive powerlifters, remotely through quarantine.

“Some are training normally,” he tells me, having built makeshift gyms — “a Rogue rack” — in their apartments. For everyone else, he’s offered a routine that can be done with kettlebells and lighter weights, and which features some bodyweight exercises.

Elite powerlifters who compete in compound movements might regress with a routine that’s half weightless, half kettlebell — Cristando’s quarantine goal for his rack-less lifters is to mitigate any slide — but people looking to simply get stronger won’t, and they could likely improve their strength.

An LA Fitness gym in Cincinnati, Ohio, closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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Exercises like isolated tempo squats — squatting slowly, and deliberately — and high-rep Romanian deadlifts require focus and tension no matter the weight, and create the spatial body awareness, known as proprioception, that allows lifters to make adjustments down the line when weight is on the bar. It’s similar to the exercises that help prime lifters new to powerlifting programs: In order to work out to fatigue with lighter weights, more reps are involved, and that high-rep volume can inflate muscles and function as an aerobic activity. What’s not to like?

There are limits to working out at home: even the best goblet squat programming can’t maintain a competition lift, and sometimes there’s no room to do an exercise the right way. Winter approaching means cardio will be harder to come by, and an after-work lifting session inside a one-room apartment when it’s dark out at 5:30 is too depressing to contemplate.

But is the alternative any better? Even squatting a backpack full of beans feels better than lifting in a big-box gym, which are less bad than neutral, but are not designed for serious training. Chains like Blink and Sports Club are often the only option for lifters on a budget, and they’re convenient, and open late. The people who work there are friendly enough; the machines wok.

But the gyms themselves are built less for lifting than to resemble what people in the health club industry think gyms should look like. Good gyms need 50 treadmills, a memo might read. They don’t need more than two squat racks, and they don’t need Aerodyne bicycles, and they certainly don’t need a reverse hyper machine or a belt squat. The only thing ideal about a big box gym is its price. Everything else is a lesson in compromise.

One wonders if it’s even worth going back. What’s exciting about the new age of home exercise is the emphasis on:

  • Functional strength
  • Simplicity
  • Aerobic capacity.

Building strength from chin-ups, a resistance band and kettlebells seems like a more immediately healthy method than cheating through a squat. (It’s hard to perfect compound movements without a trainer and their feedback.)

A muscle imbalance, like a lagging left hamstring or dead right lat, will get exposed by a bodyweight lift or weighted workout, but a compound movement can sometimes be powered through. If you’re only using your bigger muscles, you’ll eventually hit a ceiling, and won’t lift elite amounts of weight.

In a sense, it’s a return to basics. Closed gyms hurt lifters: camaraderie, in-person coaching, and some specific machines can’t be replicated at home. But the loss is less acute for the rest of us who work out to get strong. Those of us skilled at compound exercises need them as the basis of our workout routines and done correctly, they’re the most direct way to build strength for most people.

But it takes balance and strength to execute these movements correctly, and rigidly; that takes time and effort. Maybe this is what quarantine is about. If that feels like a silver lining it’s because it is.

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